School of the Future flounders

Philadelphia’s high-tech School of the Future (SOF), designed with help from Microsoft, was supposed to revolutionize education, writes Meris Stansbury on eSchool News. So far, we’ve seen the future and it doesn’t work very well. (I had doubts when the school opened in 2006.)

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.

. . . 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.

The school went through four principals in three years. Union contracts made it hard to hire teachers who were a good fit for the school.

Teachers received little training on how to use the technology to foster learning. Students had trouble using the laptops and worried they’d be stolen if they brought them home.

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.

Just like Windows Vista, writes Lorri Giovinco-Harte at NY Education Examiner.

In a panel hosted by the American Enterprise Institute, Drew University Professor Patrick McGuinn found problems at every level.

“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.”

Over time, the School of the Future adopted the district’s curriculum and assessments; it began to look a lot like schools of the present. However, school leaders are trying to learn from the early mistakes — they hired a tech support person! — and clarify the mission. We’ll have to see what the future holds for the School of the Future.

Update: Thirty-five years ago, Philadelphia’s school of the future was William Penn High, a “showpiece packed with amenities, including a television studio, an Olympic-size swimming pool, and a dance studio,” reports the Inquirer.  Now a wreck operating at less than 20 percent of capacity, the low-scoring school will be closed for two years for rebuilding. And, one hopes, rethinking.

About Joanne


  1. Ponderosa says:

    The day Bill Gates lets a 9th grade English teacher design the next Microsoft product is the day we should let him dictate how to run a school. These techie reformers, like the ones behind the 21st century skills movement, are ignorant of basic realities about education, yet assume, because they’re smart regarding technology, that they know how to build the perfect school. They think their “thinking skills” are all-purpose and transfer to all domains –or at least to the elementary realm of education. This fiasco with SOF reminds me of the myriad failed development projects foisted upon poor African countries –expensive, complicated schemes that fell flat on their faces because they ignored the facts on the ground. It’s also akin to our blundering effort to invade Iraq and “fix” it. Americans think money, technology and “thinking skills” equal power. They forget that knowledge –deep knowledge –confers real power.

  2. Since they had no textbooks, all of their students had laptops, and they relied on a wireless connection, you would think that a full-time tech support person would have been a given. I hate using this word, but “DUH!”

  3. dangermom says:

    The school didn’t have a tech support person??? That’s ridiculous.

    It seems to me that an awful lot of people think that computers are magic. They expect computers to magically work right all the time (when in fact a lot of maintenance is needed). Computers will magically help kids learn. And so on.

    My dad does IT at 3 local schools. The people at the schools have no idea how much work he puts into keeping things running. (He likes to be invisible, and is always doing things like spending a couple of weeks at the end of the school year fixing things up even more. Which is nice, but not good for his image.) Every few years one of the schools in the district will decide “we don’t need an IT guy, look, everything works great!” –and he’ll get transferred to another school, but I think they’ve learned their lesson by now.

  4. I toured SOF in 2007: issues ran much deeper than tech. Tech shortfalls are a distraction compared to mission, governance and classroom execution.

    Leadership changes will gut any startup, but when coupled with misalignment with the curriculum and goals it can be fatal. One could see basic classroom engagement issues and could listen to students who thought they were bound for Harvard even though they lacked a basic math foundation and were not on a path to gain one.

    Crafting a new culture successfully means thinking of all the moving parts, not just the shiny tech and architecture ones. It is a pretty building, but that’s not what great schools are made of.

  5. deirdremundy says:

    The other problem with having Bill Gates design a school is that, well, he’s a genius. And the School of the Future model would probably be awesome for technology-oriented, motivated, geniuses.

    But most people aren’t geniuses. It’s really hard for most kids to generalize overarching rules from a specific project. And for some people, computers make things harder, not easier…..

    To really design the ideal school for a specific neighborhood, I think it would help to get input from people IN the neighborhood as well as out of it. Is the problem a lack of technology, or a lack of discipline? Are the problems with textbooks that they’re not useful, or that students forget to bring them to class? (A better investment might have been to buy enough textbooks so that each kid could have one at home for homework and one at school for class, for instance….)

