Imagining a Better Future

for Public Education

By Chris Whittle

Riverhead Books; 269pp; $24.95

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Editor's Review

Star Rating
Star Rating

The Good A provocative look at the author's proposed radical school reforms.

The Bad It offers little comment on Edison School's financial woes.

The Bottom Line Worth listening to as an educator, Whittle ideas are intriguing.

Like many other educators, Chris Whittle, the controversial chief executive of Edison Schools, believes the No Child Left Behind law is heading for a "train wreck." The law mandates that all U.S. schoolchildren must meet state proficiency standards in math and reading by 2014. During an interview held in Edison's New York offices, Whittle told this reviewer that as the law's performance bar is raised, "thousands of schools, with 15 million students," will fail to make the grade.

Crash Course is a provocative look at the radical reforms that Whittle -- who runs the largest private company managing public schools -- believes are needed if there's to be any hope of reaching the law's lofty goals. To remedy the dire shortage of qualified personnel, for instance, he calls for performance-based pay that would give the best teachers up to $130,000 a year and the best principals up to $200,000. He would scrap the rigid schedules that have governed the school day for decades in favor of giving students far more independent study. And he would vastly increase investment in educational research and development.

Business readers might tend to dismiss everything Whittle has to say because of Edison's smudged track record. He took his company public in 1999 with promises of big profits to come in the business of running public schools. But over the next four years, the red ink never stopped flowing. In late 2003, Whittle finally threw in the towel, taking Edison private in a deal that paid shareholders just 10 cents on the dollar of the initial-public-offering price.

He has little comment about this financial history in Crash Course. That's too bad, because a full accounting of Edison's odyssey would have been both fascinating and instructive.

Still, after some 15 years at Edison spent trying to improve public schools, Whittle is well worth listening to as an educator. Although Edison has vanished from the radar since going private, it operates what amounts to one of the nation's largest school systems, with 70,000 students at 157 sites. Most are rough schools, with a majority of students from low-income, minority families. In Philadelphia, for instance, Pennsylvania entrusted Edison with 20 abysmal institutions. At the very best of these, a staggering 88% of students were failing the state's math exam. But as Tom Ridge, who was the state's governor during part of this period, writes in the book's forward, "the results have been extraordinary." Last year, Ridge notes, achievement scores in schools managed by Edison jumped 10.5 percentage points -- 10 times the gain they enjoyed before the company took charge.

Few would disagree with Whittle's assertion that schools need to adopt a "100% guarantee" -- meaning, for instance, that by the third grade, 99.9% of students would be reading well. To deliver on that guarantee, he argues that we need to double the average teacher salary, to $90,000. That may sound like fantasy, but does anyone think we can catch up with other nations while we have a national shortfall of 250,000 qualified math and science teachers? It's a good bet Whittle's performance-based pay would help close that gap.

The biggest surprise in this book is that Whittle, unlike many liberals, doesn't call for massive tax increases to pay for such reforms. Instead, he advocates a sea change in how we spend the billions that schools already get. Thus, to pay for doubling teacher salaries, he would cut the number of teachers by up to one-half. But he wouldn't do that by doubling class sizes. Rather, beginning in about the fourth grade, Whittle would greatly increase the amount of time students spend in independent study. By high school, students would be spending about half the day studying on their own.

Students would also be given a big role in running schools. The best pupils would help tutor younger ones. And all would have the chance to work at such jobs as fixing computers, answering phones, and monitoring study halls. If all students worked just three hours a week, Whittle argues, it would be far easier to get by with fewer teachers and staff.

Whittle reports that the nation is spending only $260 million a year on education R&D -- a pittance compared with federal largesse on research for defense and health. He favors gradually raising that to $4 billion a year and using the funds to develop more effective systems for managing schools.

There are many other intriguing ideas here, including the need for instruction on career choices, consumer finance, and health. Few will agree with everything Whittle has to say. But the book should stimulate bold thinking among readers and policymakers -- something we require if we're ever going to create public schools that truly leave no child behind.

By William C. Symonds

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