Our Schools' Bottom Line: The Bottom Line, Part I

Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Chris Whittle
Title: “Our Schools’ Bottom Line: The Bottom Line”, Part I
VTR: 7/23/92

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. And I know I rather shocked today’s guest when he joined me at this table some time back as I introduced him to you by saying that if he were not just about the most controversial person ever to grace THE OPEN MIND throughout all of its broadcast years since 1956 then I just didn’t know who else could possibly lay claim to that distinction.
And that wasn’t and isn’t just because Whittle Communications peripatetic Chieftain, Chris Whittle, of Tennessee is such an innovative, aggressive and truly brilliant entrepreneur, and that he is, with a vengeance. But because he has now so boldly applied to America’s schools his personally highly successful businessman’s for profit approach to getting things done that quite conceivably could combine in the years just ahead to parlay my guest into a new career as an enormously achieving educational pioneer.
Now, up to now, of course, our schools have largely been immune to the importuning and seductions of the marketplace. To improve their lot, however, and who could imagine America’s schools worse off than they are now, Mr. Whittle’s Channel One has already brought the claimed, but also disputed benefits of television news, with attendant commercials into classrooms around the country. And now with his new Edison Project he has set directly about to make our schools instruments of public progress through private enterprise. Adam Smith rather than John Dewey may become our schools’ patron saint and perhaps Mr. Whittle his prophet.
Indeed, since our first meeting, my guest has just about shocked the socks off the educational community, and the business community, too, by announcing that Benno Schmidt, the distinguished President of Yale University had tendered his resignation to Yale’s Trustees in order to accept Mr. Whittle’s offer that he head the Edison Project. More than a ten-strike for my guest’s notion that an education business for profit partnership is precisely the ticket for improving America’s schools.
Soon, of course, Chris Whittle’s and Benno Schmidt’s theories will have to be matched by real achievements. Scores and scores of their low enough tuition and high enough profit private schools will have to open and offer better than what most American children and their parents have to contend with now. Thus, Chris Whittle and Benno Schmidt will have to be high achievers themselves to validate their claim that when the bottom line is the bottom line, schools can payoff educationally, too.
Of course, as one who still has lots and lots and lots of doubts about talking of schooling and profit-making in the same breath, whether in Mr. Whittle’s Channel One, or his Edison Project, I want to ask him to elaborate on his hopes and aspirations for America’s schools. You’re on.
Whittle: With no more introduction than that? (Laughter)
Heffner: With no more introduction than that. A good many nice words…
Whittle: Thank you.
Heffner: … a guy who has obviously and I mean it, shocking the socks off an awful lot of people.
Whittle: Well, thank you. Where would you like me to begin?
Heffner: What are we going to have two, three, four years from now?
Whittle: Four years from now we’re going to have, at least in the Edison Project, hopefully a new model of education to present to America. And when I say, four years from now, we hope to open a hundred campuses around the United States in most major urban areas that would, on each campus, think of it as four schools. What we now call day-care, elementary, middle and high, so it would actually be 400 schools on a 100 campuses. And what we hope … we, we have two missions here. The most important mission and the reason that I’m in this, the reason that Benno Schmidt is in it and the reason that the many people that have already joined this are in it, is that we want to create something which is done on exactly the same dollars that a typical public school has, such that a public school can follow that model. Because for us just to come up with a national chain of private schools isn’t the point, and, and the reason is we know that a … even a wildly successful system of schools across the country would affect a couple of percent of America’s students. And if that’s all we did, as important as that may be, if it didn’t ripple in a very significant way, into the other 99% of institutions that kids go to, we really haven’t done anything. So the whole mission here is to be a change agent. By the way, that mission is, is being somewhat misunderstood. A lot of people think this is an attack on the public schools. It isn’t that at all. It is saying, “we don’t think that the government or most public schools can radically change, given all the restrictions that they have to cope with today, and we’re going to try to present them with a model that they can follow”.
Heffner: You see, you use the word “model” and I think that’s where many of us become a little bit puzzled. Because you talk about a rather massive model, if that’s what it is…
Whittle: Yes.
Heffner: … you talk about a massive Edison Project that in the next century … well, you’ve said it … how many … how many campuses?
Whittle: We might have a thousand.
Heffner: How many students?
Whittle: We might have a million students that are involved here. And that is … by the way, that would be the largest school system in the United States, or roughly equivalent to the one in New York City. But, but that is also only about 2% of students in schools. So, we recognize that in the larger scheme of things it’s not the kids that go to our schools; it is what our schools cause to happen in the rest of education that really matters.
