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.

Last year, Alvarez's class won the friendly competition that was waged to get all Sherman school students equipped with laptop computers. The Edison Project expects all students to get their parents to attend a computer training class before the children can tote their Macintosh notebooks home. Alvarez says he got his kids so excited about the machines that the children all nagged their parents to get trained. Because his class was the first to get all families on-line, his students got to celebrate, at the school's expense, with a pizza party.

Once the kids and parents were on-line, Alvarez took full advantage. He posted his weekly lesson plans on-line so all parents could see them and comment. He e-mailed some parents almost daily.

In one such note, for instance, Alvarez gave parents the following bulletin: "The roughest day we've had in a while. [Your child] sits by himself at the back of the room, and is not allowed to socialize with others or take part in any special activities until he earned 10 points."

Alvarez also e-mailed good news. "We need more kids who come to school so eager to learn and be a good friend to those around her," Alvarez wrote to one parent.

This year, Marc Alvarez and Gail Hoogendoorn again will try to provide the proof for The Edison Project's theories. For now, Washington Elementary is not one of the company's shining stars.

In a press release that The Edison Project sends reporters, the Sherman school is curiously absent from a list of "Evidence of Customer Satisfaction in Edison Partnership Schools."

Edison Project spokeswoman Debra Doorack says Sherman was excluded because the school had not yet turned in some necessary data.

It seems clear that the three other schools managed by the company last year chalked up more impressive results than did Sherman.

Wichita, specifically, is where the company chooses to dispatch national news reporters who want to write stories about the company's first year. In Kansas, the student turnover was reduced from 36 percent to 7 percent, and 320 families are on a waiting list. Some 97 percent of the parents attended teacher conferences. When The New York Times wrote about the school earlier this summer, the headline for the story was one The Edison Project executives might have written themselves: "Grading For-Profit School: So Far, So Good." (The Times reporter did not mention any visits to Sherman.)

As another measure of its progress, The Edison Project has scheduled openings of eight new schools this fall, including four new elementary institutions and four middle schools. In that count is a classroom wing at the Dillingham Intermediate School in Sherman, which The Edison Project has contracted to manage. The company's most modest expansion plans are in Sherman.

Notably, none of the other new schools is in Texas. "I think because Sherman wasn't the rousing success, we haven't had it as a reference point," says investor Hickey.

School economics also make Texas a harder territory for The Edison Project. The state has lower per-student spending and higher teacher salaries than some other regions. "I think there are a lot of places it will work in Texas, but it's close to the line,'' says Schmidt.

Texas also is the only state, obviously, where The Edison Project must contend with TAAS scores. The testing, instituted as part of an earlier statewide education reform, is decried by some as unfair. TAAS tests are the bane of some teachers, who complain they spend more time teaching for success on the tests than success in life. But they remain the single most visible measure of achievement in Texas public schools, and The Edison Project has to live with them like every other school administration in the state.

Washington's slip in the TAAS results this year unquestionably hurt The Edison Project's reputation and smarted the company. "Someone asked me," says departed Washington teacher McDougal, "'Did you expect them to go up?' I said, 'No, but I didn't expect them to go down.'"

The Edison Project's Chubb says the company is paying an independent service to conduct another, more comprehensive test in reading for its school's students, as well as for a control group from the rest of the Sherman elementary-age population. He will put more stock in those results, Chubb says, than the quirky TAAS. Standardized test scores typically dip with a new program, Chubb and other proponents of The Edison Project say.

Still, in Texas, TAAS is the accountability measure. "You could have a lot of explanations, but they sound like excuses," says SISD administrator Garrett.

Pressed, even Chubb concedes: "The TAAS were not good. We'll be looking closely at that next year."

There are four years left to The Edison Project's contract in Sherman, and a lot is riding on those years: the education of Marc Alvarez's students and the future of Chris Whittle's dream of molding American public education to his vision.

No one should expect The Edison Project to quit Sherman anytime soon. "When we go into a district, it's a long-term relationship," says Whittle. "I'm not going to tell you we would never leave, but it would only be under dire circumstances.

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