Learning on the Job: When Business Takes on Public Schools

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Overview

Entrepreneurial creativity, private investment, and competition have been among America's great strengths. Can they be harnessed to improve troubled public schools? Or is private management of public schools at best a gimmick, and at worst an undemocratic sellout?

In the 1990s, some failing school systems turned to private education management organizations to manage their schools. The EMOs promised academic improvement to families and profits to their investors. Wall Street and foundations lavished hundreds of millions of dollars on for-profit and nonprofit start-ups, and thousands of students' educations began to be directed not by school officials, but by private companies.

In Learning on the Job, industry insider Steven Wilson, the founder and CEO of Advantage Schools, looks back on the first tumultuous decade of this social experiment. Digging deep into the academic, financial, logistic, and political records of seven leading EMOs, including his own, he reveals the potential and pitfalls of their business and educational models, and their actual successes in the classrooms and the boardrooms. Have they given their students a better education? Can they succeed as businesses? Can businesses in fact run better public schools than school districts?

With remarkable honesty and fairness on an ideologically charged topic, Wilson describes the follies and wisdom, overreaching and real accomplishment, of the first education entrepreneurs. Acknowledging that they had much to learn about the real-world challenges of running schools, he passionately defends the promise of private involvement in public schooling.

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Editorial Reviews

Times Educational Supplement

By 2005 only 240,000 of America's 60 million school children attended public schools run by education management organizations. Few, if any, of those organizations were yet in profit and the educational gains their schools had made were bitterly contested. In Learning on the Job, Steven Wilson offers us a timely and convincing analysis of why this happened...There are real insights here, not just into the short-termism of entrepreneurial interest but also into the structural weaknesses of American public education. His book is enjoyable, clear, and fair-minded: on any basis, a major contribution to an important debate.
— Michael Duffy

Washington Post

Refrain[s] from cant and puffery...[Wilson has] much good advice for others who might want to try starting their own schools.
— Jay Mathews

Education Next
[A] lucid and engaging analysis...[Wilson] proves to be a perceptive analyst of the industry.
Nathan Glazer
Steven Wilson spent years developing a business model that aimed to overcome the inefficiencies and ineffectiveness of urban public schools, and finally launched a company to run charter schools under contract. Sobered but still hopeful, he here gives a fascinating account of how his model, and that of six other private education organizations, have worked so far, and analyzes what they can do in the future to improve public education.
Chester E. Finn Jr.
Sage yet passionate, battle-scarred but optimistic, Steven Wilson has produced a magisterial appraisal of America's early experience with the privatizing, outsourcing, and reinventing of public education. This illuminating book offers a much-needed and timely set of lessons, challenges, and opportunities.
Diane Ravitch
Learning on the Job is a fair-minded, thoughtful, and deeply informed analysis of private education management organizations, which are assuming an increasingly important role in American public education. Steven Wilson has emerged from the trenches to give a balanced and perceptive critique of their promise--and their problems too.
Times Educational Supplement - Michael Duffy
By 2005 only 240,000 of America's 60 million school children attended public schools run by education management organizations. Few, if any, of those organizations were yet in profit and the educational gains their schools had made were bitterly contested. In Learning on the Job, Steven Wilson offers us a timely and convincing analysis of why this happened...There are real insights here, not just into the short-termism of entrepreneurial interest but also into the structural weaknesses of American public education. His book is enjoyable, clear, and fair-minded: on any basis, a major contribution to an important debate.
Washington Post - Jay Mathews
Refrain[s] from cant and puffery...[Wilson has] much good advice for others who might want to try starting their own schools.
Library Journal
A major topic of debate currently in the realm of education is whether or not to allow public schools to be run by businesses known as Education Management Organizations (EMOs). Wilson (founder & CEO, Advantage Schools) places seven EMOs, including his own, under the microscope, examining their successes and failures and discussing the obstacles each has encountered in its quest to turn schools around-and turn a profit into the bargain. For the majority of EMOs, this combined quest has so far proved an impossible task. Ignorance of federal and state regulations, compliance with union rules, and political squabbles are some of the factors they have had to reckon with. But Wilson feels strongly about the advantages EMOs offer and ends with recommendations to those interested in creating new education organizations. While the "perfect system" for running schools may not exist, there undoubtedly are better methods than those used today, both by the public education system and by businesses. Perhaps this book will fuel ideas for the future. Recommended for most libraries.-Terry Christner, Hutchinson P.L., KS Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674019461
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 1/15/2006
  • Edition description: ANN
  • Pages: 448
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Steven F. Wilson is Senior Fellow at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.
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Table of Contents

  • Contents
  • Preface
  • Introduction
  • 1. The Organizations
  • 2. Business Models
  • 3. School Designs
  • 4. School Culture
  • 5. Execution
  • 6. School Leaders
  • 7. Politics and Schools
  • 8. Academic Results
  • 9. Business Results
  • Conclusion
  • Acknowledgments
  • Notes
  • Index

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