Behind Closed Doors, Edison Project Tackles Design Task

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KNOXVILLE, TENN.--After a lengthy afternoon meeting here with the core team of the Edison Project, the research phase of the entrepreneur Christopher Whittle's proposed national system of for-profit schools, Benno C. Schmidt Jr. takes a moment to reflect on his job as the project's chief executive officer.

"My role is to have my arms around the totality of the project, including the enormous financial challenges,'' says the former college hockey player, whose arms seem up to the task.

"This thing obviously gets very big in a hurry,'' adds Mr. Schmidt.

That is the hope of Mr. Schmidt, Mr. Whittle, and the other partners in the Edison Project, which is aiming to design a private school system that will present an unusual approach to education in pre-kindergarten through grade 12.

The basic elements of the plan are to charge a reasonable tuition for a state-of-the-art school, set aside scholarships for underprivileged students, serve as a model for reforming public education, and perhaps use the project's principles to manage public schools--while at the same time turning a profit.

Mr. Whittle's vision calls for opening the first 200 schools nationwide, serving some 100,000 to 150,000 students, by the fall of 1996. The plan further envisions that by 2010, some 1,000 schools serving more than two million students will have opened, all charging an annual tuition not significantly above the per-pupil cost of public education nationwide, currently about $5,500.

Translating that vision into reality is the task of Mr. Schmidt, who gave up the presidency of Yale University to take his new post, and the seven core-team members of the Edison Project.

Team members have come to this mid-sized university town, where Mr. Whittle's media empire and the Edison Project have their headquarters, from such varied backgrounds as the computer laboratories of Silicon Valley, the public school trenches of Chicago, Washington think tanks, and the New York media world.

Mr. Whittle, the founder of the controversial Channel One classroom news show, set the momentum last spring when, about a year after he first proposed the Edison Project, he wooed Mr. Schmidt from Yale.

The hiring of one of the most prominent figures in higher education brought the Edison Project an instant mantle of credibility. As the project unfolds, it continues to evoke strong reactions, from those who welcome it as a bold stroke that will shake up the education establishment and from those who fear it will further drain public schools of their most promising students.

Still others remain skeptical that the project will ever overcome the formidable financial hurdles to opening any schools at all.

But while the public debate has continued, the day-to-day work of redesigning the American school has been quietly going on at the Whittle complex in downtown Knoxville.

During a recent two-day visit here, several core-team members spoke about their progress toward developing the design for the future schools, which have not yet been named.

Team members, some of whom have been commuting to Knoxville for a day or two of meetings a week, also spoke about the project by telephone from their bases in New York or Washington.

The team appears to be well along in its proposed blueprint. An early draft has been shown to the key financial backers of the Edison Project, including the companies that hold stakes in Whittle Communications L.P.: Time Warner Inc., Philips Electronics N.V., and Associated Newspapers Holdings Limited.

Plugging Into Learning

From the start, planning has been based on a few central elements suggested by Mr. Whittle, including a longer school day, increased use of the latest technological advances, and the employment of students in cafeteria work and other jobs.

Although the project's detailed blueprint is still a closely held secret, conversations with participants indicate that the Whittle school system will likely include the following:

  • An integrated curriculum, without the traditional walls between such subjects as mathematics and reading.
  • Heavy use of technology, including computers for every student. Team members stress, though, that they are focusing more on the applications of technology than on the actual hardware students will use.

"We're not going to plug in our kids; I hope they will be plugged into learning,'' said Nancy Hechinger, a core-team member who came from Apple Computer Inc.'s Multimedia Lab.

  • An emphasis on values and character education.
  • A longer school day and year than the current norms.
  • Heavy parental involvement, to the point that parents may have to sign contracts outlining their participation in the school and their children's education.

"It's beyond parental involvement,'' said Dominique Browning, a former assistant managing editor of Newsweek and a core-team member. "We are talking about bringing school into the home, not bringing parents into the school.''

  • A professional outlook toward teachers, including higher pay for master teachers and ongoing teacher education.

'Not From Another Planet'

Still, team members acknowledge that the schools they are planning may look on the surface very much like traditional American schools.

"In terms of the curriculum and pedagogy and school organization, we are not going to be from another planet,'' said Chester E. Finn Jr., a former U.S. Education Department official and prominent education-reform theorist. "If it were, we would have a marketing problem.''

Mr. Finn and other team members make the point that they have not set out to design the ideal school. Instead, they are trying to anticipate real-world conditions and create a product that will appeal to parents.

Last summer, even as they were still studying the problems of American education and attending dinners with experts in the field, team members plunged into the task of designing schools. They did this either individually or in groups of two, making presentations to the entire team in late September.

"One of the reasons to do that right out of the box is that we didn't want to go six to 12 months as a commmission, and then design something,'' said Lee Eisenberg, a former editor in chief of Esquire and one of the design group's less experienced education hands.

"We wanted to put into play some of our ideas when we were still innocent,'' he added. "I had to think about not just the curriculum, but also the architecture, teacher development, and other issues. I had to wrestle with all of that, and there could be no better teaching process.''

John E. Chubb, on leave from the Brookings Institution while he works for the Edison Project, said the early design process "forced you to confront major areas of ignorance.''

"What concerns me now is how this gets put together without looking like a committee document,'' Mr. Chubb added.

Experts and Innocents

Since September, the group has been integrating the various designs to come up with a consensus proposal.

"This is not a model we will be ready to show the world,'' said Mr. Schmidt.

The team will submit the plan to intense internal scrutiny before showing it to outside "experts and wise people,'' Mr. Schmidt said, adding that the team may unveil the design to the public by late spring.