Heffner: But let me go back to this notion of “model” …
Whittle: Yes.
Heffner: … there are many people then who say “why couldn’t you structure a model as there have been many model schools in the past. And show us what can be done along the lines that you’ve been talking about.
Whittle: Very good question, and you’re the first person that’s ever (laughter) asked me…
Heffner: I don’t believe that.
Whittle: … no, no, you are. The … there is a reason we are doing this with some scale. Models are easy to ignore. They’re easy to dismiss. They’re easy to say “that’s an isolated example, it may work over there, but it wouldn’t work here”. By the way they’re very hard to marshall talent and resources towards…
Heffner: For a one-time-only, or…
Whittle: Yes.
Heffner: … short-term…
Whittle: … and, and so models have been tried and tried and tried. Experiments, short-term, under-funded, understaffed examples have been tried. That is not what we’re going to do. We’re going to say, “we’re going to build an on-going, large scale system”. And we’re going to show that it operates in all sorts of environments, with all sorts of children, and we’re going to try to demonstrate that it produces significantly different results. And we’re going to do that over a number of years. That’s a model that you can’t ignore, meaning that’s one that you have to factor into your thinking. And that Governors and heads of school boards and everyone else will have ones that they can visit easily, they can see, parents will know about them, and it will be a true force for change.
Heffner; But you don’t see this as having a certain life-span, do you?
Whittle: No, I … I think this will; I hope that this will exist for a very long time. In order for it to do so, it will have to change constantly. It will, in fact, have to stay ahead of, of its educational counterparts in the public and the rest of the private sector, because if it doesn’t and if it’s copied by the public sector, it will be out of business, tomorrow. So, to, to stay … it has to stay ahead in order to, to stay in existence.
Heffner: You, you know that if you didn’t think of it in the first place, you would know it from guys like me, who, who scratch their heads and say “Schools for profit, that just goes against the grain”. The question has come up so many times, “where can the profit come from?” if in this country now, we maintain … the people who run our schools maintain they don’t have adequate resources. Where do you squeeze the profit out of a system that you’re, you say is going to provide much more by way of educational work for us.
Whittle: That’s called … that’s what “new design” is. Meaning if we did it exactly the way it is currently being done, obviously there’s no profit. By the way, obviously there’s no superior results, either. Meaning, the whole point of this is we aren’t going to do it the way it’s being done. We’re going to start over and we’re going to say, “we have to put this together in a certain way, such that it in fact achieves superior results and produces a profit”. And people go, “well, why do you need the profit?” You can’t raise $2.5 billion dollars of philanthropic funds … they, they don’t exist. And the only way you can raise that kind of money is if you can demonstrate there’s going to be a return. So, we can’t do it in any serious way without producing returns to the shareholders that will provide that amount of money.
Heffner: Well, I know that you’re a magician and I know that you will turn up with the $2.5 billion dollars. But I wonder … if I happen to have a spare billion around, or maybe even just a half a billion, and you were coming at me, I would want to know what makes you so sure, what model do you have as the basis for creating your model? Is it just Chris Whittle has managed to…
Whittle who has managed to…?
Whittle: Is it just intuition …or…
Heffner: Yeah…
Whittle: … or, or…
Heffner: … sure…
Whittle: …is there something backing this up?
Heffner: Tell me.
Whittle: Well, first of all, it started with intuition. I believe in, in almost all worlds that there are better worlds. That there is something beyond what we currently know, what we currently envision. And that, that in almost all cases we can make progress beyond what we … we’re currently engaged in. So, I have been called “genetically up-beat” and that’s an accurate description. One of the reasons I’m that way is I’ve seen it work.
Heffner: Yes, but wait a minute, you’re “genetically up-beat”, and I think I described you that way when we did our first program together … it’s in your genes. But, I’m genetically careful about my money, and you want, in all $2.5 billion dollars.
Whittle: Right.
Heffner: How do the two come together?
Whittle: What you have to show, is you have to show a plan that produces that. And, and you go “well, what might that look like?” And … and by the way, I’m perfectly happy to talk at any length that you want to about what schools of the future might look like, with one qualification. And that is, I can change my mind totally tomorrow. Because that’s what we’re doing right now, we’re actually designing it, and imagine a group of people that are artists considerably beyond my capabilities that are thinking about this. And if you ask an artist on his first day with a blank canvas … “what’s it going to look like”, most artists will tell you, “I don’t know, right now”. I can give you examples of how we think it might work. But those are examples and, and I just wanted to clarify that’s what they are right now. Because we don’t want … want them to be … we don’t want these schools characterized yet. Because we, in fact, want to go through a lengthy research and development effort so that they will be radically different than what we know. But I’m happy to talk about what they might be. And, and I’ll give you one example. Most Americans, if you said, “what makes a good school” would tell you what makes a good school … one thing that almost all of them would mention is small classes. The smaller the number of students, to the … the ratio of teachers to students … the better that ratio is, the better the results.
