Top Schools: Is This Really the School of the Future?

Philadelphia's Microsoft- designed high school opened its doors last week. Has the district unlocked the secret to raising achivement, or did it inadvertently buy a blueprint for the corporate takeover of public schools?

Paul Vallas is obsessed with partnering.

Since becoming the CEO of the School District of Philadelphia four years ago, after dramatically turning around Chicago’s failing public schools, Vallas has asked some of the world’s biggest companies, most prestigious research institutions and best-known universities to help the district do something — anything — to improve student performance. “It’s always the first thing out of my mouth,” he says. “‘So, would you like to partner with a school?’”

It’s no surprise, then, that as Vallas was having a routine meeting with a couple of representatives from computer giant Microsoft in December 2003, he opened his mouth wide. Vallas may not be any more tech-savvy than his 11-year-old, but he knows an opportunity when he sees one: Instead of merely providing curriculum materials, or internships, or experts, as other corporations have done, would Microsoft consider designing an entire school — would it build a new model of learning from scratch?

Microsoft ran with it. Within two weeks, the reps had sent Vallas’s idea up the chain of command and gotten a green light. Within a month, the district and the company had agreed to build a state-of-the-art high school. Now, less than three years later, 170 freshmen are about to walk into a brand-new building at 41st and Parkside in West Philadelphia. They’ll pass through a hidden weapons-detection system and step into a wide corridor dubbed “Main Street.” They’ll swipe their “smart cards,” and a screen will display their photographs and register their attendance. They’ll move quickly, carrying only a small laptop from class to class and home at night (no more overloaded backpacks). Passing the administrative offices and the “interactive learning center” (read: a library without books), they’ll come to a mall-style food court, where purchases will be tracked with the same card. (No more telling Mom you had broccoli while really subsisting on Kit Kats and Snapple.) In the gym, plasma-screen televisions and video cameras will bring pro-style instant-replay access to the varsity level, and outside, a futuristic anti-graffiti coating on the walls will make washing off tags easier. This technological utopia of high-density fiber-optic cable will be virtually paperless, although there will be printers on hand (just in case). And the entire building — a green building, complete with solar panels and grassy roof — is wired, powered and online.

This is the culmination of Vallas’s shot-in-the-dark suggestion: the School of the Future, an experiment that integrates technology into every aspect of the educational environment and promises to make the city a beacon for school reformers nationwide. And we have Microsoft to thank for it all.

Well, not exactly all: Despite public misperceptions, the $280 billion company hasn’t come down from the mountain in Redmond, Washington, with a checkbook. Philadelphia is picking up the whole tab, to the tune of $65 million. What we do have to thank Microsoft for is providing the district with consultants, technological expertise, the opportunity to copy Microsoft management practices, and, finally, the Microsoft brand itself, with its power to open doors around the world and create reams of jargon at home.

Philadelphia educators, of course, are hoping that this investment will pay off by sparking an education revolution in the inner city, but Microsoft’s vision is even bigger: for schools to be built around the country and even the world. That’s the company’s rationale for not putting up the money: Not only is Microsoft not a philanthropy, but its ultimate goal isn’t to give a gift to Philadelphia — it’s to create a template. Its dream is to see a thousand Schools of the Future bloom, and a million tech-savvy young people qualified to take their places, as employees or customers, in the Microsoft world.

ANTHONY SALCITO, the general manager of education for Microsoft, is much younger than you’d expect. Tall and thin, with an athletic build and spiky gelled black hair, he seems like the kind of guy who would coach a Little League team on the side. He makes no bones about the fact that Microsoft’s interest in the education business is just that — a business interest.

“Our efforts for education really are to set the groundwork for the future — both the future employees that work for Microsoft, and the future employees that work for the companies we want to sell to,” he says inside a conference room at Microsoft’s Manhattan office, whose modular design looks kind of like — could it be? — the School of the Future’s. “So there is obviously not a pure, altruistic focus on education, because we want to make sure that students have the skills, not only to be active members of society, but also [to be people] we could potentially hire back to the company.”

In fact, when Vallas approached Microsoft with the idea, the company was already considering building just such a facility on its Redmond campus. Schools had been approaching Microsoft with requests to see a working model — “showroom” is a better word — of a high-tech school environment. Instead of an Epcot-esque model of a school of the future, Microsoft created the real thing. Now customers interested in seeing just what technology can do in the classroom need venture no farther than the City of Brotherly Love.

