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School of the Future: Lessons in failure

When it opened its doors in 2006, Philadelphia’s School of the Future (SOF) was touted as a high school that would revolutionize education: It would teach at-risk students critical 21st-century skills needed for college and the work force by emphasizing project-based learning, technology, and community involvement. But three years, three superintendents, four principals, and countless problems later, experts at a May 28 panel discussion hosted by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) agreed: The Microsoft-inspired project has been a failure so far.

Microsoft points to the school’s rapid turnover in leadership as the key reason for this failure, but other observers question why the company did not take a more active role in translating its vision for the school into reality. Regardless of where the responsibility lies, the project’s failure to date offers several cautionary lessons in school reform–and panelists wondered if the school could use these lessons to succeed in the future.

Three years ago, the SOF was a front-runner in the high school redesign race. Microsoft’s vision was to invest human capital and expertise into a newly built LEED-certified school that was funded and supported by Philadelphia’s school district–led at the time by Superintendent Paul Vallas, who had been singled out by President Clinton as responsible for raising test scores, improving relations with teachers, and increasing positive engagement with the community while CEO of the Chicago Public Schools.

"Microsoft chose to … assign a team of educators and technologists to work in concert with the school system and the surrounding community to create a sustainable learning environment," said Mary Cullinane, Microsoft’s lead on the project and one of the school’s initial architects, in 2006.

By creating a general-enrollment school that was paid for, staffed, and operated by the public school system, project organizers aimed to create a model that could be replicated easily in other districts. (See "‘School of the Future’ opens doors.")

The components of the school also were considered to be progressive. From alternative school hours to laptops for every student, from a customizable school portal to campus-wide wireless access, and from a panel to design 21st-century curriculum to a new teacher hiring model, the SOF was thought to be a sure winner.

"We naively thought, I guess, that by providing a beautiful building and great resources, these things would automatically yield change. They didn’t," said Jan Biros, associate vice president for instructional technology support and campus outreach at Drexel University and a former member of the SOF Curriculum Planning Committee.

A premature start

Microsoft made it clear at the SOF’s inception that it would not be overseeing the school’s operation; instead, it would lend its initial expertise, provide basic professional development, and then leave the success of the school up to its leaders.

Microsoft’s expertise was based on what the company calls the 6 "I"s: introspection, investigation, inclusion, innovation, implementation, and–again–introspection. It was up to the Curriculum Planning Committee to design the underlying principles and goals for the school, based on this framework.

However, these principles too often seemed unclear.

"Working within this framework often felt more like an academic exercise than a productive process," said Biros. "Descriptions posted on the Microsoft web site were impressive, but too often seemed vague and general. I often wondered as the group met and discussed when we would get down to the details and specifics."

The training that Microsoft gave teachers prior to the school’s opening also was extremely limited, panelists said. Educators’ participation in the project was confirmed only weeks before the school opened, and as a result, many educators could not adequately work the technology needed to enhance classroom learning.

Although the technology itself was not supposed to trump basic classroom practices, Microsoft and the school’s planners had decided not to allow the use of textbooks or printed materials; instead, all resources were located online through a portal designed by Microsoft.

Yet educators frequently encountered problems accessing the internet, because the school’s wireless connection often would not work.

"This vital part of the school’s technology was never stable and robust enough to make it dependable," said Biros. "There was no safety net, and it seemed like a great leap of faith–faith that these teachers, amidst so many new circumstances, would be able to develop curriculum almost on the fly and store and distribute it electronically."

The district’s IT staff had responsibility for the network, but according to Biros, there was not an IT employee on site, and when problems occurred they were not fixed promptly. There also was no dedicated technical support.

Another problem was that the students–most of whom came from poorer families and neighborhoods–could not use or maintain their laptops properly. Students were either afraid to take their laptops home for fear of theft, or they didn’t know how to access all the programs on the machines.

On another front, although Microsoft eventually sent someone to the SOF during its second year to try and foster community relationships, no one realized that school-community partnerships take time, perhaps even years, to mature–leading to uninvested partnerships with no long-term sustainability.

Finally, during the SOF’s three years of operation to date, the school has experienced four "chief leaders" (the school’s term for principal) and three district superintendents.

The first chief leader, Shirley Grover, left unexpectedly and without warning after the first year, owing to what she said was a family emergency, and Vallas–after what Biros described as running "into difficulties with the School Reform Commission over large budget deficits"–also left after this first year to help the New Orleans School District rebuild after Hurricane Katrina.


