Whatever Happened To the Edison Schools?

Beginning in the 1980s, researchers, policymakers, and business leaders identified what they called “good” or “effective” schools where mostly minority and poor children attended. These “good” schools scored high on standardized tests, graduated high percentages of their students, with most getting admitted to college. Policymakers and school leaders wanted to replicate the “good” schools they identified so that more low-income minority children could attend across the country. The charter school movement that began in the mid-1990s continued to focus on poor and minority children and youth.Many ardent entrepreneurial reformers founded clusters of schools such as KIPP, Aspire, and dozens of other non-profit organizations.

One such leader was businessman Chris Whittle who started a bevy of for-profit schools across the country a quarter-century ago called the Edison schools (named after the inventor, Thomas Alva Edison).

UNITED STATES – CIRCA 2000: Christopher Whittle, president of Edison Schools, the company that wants to take over the running of five struggling city schools, talks about his organization’s program. (Photo by Robert Rosamilio/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)

When and How Did Edison Schools Begin and Grow?

Serial entrepreneur Chris Whittle, founder of Channel 1–a for-profit venture in public schools created the Edison Project in 1992. He and his partners believed that they could get students to learn more and better than regular public school spending the same amount of money per-student and, at the same time, return a tidy profit to investors. At its largest in 2003, Edison Schools operated 133 schools enrolling 80,000 students across the U.S. In 2008, the company changed its name to Edison Learning. (see here and here)

What Problems Did the Edison Schools Seek To Solve?

First problem to be solved was the abysmal performance of largely minority and poor children in urban public schools. Whittle believed that he and others could redesign these low-performing schools to achieve higher academic achievement as measured by standardized tests. Whittle’s chain of Edison schools in big cities, he and his investors believed, would out-perform regular schools.

The second problem was upending mainstream businesses thinking that there were no profits to be made in taking over public schools and operating them as if these were private schools. Whittle believed that he could operate such schools for less money than spent by district school boards and thereby wring a profit for himself and investors out of receiving state funds per student.

How Were Edison Schools Organized and Operated?

Because most of the public schools were located in low-income and minority neighborhoods, there was great variation. Some became charter schools; others districts contracted out to Whittle to run low-performing ones. The typical Edison school had an hour-longer school day, a longer school year (200 rather than the typical 180 days), fewer teachers, and a rich curriculum with much use of technology (students received personal computers).

According to a RAND evaluation report:

Edison schools are organized by grouping 2 or 3 grade levels into academies. Within the academies, the students are organized into multigrade houses of 100-180 students. The students in each house are largely taught by the same team of teachers throughout the time they are in that academy.Edison Schools Inc. has a curriculum that includes reading, math, history/social studies, science, writing, and world language as the core subjects, with classes in character and ethics, physical fitness and health, music, dance, visual art, drama, and practical arts and skills offered at various levels. Four methodological approaches to instruction are reportedly used in the classrooms: project-based learning, direct instruction, cooperative learning, and differentiated learning.

Moreover, as a 1999 article in the Wall Street Journal pointed out, in these schools:

Edison tracks student achievement and school performance to a degree unprecedented in public education. Every student’s progress in basic subjects is measured monthly, and the results are delivered to the company’s headquarters. Edison surveys parent, teacher and student satisfaction in every school annually. Edison principals are awarded performance-based bonuses of up to about 20% of their salaries. And the company swiftly fires principals and teachers who don’t perform.

Did Edison Schools Work?

As one comes to expect in answering this question on effectiveness as judged by the dominant outcome for schools since the 1980s, i.e., test scores, the answer depends upon when it is asked and how and what kind of evaluations were done. One observer noted in 1999:

In a handful of scientific studies comparing Edison students’ classroom performance over several years against that of students with similar backgrounds, Edison students have registered greater gains. And on the 300 or so state and national tests students have taken in different Edison schools, their passing rates have risen or their scores have ratcheted up faster than expected about 75% of the time. Student attendance is generally high in Edison’s schools, and dropout rates are low.

What Happened to Edison Schools?

The answer, in part, has to do with Whittle’s aspiration to create hundreds of redesigned schools for which he needed investors. As the chain of schools expanded and reports were glowing, Whittle sought and received more venture capital. Edison Inc. was the first for-profit school-management company to be traded on a stock exchange. They got contracts from urban school districts (e.g., Wichita, KN; Philadelphia, PA, Ravenswood, CA) to  use their model of a “good” school to convert failing schools into “good” ones in other districts  but stumbled into one political difficulty after another  with unions, parents, and administrators (see here and here). Their stock had reached a high of nearly $40 a share in 2001 and then, as problems piled up, dipped to 14 cents later in the same year.

Dissatisfied with Edison, some districts began canceling contracts for financial, political, and managerial reasons. By 2005,  there were 98 schools (see here) but the company was already dumping their school management business and had turned to  securing contracts to  provide tutorial services financed by No Child Left Behind and other services districts wanted such as recovering dropouts. By then, Whittle had found private lenders who aided him in converting the publicly traded company back into a private one.

Where Are The Edison Schools Today?

From their heyday in the early years of the century, when there over 130 schools, the private for-profit schools–renamed Edison Learning– no longer exist except for two credit recovery schools in Ohio and six alternative schools in Florida.

And Chris Whittle? The entrepreneurial salesman opened a new private school in Washington, D.C. in 2019.

It’s opening day at the Whittle School and Studios, a brand-new pre-K-through-12 private school in Northwest Washington founded by Chris Whittle… Four years in the making, the school and its 185 enrollees represent the first phase of a global institution that Whittle plans to expand over the next decade into more than 30 campuses worldwide, serving more than 2,000 students each, with 150 to 180 in each grade….



Filed under how teachers teach, leadership, Reforming schools, school reform policies, technology use

3 responses to “Whatever Happened To the Edison Schools?

  1. I’m really enjoying your pieces on “corporate reformers” and scaling up. Thank you!

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