Response to the NYT editorial Public Schooling for Profit

By Wayne Bishop

Sunday, May 26, 2002

To the Editor:

Always missing is the fact that Edison Schools in specific, and charter schools quite generally, have not been being led by sensible guiding principles of education, principles that demonstrably work. Far too often, they have sought - and do not abandon even when overwhelming evidence of failure mounts - the best *education school* advice and leadership that they can find. Nothing reflects this fact more than the choice of Everyday Mathematics as Edison's mathematics curriculum. Edison Charter in San Francisco had an API rating (California's Academic Performance Indicator) that was last in the district last year. There were all sorts of upheavals, fighting the district board for its very existence and having to appeal to the State Board of Education to continue, but last is last. It's an attention getter that they cannot continue to endure (and should not be allowed to).

Boston Renaissance signed on with Edison in 1995 but last year, 69 percent of the school's eighth graders failed the statewide math test, exceeding the Boston failure rate by 15 percent so this is a coast-to-coast phenomenon. Now they have dropped Edison's management but if they don't drop Everyday Mathematics they will not have addressed the heart of their problem, the classroom instead of the boardroom.

The Times says that, "The only way to improve public education is to provide every child with a bright, well-trained teacher and an orderly, well-run school," but that is not enough and it is inherently misleading. No one can argue about the importance of "a bright, well-trained teacher" but there is plenty of argument about what that means. National Board certification does not appear to help, in fact, neither does ed school certification. Nancy Ichinaga (of Bennett-Kew fame, the school where then candidate, now president, Bush gave his first campaign address on education) regularly had some of 25% of her teachers without state certification, a number that would have been double that except for those whom she had helped to get certified once they were already successfully teaching under her guidance. She felt that ed school certification was no help; sometimes even a hindrance.

And missing entirely in the Times editorial is any mention of curriculum and pedagogy. How ed-school correct can you get? More money, controlled by the same people who got us here (whether under for-profit charter, non-profit charter, or traditional public management), will not - in and of itself - help in the least. Reading Recovery is one of the best examples. It is outrageously expensive - almost one-on-one non-instruction to cure a problem created by whole-class non-instruction (but both conducted with expensive training and books, of course) - with a progress rate that can't outrun the calender. A sensible program from kindergarten forward that does not lie about its success is essential.

Edison has been lying about its success but it hitched its wagon to a mathematics program that lies about its success so what should anyone expect?. Just as Enron's lies took down Arthur Anderson and its lies, maybe Edison will take down Everyday Mathematics. If so, the nation will be well served.

Wayne Bishop, PhD
Professor of Mathematics
California State University, LA

Public Schooling for Profit

The New York Times
May 26, 2002

The for-profit education movement got under way a decade ago when ambitious entrepreneurs became convinced that they could succeed where public educators had failed and make money in the bargain. Ten years later, Edison Schools Inc., the largest for-profit company in the business, has yet to find its way into the black. After a bruising battle to get control of schools in Philadelphia, Edison is struggling financially and besieged by critics who argue that the company has overstated its academic performance. The decline in Edison's fortunes is attributable in part to questionable management and overly rapid expansion. But the broader message may be that there is no quick, profitable way to turn around schools.

That seems to be the case in Michigan, where a liberal charter-school law has attracted more than 40 commercial companies, which manage about three-quarters of the more than 180 charter schools that dot the state. A series of recent reports by Western Michigan University's Evaluation Center revealed that these ostensibly public for-profit schools were increasingly resembling private schools in terms of their admissions and public information policies.

The Michigan for-profit schools have discouraged the enrollment of disadvantaged and disabled students, presumably because they cost more to educate. The for-profit companies boasted of improved student performance in their ads and year-end reports but often refused to make public the test scores that would support their claims.

Data from Michigan and several other states suggests that failing schools do not improve as a consequence of for-profit management and that commercially run public schools often perform no better than other public schools. Increasing awareness of that data has prompted districts to write tough contracts that let them fire education companies that do not meet specific performance targets.

This heightened scrutiny comes at a bad time for Edison, which was still struggling to reach profitability when the Securities and Exchange Commission announced that the company had provided inaccurate information about its revenue and maintained inadequate financial records. The announcement, combined with a history of red ink, further hurt the company's public image.

Edison has long insisted that its fortunes would improve with "economies of scale." The flaw here is that renovating schools, buying computers and training teachers remain expensive, no matter how many times you do it. Some experts argue that economies of scale do not exist in education, especially in a charter system, where schools are meant to vary in focus and size. In addition, the costs of managing large systems have proved to be high.

Edison's fortunes show that there is no cheap way to rescue failing schools and that the prospect of a swift turnaround and explosive educational progress was a mirage all along. The only way to improve public education is to provide every child with a bright, well-trained teacher and an orderly, well-run school. That tends to be labor-intensive - and expensive - and may never be profitable on the scale that the stock market requires.

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