Arnold Kling  

Edison Schools' Failure

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The American Prospect Gloats,


Edison learned what career educators have always known: Managing schools isn't as simple as it first might seem. The idea behind for-profit public education was that districts would turn over school budgets to Edison, plus supplemental funds meant to offset the costs of educating a population that was, in Philadelphia's case, 70 percent low-income and 80-percent non-white. Edison was supposed to run an über-efficient operation and pocket the surplus. But it never worked that way.

I would say, "One down, hundreds more to go." That is, it could take hundreds of failures to learn what, if anything, works in education. What have we learned from public schools? Only that the larger the proportion of students who come from affluent backgrounds, the better test results.

I do consider Edison a failure. It always struck me as a top-heavy, hype-heavy company, which made me inclined to want to see it fail. So maybe I am not giving it the benefit of the doubt--it still exists, after all.

But the failure of one firm is not a failure of the market process. And the fact that the public schools are still in operation is not proof of their success.


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COMMENTS (14 to date)
Harry writes:

As a former public school educator, I continue to be sadly amused that everyone on every side of this issue continues to whistle past the obvious but unspeakable fact: as long as the publicly funded schools are required to take on students who don't want to be there, or who are there for their own purposes which run counter to the school's purpose, they will disappoint us - and it matters not one whit who is running the school.

The minute we cast everyone out who either doesn't want to be there, or refuses to be there as a serious student, there will be a sea change in the US public school systems. Of course in a public school system that is a political problem, not a pedagogic one, and like all problems which are held hostage to politics, the likelihood of a good resolution is low. Therefore my only conclusion is that public education, along with the taxes that fund it, should be abolished altogether.

Excellent point, Arnold. Have you considered sending a the American Prospect a letter to the editor?

Bill Stepp writes:

I agree with Harry that public schools should be abolished (or privatized), but surely it's politically easier to repeal compulsory attendance laws than to abolish public schools, as difficult as the former might be.

Dan Weber writes:

I don't think Harry was saying that he wanted to abolish public schools.

We do need to turn the whole idea of "compulsory education" on its head, though. One of the main reasons we have truancy laws is not For The Children, but because we don't want them wandering the streets and vandalizing Our Stuff.

We can still require compulsory attendance, but it doesn't have to be at a school. Let them hang all day at the Y or the pool or someplace.

Then, we give them the option of attending school instead. The idea is to only have in school kids who want to be in school.

Obviously we want all our kids to want to be in school, but the Wrong Way to do that is to just compel them to be in school and call it complete.

Maybe we need factory jobs for kids again. Those jobs aren't lethal or maiming thanks to workers' rights growing over the past 100 years, but I'm betting after a month at that the 12-year-old would say "holy crap, I do not want to do this for the rest of my life. School? Yes, yes, please let me go to school!" (We could also have yard jobs and delivery jobs if factory jobs are a dying breed.)

Snark writes:
So maybe I am not giving it the benefit of the doubt--it still exists, after all.

Yes. A consummate libertarian denigrating the efforts of private enterprise and hoping for failure does make for an interesting juxtaposition. What will the neighbors think?

The fact that the EMO school students improved at faster rate than the school district students is, I think, a positive worth focusing on. There’s certainly room for improvement, but doesn’t the “oft-bow-tied entrepreneur” Chris Whittle, who is willing to tackle the challenge of catering to an under-privileged class of students through the market process, deserve our hope for the best? He has unquestionably made some poor management decisions along the way, but perhaps all he needs is a crash course in “choice architecture” to nudge him in the right direction.

floccina writes:

I mostly agree with Harry and Dan. If school was not compulsory perhaps the schools would realise that they need to first convice the children and/or their parents to want to (them) to learn. They also may have to teach more practicle stuff to the kids.

I think Murray Rothbard once said that if the parents do not care and the students does not care that the student will not learn. He proposed that charity schools would have to entice the children to come and learn.

