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Details of Edison Blueprint Emerge In Mass. Designs

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At an Edison Project school, "great'' works of literature for young students, such as Aesop's Fables and Peter Rabbit, would be in. Basal readers would be out.

Cooperative learning would be in. Academic tracking would be out.

Character and ethics courses teaching right from wrong: in. But "values clarification'': far out.

As the privately managed, for-profit venture edges closer to reality, the most detailed picture to date is emerging about what an Edison Project school might look like, including what it would teach and how it would measure student progress.

When the effort launched by the Knoxville, Tenn.-based media entrepreneur Christopher Whittle filed applications for five Massachusetts charter schools last month, a wealth of information about the design for Edison schools came to light.

Winning a charter in Massachusetts would allow Edison planners to put their much-vaunted design to the test, and they say they are eager for such an opportunity.

"This is what we always wished we could do in California'' with state curriculum frameworks, said Francie Alexander, the deputy director of curriculum for the Edison Project and a former associate superintendent for curriculum in California. "This is an advanced curriculum that represents a whole new paradigm.''

The Massachusetts education secretary is to decide by March 15 which of 63 applicants will be awarded charters. (See Education Week, Feb. 23, 1994.)

With each of its applications, Edison submitted its 80-page "Partnership School Design.'' The document is the blueprint for Edison's plan to manage existing public schools or new charter schools, an approach it adopted last year after failing to attract sufficient funding for its original plan to open hundreds of private campuses. (See Education Week, Sept. 8, 1993.)

Edison also submitted a 62-page document detailing the first set of student standards, for a K-2 "primary academy.'' Edison schools would be divided into six such academies, with each covering two to three years of instruction.

What emerges from these documents is an ambitious curriculum that draws on other popular reform ideas and would set high standards for what students should know and be able to do when they leave the 11th- and 12th-grade "collegiate academy.''

"We aim to create schools that achieve quantum gains in students' academic performance and in the quality of their lives,'' the design book states. And the Edison designers claim this can be done by spending about the same per student as the average public school district currently spends.

Great Performances

The reading curriculum states that even in kindergarten and other primary grades, students will be taught with classic works of literature instead of basal readers.

The choice of literature is an example of Edison's use of what it calls the "greats''--great books, great performances of music and drama, and great lives of people who have shaped the world. The selections range from Treasure Island and Little Women in grades 3 through 5 to Animal Farm and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich in grades 9 and 10.

The schools are to aim for higher levels of "mathematical and science literacy.'' More time will be spent on mathematics in the elementary grades than is typical in most schools, the project documents say. By graduation, most students will have passed either Advanced Placement calculus or a college-level course in probability and statistics, according to the design.

Science instruction is an example of Edison's emphasis on cooperative and project-based learning. Primary academies are to maintain gardens where students learn not only about plants and soil, but also do projects about the weather and use computers to chart plant growth.

In the social sciences, Benno C. Schmidt Jr., the president of the Edison Project, who has also served as president of Yale University and dean of Columbia University's law school, will take the teaching reins for a required electronic-lecture seminar on the U.S. Constitution.

In addition to a strong emphasis on the arts and physical fitness, Edison schools plan to squeeze in instruction on character and values. However, the controversial "values clarification'' approach and the use of "pointless 'moral dilemmas' that sometimes do more to confuse children than to teach them'' will be avoided, according to the design.

The lengthy curriculum is unlikely to fit into the traditional U.S. school day or year. For that reason, the project has long stressed that its school days will be one or two hours longer than the usual school day, and the school year will be 210 days.

Electronic Portfolios

The Edison design states that the project will attempt to "align'' curriculum, instruction, and assessment into a coherent system.

Every student will have a "quarterly learning contract,'' signed by the student, parents, and school, with a set of individual expectations. Each quarter will bring a detailed report on how well a student is meeting his or her goals.

Each student is to have a cumulative portfolio of his or her work that will include writing assignments, videos, and multimedia presentations. Computer disks of student portfolios, the designers suggest, could be sent across the country for external evaluation.

Given Mr. Whittle's other big venture in precollegiate education, the Channel One television news show that is broadcast to thousands of secondary schools, it is not surprising that technology is seen as a big part of the Edison equation.

The design envisions that each student will be provided a computer at home that is plugged into the Edison network. The student can use it to retrieve homework assignments, while the parents can read electronic mail from teachers about their child's progress. And Edison libraries, or media centers, are to have access to electronic data bases such as the Internet.

The plan says Edison schools across the country will be part of a computer network called "the Common,'' to include computer bulletin boards, electronic mail, a reference library of student-produced reports, and curriculum frameworks for teachers.

Whether the Edison vision can be translated into reality may be answered in a place such as Lowell, Mass., where the local school board voted 5 to 2 to endorse the project's bid for a charter school.

The local charter-school group that has teamed up with the Edison Project includes Richard Howe, the city's Mayor; Timothy Golden, a school committee member; and Paul Tsongas, the former U.S. senator and Presidential candidate.

"This is a great opportunity, because you've got a corporation that has put in [millions of dollars] in research and development to be on the cutting edge of education in America,'' Mr. Golden said. "And here they are, looking at Lowell.''

Edison Highlights

A School Design

Documents submitted by Edison in Massachusetts detail the academic standards and other features envisioned for its schools. Among the highlights:

  • By 12th grade, all students will have completed either Advanced Placement calculus or introductory college-level probability and statistics.
  • Grades K-2 will maintain a garden for learning in several subjects.
  • Reading will emphasize "great'' books such as Aesop's Fables and Little Women in primary and elementary grades.
  • Student assessment will include "quarterly learning contracts'' and electronic portfolios of student work.
  • The use of technology, seen as a major component of the project, will include computers installed in every child's home so that teachers can send electronic mail to parents, and vice versa.


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