Classroom Technology

Edison Schools Retools Itself as Online-Learning Provider

By Catherine Gewertz — July 15, 2008 3 min read
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Edison Schools Inc., which has long attracted controversy in managing public schools, has changed its name to EdisonLearning and bought a California-based software company that will help it compete in the fast-growing online-learning market.

The acquisition of Provost Systems Inc., based in Santa Clara, Calif., will allow Edison to offer online coursework to students directly, or through their schools or districts, Edison officials said when they announced the deal on June 30. Provost’s software helps support two Pennsylvania online schools that serve a total of 10,000 students. It also includes student-information systems, standards-alignment systems, and a portal that gives students and families access to courses and grades.

In its 16 years as a for-profit manager of public schools, New York City-based Edison has weathered rocky financial terrain, criticism of its management style, and questions about its accomplishments. Most recently, the School Reform Commission in Philadelphia decided to take back four of the 20 schools Edison manages in that city. The panel cited inadequate academic progress in the schools.

Edison, founded in 1992, was a publicly held company from 1999 to 2003, but is now privately held again. Details about its financial health and the cost of the acquisition were not disclosed. Edison’s various operations, including tutoring and summer school programs, management of charter and regular public schools, and district technical assistance, reach 250,000 students in 19 states, the District of Columbia, and the United Kingdom. Acquisition of Provost is projected to stretch that reach to 350,000 students.

Edison said in a prepared statement that the Provost acquisition caps a “two-year, full-scale strategic and operational transformation” of the company. But its officials said the move in no way signals a plan to scale back its current core business.

“We are still very much in the school-management and charter-school-management business. But we need to be able to partner with all reform-minded educators,” said Joseph Wise, the company’s chief education officer and a former superintendent of the Duval County, Fla., school district. “To do that, we have to increase our offerings as well as our delivery system.”

Meanwhile, Edison founder and chairman Christopher Whittle and vice chairman Benno C. Schmidt are working on a plan to open a global chain of private schools through a related company, Nations Academy. (See “Whittle Aims to Open Private Schools With International Theme, Locations,” Dec. 19, 2007.)

‘New Platforms’

Terry Stecz, Edison’s chief executive officer, said the company is trying to find ways to create “new platforms” to improve student performance, especially since it serves many low-achieving students. It is trying to use what it has learned in running schools, he said, to become “the preferred partner for large urban systems, states, or cities.” Doing that requires the ability to deliver a “continuum of solutions,” including a robust array of online options, he said.

In that vein, Edison has been developing a “hybrid” school design model that would enable students to learn both through traditional classroom methods and newer technological means, Mr. Stecz said. For the past three years, Edison has also been marketing its services as a turnaround specialist for districts with schools in need of restructuring.

The additional lines of service can help the company—which has often been criticized for “taking over” schools—reposition itself as a collaborator with a range of approaches, Mr. Stecz said. “We’ve learned in almost 20 years there is no one solution,” he said. “So it’s important to get into a community ... and create a portfolio that can address many needs.”

Steven Pines, the executive director of the Education Industry Association, a Rockville, Md.-based advocacy group for private-sector education companies, said he sees Edison’s move as a “diversification of business strategy that is smart and in tune with market changes.”

“The online marketplace is one of the hottest-growing niches in K-12,” he said. “To maintain its position as a well-known education brand, Edison is probably well served to step into that virtual space.”

Edison also announced that it is launching the EdisonLearning Institute, a research-and-development arm. John E. Chubb, an Edison co-founder and the company’s senior executive vice president for new-product development, will be the institute’s managing director.

A version of this article appeared in the July 16, 2008 edition of Education Week as Edison Schools Retools Itself as Online-Learning Provider

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