Published Online: November 11, 2005
Published in Print: November 1, 2005, as Crash Course
Book Review

Crash Course


Imagining a Better Future for Public Education

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by Chris Wittle (Riverhead, 269 PAGES, $24.95)

Whittle calls the public school system the nation’s “last great cottage industry,” with its thousands of independent districts too small to address the broad steps needed to truly change schooling. To bring the scale and scope of Fortune 500 R&D efforts to bear on reworking the school environment, he envisions local systems partnering with large, Edisonesque private companies. (While supportive of individual charter schools, Whittle argues that they’re too small to sustain such changes over time.) Big-city systems could emulate Philadelphia, where Edison and several similar companies offer competing models, while smaller districts would likely affiliate with one such provider. Districts, he argues, would retain oversight, but their role would evolve into more of a “call center,” addressing specific problems and dismissing private providers should their schools falter.

Given his background, it’s no shock that Whittle takes a business-centric approach to reform. To those who romanticize education, his recurrent glowing references to the Wal-Marts of the world and the cubicle-like independent study areas that might someday fill schools may seem off-putting. So, too, will his call for teachers to adopt proven standardized practices and step up assessments “not for rules’ sake” but because “as important as arts and creativity are, science matters, too.”

At the same time, Whittle appears serious about giving educators the resources they’d need to be successful in a brave new world. That includes the most-talked-about idea in his book: paying teachers as much as $130,000 a year, much of it in performance-linked bonuses, so that the profession “attracts not only those who care but also those who have plenty of other options.” Such largesse, he argues, would be offset by increased independent study at all grade levels that, thanks to the liberal use of student tutors, would require far fewer teachers. (It’s an idea Whittle once proposed at Edison, only to be lambasted for advocating child labor.)

Money aside, he’s counting on technology, improved curriculums, and a global influx of for-profit educational providers—bolstered by government funding for R&D efforts—to make his vision of schools work. “If you assume that students can do a lot on their own, that students can manage some of the school, ... and that schools are no longer organized in tiny cottage-industry scale, then school could be a very different place,” he writes.

Could any of this actually happen? In a hypothetical look back from the vantage point of the year 2030, Whittle includes a thinly veiled Edison among his fictional universe of private education players. Franklin Schools, he writes, once “had the schooling category pretty much to itself, and a swagger to match.”

The same could be said of Whittle’s thinking here, though only time will tell if his predictions live up to his present-day intrepidity.

—Mark Toner

Vol. 17, Issue 3, Page 45

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