November 2, 2009

School of the Future Crashes and Burns

As I predicted three year's ago, Philadelphia's ultra-expensive, ultra-high-tech, and ulta-ironically-named School of the Future (SOF) would crash and burn.  Educators and edu-journalists believed otherwise.  they thought that SOF would revolutionize education by teaching 21st century skills.

What could possibly go wrong?  There was lots of technology.  Great facilities.  Community involvement.  Lots of money being thrown around.  There would be discovery learning and lots of inquiry.  In short there was a na├»ve over-reliance on all the accoutrement's of education that are irrelevant to student outcomes.  In fact, some of them are downright toxic.

But things have gone horribly wrong.  Take a look at last Spring's PSSA scores (Pennsylvania's easy state assessment) for 11th grade students at the School of the Future.

Percent scoring proficient or above in Math (state average)

All students: 7.5% (55.6%)
Black Students: 6.8% (28.3%)
Poor Students: 7.8% (35.3%)
Special Ed Students: 0% (14.6%)

Percent scoring proficient or above in Reading (state average)

All students: 23.4% (65.2%)
Black Students: 24.5% (38.5%)
Poor Students: 23.5% (44.4%)
Special Ed Students: 0% (20.2%)

What is even more horrifying is the percentage of students performing at the below basic level.  Bear in mind that getting to Basic level in Pennsylvania requires performing only slightly better than chance.


All students: 74.1% (24.9%)
Black Students: 73.8% (50.2%)
Poor Students: 74.5% (42.1%)
Special Ed Students: 100% (69.5%)


All students: 49.5% (18.8%)
Black Students: 48.0% (39.6%)
Poor Students: 58.8% (34.3%)
Special Ed Students: 91.7% (61.5%)

95% of the students at the School of the Future are Black and 47.2% get free or reduced lunches, a proxy for poverty.  The school is a general admission school that was paid for, staffed, and operated by the Philadelphia public school system.  The project organizers aimed to create a model that could be replicated easily in other districts.

So what went wrong, besides the obvious?

Pretty much everything according to this June article in eSchool News.

1.  The curriculum planning committee was staffed by naive fools.

"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.

2.  The school got the equivalent of Microsoft Bob, instead of Windows 7

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.

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."

3.  The Philadelphia public school system doesn't know how to run a modern IT department.
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.
"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 ...," said Patrick McGuinn, assistant professor of political science at Drew University.
4.  Just handing out laptops turns out not to be an educational panacea.
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.
5.  The realities of project based education bit them in the ass.
"The lack of standardized grades made it hard to relate student progress to parents.... 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."
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.

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. [Ed. -- isn't this always how it turns out]
6.  Students didn't like going to the school.
"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.

7.  The teacher's union proved to be a menace.
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."

In short pretty much everything went wrong and everyone blamed everyone but themselves for the problems.

But, the real problem is that you can bet that no one will learn from the failure of SOF.  You can bet that all those education technology bloggers won't address the problems of SOF that reveal to gaping holes in their vision of the wonders of education technology.  You can bet that all the poverty racers won't confront the failure of a mass infusion of money on student outcomes.  Will the union apologists address the real problems caused at SOF by their beloved unions?  And what about the progressive educators whose project-based curricula never live up to expectations in urban schools?

SOF is a microcosm of every dopey education reform that has come down the pike.  Oversell the expectations; ignore the predictable outcomes.

Here's how Philadelphia's Mayor Street sold SOF:

"You won't be able to say, 'I didn't have the computers. I didn't have the technology. I didn't have the teachers. I didn't have mentors,' because the young people who go to this school will be in the premier educational environment in the entire country, maybe even in the entire world," Street said. "So the bar for you is raised."
Now you know the outcome.  Half the students are performing at the below basic level in reading, three-quarters are doing the same in math.


Dick Schutz said...

Yep. And Bill Gates is partnering with Secretary Duncan in "The Race to the Top."

Anonymous said...

but look at those stats -- they eliminated the racial achievement gap!

jendreamer said...

I think that technology can be a useful tool but it has to be used appropriately. What happened to those students who weren't able to afford internet at home? How were students supposed to be able to study if they were traveling somewhere? I also find it disturbing that 95% of the students were African-American, was this intentionally so that at a later date if the school failed they could blame it on race? Bill Gates shouldn't have anything to do with public education, he wants to benefit himself ultimately, not the students before him. I do think that aesthetics have a place in education, a student who doesn't feel like they're in a prison is more likely to feel comfortable which would allow them to better learn. An over emphasis on aesthetics and technology, however, at the cost of the students education is not appropriate. How are the students that this school practiced on going to catch up from being at this school? They were failed by the system and if they can't figure out how to help these students it will effect the rest of their lives, they can't get those years back to be able to learn.