'Revolution' in education learning a hard reality
The for-profit corporation brought in to help failing schools in Philadelphia changed the way the schools worked, but students' improvement seems negligible.
By ANITA KUMAR
Published November 27, 2005
PHILADELPHIA - In Room 202 of Anderson Elementary School, Claire Burris asks the three rows of squirming first-graders to identify the drawing on the large card she holds up.
"A pig," the dozen students say in unison.
And what sound comes from the first letter?
"Pa, Pa, Pa," they say.
The drawings keep coming as the students - some of the worst readers in one of America's worst school districts - begin to learn their letters and later, it is hoped, to read.
The classroom teacher sits quietly at her desk watching Burris, occasionally taking notes - refining her own skills by observing the school's reading coach.
The reading curriculum coordinator is mandated by Edison, a private management company hired to help lift sagging test scores and overall student achievement in this poor, once-failing school in southwest Philadelphia.
Edison - a for-profit business hired almost four years ago to manage two dozen of the lowest-performing schools in the district - is striving to radically change education in America. But the reality at the classroom level looks less than revolutionary.
The required reading and math coaches can be found in many public schools. The results of new monthly online tests are analyzed every which way in the hopes of improving annual state standardized test scores. Expensive curriculum and books, already available elsewhere, replaced the outdated ones.
There's no doubt Edison has brought accountability and business savvy to the classroom. A corporate culture pervades the mint-green concrete block halls of these 1960s-era schools, which are now called EMOs or Educational Management Organizations.
But in this large-scale experiment of using the profit motive to improve schools, the approach to education has been rather conventional. So conventional, in fact, the gains in student achievement recorded so far have been largely indistinguishable from improvements seen elsewhere in the Philadelphia school system, where schools are run the traditional way.
"What we've seen is that they're not a miracle cure," said Chad d'Entremont, assistant director for the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at Columbia University's Teachers College. "We simply don't know the overall affect yet. Things haven't been made dramatically worse, but they haven't been made dramatically better either."
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Edison Schools, the largest for-profit school chain in the United States, has risen with a decade-old phenomenon in public policy that seeks to mesh entrepreneurial concepts with educational goals as a fresh way to attack underperforming public education.
Republican leaders have fueled the movement with a series of initiatives - the federal No Child Left Behind law (which permits low-achieving schools to be turned over to private companies), Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's A-Plus plan and the growing use of vouchers for private schools. This year, 60 for-profit companies are managing more than 500 schools nationwide.
At the forefront is Edison, the brainchild of Chris Whittle, the eccentric entrepreneur who made his first splash in education with the controversial Channel One business that brought TV - and commercials - into schools. The communications executive who had restored Esquire magazine to fiscal health came up with the idea as he prepared a speech to a business group on ways to improve the nation's school system.
Edison's mission is to find a cheaper way to get better results with students.
The company and its supporters say troubled schools have failed long enough and a new approach is required. They boast of significant gains in student achievement. Critics say there have been gains, but the amounts are disputed as compared to other public schools, which they argue get less money and opportunity.
Whittle insists he can serve both those who want the company to turn a profit and those who want the children to learn.
"The two goals exist side by side," he said from his office in New York. "One won't work without the other."
This year, Edison works with about 61,000 students at about 136 public schools - down from almost 70,000 students at 157 schools a year ago. Founded in 1992, it runs some district and charter schools, and provides heavy support to others.
The company also sells services - professional training, classroom management, after-school programs, computerized testing and tutoring for schools that rate low on No Child Left Behind requirements.
In Florida, the Miami-Dade district ended a contract this year with the state's only Edison school - a poor inner-city elementary school in Miami. The state graded the school a D last year, down from a C the year before.
Much of Whittle's time is spent flying around the country looking for new customers. But he said he doesn't even try in Florida because the spending per student is so low - $1,580 below the $8,259 national average - it would be difficult to cover the cost of his program.