Some of the software the school will use is Microsoft’s — for instance, the company is developing a program that will help teachers create different lessons for students in the same class, in order to reach kids at different levels of understanding — but some is not. The School of the Future isn’t required by contract to purchase anything, and that’s not what Microsoft wants, anyway.

“For us, it’s not about how to sell more products into education,” Salcito explains. “Our technology is in every classroom now. … We want people saying, ‘I need more technology — I need you to create better products, I need you to add more features.’”

Salcito wants education to drive corporate research and development, wants education to rely on technology, and wants educators to rely on the management practices that Microsoft uses. No matter what kind of problem a public school faces — whether it’s designing a mandatory online class for students in the state of Michigan, or expanding a “turnaround” program that, in partnership with the University of Virginia, teaches principals and teachers how to diagnose and fix a failing school — he wants educators to see Microsoft as the ultimate solution.

IN FEBRUARY 2005, Microsoft founder Bill Gates famously declared to a roomful of governors and national education leaders that “America’s high schools are obsolete.” He threw in the adjectives “flawed” and “broken” for good measure, then really drove the point home: “[O]ur high schools — even when they’re working exactly as designed — cannot teach our kids what they need to know today.”

Looking at Philadelphia, it’s hard to argue with him. The district, whose dire straits forced a state takeover in 2001, doesn’t have a single non-magnet public high school capable of passing No Child Left Behind’s Adequate Yearly Progress tests. According to a report issued by Philadelphia Safe and Sound, less than two-thirds of district students graduate within four years, and more than a quarter of high-schoolers drop out before graduation. Those who do stay in school frequently perform poorly on standardized tests: In 2005, the 52 percent of students at West Philadelphia High who took the SATs garnered an average math score of 320, with an average verbal score of 322. (This summer, the district announced that its 11th graders had improved Pennsylvania System of School Assessment, or PSSA, test scores for the second straight year, though only one-third reached the advanced or proficient levels in reading, and barely more than a quarter in math.)

The School of the Future sits in the Parkside neighborhood, a largely African- American community of rowhomes where 23 percent of residents live below the federal poverty line. Unlike at the other three high schools Philadelphia is unveiling this month — a science leadership academy with the Franklin Institute, a civics-oriented academy with the National Constitution Center, and a new branch of the magnet school Central, all of which have entrance requirements — admission to the School of the Future is determined solely by lottery. Seventy-five percent of the freshman class was pulled from West Philadelphia, and the remainder from the rest of the city. (Each year, another class will be added until the total student population of 750 is reached.) Race and income demographics of the first class haven’t been released, but district officials say the student population is largely African-American and low-income.

There may be no prerequisites to attend the school, but there will be special requirements to graduate: The students must not just pass the 11th-grade PSSA, but must pass at the proficient level. And they must all apply to a four-year college or university — a far cry from neighboring West Philadelphia High, where a mere 10 percent of seniors attend a four-year college and another 15 percent go off to two-year colleges. The school is a technology school, but both Microsoft and the city maintain that technology is only a piece of the puzzle. The goal is to create a total learning environment built on the Microsoft principles of “adaptive, relevant and continuous.” Students will travel for four years with an electronic portfolio of their work, making it easy to measure their progress. They’ll study the environmentally friendly building in their science classes, and join their teachers — hired in a process mirroring Microsoft’s — and members of the community at regular “teach-ins.” Learning will no longer be divided into subjects (or “silos,” as they’re called in education-speak), but will be interdisciplinary. And thanks to laptops, field trips and video-conferencing, it can happen anytime and anywhere.

The arrangement with Microsoft isn’t one of private management per se: Microsoft won’t be running the School of the Future in the way that Edison runs 22 Philadelphia schools (47 of the district’s 273 schools are privately managed) or the University of Pennsylvania runs the Penn Alexander school. But the very existence of a partnership with such a corporate giant is proof of a fundamental shift in how public and private have bled into one another. Cash-strapped, de-funded urban districts need to boost student achievement, and increasingly, they turn to rich corporations for solutions.

Microsoft isn’t the School of the Future’s only partner. The Philadelphia Zoo will be involved in teaching the environmental sciences; the West Park Cultural Center is helping to program after-school activities; and TakingITGlobal, a Canadian company, has created “virtual classrooms” — online forums in which faculty can exchange ideas and plan curricula — and “online communities” for the students. The National Constitution Center and its school will also be involved — perhaps providing materials, or collaborating on student symposiums. Graduate students at Drexel’s College of Media Arts & Design are helping the students design their uniforms. Drexel will also be hosting the school’s 22 servers.

