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Edison Project's New Goal: To Run Public Schools

Christopher Whittle's idea was bold and controversial: The publisher and entrepreneur proposed raising $2.5 billion to open as many as 1,000 private, for-profit schools that would serve as models for reforming American public education. He called his plan the Edison Project.

It now appears that Whittle's initial vision for the Edison Proj- ect was pie in the sky. Falling far short in their efforts to raise new capital to finance the proposed chain of private schools, project officials have announced a scaledback plan that will focus initially on managing public schools.

But the officials maintain that Whittle's plan for an alternative educational system has not been sidetracked by the failure to attract major new equity investors. They say the project has secured enough funding to proceed with the next phase of the initiative: a limited plan to run as many as 20 Edison public school campuses by the fall of 1995. The original goal was to have as many as 200 private schools up and running by the fall of 1996.

"I think the project is right on track,'' Benno Schmidt Jr., president of the Edison Project, said in August. "We've got the financing to carry it through its design and development phases and take our ideas out to the educational marketplace.''

The Edison Project has spent about $20 million on the research and development of its design blueprint, which it will unveil this fall. Three investors have committed about $40 million for the next phase: Whittle, chairman of Whittle Communications, the project's parent company; the Dutch products giant Phillips Electronics; and the British publisher Associated Newspaper Holdings. The entertainment and publishing giant Time Warner Inc., a stakeholder in Whittle Communications and an initial investor in Edison, has declined to provide any more funding for the schools project.

"Obviously, in the last few months, we talked to a lot of potential investors,'' said Schmidt, who brought new credibility to the project when he left the presidency of Yale University last year to lead Edison. "We have gotten a lot of encouragement. We've gotten an affirmation of our basic vision.''

But the project has received no major new funding that would allow it to build its own schools in large numbers. Even so, project officials remain upbeat. In fact, Schmidt says the long-range goal of the project--to open hundreds of private campuses within 10 years--remains unchanged. "We haven't scaled it down at all,'' he says. "The only thing we've changed is the timing. Anyone who thinks a general vision doesn't get changed as it becomes a specific business plan is hopelessly naive.''

Naive or not, Whittle's critics have been quick to say that the latest developments are a sign that the project is faltering. "Why hire someone to run a school who has never run a school before?'' asked Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers and an outspoken critic of one of Whittle's more successful classroom ventures, the Channel One news show. "If given an opportunity to operate a public school, the Whittle people are likely to learn more than the students they have promised to teach.''

Edison officials now face a new challenge; they must persuade skeptical public school officials to turn over one or more of their schools to the project's untried methods. According to Schmidt, a number of governors and mayors have expressed interest. The most prominent example is in Massachusetts, where Gov. William Weld and other state officials have discussed giving the Edison Project control of some of the 25 charter schools recently authorized in the state. At press time, however, no formal agreements had been signed.

Floods Wash Away Schools' Tax Base

As flood waters receded and schools across the soggy Midwest reopened, state and local officials last month were beginning to face another casualty of the summer disaster--an eroded property tax base.

Corn and bean fields in Illinois, Iowa, and Missouri were wiped out by the high waters on the Mississippi River and its tributaries, in many cases leaving land that will be unproductive or perhaps submerged for years to come. Combined with staggering residential and business losses, the legacy of the floods may be a cash-flow crisis for schools.

"Some of this land may be reassessed down to the point of being worthless,'' says Gary Ey, assistant state superintendent for school finance in Illinois. "We're concerned because of the magnitude of districts that are affected.''

Even as many communities begin to restore order and reclaim their territory, state and local tax assessors and collectors were grappling with a host of tough questions. Most pressing, perhaps, is whether residents will have the ability to pay this year's property tax bills, which provide much of the money required to run schools.

But while immediate funding needs in many cases will be covered by emergency federal aid-- the $4.8 billion relief bill signed by President Clinton in August contains $100 million for education programs--the flood has left behind vast changes that have permanently altered the fiscal as well as the physical landscape.

In Monroe County, Ill., for example, 60,000 acres have been flooded, including the community of Valmeyer. Officials expect to lose $7 million of the county's $221 million in property value. Like many of his counterparts across the region, Kevin Shevlin, Monroe County supervisor of assessments, is awaiting word on emergency property reassessments. While payment of this year's property taxes is a concern, the adjusted assessments will also mean lower receipts for schools and other local agencies from next year's tax bill.

Because Illinois taxes farmland based on its productivity and residential and commercial property on its market value, flood damage will be obvious. "Some people,'' Shevlin says, "have been completely wiped out.''

Monroe County Treasurer Merrill Prange has waived penalties for late payments on this summer's tax bills. Nevertheless, he says, collections are running at their usual pace. "We've told people not to make it their first priority, but a lot of them are going ahead and paying the taxes anyway,'' he says. "That's allowing us to carry those who can't.''