Edison, which went public in 1999 but has since gone private, turned its first profit last year, Whittle said. He won't disclose specific financial information, but the company does have a high-profile partner in Liberty Partners, the investment firm that Edison merged with two years ago that manages Florida's pension fund.
"We knew we would lose money," Whittle said. "With any venture, you expect to lose money for a substantial period of time. We just didn't think we would lose it for as long as we did."
Supporters of the Edison idea praise private companies for trying something - anything - to boost failing student achievement.
"Public education works well for a lot of kids. It does not work well for inner-city kids," said Matthew Ladner, director of state projects for the Alliance for School Choice. "We can't do any worse."
But critics call Edison a "nail in the coffin of public education as we've known it."
"I mean, you don't help the public schools by starting private schools," author Jonathan Kozol said. "If you want to improve the public's water supply, you don't do it by selling champagne."
The results are mixed.
The biggest study so far, released last month by the nonprofit RAND Corp., shows that most schools run by Edison post gains in student achievement that exceed those of comparable public schools over time if all the company's strategies are adopted and followed for several years.
But while test scores are increasing and some involved parents rave about the individualized attention their children receive, Edison and other companies have seen contracts canceled.
Just this year, Edison left the troubled urban Pennsylvania school district of Chester Upland where it operated most schools. Test scores improved a little, but the company lost $30-million.
No matter, Edison and similar companies expect to flourish as the demand for a new approach increases.
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Edison came to Philadelphia at the invitation of Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge in 2001, who asked the company to review the city's troubled school system. Edison recommend another entity - like itself - take over.
The Republican-run state seized control of the district and established a new board that, despite vigorous objections, hired private groups, including three for-profits, to manage about 45 schools the next year.
"We need to adopt and embrace as robust reform as possible," said James Nevels, an entrepreneur and chairman of the School Reform Commission.
Edison wanted a hand in running the whole district and to operate 45 schools. Instead it got a five-year contract to run 20 of the worst schools, some with less than 10 percent of students learning at grade level. This year, Edison was awarded two more schools.
"This is all political," said Jerry Jordan of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, the union that represents 20,000 employees. "The Republican perspective on education is really to privatize it."
But as had happened elsewhere, to get the Philadelphia contract Edison had to forgo some of its key components, such as longer school days and pay incentives for teachers. The company brought in new equipment but teachers say some of the initial staff support was removed after the first year.
Some teachers left the schools. Others stayed and learned to adapt. For all the tried-and-true teaching approaches, an Edison school does look and feel different from a traditional school.
Edison managers have corporate, not education, backgrounds and are glued to BlackBerrys, cell phones and laptops. They talk about accountability, paradigm shifts and benchmarks - not your typical educator words.
The new manager of Edison schools in Philadelphia, Stephanie Nellons, came to the job after working at Sodexho food services and Ryder transportation company. With her business suit and ever-present dangling cell phone earpiece, she looks out of place in an inner-city school.
"I think they respect my business savvy," she says of the principals she supervises. "I'm tough and I don't care."
Sheila Stubbs, 38, who has been a teacher at Anderson Elementary for seven years, said the focus moved to reading and math tests - at the expense of other subjects - but, she acknowledges, the school's scores have improved.
She worries about the emphasis on Edison's monthly online tests called Benchmarks and state tests, but says she knows that is the way education is headed today in the United States.
Edison wanted $1,500 per student in Philadelphia but got $750. Paul Vallas, the CEO of the Philadelphia schools, has said he has directed more money to district schools to even out the spending, but some critics still say it's unfair.
"How do we know its working?" said Shelly Yanoff, executive director of Philadelphia Citizens for Children and Youth and an Edison opponent. "They are taking funds out of the schools. For-profit companies are getting more money."
Some of the more involved parents were worried about Edison at first but are content now. Many others don't care that Edison manages the schools. They - and their children - don't seem to know the difference.
"They have a lot of access to more things that public schools didn't," said Gerald Shaffer, 68, whose 11-year-old grandson attends sixth grade at Penn Treaty Middle School. "Even the books are better."
Times researchers Caryn Baird and Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report.