Chris Whittle still wears a jaunty bow tie, but he looks less sleek now than during his glorious era as capitalist wunderkind during the early 1990s.
Whittle made a brief, dramatic splash on the Tennessee scene with ambitious communications ventures, then evaporated, leaving little behind save a campus of see-through office buildings in downtown Knoxville. At his apogee, he was even being talked about by people like former Gov. Lamar Alexander as a potential governor of Tennessee.
None of that worked out, and Whittle has since turned his attention to a similarly ambitious project to make money out of the private management of the nation’s most troubled schools. While his brainchild, the Edison Project, is showing some initial signs of success, both financially and educationally, the jury is still out.
The other day, I caught up with Whittle, who was talking to a small group in New York City about his company and charter schools. I thought there might be some value in his perspectives, given the current educational debate.
Most of the current battle is a contest between Republicans, who have an ideological fervor for vouchers and a blind eye for the daunting real-world issues that go with them, and Democrats, who have been adept at developing a prescription that bears a striking resemblance to exactly what the teachers’ unions want.
Whittle occupies a gray area of the education debate, largely as an advocate of charter schools, which allow independent community groups to set up their own schools within the public framework. Both sides of the education debate see some merit to charters, although they also find enough ground to argue about the terms of engagement. In Tennessee, for example, while GOP Gov. Don Sundquist has more than once tried to convince the state Legislature to allow charter schools, the teacher lobby has proven a worthy opponent, successfully convincing lawmakers to reject the governor’s proposals.
Republican criticism of public education goes something like this: Public schools are basically failures because they are government-run. Whittle’s take is a little different, and he uses some language that should make it easier to communicate with the typical free-market ideologue.
The problem of our urban public schools, Whittle says, is that they lack capital. He is not referring, however, to actual cash. While that may also be true for many urban systems, it is not the case in Nashville, which either has what it needs or has the capacity to raise it from the resources of the community.
Rather, Whittle cites three other kinds of capital. First, urban systems lack “social capital”cohesive families, supportive social values, safe and nurturing home environments, and other community resources that support the broader learning process.
On that point, Whittle is clearly right. In a district like Nashville, with a broader cross-section of the community involved with public schools than is typical of urban systems, more students have access to that kind of social capital. But there are also large chunks of the city where the bulk of the children do not.
That fact was reflected by the state’s recent school “report cards,” which gave Metro low marks for the raw scores of student performance, particularly in the lower grades. The same report cards gave Metro better-than-average “gain scores,” which measure student progress as opposed to student preparedness upon starting school.
The state’s two-tiered grading offers fodder to both public school supporters and critics. The reasonable conclusion one could draw for Metro is that final outcomes are disappointing, but the schools are not “bad.” As a big, languid, urban bureaucracy, Metro schools haven’t been aggressive enough at improvement for both average and at-risk children, but they are not inadequate in any absolute sense of the term.
The second kind of capital Whittle mentions is “educational capital.” By that he means quality teachers and systematic knowledge of teaching methods to enhance school performance. He feels his company can offer shared knowledge about the best practices local districts lack.
If he is right on that point, it probably has more to do with politics than resources. In Metro, teachers are well-paid by state standards, and most have graduate degrees. However, major changes in the way the system functions will require the leadership of the mayor, just as the adoption of the Core Curriculum program three years ago required the intervention of the previous mayor.
The third kind of capital lacking in urban systems, Whittle says, is “technological capital”the so-called “digital divide.” While it’s true that poor children in urban districts are much less likely to have regular access to computers outside of school and may suffer for it, the long-term career importance is probably overrated. The likely trends in technology will diminish the importance of specific computer operating skills and reemphasize the importance of the basic skills like reading, writing, and abstract mathematics.
The question of capital is something that Nashville is going to concern itself with if, as expected, Mayor Bill Purcell undertakes a major education funding initiative next spring. Possibly, the best results might be achieved by investing in things that build the social infrastructure and capital of the community, rather than seeking simply to spend more on schools directly.
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