U.S. News’ Ewers gets Chris Whittle to stay still long enough to be interviewed about his new book. Some background here. Worth reading, Whittle is genuinely brilliant. Here’s a taste of the interview:
The greatest intellectual property that Edison currently owns are all the mistakes we’ve made over the last 15 years. In fact, if you go back and read a little bit about Thomas Edison, at one particular point, when they were taking the furniture out of his house, they asked him, “What did you learn from all this?” and he said, “I’ve learned the 500 ways not to make a light bulb.”
One of the things I want to be clear about is: We’ve been far from perfect, but we’ve been incredibly relentless in our pursuit of what the answers are. We’ve done 15 years in the trenches. Very few people actually get to be in the trenches for very long in this. [The average tenure of big-city school superintendents is less than four years.] I think I’m the longest serving head of a major system of schools in the U.S. And that is incredibly valuable. If you’re in it, and you stay in it, you learn every year. I’m not saying that I’m the only voice that should be listened to, but it’s one voice.
Yet several answers still make Eduwonk wonder if Whittle and Edison have absorbed the fundamental lesson of the last 15 years. Education is not a build a better mousetrap or build a better light bulb industry right now. Political rules not economic rules drive things. To be clear, that’s not all bad at all in Eduwonk’s view, though guys like this think it is, because our schools are political creations and that’s OK since they belong to all of us.
However, it does mean that even if you do build a better mousetrap most of the people beating a path to your door will be there to tell the world why your mousetrap really isn’t what it seems, why it can’t possibly work except in isolated cases, or that mice aren’t much a problem anyway. And meanwhile, behind the scenes, the folks who make their living using lower-quality mousetraps or have a stake in those mousetraps will be trying to burn your house down. That’s a tough environment for any entity to operate in (especially one that needs profits to survive) and one reason our urban school systems look the way they mostly do.
But perhaps they have absorbed this and for political reasons Edison still can’t just come out and say that because this is the environment they have to operate in as a company. Regardless, makes you wonder whether the non-profits that can absorb philanthropic support and consequently have more stability and longer time horizons actually are a better bet over time in terms of building new school models.