Hard lessons of 'School of Future'

What Next? Educational Innovation and Philadelphia’s School of the Future (Harvard Education Press), edited by Mary Cullinane and Frederick M. Hess, describes the first three years of a school designed — with help from Microsoft — to revolutionize teaching and learning. The School of the Future tried to operate within the school district’s union work rules and the district’s normal budget for high schools. It hasn’t worked.

In its first years, the School of the Future has struggled with leadership turnover, hiring problems, and changing directives from the school district about whether the school can do things differently.

After several years of turmoil, a new principal kicked out 10 percent of students. But the school has trouble recruiting teachers and has filled only two-thirds of its seats. Test scores are low, especially in math and science.

In High School 2.0 in the spring 2010 issue of Education Next, reporter Dale Mezzacappa, a What’s Next? contributor, writes about the school’s struggles.

The students, almost all African American, more than 80 percent of whom qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, came with skill levels all over the map; a majority read at a 5th-grade level or below. Used to worksheets, paper-and-pencil tests, and being asked to regurgitate information, many weren’t prepared to take control of their own learning. Some thrived on the project-based, interdisciplinary, and technology-rich model, and were finally able to connect to the purpose of school; others simply found it bewildering.

The technology often didn’t work. When it did, it often proved a distraction, one teacher said:

Students would be instant messaging and checking emails during class. “When you’re exhausted because you’ve been telling kids to stop playing Halo all day, you’re not actually teaching them literature or skills or the content that they need to drive their own learning.”

In this podcast, Mezzacappa talks about what reformers can learn from the School of the Future’s problems.

Via Education Next Blog.

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  1. So, basically, they spent all this money on technology, then spent the next year trying to stop students from using it.

    Sounds like a management problem, not a technology problem. A failure of standardized, centralized curriculum.

    From the article:

    “As soon as we had to fit within the system, we lost everything innovative,” he said. “All over the country, urban districts are failing with the traditional curriculum. There’s a 45 percent dropout rate. These students don’t need that. They need something very different. Successful people learned by tinkering, by doing, they did not learn by sitting in a classroom in front of a board.”

  2. Don Bemont says:

    Stephen, I need some clarification. It sounds like they tried to move education away from paper-and-pencil tests and worksheets but found it difficult to keep kids off the video games.

    I am no friend of standardized, centralized curriculum, but surely that does not mean school time playing Halo?

  3. Diana Senechal says:

    It is the wrong opposition: between sitting “in front of a board” and “tinkering, doing.” All depends on the substance of the lesson and how well it is taught. A lecture lesson with chalk and blackboard can be much more substantial, interesting, and inspiring than a technology-filled lesson–or not.

  4. Everybody from the outside wants to talk about the School of the Future, but everybody on the inside knows that if you want to see a technology-based school doing awesome work in Philadelphia, you should be looking at Science Leadership Academy, which started around the same time, has a 1:1 laptop program that they actually use, serves a diverse student population, and delivers solid test scores.

  5. tim-10-ber says:

    Seems to me whoever opened this school did not do their homework. Choosing students by lottery is fine but they should have assessed their abilities to 1) handle the environment and 2) make sure they qualified for high school. I would have added a third one – minimum academic requirements of a B or above and an advanced on standardized tests. Taking kids that are barely at the 5th grade level into a high school setting is insane regardless of the type of school it is.
    These kids needs to be mastering middle school first! DUH!

    Next the kids need to be blocked from IM, facebook, games etc. If this is a true tech school then they know how to do this…

    Dan — I would love to learn more about Science Leadership Academy. We have a local public school that has written a grant (and been awarded the grant) for all its freshmen to have laptops. I have no clue if they are even equipped to handle this much less know if they truly understand the challenges that come with kids and laptops in school. Hopefully they do…anything you can share would be most appreciated!

  6. tim-10-ber says:

    ah ha — just checked out the admission requirements to the Science Leadership Academy…they do as I had hoped. This school is for kids who have demonstrated an interest in learning:

    Criteria: Admission to SLA is based on a combination of a student interview at the school with a presentation of completed work, strong PSSA scores, As and Bs with the possible exception of one C, teacher or counselor recommendation and good attendance and punctuality. Interested families must contact the school to set up an appointment for an interview. SLA will not initiate the interview process with families.

    Admission requirements to The School of the Future are found at the link below. Sorry – I didn’t realize this was a 5 – 12 school if I have the right one. Still nothing about minimum gpa or standardized test scores of “advanced” or the equivalent. Seems they should have the same admission criteria as academic magnet schools at a minimum if not slightly higher…

  7. In other words, Science Leadership Academy is a magnet school, i.e. a publicly-funded private school for the politically-connected. Kind of proves my point about the inescapably political nature of public education.

    Where there’s sufficient political influence the default indifference to educational outcomes endemic to school districts is overcome.

    Mommies and daddies with enough in the way of political clout to make life distinctly uncomfortable for the edu-paladins use that clout to ensure that educational outcomes *don’t* get short shrift. No clout? Too bad.

  8. tim-10-ber says:

    Sadly — this is what it takes to keep these parents in the government schools as if their kids are not getting the education we believe our kids need to be prepared for college we flee. Been there done that and still ended up in private schools..

    Now to figure out how to raise the bar, curriculum, expectations, etc for the kids that have no option but the default/zoned school…

  9. Maybe they should try a School of the Past.

  10. Science Leadership Academy is an integrated magnet school. If you believe in desegregation, you need magnets. Only if your goal is separate but equal do you need to pursue successful all-poverty or all-minority school designs.

  11. Hi Joanne – We talked about School of the Future at ktm a year ago: next time, try Core Knowledge

  12. Maybe they should try a School of the Past.

    Amen to that.

  13. Used to worksheets, paper-and-pencil tests, and being asked to regurgitate information, many weren’t prepared to take control of their own learning.

    Unfortunately for the students of High Tech High, Microsoft and Paul Vallas were regurgitating Lucy Calkins.

  14. Who could of predicted it?

    Coincidentally, my instructor just approved my topic for my final capstone research paper before I get my degree:

    The use and misuse of technology in K-12 education.

  15. Richard Aubrey says:

    I’ve heard computers called “electronic page-turners”.
    Nice that they hum and whir and all those lights blink, plus they cost a lot of money and if we’re spending a lot of money, we must be committed, right?
    Now what?


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