"The school had problems at the student level, and the school level, and at the central level," said Patrick McGuinn, assistant professor of political science at Drew University and author of several published works related to education policy.

"I don’t think the district was ready to handle the development of Microsoft’s technology and portal. The district is also Mac-based and not PC-based, which caused a lot of technical issues. The lack of standardized grades made it hard to relate student progress to parents. Many educators I talked to said the portal was more of a gesture than something that was actually useful. There is no clear definition of what project-based learning exactly is and how that can be step-by-step implemented in the classroom. Student remediation also didn’t fit with the project-based collaboration model."

He added: "These teachers and administrators had to fly a plane while they were building it."

"I’m concerned about this school’s issues," mused Mitch Chester, Massachusetts’ education commissioner, where he oversees public education for nearly 1,900 schools and more than one million students. "Why was this school caught so flat-footed? Is it a mystery that curriculum should be well thought out? Did they really not know that a portal that’s supposed to be the crux of the whole learning operation should work properly … and that tech support might be a good idea? These are lessons that every school has known for quite some time."

At one point during the discussion, an audience member asked: "All of your resources are online, and educators have to access [them] through this portal. However, your educators don’t know how to work the technology. So, exactly what did the teachers teach in class? What were the students learning?"

"Well, honestly, I’m not exactly sure," replied Biros.

After Grover and Vallas left the school and district, respectively, interims were hired in their stead. After these interims left, new hires came and went. This constant shift in leadership took its toll on the SOF.

"It’s kind of like Groundhog Day," said Matthew Riggan of the University of Pennsylvania’s Consortium for Policy Research in Education. "A project as ambitious as SOF requires not only vision but sustained effort and continuity, and it’s very hard to have that with such rapid leadership turnover at both levels."

Perhaps because of this turnover in school leadership, Drexel University and the leaders of the original Curriculum Planning Committee were not asked to collaborate with the school after the project’s first year.

In the absence of real leadership, and because no community partnerships had formed, the SOF started to adopt more traditional district assessments and classroom practices.

"It’s a theory called isomorphism that Dr. Henry Levin applied to educational entrepreneurship," explained Riggan. "We’ve seen it a lot before in other innovative schools: Basically, the experimental school eventually conforms to the parent model from which it is derived. By year three, the Philadelphia school district was mandating the SOF’s curriculum, assessments, et cetera."

Riggan later went on to explain the theory, saying that "innovative schools don’t tend to get the benefit of the doubt because they deviate so far from the standards conventionally used to determine what a school should be to begin with. If SOF blasted out of the gate with great test scores, no one would be concerned that it has a very different idea of what ‘curriculum’ means. But since it did not, the natural assumption is that the things that made the school deviant are the reasons for its failure. In order to survive, therefore, the school has to adopt more conventional structures and practices."

According to Biros, the creation of assessments was problematic.

"We all agreed that students should be evaluated qualitatively, without customary grades and standardized tests, but we did not consider how colleges would use these assessments to determine students’ acceptance into their programs," she explained. She later added: "These initiatives need to be protected and supported. To be left to its own devices was short-sighted. It should not have been left to the district alone."

As the leadership turned over after the first year, the students also began to grow restless.

"I think they could feel a difference in the school culture, and that affected their behavior," said Kate Hayes, a counseling educator and the organizational chair for the SOF. "Truancy picked up, and we were not prepared to handle it."

Perhaps an increase in truancy wouldn’t have been such a large problem, except many of the educators hired were not well-versed in dealing with at-risk students who were required to participate in project-based learning.

Although Microsoft and the SOF based hiring decisions on Microsoft’s Education Competency Wheel, which, according to the company, is "a set of guideposts for achieving educational excellence that centers on identifying and nurturing the right talents in a district’s employees, partners, and learners," the SOF had to go through the Philadelphia’s Teachers’ Union to hire its educators.

The process, said Biros, "was intended to facilitate hiring the best faculty possible with objective consideration; [but] the reality of the union constraints within the district effectively eliminated that outcome. Because of the district’s human resources policies and union regulations, most of the applications received were from current district teachers looking for new assignments. We were not recruiting from a pool of any and all teachers interested in applying to SOF."

Setting non-negotiables

For Susan Schilling, CEO of the New Technology Foundation, which helps communities create a New Tech High School–a technologically advanced secondary-school model–the SOF needed to clearly model its rubric after a master design fidelity rubric (in this case, Microsoft’s). "You have to hold your non-negotiables firm," said Schilling.