Another issue facing officials up and down swollen Midwestern rivers is how many people will be on their tax rolls in the wake of the record flooding. In the hardhit Valmeyer school district, where 40 percent of the local tax base has been claimed by the flood, about 450 of the 550 students were dislocated by the water. Officials predict that 100 children will be permanently lost from the pupil rolls.

"The long term is difficult to project,'' Prange says, "because we don't know how many people are going to go back.''

SAT Scores Up But Still Lag Past Averages

For the second straight year, college-bound seniors performed better than the year before on both the verbal and mathematics sections of the SAT.

The average verbal score rose one point over last year, to 424, on the test's 200-to-800 scale, according to the College Board, which sponsors the college-admission exam. The average math score, meanwhile, increased two points, to 478.

This year's SAT results continued the reversal of what had been a five-year, nine-point drop in verbal scores. Although a greater proportion of those tested reported taking tougher academic courses--which the College Board said helps account for the higher scores--the overall level of achievement remains disappointing. This year's average verbal score, for example, is still one point below the 1983 average and well below the averages of the 1960s.

"Too many students are not being held to rigorous academic standards or exposed to a challenging curriculum,'' said Donald Stewart, the board's president.

Previously known as the Scholastic Aptitude Test, the exam is now referred to simply as "the SAT.'' In March 1994, a new version of the test will be introduced. More than a million seniors a year take the SAT, which is administered by the Educational Testing Service. Because there are so many test-takers, officials say, any year-to-year change in average scores is statistically significant.

Women this year gained one point each on the verbal and math sections. Men gained three points on the math section and remained unchanged on the verbal. Overall, women continue to score lower than men, this year by eight points on the verbal section and by 45 points on the math section. The gap has narrowed slightly over the past decade.

The average scores of six of seven minority groups rose this year on both sections of the test. The seventh group, "other Hispanic''--those who do not identify themselves as Mexican-American or Puerto Rican--gained one point on the verbal section and remained steady in math. A record 30 percent of test-takers were members of racial or ethnic minorities, up 1 percent from 1992 and double the level of 1976, the first year that scores were broken down by ethnicity.

Board officials place great weight on the link between more rigorous academic study and higher SAT scores, noting that 42 percent of test-takers this year reported taking 20 or more yearlong academic courses--up from 34 percent five years ago.

The officials also acknowledged, however, that students who live in suburbs or whose parents have high education and income levels continue to score better than those who live in large cities and rural areas and whose parents are less educated. Said Stewart, "The scores continue to mirror the socioeconomic split between the well-educated of all races and the rest of society.''

Math Achievement Tied To Algebra And Geometry

A new analysis of results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress suggests that 8th graders' achievement in math may be linked to how much teachers emphasize algebra and geometry in their classrooms.

The study, prepared by the Council of Chief State School Officers, uses state-by-state data from the NAEP math tests given in 1990 to look for patterns linking 8th graders' performance to other conditions in the classroom, such as the kind of instruction students had received or the training of their teachers.

As part of the NAEP examination, the students' teachers were asked to indicate whether they had given heavy, moderate, little, or no emphasis to particular aspects of mathematics in their classrooms. Those aspects were: numbers and operations, measurement, data analysis and statistics, geometry, and algebra and functions.

In states such as Alabama, Hawaii, and North Carolina, where larger percentages of teachers said they had maintained a traditional focus on numbers, operations, and measurement in the classroom, students tended to score low on the NAEP exam.

By contrast, students from states in which more teachers emphasized algebra and geometry fared better. For example, in the nine states whose students scored in the top fifth on the test-- Idaho, Iowa, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Wisconsin, and Wyoming--an average of 37 percent of teachers surveyed said they had focused heavily on algebra and geometry. This compares with an average of 31 percent of teachers in those states whose students ranked lowest on the tests. Moreover, in most of the high-performing states, teachers said they had placed little emphasis on more basic mathematics.

Researchers say the correlations are significant. "If teachers are addressing more ambitious, complex math, there seems to be a clear relationship with kids doing better,'' says Ramsay Selden, director of the council's state education-assessment center, which conducted the analysis. "This is going to be really important for the states. We're beginning to get to a point where all of this hangs together.''

The results appear to provide some statistical backing for the kind of teaching advocated by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. In 1989, the council published math standards that favor reducing the traditional emphasis on teaching students how to add, subtract, multiply, and divide. Rather than spending year after year on such basic functions, students should be introduced early on to socalled "higher mathematics,'' such as algebra and geometry.

In a similar vein, the researchers found that allowing students to use calculators in class and on tests did not hurt their performance on the NAEP exam. Students from states where calculator use is allowed tended to score higher on the exam than their counterparts in states that prohibited the practice. Students were not allowed to use calculators on more than 60 percent of the examination.

Four Companies To Offer Schools Free News Videos

Four media companies have launched a joint venture to provide free current events videotapes, classroom wall posters, and other materials to elementary schools.

The venture, called "Kids- news,'' will be supported through advertising; the videotapes will include brief sponsorship messages such as those seen accompanying public television shows, and the posters will carry a plug of some kind. The project is similar to Whittle Communications' controversial Channel One news program, which is delivered by satellite daily to 12,000 secondary schools nationwide.

