The Learning Curve

A baseball cap covers the closely cropped, strawberry-blond hair of Marc Alvarez, and a Nike logo pendant dangles from the gold chain around his neck. Baggy jean shorts hover below his hips, drooping toward his leather high-tops with their flashy stripes. Top to bottom, he looks more like a teen-ager than a teacher.

At 31, Alvarez has been a teacher for just three years. He brings more enthusiasm than experience to his classroom, suiting him well for a job at Washington Elementary School.

Though hardly a blackboard jungle, Washington is the worst of the lot in Sherman, a modest farming and manufacturing town of 35,000 about 60 miles north of Dallas, just shy of the Oklahoma border.

Built on the unpredictable fortunes of cattle, wheat, sorghum, corn, and a smattering of peanuts, Sherman has no legacy of great riches, though things are improving with a new silicon wafer plant opening south of town.

Washington Elementary is in the town's poorest neighborhood. It is a bunker of a school, built of tan brick, sitting on a quiet street of handsome trees and once-stately homes that have withered since the school opened 40 years ago.

Compared to the town, Washington is diverse, its student body 20 percent black and 23 percent Hispanic. About 70 percent of its roughly 500 students receive subsidized school lunches. The academic performance of the school's students in recent years has not earned better than an acceptable rating from the Texas Education Agency.

Last summer, promises of something better blew into this unspectacular locale, the kind of promises that proved irresistible for an eager young teacher like Alvarez.

They came in the form of The Edison Project, one of the latest bright ideas from the East Coast for reforming public education. The concept, conceived by media entrepreneur and jet setter Chris Whittle, aims to remake public schools in the image of free enterprise.

Whittle's dream has garnered widespread attention from educators throughout the country grasping for ways--charter schools, local control, year-round classes, anything--to bolster the sagging performance of public school students. Benno Schmidt Jr. even left his job as president of Yale University and threw in with Whittle's company.

The Edison Project's vision is simple:The private company seeks to take over schools from local districts and run them its own way, improving the education children receive and making a profit in the process. Whittle wants to replace musty ideas and cumbersome bureaucracies with cutting-edge programs, modern technology, and lean, efficient management, allowing schools to deftly maneuver the ever-changing currents of public education.

Washington Elementary was one of only four schools in the nation--and the only one in Texas--to sign up for The Edison Project's maiden voyage last year.

When members of The Edison Project's brain trust arrived last summer, they promised to create an educator's paradise. Not incidentally, they also hoped that what they achieved in Sherman and three other towns would help convince Wall Street that the company is a worthy investment.

All of the students at Washington would be issued laptop computers, the company promised. Teachers would receive special training in a rigorous curriculum designed to help the students learn their basics--math, reading, and writing--better than before. All of the students would learn Spanish, and there would be more time for art and music.

It would take longer school days, and a longer school year, than before. But the Sherman Independent School District was an easy sell, signing a five-year contract with The Edison Project, and turning Washington Elementary over to the company. The company receives all of the state and local tax dollars that would normally have been spent at Washington. Whatever it doesn't spend educating the children, the company gets to keep.

But as the second year of the ambitious undertaking dawns, The Edison Project's success in Sherman is middling, at best, raising as many questions as answers about the company's ability to achieve its lofty goals.

Since it started, the company has found itself plagued with a litany of problems all-too-familiar to veterans of public education. Teachers left in frustration. Books weren't passed out on time. Classrooms were more crowded than expected. The school's first principal was transferred from her job. And some parents pulled their children from the school.

Most significantly, student test scores actually dropped, and The Edison Project overran its operating budget, rendering the quest for profit elusive.

The students didn't score better on tests. The company didn't make any money. The Edison Project flunked both of its major tests.

Company managers offer an array of explanations for the troublesome first-year performance. They note that the company has had fewer problems with its three other schools--in Mount Clemens, Michigan; Boston; and Wichita, Kansas.

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Miriam Rozen
Contact: Miriam Rozen

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