Learning on the Job: When Business Takes on Public Schools
Steven F. Wilson
Harvard University Press
If author Steve Wilson were as good a businessman as he is a writer, Advantage Schools might still be in operation today. Learning on the Job is the story of six education management organizations (EMOs) and KIPP. Wilson writes as a scholar, policy wonk, and entrepreneur-he founded and ran Advantage Schools-but it's the journalistic detail that makes his book so worthwhile. The first chapter alone is worth the price of admission. In it, Wilson chronicles the two earliest experiments in private management of public schools-Boston University's tumultuous Chelsea project, and Education Alternatives' meteoric rise and fall-before profiling the seven organizations and their idiosyncratic founders. What's striking is how different the seven players are in style, educational approach, and business strategy. Little more needs to be said about the most visible of the crew-Chris Whittle and his Edison Schools. The undisputed hero from Wilson's perspective is National Heritage Academies (NHA) and its humble founder, J.C. Huizenga. While Whittle was busy attracting the ire of educrats and union hacks (along with hundreds of millions of dollars in investment), Huizenga quietly built one of the largest, most academically successful, and possibly most profitable of the education companies. NHA's genius was in developing a successful school and facilities model, and then replicating it carefully within a confined geographic area. This kept costs low and quality consistent, and it made profitability possible. Though it discusses each organization's educational approach, this work is first and foremost a business book. While Wilson pulls no punches in ridiculing the industry for over-promising and under-delivering financial returns-though the go-go climate of the late 1990s venture capital markets demanded such bravado-he still believes that it's possible to run schools successfully, both as businesses and as education enterprises. You can order this fine volume here.
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