Editorial: Philadelphia story

Adapted from ‘Default Lines’ for eSchool News, print edition, July 2009–Transparency is a popular word these days. It’s on the tongue of every oleaginous politician and beleaguered corporate chieftain. But as for actual instances of transparency–in business, government, the news media–well, those instances are still exceedingly rare.

One example of it, however, arrived just last month at a singular conference in Washington, D.C. The meeting was supported by software titan Microsoft. It was organized by the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank. The subject was the progress (or the lack thereof) being made at Philadelphia’s School of the Future.

Turns out, it was "the lack thereof" that took center stage. The substance of that meeting is detailed in this unflinching report by Meris Stansbury. After a phenomenal launch and three challenging years of relentless turnover and regrouping, the results for the School of the Future are fundamentally disappointing. More than one conference participant characterized the three-year saga as "lessons in failure"–an attention-grabbing phrase I used in the headline of the online version of our story.

I wish I hadn’t. That term was accurate enough in the short-term. It quoted exactly the sentiments expressed by vocal participants at the conference. And it did what headlines are supposed to do. Nonetheless, I regret using it, because that headline improperly implied a final verdict on work still very much in progress.

Along with the conference report in this issue, we’re also publishing a sampling of the reaction our online version attracted. We’ve received numerous comments to the effect that three years is far too short a time to achieve the ambitious goals set forth for a program such as Philadelphia’s School of the Future.

Upon reflection, I think that’s certainly true. As we’re learning in matters as disparate as auto making, energy dependence, and national deficits, problems accumulated over decades won’t be solved in a handful of years–even by the best and the brightest. 

On the other hand, ignoring the problems and embracing happy talk is hardly the answer, either. What was extraordinary about that School of the Future conference is that it boldly and candidly examined some of the most intractable difficulties impeding school reform, especially in low-income urban settings. Identifying the obstacles is the first step toward removing them.

In their commendable willingness to come to grips with the impediments that have held back progress in Philadelphia’s School of the Future, Microsoft, the American Enterprise Institute, and the leaders of labor and management in the Philadelphia public schools are making success possible once again.

Following our online report of that conference in Washington, several of those instrumental in the development of the School of the Future called to say things that reminded me a little of that old sports line about the clock, the one you sometimes hear from coaches on the short end of the scoreboard. "Our team didn’t lose," they observe, "we just ran out of time."

In Philadelphia and elsewhere in education, it’s true. The clock is still running. There’s time left to score. And yet, I think you’d agree, we’re getting uncomfortably close to the buzzer. For this Philadelphia school and many others in similar straits, perhaps another sports bromide is perfectly apt: "The future is now."

Candor alone won’t ensure success for the School of the Future. Genuine, sustainable reform must ultimately take hold. As we’ve just seen yet once again, reform is dreadfully hard.

Thanks to Philadelphia and Microsoft, we now have a fuller appreciation of what to watch out for, what to avoid. This rare, frank discussion is an excellent start. It’s the reason transparency is so widely acclaimed.

Funny thing, though: Transparency looks a lot better from the outside than it does from the inside. Inside, it can be downright painful. It can open you up to uncomfortable scrutiny, disparaging commentary, and even harsh headlines. 

As the late Mother Theresa once famously counseled, "Honesty and transparency make you vulnerable. Be honest and transparent anyway."

In the case of the School of the Future in Philadelphia, that’s exactly what Microsoft and the others have done. Let’s bless them for that and wish them all the best in their ongoing struggle to achieve and succeed.

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