Kevin writes:

As a high school economics teacher in the public schools, I ponder this often. I keep coming back to "consumer sovereignty," i.e. liberalizing the educational system, allowing charter schools, and providing vouchers allowing people to go to whatever school they want, parochial or not. Part of the problem is that too many parents and children do not have ownership of their education - if they graduate a dummy, it must be the system's fault, for they had no choice. Instead, say "don't like it here? Go somewhere where you will like it. It's up to you"

I would also eliminate almost all state-mandated curriculum requirements (currently in Michigan we have 4 years of english, 3 of math, science and social studies), and keep the dropout age at 16, if not lower it to 14 (the state is seriously considering changing it to 18, which would make our schools de facto prisons). Study what you want, what you are good at, and make the best of it - mandating 4 years of math does not make students good at it.

I also like the idea of letting kids go out and get jobs, be they factory, stocking shelves, dishwashing, whatever. Don't want to go to school? Go get a minimum wage job, see how you like it.

Give the students and parents choices, make their education (and future) their responsibility, and get out of the way. You cannot teach someone who does not want to learn, and unfortunately too many students aren't that interested in learning. Let them make their own choices, and let us focus more on the kids who do.

bgc writes:

Education is a good example of what AK was talking about recently - it is inconceivable that a modern government would undertake to solve the problem of educating children by the state providing school buildings and teachers, and making attendance compulsory.

Obviously, there would be a multitude of school providers and the state would subsidize only the minority who could not afford to pay.

But the present system has created very powerful and articulate interest groups - notably teachers and education administrators - who block any rational change. And these interest groups are so big, so numerous, that it is hard to imagine them being bought-off.

Any change to the system has to compete with the very-heavily subsidized incumbents (thousands of dollars per pupil) - and as Thomas Sowell pointed out in 'Knowledge and decisions', a subsidy to rival incumbents is precisely equivalent to a tax on the new entrants.

In effect, the for-profit schools were being taxed by thousands of dollars per pupil, which cost they had to cover before they had any chance of making a profit.

eccdogg writes:

I agree with what others have said that it makes no sense to compel someone who does not want to be in school to be there or allow someone who is disruptive to the majority of students to stay.

It also makes little sense that most schools seem totaly structured towards sending kids to college rather than developing other skills.

I would add that if we are going to make it easier to drop out or be kicked out we also need to make re-entry easier at a later date through community colleges and other programs. Not all kids are ready to learn when they are 16 but are ready at 23.

My aunt is a great example. Dropped out and got married to a bum at 16, divorced him, got her GED and associates degree (drafting) and became a technical sales person and now probably makes more than her sister with a college education. She clearly had the tools she just wasn't ready and did not yet appreciate school.

Jim Glass writes:

One should tell American Prospect that Sweden has a 100% voucherized public school system (like voucher reformers here dreaam of) ... everyone there loves it, including the schools unions ... and it works and the results are just as voucher proponents say...

An important issue in the debate on voucher systems and school choice is what effects competition from independent schools will have on public schools.

Sweden has made a radical reform of its system for financing schools. Independent and public schools operate on close to equal terms under a voucher system covering all children. Sample selection models are estimated, using a data set of about 28 000 individuals. In addition, panel data models are estimated on 288 Swedish municipalities.

The findings support the hypothesis that school results in public schools improve due to competition.

Oh, forget telling that magazine, pro-school choicers should tell themselves instead -- I've never in my life heard of pro-school reformer cite the Swedish success story example. It amazes me.

As to Whittle, I knew Edison was doomed from the start when he was going on about opening 1,000 schools in 10 years, like he was starting Kenny Rogers' Fried Chicken.

The #1 error these would-be reform saviors of education make is to put their fantasy of being a hero first and then go WAY too "big time" -- I'm going to open a 1,000 schools ... I'm going to contract to run all the schools in Hartford as a start ... etc etc etc ... and make a fortune like Bill Gates and be a hero too!

A truly "better model school" needs a ton of newly innovated organizational capital and a lot of top human capital, to make one (1) school. Then more organizational capital is going to have to be innvoated into finding ways to replicate it successfully ... two schools, four schools, seven schools. A good school system isn't like Starbucks, it can grow maybe 20% a year.

