Mission Statements and School Realities
The field of education is known for its lofty mission statements that have great intuitive appeal. The problem too often, however, has been in their execution. Christopher Whittle serves as an instructive case study. As readers will remember, Whittle first came into prominence with Edison Schools in 1992. He is once again in the news because of the opening of Avenues: The World School ("Chris Whittle Seeks Global Reach in Private School Venture," Education Week, Sept. 25).
I want to be fair in my remarks, but I would be remiss in omitting Whittle's track record (The Edison Schools, Routledge, 2005). Despite the allure of his goal to provide a quality education and at the same time make money for investors, Whittle did not deliver. "The broader message may be that there is no quick, profitable way to turn around schools" ("Public Schooling for Profit," The New York Times, May 26, 2002). Relying on economies of scale didn't work because renovating schools, equipping them and hiring staff remain expensive no matter how often the process is repeated.
I don't think Whittle has learned from his mistakes. He says that Avenues will span the globe with about 20 campuses over the next 15 years ("Has Avenues Mastermind Chris Whittle Learned His Lesson?" The New York Observer, Jun. 13). But when he started Edison, he predicted that it would be managing 1,000 schools with one million students by 2010. It never happened. This time the pitch is on graduating bilingual citizens of the world. The country certainly needs young people who are equipped with the knowledge and skills to function in a global economy. Fluency in Mandarin and Spanish are without question a great asset.
Nevertheless, it's important to separate probabilities from possibilities. I realize that Avenues consists of private schools, while Edison consisted of public schools. As a result, Avenues operates by different rules. Therefore, it is possible that Whittle's dream will become a reality. But I don't think it is probable. Private equity firms, which are the primary backers, will demand profitability at some point. Telling them to be patient by offering platitudes such as "Rome wasn't built in a day" will appease them for only so long. Unless Whittle can repeal the law of diminishing returns, Avenues runs the risk of sharing the fate of Edison.