Our Schools’ Bottom Line: The Bottom Line, Part II
VTR Date: July 23, 1992
Guest: Whittle, Christopher
READ FULL TRANSCRIPT
THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Chris Whittle
Title: “Our Schools’ Bottom Line: The Bottom Line”, Part II
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. Now last week I invited Chris Whittle, the highly successful Tennessee entrepreneur to talk about his innovative designs for improving education in America by tying it to the profit motive. His first was Channel One, which feeds daily television news programs into schools that otherwise could never afford the equipment necessary to receive and distribute such broadcast satellite signals. But only if those schools would also carry into the classroom their attendant commercials. But his far more dramatic plan to make our schools instruments of public progress through private enterprise is called the Edison Project. And Mr. Whittle has successfully lured the distinguished scholar Benno Schmidt, from his position as
President of Yale University to preside over the creation of scores of schools whose bottom line will be private profit and presumably improved education. Well, I asked
Mr. Whittle to continue our discussion on today’s OPEN MIND, and I guess, Chris,
I want to start with the question that hinted at … and let you pick up where we left off, but get you also to turn to this question of the burdens that our school system now must carry. And whether it’s fair to say you’re going to be able to carry the same burdens so that you’ll be competitive if you give 20% of your student’s scholarships.
Whittle: If we don’t confront the same burdens of a typical public school this effort’s a failure, because to ignore those burdens, to go, “we’re not going to deal with children that are unruly in class, that we’re not going to deal with kids that have desperate conditions at home, if we don’t cope with that, then what have we done?” We haven’t produced an alternative, we’ve produced an elitist system that, by the way, we’re already on the road as a country to have. And so, we must deal with that or we fail. The one of the reasons I believe and have a lot of faith that we can is I think we have tremendous care out there that is untapped.
Heffner: What do you mean?
Whittle: I think any parent … and I’m a parent … relatively new … has enormous … I mean cares enormously about their children. I mean that’s an understatement of it. Often they don’t quite know what to do, we’re not necessarily trained to be parents, it’s kind of on-the-job training for most of us. And a good school will tap into that. And will, will find that in virtually every parent no matter how desperate their circumstances, and can somehow bring that into the school and make it part of the school. And we, we plan to do that.
Heffner: You know, it’s interesting to me, you say you find that in almost every parent, and when I ask, oh the, the, the semi journalist’s questions of you, and try to get to tough, and I don’t really do that … I’m generally a pussycat as you know that…
Whittle: Oh, yes, yes.
Heffner: …when I do ask the hard questions I realize that I’m reflecting lack of what I consider to be your faith in the democratic process. You seem to be saying “okay, we may be in the soup now, but most people, most parents have the right instincts, and if we can help them bring them to the fore and act upon them, we’re going to have an incredibly much greater resource to draw upon”.
Whittle: Absolutely. I think we have disenfranchised parents from the schooling process to a large degree. And furthermore, I think we have radically underestimated our children. And that they can accomplish far more than we currently imagine. What we’ve got is a system out there, a system of schooling that exist in equal measure in private and public schools that just isn’t suited for our times. And we need to change it and, and start all over.
Heffner: Why did you say a moment ago, you, you said “we sort of have an elitist system as it is”?
Whittle: Well, a lot of people’s concern about this project … they say “this is going to be a private school, you have to pay to go to it, therefore, by definition, only parents of a certain type are going to be able to go there”. And they go, “if that occurs, what’s going to happen is, is that we’re going to have a very segregated system both in terms of race and class and a variety of other ways”.. I have two reactions to that the first one is that’s what we have, okay, that’s already happened in large degree in America. And then the second thing is that they’re missing the point. We’re not saying that education should be privatized. What we are saying is, is that a radical new model can best be invented via the private sector. And if it can be invented, then it can be used in the public sector.
Heffner: Do you know that’s, that’s an idea that is very attractive, but I puzzle then in terms of the dollars you say you must raise now … $2.5 billion dollars… I puzzle if this notion of creating … to go back to our program last week… a model… and then encouraging the public schools … and you say that’s what you’re doing… you’re saying you’re not trying to privatize American …
Heffner: … education … how do you pay off on a continuing basis? I’ve heard you before, know what you’ve said, but that’s the question mark. If you’re not trying to make this into a profit center that will last as a profit center…
Whittle: Oh, I am trying to make it into a profit center (laughter) that will last for a very long time. We’ll never raise the money unless we do that. But realistically it will only represent a very small percent of the population of kids in school. And so, I’m not saying that we don’t want it to last for a very long time, but by the way, there are private institutions … let’s take higher ed…does anyone argue in some ways that the existence of Harvard and Yale has not had a positive impact on public universities and colleges. And I would argue it has. And that it, it raises the standards that everyone tries to meet. That’s in effect what were trying to do in part, and it’s not a perfect analogy… what we’re trying to do here.
