The Learning Curve

Earnest eggheads came to Texas with an idea that for-profit schools can save public education. So far, it ain't working.

Her class got its books the next day, McDougal says. But she wasn't satisfied. "When he came down, it got done. But you couldn't always go to him," McDougal says. She did contact Whittle by e-mail, as he tells both teachers and students to do. But she resented the fact that the local leadership wasn't more effective, she says.

In the winter, McDougal threw in the towel and asked for a transfer. She believed she was working too hard for too few results, hampered by leadership deficits at the school. "I was coming in at 7 [a.m.] and leaving at 8:30 [p.m.]. I don't mind that. But there needs to be a movement forward," McDougal says.

Another fourth-grade teacher, who declined to be interviewed for this story, left at the same time.

The two teachers' defections created significant disruptions. Former Principal Ruby Jo Williams, who declines to discuss the matter in detail, says that she believes upheaval in the fourth-grade teaching ranks ultimately hurt student performance on standardized tests.

By this summer, The Edison Project looked back on a school year that did not inspire confidence.

Five of the 31 teachers who started in the program had left, and two more scheduled to teach this year have asked the district for transfers.

Last April, the out-of-town Edison managers announced that they were replacing Williams, a 27-year district veteran, as school principal. Williams has been moved to a somewhat nebulous job in recruiting and community development for the district, and it is unclear whether The Edison Project or SISD will continue paying her salary.

Hoogendoorn, an English-as-a-second-language teacher from Washington Elementary, was chosen in early August to take over the principal's job, shortly after the company received the worst kind of news from the Texas Education Agency: disappointing scores on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS) tests.

When Edison launched its program at Washington in August 1995, Schmidt had said he wanted more than half the students to outperform similar Sherman students on the TAAS tests.

But TAAS scores from the 1995-1996 academic year for the school's third and fourth graders--the only group given the tests--showed that the school's performance actually dropped, nearly 6 percentage points on the reading portion of the test, 7 percentage points on the mathematics sections, and 2 percentage points on the writing exam.

And Washington did not fare well on the financial front, either. The company overran its $1.8 million operating budget by more than 12 percent, according to investor Hickey of the Sprout Group. That doesn't include the $1.5 million the company sank into start-up costs.

As the school's new principal, Hoogendoorn hopes for better this year. She plays down the teacher departures as normal turnover. Teachers at the Edison-run school are expected to work as a group. "Have you ever brought six people together? It doesn't always work. Teamwork doesn't occur automatically," Hoogendoorn says.

Says The Edison Project's Schmidt, "Our schools are not for all teachers--not even for all good teachers."

Undoubtedly, The Edison Project school suits Marc Alvarez, whose full cheeks and slightly bent pug nose--like his hip dress code--add to his youthful appearance. Alvarez still overflows with enthusiasm for the school-management company.

After teaching for one year at a traditional public school in Sherman, Alvarez says The Edison Project is dramatically better.

At his old school, Alvarez says, he wanted to teach the way he does at the revamped Washington Elementary, but he did not have the support or materials. "I couldn't do what I do now, but I tried to do it," he says.

He better be eager. Despite Alvarez's relatively scant experience, Hoogendoorn has designated him the point man to help shore up the math curriculum. "He believes in the concept," she says. "He is a dedicated, reflective teacher."

From the outset at the school, Alvarez has enjoyed the time he spends on professional development, new technology, and the classroom materials he has been given to help teach his kids.

Before the school year even started last August, Alvarez, like his colleagues, attended four weeks of training in the new curriculum. He then spent one week at Lake Geneva in Wisconsin at a conference the company hosted for all its teachers from throughout the country.

Alvarez says he has finally been given the physical tools he has always wanted for his classroom to teach his children math, things like geometric shapes, scales, multisided dice, and play money. The Edison Project's math curriculum uses everyday issues to get across math concepts. Primary-grade students, for instance, might produce their own personal telephone books to work on recognizing and drawing numbers.

Alvarez also likes the extra time he has under The Edison Project's design. At his old school, Alvarez spent 60 minutes a day reading with his class. Now, the longer day allows him to spend 90 minutes. He and other teachers in the primary grades form a team to separate the children into small groups. Under The Edison Project's plan, aides and music and art instructors all chip in at reading time, so the student-teacher ratio is extremely low.

The extra hours and days also mean Alvarez gets more professional development during the school year. At his old school, he met with other teachers to discuss his work for 45 minutes a day. Under The Edison Project's plan, he has doubled that to 90 minutes a day.

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