When the plan does come out, team members insist, it will not be a rubber stamp of a preconceived design of Mr. Whittle's. Nor will it be unduly influenced by team members such as Mr. Finn and Mr. Chubb, who have spent years thinking and writing about education and school organization.

"It would be easy to assume that the education veterans would somehow prevail,'' Mr. Eisenberg said. "I think they had an advantage going in, but we had an advantage, too, by being innocents.''

In fact, the design team has read and consulted widely with outside education theorists and practitioners, as well as with management gurus and others.

Early in the process, the team gathered in Knoxville each Monday for a dinner that included presentations by the outsiders.

Among those who made the most impact, the core-team members say, were education researchers such as Lauren B. Resnick, the director of the Learning Research and Development Center at the University of Pittsburgh; Harold W. Stevenson, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan; and Robert E. Slavin, a principal research scientist at the Center for Research on Effective Schooling for Disadvantaged Students at Johns Hopkins University.

Team members listened "attentively'' during his daylong presentation on the Japanese education system, Mr. Stevenson recalled.

"They are certainly very motivated and interesting people,'' he said.

Mr. Stevenson added, however, that he shares "the same kinds of questions everyone has'' about the Edison Project. "The main one is, will such an effort make much of a difference in public education?'' he asked.

Some critics have decried the project for having on board only one experienced classroom educator--Sylvia L. Peters, a former principal of a Chicago elementary school.

Ms. Peters said she has tried to "bring a dimension of support for those who are working in the trenches.''

"There are thousands of public school people out there who are doing a miraculous job,'' she said.

Ms. Peters acknowledged that she has clashed at times with Mr. Finn, a former Reagan Administration official who attended Phillips Exeter Academy, as did Mr. Schmidt.

"Many of us have not come from the Exeters,'' Ms. Peters said. "Checker [Finn] has changed a lot. I think he genuinely wants to make every child in America succeed.''

Banking on Vouchers?

Besides developing the school design, the Edison core team has been holding focus-group meetings with parents and gearing up to make its next wave of hiring.

Hamilton Jordan, the former White House chief of staff to President Carter, has been assisting the project on marketing ideas. He has been on the staff of Whittle Communications for several years, except for a brief leave last year to work for the independent Presidential candidacy of Ross Perot.

Mr. Schmidt said the project will soon be adding staff members in curriculum development, technology design, and facilities planning.

The project members are also thinking about where to put the schools, and some states and cities are already putting out the welcome mat.

This month, Gov. William F. Weld of Massachusetts and other state leaders met with Mr. Schmidt to suggest that some of the first Edison schools be located in the Bay State.

The project will bring "a breeze of competition'' to the public schools, the Governor told The Boston Globe.

Although Mr. Weld said Mr. Schmidt was not demanding state aid for prospective Edison students, the meeting highlighted the potential role of publicly funded educational vouchers in the Whittle venture.

School choice and private school aid are a prominent issue in Massachusetts, where both Mr. Weld and President of the Senate William M. Bulger are pushing to remove language from the state constitution that bars public funding of private and religious schools.

Mr. Whittle and his team members have said repeatedly that they are not relying on any voucher schemes to guarantee the success of the Edison Project. But the voucher issue has dogged the project, largely because of the presence on the Edison team of Mr. Chubb and Mr. Finn, both outspoken backers of private school choice.

Mr. Chubb said the design team has debated vouchers "periodically,'' with not every member agreeing with the concept as public policy. Moreover, he said, he doubts that the Edison Project would sway many lawmakers to provide vouchers when it would receive so obvious a benefit.

"My own view is that it is only going to happen if ordinary people want it,'' he said.

Financial Viability Questioned

Many observers have speculated about the financial plan of the project and whether it will be able to move to the next stage, when millions of dollars will have to be spent on real estate and building schools.

Mr. Schmidt said it would be several months before the project needed to seek further capital.

"We are planning very actively a number of capital-formation and rollout strategies,'' he said. "We have been consulting very widely with investment bankers, banks, and insurance companies.''

"We are not, at this point, asking anyone for money or proposing anything,'' Mr. Schmidt added. "We're getting advice.''

At some point, a public stock offering might be made, he explained, while indicating that in the near term the project will probably get equity investments from strategic partners such as computer firms or textbook publishers.

Many analysts remain skeptical that the Edison Project can make a profit creating innovative schools while giving scholarships to one-fifth of the students. Doubters are quick to point out that existing private schools already have a hard time making ends meet, even with the benefits of tax-free status, endowments, and donations.

"For me, none of the answers are there in terms of viability,'' said Peter D. Relic, the president of the National Association of Independent Schools, whose members include many private institutions with which the Edison schools would compete for students.

Mr. Relic said he is "intrigued'' by the project, while remaining skeptical of its chances.

"We are in such trouble in American education that we need some really bold ideas, and this is one of the boldest,'' he added.

Others have suggested that Mr. Whittle sometimes loses interest in his projects and does not always deliver on some of his visions. He has pulled the plug on some of his media properties when they failed to live up to expectations or lost major sponsors.

Mr. Whittle was not available to be interviewed. But his design-team members vowed not to let him lose interest in the Edison Project.

"I think a lot of people have some major reputations on the line with this,'' said Ms. Hechinger of herself and her colleagues.

"If he [Mr. Whittle] were not in it for the long haul, he never would have started this,'' Mr. Schmidt contended. "I am increasingly convinced that what we are doing is affordable and can work.''

Vol. 12, Issue 18

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