Learning on the Job: When Business Takes on Public Schools

Steven F. Wilson
Harvard University Press
2006

 

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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