Heffner: The Mark Hopkins model. Hopkins on one end of a log and a student on the other.
Whittle: Right.
Heffner: You don’t accept that, do you?
Whittle: Well, yes and no. And I don’t accept it blindly. And one of the reasons I don’t accept it blindly is there’s a lot of information to the contrary. And just to give you a couple of examples … if you go to Catholic schools, which many people … many objective observers will tell you are getting better results, they have higher student/teacher ratios. Meaning their classes are larger. If you go to Japan and China, and I spent a good part of last week studying their results versus our results. They have almost twice the class size in schools there, versus we do. And, and yes, they are culturally different, that has to be taken into account, but we can’t just dismiss it and go that … that that’s something that we shouldn’t look at. Interestingly, one of the ways they do it is that a teacher doesn’t teach as much. When they do teach they teach to larger classes, but they spend a lot more time preparing for their class. And instead of having a teacher six straight hours … class after class after class … what they do is they say, “you’re going to have a larger class, but you’re going to have more prep time, and by the way, in between .classes the kids are going to have recess” … but in between every class. So they work, they play, they work, they play … instead of six straight hours of, of instruction. So one of the things we may look at is a very different kind of student/teacher ratio and we may have a lot more one-to-one than a typical school.
Heffner: How do you achieve that?
Whittle: One of the ways you achieve that is you have some situations where you have a teacher, or an adult, or a surrogate teacher, one-to-one with a student, and then you have other situations where you may have 200 students with one teacher. And so, I go “let’s not be rigid, and go we’re only going to have 23 to one”, let’s have some one-to-one, let’s have some 200-to-one, and then with technology, let’s have some 100,000-to-one. And some people go, “oh, my gosh, 100,000-to-one, which is television, is a terrible concept”, and if you did that 8 hours a day, it is. But if you did it an hour a day, and that created the ability to do it one-on-one much more, that may be a trade-off we want to make.
Heffner: You know, you said, you mentioned Catholic schools … you mentioned schools in the Far East, in China and Japan … and then you said look, “I know people will say ‘different culture’” … actually…
Whittle: They mean other things … right…
Heffner: … but you mentioned that and you were really talking about Japan and China, but one could say’ the same thing about Catholic schools. In all three areas you’re talking about a sense of discipline. You’re talking about schools that can function within the cultural … the culture in which discipline is present. How do you achieve that within the kind of culture that we, in America, have. Those patterns aren’t made in school alone. They’re made in families, they’re made in nations. How do you achieve that? And I’m not, I’m not rising…
Whittle: Right.
Heffner: … that question to say, “my gosh, you’re caught, you can’t do it”, I really…
Whittle: I understand.
Heffner: … want to know.
Whittle: Here are three things we will typically hear from the defenders of our current educational situation, people that go, “this is the best we can do”. They will say, typically, these three things, one … I don’t have enough money; two, I don’t create all these problems that come to my school; and three … and, and that really and this is kind of part of two … those problems are created both by family problems and societal issues. And that “if I had more money, and if, if the world didn’t lay its problems on my door step, then I could educate”. And they will often say that’s why .the Catholic schools and schools in Japan and China are doing better … is they don’t have all these other issues that I have to deal with. I don’t disagree with them that there are all those issues … but we … we must come to grips with that. We can’t use those as excuses for the situation that we have today. We, as a country, have got to say, “that’s reality … that is the obstacle we must work against”. And, and, by the way one of things we have to also say is “we’re not going to get any more money”. That’s wishful thinking in the ’90’s. We have the money we’re going to get for the next few years, so you’ve got to go … your design must take those factors into account and, and it must go “I’m going to have a limited amount of money, I’m going to have very difficult society issues, I’m going to have family problems that I’m going to have to deal with”, and, and you design from that perspective. And so that’s, that’s the first thing you do, you don’t … you don’t try to deny it; you accept it as part of your design reality.
Heffner: You say you’re going to have the same amount of money; in fact you’re to have considerably less.
Whittle: That’s correct.