    But trying to redesign a school from on high, without a realistic idea of the problems on the groung (“They’d be smarter if only they had laptops!”) is asking to fail……

  6. Too many principals in too few years–there is a big problem.
    No testbooks–come on, even this project-based teacher knows you need books for a reference point.
    No tech guru on campus–well that’s too stupid to address.
    Flying the plane while rebuilding it–we do that every day in education.

    I really hate to see project-based learning get bashed here as it is a great way to work and I have 20 years of proof. But, you cannot teach the way it has always been done, it’s messy, and teachers need time to collaborate on projects. Lots of time.

  7. dangermom says:

    “I toured SOF in 2007: issues ran much deeper than tech. Tech shortfalls are a distraction compared to mission, governance and classroom execution.”

    I certainly agree, but was commenting on one particular aspect of the story.

    I’m not certain that Bill Gates is a genius, or at least that he’s much smarter than lots of other tech geeks in the world. A lot of his success has been right time, right place, plus a modicum of business savvy. But I agree that he’s not the right guy to design a school for kids he doesn’t know much about.

  8. Patty Sinkler says:

    Joanne, et. al,
    Two schools – one success!
    I visited both SOF and Science Leadership Academy in Philly in February of this year. You MUST see SLA under the direction of Chris Lehmann. Both founded 3 years ago, with the same premise – project based learning AND a one-to-one laptop program. SLA is doing it and doing it well. It’s an incredible school.


  9. and to be fair, Bill G. wasn’t designing the school. there were many skilled, dedicated people engaged.

  10. count the buzzwords…

    “21st-century skills” “project-based learning” “community involvement”
    “customizable school portal” “21st-century curriculum” “new teacher hiring model”

    Buzzwords don’t cause education to happen in a school, any more than they cause profit to happen in a business or mission accomplishment to happen in a government agency.

  11. I find it interesting that Gates did what he so often did at Microsoft – stop, re-boot, and take everything back to the beginning for a major re-design.

    The trouble is, the kids aren’t just hardware that can be put into a closet until the perfect solution is found. They’ve been robbed of their education.

  12. tim-10-ber says:

    another bill gates educational failure — whether or not he was directly involved…

  13. And, to give Gates his due, we probably won’t see any more Schools of the Future, future, future – sorry, it’s tough to do echo effects in text alone – being built on his nickel.

    Say what you will about the man but one of the things he isn’t is stupid although buying into such edu-mummery as small schools and edu-tech does bring some doubt to the issue.

  14. Patty,

    SLA is a selective admission schools, they could do well by issuing the kids text books and spending the rest of the day lounging by the pool.

    Project Based Learning is all fine and dandy for more intelligent kids (though very inefficient), but for struggling students, direct instruction is required.

  15. Well, all other things being equal, the School of the Future will NEVER be a public school. And perhaps (if he’s as bright as people say he is) by now he realizes that.

  16. Rory, I beg to differ about project based learning. I have used this method for 20 years in an inner city school in one of the poorest places in the nation with kids who had low test scores. Three years in our program and these kids become bright, articulate, and to please the administrators, high test achievers. Just graduated the 17th class. People always wonder why our kids are so much better than the average kid at our school. I tell them, “it takes hard work on everyone’s part.”

  17. A little more about project based learning…maybe this is why it does not always work. Teachers think they can just throw a project at kids and tell them to do it and they will. Ha!

    It takes a lot of time to scaffold the skills a student needs to do the project. You cannot just begin at the sophomore level and expect great things. You start at the sophomore level and work very hard,using direct instruction, to give the student what they need to do the first simple project. Then you have the student evaluate what they did. Sometimes we have to redo the project, but usually we go on. This continues through the next two years, with each project becoming more difficult and involved. Always the evaluation, though

    In the third year, students have built the skills and knowledge they need to be turned loose to do project based learning as many people conceive it to be. But, I still build in lots of checkpoints as I want to see what they are doing and how they are thinking. The seniors get annoyed with my checkpoints, “just let us do the work,” but I am adamant.