But Microsoft is the school’s most important partner, because Microsoft hasn’t just helped design the building, provided the gizmos, and opened doors to experts around the world. Microsoft has shaped the process of school planning, providing a healthy dose of can-do spirit and an excess of its own jargon. If it’s worked for Microsoft, the thinking has been, it will work for Philadelphia.

There are two big misconceptions about the School of the Future. The first is that Microsoft is paying for it. The second is that it is a Gates Foundation school, one of the thousands of high schools around the country that have received money from Bill Gates’s philanthropic organization. (So far, more than $1 billion has been invested.) The foundation focuses on improving high-school graduation rates by funding small schools of 200 to 600 students, and frequently bankrolls technology-based initiatives. But the School of the Future is not a Gates School. It has nothing to do with the Gates Foundation philanthropy.

Microsoft is, naturally, drawing on research done by the Gates Foundation, and some of its philosophy; certainly, the Gateses’ focus on college prep is important to the SOF, and the foundation’s principles of “rigor, relevance and relationships” are echoed in conversations between the district and the company about teaching and learning. Given the similarities in philosophy, you’d be forgiven for asking why Philadelphia didn’t just sidestep the whole $65 million thing and get grant money from Gates. Well, the district tried. Gates said no. But it turns out the city may be better off with Microsoft than with Gates, anyway. A recent report put out by the foundation’s own researchers, studying the 2003-’04 school year (in schools it had been funding for three or fewer years), discovered a mixed record, measuring small gains in reading but finding “no evidence of ­foundation-supported schools making progress in mathematics achievement.”

It’s too early to weigh in definitively on the Gates schools, but certainly the foundation is no panacea: It admits as much, citing staff members’ “deep concern regarding the additional needs of their students,” from “a lack of parental supervision” and “being parents themselves” to “drugs and violence in the home.” Trying to get students up to speed when many arrive “without the necessary basic skills” is no easy task. Even so, when the data were controlled for “prior achievement,” the foundation schools scored lower on math than regular schools.

So the School of the Future is more than a school — it’s a working laboratory. As everybody knows, laboratories sometimes make mistakes.

Of course, a mistake made at the SOF would almost undoubtedly be better than what’s tried-and-true at West Philly or Kensington High. And parents are excited by the new opportunities for their kids. Aissia Richardson, vice president of operations at the African American United Fund and president of the Home and School Association at Samuel Powel elementary school, lives three blocks from the school and can’t wait for it to open. “Anything that is helping people, particularly African-Americans, access technology is a good thing,” she says. An education activist who has plenty of problems with the district, Richardson thinks the Microsoft project will help the neighborhood return to good times, that the school will “spur the synergy” of economic development (and maybe get the streets fixed). And she’s looking forward to the day when her nine-year-old will be ready to attend.

By then, the Microsoft model may have seeped out of the School of the Future. Research done on the Microsoft school will be applied to the district’s classroom modernization program, which introduces the latest in technology into every Philadelphia classroom. “I’m never going to have the resources to replace and renovate all buildings,” Vallas says, “but it is possible to renovate every classroom. You can design a classroom that, with a superior curriculum and instruction models, combined with the latest technology, creates a learning model equal if not superior to that of the most affluent suburbs.”
For other districts, the Microsoft model may have laid the groundwork for corporations to design high schools from scratch. “I think this whole concept of partnering with universities and corporations and research institutions really is the model of the future,” Vallas says. “The strong external partners can give schools an identity, raise the schools’ profile, make them more attractive. It can help ensure a higher quality. I think you’ll see more and more cities doing this kind of thing.”

And that, as far as he is concerned, is a great thing — especially for poor city districts. Could it even, 10 or 20 years down the road, put city kids at an advantage over their suburban neighbors?

“I hope so!” laughs Vallas.

MICROSOFT BRANDS EVERYTHING it does with Microsoft-speak. Probably the best example of this “Anything you can do, Microsoft can say better” attitude is the “competency wheel,” a pie chart listing different skills that employees — that is, faculty — should demonstrate.

Microsoft has a competency wheel, and Mary Cullinane thought the school should have one, too. Cullinane heads the company’s U.S. Partners in Learning program and is the school’s “technology architect.” She’s been the liaison to the school from the very beginning, calling in experts, bringing people together, and acting as a project manager. She is a hyper-efficient enthusiast for the school — an evangelist, really — and always on message. Her role, she says, is to be a “critical friend.”

