"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

A Visit to a Corporate Welfare School

Peter Campbell, instructional designer and reform activist, visited an Edison School today. These are his initial impressions posted earlier to the Assessment Reform Network listserv:
Today, I was taken on a tour of an Edison school in
St. Louis by one ofthe Board members. Here are some

1) the teachers are employees of Edison, not the
school district

2) the teachers are not union members; the Board
member said that one of the unions could come in and
try to organize, "But there would be noreason for
anyone to join because all the teachers, at least
the ones Italk to, are all really happy here." Ergo,
unions are only for unhappy people. They are not about
securing workers' rights, bargaining forbetter pay and
better working conditions, and creating grievance
processes for workers who are threatened with termination.
I guess onemight reasonably conclude that all unhappy
people are fired, given that no one there would want a

3) they work longer days (2 hours more than the other
public schoolteachers) and longer years (I believe it's
one month more)

4) according to the Board member, they are paid more
than other publicschool teachers (have not confirmed this)

5) pay is inextricably linked to test score performance:
better scores = better pay. Teachers, especially middle
school teachers who have 100to 150 students, already
struggled before NCLB with the task of finding the time
to reach each child on a personal, caring level. NCLB and
the rise of the test prep curriculum makes it less and less
possible to care about students. In fact, NCLB and these
test prep curricula do just the opposite: instead of seeing
students as people in need of care, students are seen as
statistics. Each student, especially the students on the
edge of making the cut score (aka "the bubble kids"),
can potentially make or break the school's progress towards
AYP. And if the student does drop out? Well, that's one
less to worry about affecting your test scores. And if it
doesn't affect your scores, it means it doesn't affect your
wallet. So you lose a couple kids? Ah, well. We can't save
them all, right? Plus, you get paid more money.

6) teaching and learning is driven by benchmark
assessment systems; ,Tungsten, a spin-off of Edison, is
used internally by all Edisonschools

7) the students were dominated and controlled in ways that
were reminiscent of The Stepford Wives; they seemed utterly
unchildlike,utterly joyless; they responded in automaton-like
fashion to instructions from the teachers, e.g., in the middle
of a math lesson,the teacher sensed some rumblings in the
background and suddenly blurted out, "Hands folded! Everyone
sit at attention." All the students suddenly snapped into
place at their seats, and the lesson continued. Most of the
teachers taught at the students. There was no project-based
learning or hands-on anything. The students responded in
automaton fashion to the teacher. There was a lot of direct
instruction. There was also significant amounts of "Guess
What I'm Thinking" on the part of teachers. The students'
role was clear: obey orders, do not do anything that the
teacher does not tell you to do, sit and be quiet. This was
often taken to the extreme: in one case, a teacher had a
group of first graders lined up for lunch. The boys' line
could not go forward because one of the boys was still
wiggling. He had to become absolutely still before the
teacher would let them go to lunch.

8) this degree of total control over the students affected
the way that teachers taught; in only one of the 6 classrooms
I visited did I see a teacher who seemed like she was
having fun; the others were very short with the students,
quick to pounce on any undesirable, uncontrollable behavior;
they seemed more like prison guards than teachers.

9) Edison has 2 schools in St. Louis now; they are expanding
these schools to become K-8; they are also planning on
opening a third K-8 building and opening a high school.
The stated goal -- no kidding -- is that children can stay
in the Edison model for their entire K-12 experience.

Things to keep in mind:

1) none of the three AYP sub-groups at the school were
proficient in reading this year. In fact, the reading
scores were incredibly low: just 7.1% of the school met
the proficiency level. That means that 93% of the kids
tested can't read or write at grade level according to the
state test. Edison, Inc. says that its methods work, yet
9 out of 10 kids at this school can't read or write at
grade level. They say that we should judge them according
to the test scores. Well, I'm looking at the test scores.
They're appalling.