Doug Lynch, vice dean of the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania, where he teaches courses on corporate learning, the economics of education, and social entrepreneurship, said he believed the SOF was not nearly as innovative as it thought it was, compared with other Pennsylvania charter schools and private initiatives.

Hayes agreed, saying that "perhaps we are not as innovative as we thought," especially given that the district stepped in during the last two years to define the SOF’s practices.

Kent McGuire, dean of the College of Education and professor in educational leadership and policy studies at Temple University, said that the biggest takeaway from the SOF project is that without a well thought-out vision, nothing will work.

"Why was the SOF in such a rush to get started? Because of this rush, this push, vision was clearly lacking, execution was lacking, and this is SOF’s biggest failure," said McGuire.

People matter

While every panelist had his or her own theories to explain the cause of SOF’s many problems, all agreed on one key factor: leadership turnover and its consequences.

"Do I think educators can always benefit from more [professional development]? Certainly," said Cullinane in an interview with eSchool News. "Do I think we could have invested more time in trying to develop better community partnerships? Certainly. I also think we need to have clear backup rubrics and guidelines for when and if leaders leave the school."

She continued: "But to say this school is a failure is not correct. It’s only in its third year, and innovation always takes time. We can’t use a short-term yardstick for a long-term journey; shame on us if we give up so easily, and so quickly. We’ve learned a great lesson here: that no matter how much money and technology you pour into something, it’s really the people [who] matter."

While many panelists judged the SOF as non-innovative, or even an outright failure, others believe the school is still in its infancy and can learn from its mistakes.

"I think until we see concrete data–attendance rates, test scores, truancy levels–we can’t make an accurate judgment on the SOF," said Chris Dede, the Timothy E. Wirth Professor in Learning Technologies at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. "We also need to make sure that these students are going past step one, which is simply learning how to use technology and give a presentation. We need to make sure they know why they are doing this, who their audience is, and be able to accurately and effectively measure project quality."

Back to the starting line

Microsoft and AEI convened the panel discussion to complete the last part of the 6 "I"s: introspection.

"Lots of times, these innovative and new schools are so heavily secreted that no outsider ever really knows what’s going on," said Frederick Hess, a resident scholar and director of education policy studies at AEI. "We’re going into these schools to kind of show people how the sausage is being made. And sometimes it’s not pretty, because the public doesn’t really hear about the mess of it all. But these things happen quite often. And frankly, the fact that Microsoft cares enough about this school to air its laundry out in the open is admirable."

He added: "It’s our hope that with these panels, something is learned, and it will help the SOF."

While AEI has no plans to monitor the SOF project on any type of schedule, Hess said he would like to look at it again in another three years.

At the school level, some changes already have been made to get back on track to realizing the SOF’s original vision. Project leaders say they hope to redefine their mission clearly before the 2010-11 school year.

During the project’s second year, Microsoft placed an employee in the school to help teachers use and integrate technology into their classes. The school also has hired a full-time technology support person to maintain laptops and "make sure everything works well–better later than not at all," said Biros.

There is also new full-time leadership at the SOF and the district, including Arlene Ackerman, CEO of the School District of Philadelphia; Robert Archie Jr., chairman of the Philadelphia School Reform Commission; Rosalind Chivis, SOF chief learner; Robin Walker, SOF development officer; and Hayes.

"We have also started a help desk this past year, where kids teach other kids how to fix their tech problems," said Hayes. "And before each school year, we have a week of tech orientation for students to help them get acclimated. Students also have to pass a digital literacy course before they are able to take their laptops home."

According to Hayes, with these improvements and a recommitment to getting back on track, students are just now moving past Dede’s step one. Educators are also getting better at assessments and using the SOF portal on a more regular basis.

Another telling result is that the SOF’s attendance rate is above 90 percent, compared to 87 percent for the city as a whole.

"It’s been three years, only three years," said Hess. "I can’t say it’s a failure, and I can’t say it’s a success. Give it another three years, and then we’ll be able to say for certain."


Microsoft School of the Future

School District of Philadelphia

American Enterprise Institute

6i development process

Education Competency Wheel

Drexel University

New Technology Foundation

Note to readers:

Don’t forget to visit the Measuring 21st-century skills resource center. Graduates who enter the workplace with a solid grasp of 21st-century skills bring value to both the workplace and global marketplace. Go to: Measuring 21st-century skills

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