Heffner: It’s a considerably imperfect analogy … where does the profit motive come in with Harvard and Yale?
Whittle: Well, they’re, they’re not set up as profit… but, there are many other ways that it’s an imperfect analogy … they don’t work with the same funds.
Heffner: Well, let me, let me ask this. Someone has suggested that when you talk about “less than the $5,000 plus that the…
Heffner: … per student cost in, in our school system today … you’re saying “maybe just half of that that you will have available”, are you considering adding to that the profits that will come from the large scale use of technology? Will you create your own publishing company? Will you create your own other media devices?
Whittle: We might. But we aren’t going to include that in the equation.
Heffner: Why not, in the first place?
Whittle: Because, because it would be intellectually dishonest. And, and the reason is if we’re trying to create something that a public school can copy, should they choose to do so, it’s not realistic to assume that they can copy the building of large ancillary businesses that go along with that. And we might well do that.
There’s nothing wrong with, with having the world’s best textbook publisher if we come up with a concept that, that works. But we’re not going to then apply the revenues of that to a school that we’re running, because that wouldn’t make any sense.
Heffner: Would you apply it to the necessary profit?
Whittle: No. No.
Heffner: So you’re really … that’s a stand-alone…
Heffner: … business.
Heffner: Profit, plus all the costs…
Whittle: We’ve go to…
Heffner: … plus the taxes…
Whittle: Yeah. We’ve go to make these schools work so they can be replicated. That’s why we’re doing this. Just a point. If, if profit were our primary motive, there are far easier ways to make money. Meaning this … (laughter) … this is not an easy task, and it, it… I think it’s do-able, but it’s not easy.
Heffner: What do you do then with those who are your critics who say, “Whittle is an entrepreneur, he’s in this to make more money in a different way?”
Whittle: I, I’d say they’re wrong. And the reason is that’s not why I’m in it,
I am in it because I think this needs to be done, I’m in it because I care about children, I’m in it because I care about this country, and I think this could, over a 20 year frame, make a big difference, and, and help re-establish our competitiveness to some degree. And do we make it money … yes. But that’s not what drove me to, to get engaged in this.
Heffner: Is that what drives those who will invest $2.5 billion dollars?
Whittle: Ah, yes and no. Never try to raise money from profit making enterprises on the basis, solely, of public good. But, it does … it will be a factor and
I think it will make the raising of $2.5 billion dollars much easier because I think corporations understand how critical this mission is and what it could do. But they will first look at “will it work?” And then they will go, “Okay, we think it will work”, and they’ll give us a small benefit of the doubt that it will also produce a public good.
Heffner: Well, how will you parallel, or differ from, or work with … which is probably more to the point … Lamar Alexander’s efforts to bring the Federal government into model making?
Whittle: We’ve been a big advocate of the Bush Administration’s plan to have a variety of different people working on new designs. We are not a part of that. We did not choose to bid for any of those grants for two reasons. First of all, because
Lamar and I are friends and fellow Tennesseans … we didn’t want anyone to be able to attack him or to attack us that we had some kind of relationship in that regard.
And then the second reason is, is frankly we didn’t want government red tape to be involved in our design process.
Heffner: Let me go, let me go back to a question that I asked you before, and then I allowed it to drop. You’re always very frank in dealing with things, and then I find myself not pursuing them. Has to do with the degree to which you say, you’re not going to create an elite institution, you’re not going to try to separate your schools, the Edison Project, from any or all of the problems…
Heffner: … that America faces. You talk about 20% scholarship…
Heffner: … is that enough even if you say, as you’ve said…
Heffner: … that in Westchester it will be 1%, and in the inner city it will be
60% or more.
Whittle: What we have said is that system-wide, 20% of our kids would be on scholarship. In reality, what it’s going to be is that in some campuses, virtually all kids will be on scholarships, and in others, very few will. And the reason is if you put a private school in a very depressed economy, very few parents are going to be able to go there, and so you … virtually all of your kids would have to be on scholarship. The true test from a public good standpoint of what we’re doing here, is can our schools … the campuses that we build, in America’s inner cities, produce better results, for the same dollars. That is our … that is how we are going to be measured. And we may be doing wildly successful work with middle-class kids, but if ‘we don’t succeed in America’s inner cities with these schools, then I don’t think we’ve succeeded. And, and that’s going to be the true measure of, of this project.