2) in defense of the heavy discipline, the Board member
said, "Sure, the structure of the Edison schools is a bit
tough. Yes, we make the kids walk in lines wherever they
go. But it works. You don't have to waste 6 minutes at the
beginning of class, telling Johnny to sit down and be quiet.
And you don't waste 15 minutes in the middle of every
class, trying to get students to be quiet and stay on task.
Even the very brightest kids can't learn in an environment
like that. No one can." But being quiet and paying attention
to the teacher should not be taken as unquestioned and
unqualified virtues in themselves. There's something very
troubling about white teachers telling students of color
to sit down, shut up, and do as they are told. In a rigid
structure such as that imposed by Edison, there is no
room for student or teacher creativity or spontaneity.
The only room for freedom of expression is either (a) do
what the teacher tells you to do or (b) resist what the
teacher tells you to do. Given the kind of power and
authority structures that already exist in white-dominated
society, it's little wonder that students of color are
tempted to act out and lash out. If they don't act in
this manner, then both the implicit and explicit
power relationships and inequities are reproduced in
the classroom: docile brown bodies controlled by powerful
white bodies. This is even more troubling given the fact
that no white, wealthy, suburban district would ever
consent to a school that controlled its students and its
teachers in this way. Indeed, these schools pride
themselves in their individuality, their creativity,
and the professional autonomy of their teachers, who are
viewed as experts in assessing what
is best for each student.

3) Is this really the best we can do? If Edison is the
best we can hope for, then God help us all. I tutored
an 8-year-old black boy at an inner-city public school.
As with all black kids in the St. Louis City schools,
he's being taught to read through Open Court. In _Reading
the Naked Truth_, Gerald Coles writes, "Putting an
excessive emphasis on word skills might result in
beginning readers not achieving competence in a variety
of additional strategies of reading, strategies
especially necessary for high-level material in later
grades. An excessive skills emphasis that encourages
children to see reading as 'word work' rather than as
an experience that informs and excites them and fires
theirimagination could discourage enthusiasm for
reading and thereby encourage aliteracy, that is,
students who know how to read but have no interest in

In classrooms such as these at Edison, I see this
deadening effect at work. Low-income minority children
are being given the lowest of the low when it comes
to a rich curriculum. The reading program is designed
for one thing: to help kids pass the state standardized
test. The rationale is understandable: these kids
need help in "the basics" because they don't get it
at home. But this then leads to the creation
of a curriculum that is nothing but the basics.
No white, wealthy school - not a single one in the
country - uses the Open Court curriculum. And no
wealthy, white school is run by Edison - not one.
It's little wonder why this is the case: no wealthy,
white parent would stand for these dumbed-down
curricula. Not for a minute.

Edison and for-profit corporations like it signal
two things: a failure of imagination and a lack of
will. It's hard to combat the realities of poverty
and racism and how they affect education. And efforts
that have been made in the past don't have a lot
to show for them. So we have to dream bigger. And
we have to be restless about a solution. We must not
-- must not -- stop at Edison.

Here's where it breaks my heart: the little boy I
worked with is an angel. He deserves to be
challenged. He deserves the opportunity to explore
books and create projects and pursue his interests.
But he is not getting any of this because he is
poor, black, and lives in the city of St. Louis.
If he lived in my suburban district, he would have a
different educational experience, thus a different life,
and thus a different future. Why does this little boy
have to have the effects of racism and poverty shoved
down his throat? He is -- quite literally -- a powerless
pawn. His future is already virtually assured. And
he's 8 years old.

Peter Campbell


  1. These Edison kids will make good soldiers. All part of the plan or as what's his name from Fordham, says, "the inevitable solution."

  2. Amen, brother, amen.

    I have added you as a link on my blog.

  3. and, as heart-breaking as this report is...i would like to point out, that in districts that are clamoring to meet the mandates of their district and state's compliance with nclb, the atmosphere is very similar.

    the environment in our public school classrooms is similarly regimented and oppressive, the teachers are under pressure and, even if they recognize the horror of what they are required to accomplish, they have little choice but to comply...do you think they are often irritable and short with the students--you bet!

    are the students beat down by such a system? in my daughter's AP lit. class, class discussions are non-existant; how in the world does one learn about literature without an opportunity to discuss it? it doesn't really matter anymore, since the objective is locked in by the standard test.

    what do the parents understand about these suburban classrooms and schools? for the most part, they are simply responding to surface, media-dispensed statistics about state or district "progress" and they are bought into the "lake woebegone" myth of advanced placement and other programs providing their child-product "accelerated" opportunity.

    the fact that the movement is so tied in with other voices of propoganda--the business world, the faith-based groups, the military...creates a lobby strong enough to pre-empt any voice of dissent...

    sometimes, it seems like an adult version of The Lord of the Flies, and the steady growth of this mentality will leave only the shrewdest, most cold-blooded warriors intact.