Heffner: You’re going to have that amount minus the profit that is necessary to get the, the investments that you’re looking for.
Whittle: It’s considerably worse than that.
Heffner: Tell me. Tell me … because I think of enough problems.
Whittle: No, no, no. It’s actually much more taxing than you might think. If you take a typical public school in America they have $5,500, which is the sum we’re going to try to work with. We have $5,500 less the following … profit which has to go to return to the investors. We have to build our schools. Most public schools inherited their schools and they don’t account for them. We have to build brand new schools and account for them. And if you really look at how much actual money we’re going to have, it’s closer to half of what a typical public school operates for.
Heffner: I presume you’re going to be taxed; also.
Whittle: And we’re going to be taxed. Yeah, if you, if you take all the different kind of handicaps that we’re going to have to function with under, they’re pretty significant.
Heffner: So where except from your genes, do you get this optimism?
Whittle: One of the things you look at is you look at how can we possibly make it work with half the funds? Examples schools are largely passive institutions today. And, and let me make a side-note when I say “schools”, I mean both private and public schools. This is not an attack on public schools … this is an attack on old design which exists in equal measure in both public and private schools. . I don’t differentiate between public and private schools; they run on the same chassis to me. And any alien you dropped into a public school and then took him next door to a private school, they say “these are the same things”. The so I, I look at that and I go “they’re pass … they’re largely passive institutions” the students aren’t. And, and one of the things you have to be careful about in schools, you can’t generalize because there are pockets of excellence all around the country. But in general, they are relatively passive institutions that don’t engage the people that are part of them and a large portion of the people that are there are the kids. And rather than treating the school, if you will, as almost a welfare institution, engage the people that are part of the community, the kids and their parents. And engage them very significantly. You do that, you can radically reduce costs. And … example, and I don’t know how much detail you want to go into…
Heffner: I’m fascinated at what you’re saying.
Whittle: Okay.
Heffner: If somebody in the audience isn’t, they’ll turn us off.
Whittle: Fine. Let’s say you have a school with a 1,000 children. That means you have roughly 2,000 parents … some have none, some have four. Okay. So, so you have 2,000 parents. If each parent said, “I’ll give you two hours a week of my time”. If 4,000 hours a week … now if you say a week’s 40 hours, that’s the equivalent of 100 full time adults in the school. That alone is twice the current teacher ratio of a typical school. And, and you haven’t spent any money yet. That is great organization of parents. Now a lot of people say, “but parents can’t teach”. You believe that?
Heffner: I think if they were saying one of the problems in our society is that parents don’t teach … many parents, many, many parents don’t teach … many, many parents don’t give a damn.
Whittle: And I go, “they’re right”. But that’s something we take into account. We go … we’ve got to figure out how to make them give a damn. And we’ve got to figure out a way that they really could assist, if we could design it so that they could. And so, that’s an example, and, and a lot of people go, “Well, but wait a minute, schools are open 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m … parents work 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m …. how can they give two hours?”
Heffner: Not Whittle schools, they’re open all the time, right?
Whittle: Well, two things. First of all, parents don’t work 9-5 all the time, and secondly schools don’t have to be open 9:00 a.m. – 3:00 p.m. They can be open at very different hours, and I think ours will.
Heffner: Now, let me go back to the point that I made. We only have a couple minutes and I’m going to try and get you to stay where you are, and we’ll do another program … continue all these questions. Look, people look at American society these days and say the, the carelessness is overwhelming … we’re not involved in the lives of our children, that’s why our children have so many problems. And you say, you’re going to include all of society, all of the community in your schools, this is not just for rich kids. I hope you’ll join us again next time, also. And if you’d like to share your thoughts about our program, our guest, please write THE OPEN MIND, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150. For transcripts, send $2.00 in check or money order. In the meantime, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.
Heffner: Then you’re talking about incorporating rich and poor parents alike, who in larger and larger numbers don’t seem to give enough of a damn to do anything for their kids when they’re at home. Let alone, get out and go to school. And that, it seems to me, is, is a major problem. And I’m getting the signal that we have another major problem … we have about 20 seconds left, so I’m going to ask you to stay and answer that question.
Whittle: Right now?
Heffner: No, I’m going to ask you to stay at this table and we’ll come back to this for what the audience will see next week. Okay? Chris Whittle, thank you for joining me on THE OPEN MIND.
Whittle: Glad to be here.
Heffner: And thanks, too, to you in the audience been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Thomas and Theresa Mullarkey Foundation; The New York Times Company Foundation; and, from the corporate community, Mutual of America.

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