Heffner: And the teachers, the people who are going to deal with the students. What do you find that they’re saying, and what do you think they’re likely to do with this competition, of a kind?
Whittle: I think there’ll be a split. I think a lot of teachers … well, I’ll go further than that … I know … in the last six weeks we’ve gotten 5,000 letters from America’s teachers, and every one of them was an application saying … or a resume, saying “We’d like to be a part of this”. So I know there is a very strong feeling out there that new designs are required and that teachers want to be a part of them, as much as kids, do. I happen to think that teachers have been victimized as much by our current system as kids have been, because they’re working conditions aren’t what they should be. They’re given in many ways an impossible job… that many of them fully understand isn’t working as well as it should, and that can’t be great for one’s morale when you go to work each day. So I think we’re going to have a lot of support from a lot of teachers.
Heffner: But how will the job they’ll have to do in your schools be different from the jobs they have to do in the public schools?
Whittle: Ahmmm …
Heffner: … discipline, etc., etc., etc.
Whittle: I’ll give you an example. A teacher in a school of the future … might have as their core responsibility supervising 15 parents and so they become a professional that manages the teaching process through a group of other adults, who may all be volunteers. And what that does, is that spreads their capability versus putting them one to 23 day in and day out where they’re almost in a conflicting role with kids. We don’t know what that teacher’s role is going to look like … I can guarantee it’s going to be very different than what we, what we now know.
Heffner: You’ve put your emphasis upon technology…
Heffner: … technological change…
Whittle: … the media…
Whittle: …the media has put the emphasis on technology. We have said again and again … we think technology is a small part of this answer. The reason the media has grabbed on to that is that’s physical and easy to make a cartoon of, and it’s kind of something that we can understand. It’s a small part of the solution.
Heffner: But, you know, you say … you’ve said, sitting right here, not so long ago … “there may be classes in which one-on-one ….and there may…
Heffner: … be classes in which there are 100,000 students watching…
Heffner: … using technology…
Heffner: … using media.
Whittle: Yeah. And I, and I think there will be. Example … I think it’s crazy that we don’t take the best geometry lecturers in America or on the globe and bring them right in to classrooms all over the country. I think we ought to do that.
Heffner: Or homes … as you suggested.
Whittle: Or homes, or in the evening. And, and by the way, the possibility is that this school might have its own parallel channel at home… it’s quite possible.
But that’s not the fundamental answer here. I think we will employ technology on a level that a current school has never seen, but it’s changing the human dynamics of schools that really is, is the meat of our work.
Heffner: Well, you see, I, 1 wasn’t being critical in saying that…
Heffner: … I was picking up from what you had said, and then I was going to say, “there seemed to be something else that was crucial”. Now you have to tell me that it is or is not crucial, and that is this question of volunteers;
Whittle: I think volunteers are probably critical to our task. I think if we don’t mobilize the kids themselves, and their parents, I don’t see how we can do this.
And the reason is that’s the only way we can change the fundamental cost nature of schools. Schools right now are based … you look at all the money, it basically goes to pay the salaries of the adults in schools. We have to change that cost situation, and the only way to’ do that is to bring in large numbers of people who are contributing their time. Now that allows you to do a couple of things… it allows you to pay the professional teachers more, but you may have less of them. And so you have more adults, overall, and more kids helping, so you actually have far more people engaged in the educational process, but you may have a smaller paid group, but they are paid more than they currently are today.
Heffner: Okay. I mean, I’m impressed with your obvious feeling that in
America we haven’t tapped that willingness…
Heffner: We haven’t tapped community.
Heffner: We haven’t tapped, although there are… the intellectuals today are beginning to return to the notion of “communitarianism”, and you seem to be saying that you’re going to bet a very great deal, you’re going to bet the whole system, indeed, upon the ability, you’re ability, and Benno Schmidt’s ability and all the people who work with you…
Whittle: …to engage-parents…
Heffner: …to engage parents.
Whittle: Absolutely. I think we either make that work, or this doesn’t work.
Heffner: Now, again … not critical or cynical … any evidence, any demonstration that what I want to believe and what you obviously do believe, that
Americans are still willing, as they were in the last century, to work ‘ at their problems together this way. More than a faith, more than a hope. What, what indication is there?
Whittle: Ah, there are indications that when it occurs, it does work.
Whittle: And I … but I don’t think that’s what you’re asking.
Whittle: You’re asking, is there any indication that it’s out there on a large scale?
Heffner: And you say “it has to be”.
Whittle: And I say “it has to be”. The, the only one I can give you, that comes quickly to mind, is the political mood of the country, and if you, if you look at what’s been happening over the last few months … I think there is a desire on the part of the American people for some fundamental change in, in what we are doing. And, and I think you can take that and go, “that means you’re going to have to change, too, Mr. and Mrs. Parent”. And I don’t … I can’t show you examples of how it’s been tapped, but I believe it.