    When the seniors construct their final portfolio, they have elaborate, detailed projects and they can write about what they did and what they learned. We have a portfolio day where community members come in to evaluate the work as if it was the real world. Those evaluators are always blown away by what many of our students can do, but even more so when the students can talk so well about their work with an adult. All of this, however, takes a lot of hard work.

  18. Dkzody,

    As a marketing and yearbook teacher, I am sure project based learning has it’s place, but if your school is truly successful, and not selective, I very much doubt it is using PBL to teach Algebra, Reading, or any of the other basic subjects.

    As a parent of six kids, I have seen the behind the scenes stuff that goes into “projects”. It usually involves cardboard, scissors, colored paper, and loads of time.

    99% of the time, the child will put more time and effort into presentation than into research and learning.

    Now there might be a very few teachers with the skill and strength to use PBL, but the vast majority of teachers learn the buzzwords and assign wasteful and crappy projects.

    Maybe the thought is, since the child can’t learn (sic), maybe they can compensate by coloring in the lines.

  19. Two thoughts come to mind, maybe not important, but here they are.

    Is Bill Gates successful because he’ so smart and hard working? My view is that his success is mostly luck. Here’s the rationale. Take a thousand people who are equally smart, equally as hard working and focused, as Bill Gates, and predict who will be rich and famous in ten years. All of them? Only one, then who? My view is that many of those thousand will be prosperous, but few if any will be famous beyond the narrow confines of their locality or their field. Life is a lottery. Riches and fame are a lottery. The brains and hard work of Bill Gates is just a ticket in that lottery. There are very few winners, and they cannot be reliably predicted ahead of time. Is Bill Gates in the top hundredth of the top percentile in brains and effort? If so than any small town of ten thousand people has one like him. Any city of a million has a hundred like him. A country of 300 million would have 30,000 like him. But very few approach the success of Bill Gates. By this perspective the extreme degree of Bill Gate’s success is nearly all luck.

    So should we expect more from a school designed by Bill Gates than from a school designed by any other randomly selected member of that smart elite, most of whom don’t know much about education either?

    And thought number two is what I have come to call the “professor’s fallacy”, the idea that if I’m smart in one thing then I must be smart in everything. Professors fall for this fallacy everyday, though most are modest enough not to say that that is what they are thinking. To test the fallacy just think about the professor with kooky political ideas (defined as ideas opposite yours) who is so sure he or she knows just what this country needs. A slightly broader version of the professor’s fallacy would be the idea that if I’m very successful in one field, so I will be very successful in any field. It’s a very tempting thought, but a poor basis for action, in my humble opinion.

    I’d like to say I also predicted disappointment for the School of The Future. Actually I never heard of it. But if I had heard of it, it would not just be blind cynicism that would lead me to predict a lot of disappointment.

  20. It might be worthwhile to figure all this technology stuff out. It sounds like the SOF was heavy on technology and light on actual planning for how it should be used. eLearning can be done right.

    Technology is a part of our daily lives in a way it wasn’t event 10 years ago. People have to learn to live and learn in a high technology environment, and technology used in the classroom can help them adapt to the world they are going to live in as adults.

    There’s an interesting piece about the successful use of technology in the classroom. It makes the argument for the necessity of using technology in education rather well, I think.

  21. Ponderosa says:

    Ha, the NECESSITY of using technology in education! If a tech-heavy education were necessary to produce high-achieving modern citizens, then Barack Obama, Paul Krugman, and Rachel Maddow would all be cashiers at Wal-Mart today. Give me a break. Let’s get over this ridiculous obsession with inserting tech into everything; it just makes education more complicated and expensive, and probably does more harm than good to the enterprise of liberally educating our youth.

  22. Ragnarok says:

    Brian Rude said:

    “The brains and hard work of Bill Gates is [sic] just a ticket in that lottery.”