The 37 competencies on the wheel she helped to produce include things like “creativity,” “dealing with ambiguity,” “time management,” “vision and purpose,” “presentation skills” and “integrity and trust.” One would think you wouldn’t need a wheel to tell you that “time management” is an important criteria for succeeding as a teacher (or as anything else), but in this era of leadership training and corporate retreats, one can never have too much professional development. The wheel comes with interview questions to guide the hiring process and suggestions for developing the skills—and not only do new hires have to demonstrate the competencies, but the students have 11 competencies of their own to master before graduation.

Interviews for positions with the SOF used Microsoft protocols, too—a “behavioral model” that, in true maverick fashion, stresses role-playing and problem-solving in lieu of sitting and talking about a résumé. Shirley Grover, the school’s new principal and “Chief Learner,” hasn’t just used these methods to hire her staff, who come from Taiwan, Spain, Italy and elsewhere — she’s “competent,” too.

Grover comes here from Milan, where she spent 11 years at the American School, the last seven as head. She talks fast, and she doesn’t take breaths. Her words spill out of her, but she pronounces them crisply, stressing the hard “t” in “importance.” It’s hard to get a word in edgewise.

Ask her a question about the school’s external partners, and she’ll tell you not only that the SOF is going to work with a school in Tanjiang, China, but that video- and audio-conferencing technology is going to help her students learn other languages, because she’s seen teenagers reach across cultures and language barriers, and nothing stops them from communicating with each other — although sure, of course, the best way to learn another language would be to live abroad, but let’s be honest, Philadelphia can’t afford that. And then she’s off and running again.

Grover is no stranger to a corporate presence in education. As superintendent of schools in Scarborough, Maine, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, she oversaw a program in which Blue Cross/Blue Shield paid for half-year teacher “sabbaticals”—­sabbaticals during which teachers were sent to Blue Cross/Blue Shield offices to work (not exactly a semester in Paris). Some handled customer complaints and applications; some were in marketing; some worked in annuities. The result? Grover says, “The whole customer orientation changed for us. Schools have been such closed systems that customer orientation is always what we have to work on.” Today’s “customers,” meet yesterday’s “students.”

The district is hoping, too, that the high-profile nature of the Microsoft project will attract some new “customers” — adults and students — to the city. James E. Nevels, chairman of the School Reform Commission, characterizes the district as an “economic engine” of the city. After years of pushing tourism and publicizing the city’s universities, Philadelphia is turning to technology as a way to attract attention. It’s worked: The School of the Future, and the Wireless Philadelphia initiative, have landed press in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and ABC News, to name a few. And the school-opening ceremony in September, though it probably won’t be attended by a certain billionaire, will no doubt usher in another round of publicity.

As Ed Schwartz of the Institute for the Study of Civil Values points out, “Schools and crime compete for the number-one reason people leave the city.” Twenty percent of kids in Philadelphia are currently enrolled in non-public schools. If the School of the Future makes a splash, parents whose kids can’t get into CAPA or Central and who otherwise would hightail it to the suburbs might stick around.

The school “is a symbolic statement to the community and to the city at large that the Philadelphia School District is ready to do what it takes to be innovative and entrepreneurial about educational opportunity,” insists Nevels. “We believe that ultimately that will enhance our market share and that it will in fact keep people in the system who might otherwise not be.”

“Market share.” “Economic engine.” “Customer orientation.” This is a school of the future.

The students of the future, of course, don’t come from the future: Some are gifted and talented, some are in special education, some need remediation. Nor do they live in the homes of the future. Although a certain amount of self-selection must have dictated who participated in the 1,500-entrant School of the Future lottery — it’s doubtful that a kid with no parent support and no experience with computers would sign up — the freshman class is bound to be facing challenges that a laptop and a new building can’t fix. Maybe the strategies of the information technology industry will take root in, or even change, families who struggle with unemployment, crime, drugs, gangs and urban ills. Maybe they won’t. Microsoft might help students video-conference with Tanjiang, but it can’t create a parent who helps with the homework, or a neighborhood free from drug corners, or friends who don’t think studying is for losers.

“I hope that Philadelphia becomes the center of a debate that asks, ‘What’s a better learning environment that we can create?’” says Microsoft’s Mary Cullinane. For her, that doesn’t just mean new lesson plans. It doesn’t just mean new computers. It means “better strategic practices, better hiring practices, more efficiencies — not going back to looking for the silver bullet that’s going to change education, because that silver bullet does not exist.” Now, an adaptive, continuous, relevant bullet just might be another matter all together.

Christine Smallwood, the assistant literary editor of The Nation, has written for Salon, the New York Observer and the Philadelphia Independent, and is co-editor of the Crier magazine.