Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Edison Is the Symptom, NCLB Is the Disease

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Edison Is the Symptom, NCLB Is the Disease

Article excerpt

Engaging students requires giving them a say in what they learn and how they will learn it. Mr. Campbell warns that this can't happen in the strictly disciplined, rule-bound schools with test-driven curricula that are the logical response to our current accountability system.


WHILE PLAYing with my 3-year-old daughter and her new My First Leap-Pad Alphabet Bus, I came face to face with the education war. The toy has two basic modes: 1) open discovery, in which children use a pen-like device to touch the interface and receive auditory feedback (usually cute sound effects or songs) and 2) structured games, which ask children to do specific tasks like, "With your pen, touch the scarecrow with three red triangles." Each successfully accomplished task is followed by raucous celebration on the part of the toy, usually in the form of a cartoon character saying something like, "Good job!" or "Way to go!"

As we played, I began to notice that my daughter was showing less and less interest in the structured games. Despite the toy's hyperbolic celebrations of her mastery, she quickly grew bored. I encouraged her to keep playing, but she looked at me and asked, "Do you want to hold the pen, Daddy?" So I kept playing. But the more I played, the more I realized that the toy was celebrating the accomplishment of extremely easy, mindless tasks that all had exactly one correct way of being done. Ironically, this "toy" was utterly joyless. Yet it is marketed as an "interactive" toy that teaches "pre-reading, pre-writing and other preschool skills to prepare children for the first day of school."

But I shouldn't have been so surprised. I knew better. I had seen the same joyless approach back in October 2005 when I toured Confluence Academy, an Edison-run school located in one of the most economically disadvantaged areas in the heart of inner-city St. Louis. I saw the same boredom in the faces of the students then that I saw in my daughter's when she was playing with the LeapFrog toy. I saw the teachers celebrate a similar mindless mastery of task-specific skills. I saw the same approach to preparing children for what lies ahead of them.

Of course, the difference between my daughter and the children at Confluence Academy was that my daughter had the freedom to get up and do something else. But at Confluence, the children--heavily disciplined and shamed into passive subjugation--sat in silence and did as they were told.

It's not that I object to Edison or to Confluence Academy per se. I understand that they are logical expressions of our contemporary system of education, especially the way that we educate poor minority children. Edison is profiting--literally and metaphorically--from the Bush Administration's No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act. And Confluence is simply following federal and corporate marching orders. But Confluence and Edison are symptoms of a much larger social disease, a disease that creates the conditions for these companies to exist and thrive and for these schools to be regarded as models for our future.

Educational management organizations (EMOs) such as Edison are a growth industry. The 2004 report "Profiles of For-Profit Education Management Companies" from Arizona State University showed that 59 EMOs were managing 535 schools and enrolling approximately 239,766 students in 24 states and D.C., an increase of eight firms and 39,363 students over the previous 12 months. In 2004 Edison--the largest EMO--ran 109 public schools serving over 70,000 students in 20 states and D.C., including two in St. Louis and two in Kansas City. Edison now operates more than 150 schools across the country, including 22 schools in Philadelphia, where it serves approximately 12,500 students.



I visited six classrooms at Confluence Academy at various grade levels. I did not observe a single white student. …

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