Say, oh, "Wal-Mart". Sam started with one store. (Actually re-started after the first one failed.) Then grew at a 20% rate ... for decades. When Sam died his family was richer than Bill Gates and he had revolutionized a major industry. But that wasn't his goal when he started his store #1A after #1 went bust.

Wal-Mart could be a good model for school reform. It innovated higher productivity in ways everyone until then said couldn't be done, put it into institutional systems, replicated it, had very-top quality upper management all the time -- but built a system that got radicallly greater productivity from employees who on the whole had only average skills or less.

As its CEO David Glass said: "Competitive success comes not from having the best people, but from putting average people in situations where they can do their best".

The big urban public schools systems are organized about 100% inversely to that.

BTW, there are a lot of good promising "small school systems" starting up out there through charters and various other means. We shall see.

In the meantime, reformers say: "Sweden! Sweden!"

Sweden also has private accounts in Social Security, and has contracted out its urban mass transit to private firms. "Sweden -- Too Right-Wing For U.S. Democrats!"

Boonton writes:

Harry

The minute we cast everyone out who either doesn't want to be there, or refuses to be there as a serious student, there will be a sea change in the US public school systems

True but this reminds me of the criticism of Bush's education 'miracle' when he was Gov of Texas. From what I understand instead of reporting the average results of all students, he reported just the average results of English speaking students. Not surprisingly, there was a dramatic jump in scores.

Sure the average score will go up if you kick out the 'non-serious' but is making a fetish out of the average score the best way to evaluate the system? Will kicking out the 'non-serious' be best for them? In many cases it won't.

I'm skeptical about setting up a system of factories or work farms for kids. Just like the public school system these too would have to be evaluated. What incentives would such a gov't system have of doing better?

Dan
We do need to turn the whole idea of "compulsory education" on its head, though. One of the main reasons we have truancy laws is not For The Children, but because we don't want them wandering the streets and vandalizing Our Stuff.

A good point but we also putting kids 'in storage' also benefits them. Just like you crate a puppy dog, keeping kids out of trouble when they are young benefits them too.

We can still require compulsory attendance, but it doesn't have to be at a school. Let them hang all day at the Y or the pool or someplace.

Why not at school? Maybe they will remember something years later? When I was in elementary school we had a tough music teacher who would kick out the poorly behaving students from chorus (a special class that was preparing to give a concert or something). I remember we all wanted to misbehave so as to get kicked out so we no longer had to attend this weekly practice. I suspect if you have "be bad and get compulsory attendance with the 'cool kids' at the Y" as a policy you'd end up with a really negative motivation.

Something else you're missing; children shouldn't have the last word here. I remember I went through years of school where I played the role of class clown & got bad grades. But then I also changed and went through periods where I played the good student. Fortunately, my good student years included HS so I was able to graduate, move onto college and the rest is history!!!! Well not quite but the point is you don't know what children will ultimately do. The 14 yr old dreg may simply need a bit more time.

Mr. Econotarian writes:

I also like the idea of letting kids go out and get jobs, be they factory, stocking shelves, dishwashing, whatever. Don't want to go to school? Go get a minimum wage job, see how you like it.

Unfortunately, the US minimum wage is too high for there to be enough "minimum wage jobs".

Dan Weber writes:
I suspect if you have "be bad and get compulsory attendance with the 'cool kids' at the Y" as a policy you'd end up with a really negative motivation.
A fair cop. As I was writing my comment, I was thinking that we should be putting the kids into a juvie hall, and school is the escape for those who are "good." But I don't think that's the right motivation -- we need to make school compelling, not make not-school Teh Suck. It would be too easy to let the not-school option be horrible.
Boonton writes:

I don't think we should worry too much about "kids who don't want to be at school". They are kids, who ever said kids should get what they want? 80% of the time good parenting is about NOT giving kids everything they want.

The only issue is does the kid who doesn't want to be in school causing harm for people beyond himself? If so can it be addressed inside the school or is it so bad that he needs to be removed. Most of the time I think it is the former and not the latter.

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