Heffner: That’s a nice belief. We’re taping this program the end of July, 1992 … who knows by the time the program is seen maybe Ross Perot will be back in the race, or maybe the race will be over … the 1992 Presidential race, but that’s what you’re referring to.
Whittle: No, no, I’m not…
Whittle: … referring just to the Perot candidacy. I’m … I think it goes beyond the Perot candidacy.
Heffner: And you think people are willing to put … not their money where their mouths are … but their…
Whittle: … in time…
Heffner: … human effort.
Whittle: We better.
Whittle: (Laughter) As a, as a nation … I mean I…
Heffner: But, Chris, there’s a vast jump between … “they are and we better” … and that I think is probably … I, I, I doubt that there are very many people who listen to you and know what you’re trying to do who aren’t basically very, very sympathetic.. It is that gap between what we as a people “better do”, what we better do, and…
Whittle: And what can be accomplished. But let me ask you the first question … if not this, what is our plan?
Heffner: Plan? Plan? When did we ever have a plan? (Laughter)
Whittle: No, no… my point is … we must have a plan on this. And this must be solved. And for many different reasons. Our best and brightest kids must do better than they are currently doing. And our kids in desperate conditions have got to be pulled out of that, and we either get on that, as a country, or it’s not going to be a very nice century ahead of us.
Heffner: Do you think we’ve yet realized that? I mean, we hear more and more about it, but I have to tell you, I’m an old man now and over the years I have again, and again, and again and again heard about the crisis in American education. When Sputnik went up it was clear we had to do something…
Heffner: Well, we did do something, but it clearly hasn’t been enough.
Whittle: There have been false starts in this…
Heffner: But is this genetic optimism (laughter).
Whittle: … but there are always … there are often false starts in things.
Edison had 800 different light bulbs before he got one that he liked. I think there is a will out there, and I … and I think this is going to work. And I have tremendous confidence in it.
Heffner: Well, turning around the “where there’s a will, there’s a way” … you’re really saying “where there’s a way … there is a will to be tapped”.
Heffner: Let me … we have just a few minutes left … let me come back a moment to this matter of, of traditional questions… schools’ teachers … are you going to find yourself, not pitting one against the other, but engaging in a good capitalistic competition … in a race for achievement between and among your schools, between and among your teachers? Will there be merit increases? Will there be school rewards … this school doing better than that school?
Whittle: Yes. In a … is there going to be merit pay in these schools … absolutely. I’ll give you something truly radical we’re thinking about…
Whittle: We’re thinking about product guarantees.
Heffner: What do you mean?
Whittle: In this case… service guarantees. It means that if we don’t provide a certain level of education to the child, money back. And (laughter) because shouldn’t that be the case? And, and so we are looking at a variety of different things to energize the system.
Heffner: So you’re certainly thinking about standardized tests, because…
Heffner: … if you’re going to give money back, it has to be on the basis…
Whittle: We are absolutely thinking about accountability on these schools, and we are absolutely thinking about that they must demonstrate … in a variety of different measures how they perform vis-à-vis other schools. These aren’t going to be touchy-feely “well, we kind of think its working”. You can’t ask a parent to pay twice, both their taxes and their tuition bill without some real demonstration of results.
Heffner: Both of us admire Al Shanker … he’s tried for years to get the educational community, the teaching community to accept many of these ideas … I don’t think he’s succeeded, much to his dismay … how will you?
Whittle: Well, I think…
Heffner: In 40 seconds.
Whittle: I think if I were put in Al Shanker’s role, I don’t think I could either.
We are operating with a tremendous luxury here, and that is we’re totally free … we don’t have to answer to the government, we don’t have to answer to unions, we do have to answer to shareholders … but, we have a degree of freedom here that is unusual in school reform, and I think that’s a critical element that will help us succeed.
Heffner: So you believe you’ll succeed where the establishment has not?
Whittle: Despite enormous and, and very good intentioned efforts.
Heffner: Chris Whittle … four years, is that…
Whittle: Four years … we’ll open.
Heffner: Before the first … before you open… well, obviously before four years are over, you’ll come back and talk about progress … at four years you’ll come back and talk about…
Whittle: We’ll invite you to the school.
Heffner: Okay, Chris Whittle, thank you for joining me today on THE OPEN
Whittle: Thank you.
Heffner: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time, also. And if you’d like to share your thoughts about today’s program,
today’s guest, please write THE OPEN NIIND, 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”.
Continuing production of this series has generously 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.