    Right, but there are a lot of people who don’t qualify for a ticket. Most of the people who design and build schools are neither bright nor hard-working, and that gave Gates a chance to do better.

    I don’t think he did very well, but I admire his willingness to put his own money into it.

    That’s more than I can say for the parasites who infest the system.

  23. Most of the people who design and build schools are neither bright nor hard-working, and that gave Gates a chance to do better.

    So Gates has his second education failure and somehow this turns into educator bashing?

    Gates may be a genius at software development and marketing but he obviously is not one when it comes to education, and he has the wasted money to prove it.

  24. Yes but what use would it be to be a genius in education?

    You certainly won’t achieve the fame and fortune of a Bill Gates. In fact you’ll be ignored, rather then rewarded, by the institution for which you work.

    And that’s if you’re lucky. If you’re unlucky as an education genius you’re liable to find that there’s no place in the system for someone who’s too good.

  25. Well, as the only person here who has actually met Bill Gates, let me just say that he is indeed a genius and he is indeed hard working (and very classic Asperger’s, although I wouldn’t have been able to make that assessment at the time). He was also lucky to achieve on the scale he did, but hard working geniuses very often succeed in important ways.

    While I admire many of these individuals greatly — hmmm… they’re not the baskets in which I’d want to place my education eggs. I wish he hadn’t failed. I wish he knew that investing in the teachers and administrators (in terms of training, time to develop curriculum, leadership training, etc., not necessarily salary) is the fundamental upon which you then add the tweaks, such as schools-within-a-school, etc. And that he knew true improvement takes years; there are no instant fixes. He didn’t give anything enough time. But, one would fully expect a genius with Asperger’s to see systems instead of people. That’s what they excel in, and that’s why Microsoft is so successful and his education initiatives are not.

    One of the interesting things about tenure is that it allows the too-good geniuses to co-exist with the duds. It protects everyone equally. I do know teachers who are incredibly innovative — and geniuses — but they never end up in the newspapers with the strip searchers and child molesters, so nobody knows they exist.

  26. Roger Sweeny says:


    Thanks for your enlightening comment. The bottom line seems to be: project based learning can work–in fact, can get very good results–but in order for it to work, there must be a lot of teacher preparation, a lot of teacher supervision, and a lot of teacher direct instruction.

    It also sounds like you have your students for three years in a row, so you can really train them into your system. Is that true?

  27. Yes, Mr. Sweeny, I teach in an inner city school that did something innovative back in the early 90s–create a school within a school. A group of students have the same teachers for 3 years and all teachers have the same expectations and requirements. That’s what it takes to educate a child who can do well in school and society. I am grateful to have the resources to do very good job. I just wish we could duplicate our success in other schools.

  28. Roger Sweeny says:


    I admire you.

    Now I’m all curious about how your “school within a school” works. Are students randomly assigned to it? Do they have to apply? Is there some sort of selective admissions process? Do students then have to agree to abide by the swis’s program? Can they be dropped for failure to try? for failure to produce?

  29. I wish he knew that investing in the teachers and administrators (in terms of training, time to develop curriculum, leadership training, etc., not necessarily salary) is the fundamental upon which you then add the tweaks, such as schools-within-a-school, etc.

    Anything in those “fundamental” changes going to ensure that good teachers get rewarded for their skills and lousy teachers are made to understand their tenure is in doubt? If not then there’s nothing fundamental about those changes.

    And that he knew true improvement takes years; there are no instant fixes.

    Interestingly enough, that’s exactly the tack taken by those who promise true improvement and deliver an ever-receding mirage.

    From what I understand of Mr. Gates he’s not a particularly patient man and distinctly impatient when faced with failure and the excuses for failure.

    Apologists for the public education system have grown complacent assuming that excuses-without-end are an acceptable substitute for success, having gotten away with the scam for so long. But along with Mr. Gates I’d say that the public at large has grown weary of those excuses which is why there are forty states with charter school law.