The developers of Kidsnews, however, are quick to point out the differences between their product and Channel One, which has drawn the wrath of some educators because each show carries two minutes of commercials. Unlike Channel One, Kidsnews will not lend video equipment to schools that elect to show the program. Instead, participating schools will receive free videocassettes and related materials six times a year. The videos will include four major news or trend stories, as well as sponsorship messages lasting no longer than three seconds each. The only advertising will be on the accompanying wall posters.

"We have positioned ourselves in the schools as the responsible alternative to Channel One,'' says Wake Smith, president of SCOT Communications Inc., a developer of corporate-sponsored educational materials and one of the partners in Kidsnews. The other partners are Conus Communication Co., a major satellite newsgathering organization; Hubbard Broadcasting Inc., the owner of several television stations; and Petry Inc., an advertising firm. They hope to have their materials in 3,000 elementary schools nationwide this fall. The venture has already attracted three major sponsors: the toy maker Hasbro Inc., Hershey Foods Corp., and Quaker Oats Co.

William Rukeyser, a special assistant to the California superintendent of public instruction, believes the Kidsnews concept is less objectionable than Channel One. "Where the line is crossed both legally and philosophically,'' says Rukeyser, a vocal critic of Channel One, "is where you have an active hard sell in which the school is obligated to put ads before students in a manner which is very hard to ignore.''

Report Knocks Drug Surveys

The General Accounting Office, the watchdog arm of the U.S. Congress, has challenged the accuracy of three leading surveys of adolescent and adult drug use.

The GAO reported in August that the surveys' methodologies were "questionable'' and often led to underestimates of drug use. The annual studies, which cost the federal government a total of $16.5 million in 1991, are: the High School Senior Survey, the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, and the Drug Use Forecasting Survey.

While the GAO calls the surveys "highly developed'' in their design, it faults them for relying too much on self-reporting techniques, which the agency contends are unreliable, and claims they routinely exclude groups perceived as having drug problems.

The High School Senior Survey, which has tracked drug use among high school seniors since 1975 and is widely viewed as a barometer for drug use among young people, is conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan who survey 15,000 to 19,000 public and private high school students every year.

The GAO report asserts, however, that the survey, which has reported gradual declines in drug use among young people for the past decade, may not provide a very accurate measurement. The GAO notes, for example, that truants, absentees, and dropouts-- who represent more than onefifth of the student-age population--are not included in the study. As dropouts are thought to use drugs at higher rates than children who stay in school, the study's estimates of adolescent drug use may be artificially low. The report also alleges that the senior survey does a poor job of surveying minority populations.

Grim Study On Youth And Guns Sparks Outcry

Reports of gun violence involving young people have become so common in many communities around the country that some Americans don't pay much attention anymore. But a grim report on adolescents and guns released this past summer by pollster Louis Harris seemed to shock even the most inured.

Nine percent of the 10- to 19year-olds surveyed by Harris told the pollster that they have fired a gun at someone, and 11 percent said they have been shot at themselves. About 40 percent of the young people responding to the survey, conducted for the Harvard School of Public Health, said they know someone who has been killed or wounded by gunfire.

What's more, nearly 60 percent of the youths said they could get a handgun, one-fifth claiming they could do so within an hour and more than a third saying they could do so within a day. Some 15 percent said they carried a handgun during the past month, and 4 percent said they brought one to school during the past year.

The data were drawn from questionnaires completed anonymously in April and May by a nationally representative sample of 2,508 students at 96 public and private elementary, middle, and senior high schools. The survey has a confidence rate of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

The national media quickly picked up on the startling findings, perhaps in part because they were released shortly after congressional hearings on violence on television and just as the Clinton administration was convening a meeting in Washington to discuss violence prevention.

"One of the figures that really got me was that 39 percent said they didn't think they were going to grow up and become older,'' says Gwen Fitzgerald, a spokeswoman for the Washington, D.C.based Center to Prevent Handgun Violence. "That's very striking. If we can't offer kids hope, there's no reason for them to change their behavior.''

Although the survey sent shock waves around the country, some experts and educators quickly dismissed the findings as unrealistic, attributing the high numbers to youthful bravado. Gwendolyn Cooke, for example, director of urban services for the National Association of Secondary School Principals, could not believe that one in 10 students really had pulled the trigger on someone or had been someone's target. "I think that's exaggeration,'' she says. "You're dealing with adolescents, and adolescents tend to exaggerate. That's the nature of their perception of the world.''

Bennett Leventhal, a child psychiatrist at the University of Chicago, says he and his colleagues "tend not to take'' surveys of selfreported behavior very seriously. Surveys without multiple informants, he notes, tend not to be generalizable to the population at large.

Pollster Harris, meanwhile, defended his findings in a telephone interview and predicted they will be validated by other researchers. "I don't think these are things people brag about,'' he said. "We find that kids, if anything, are more on the level than adults are.''

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