In 2003, Microsoft Corporation went into a partnership with the Philadelphia public schools to build and staff a brand-new high school called “The School of the Future” in the middle of a West Philadelphia low-income, African American neighborhood. Microsoft would supply the technological expertise and the district would staff and operate the school. The mission: prepare youth to go to college and enter the high-tech information-saturated workplace prepared to get entry-level jobs and launch careers.
In 2006, this shining new eco-sensitive, high-tech school, adjacent to a large park and the city’s zoo, costing $62 million opened for 750 students. Students were chosen by lottery. The founders and district leaders were committed to educating students–called “learners”–to use software-laden laptops using a Microsoft developed portal rather than printed textbooks. A shining new media center, science labs galore, and especially equipped classrooms supported interdisciplinary projects and team-driven projects driven by students’ interests. The facility sparkled. As did the hopes and dreams of the teachers, “learners”, and parents.
In 2012, School of the Future graduated its first class of 117 seniors–three years after it opened and every single one was admitted to college. But it was a rocky ride for these largely poor and African American graduates and subsequent classes.
Frequent changes in principals, unstable funding from district–the state had taken over the Philadelphia schools–mediocre academic achievement, and troubles with technologies–devices became obsolete within a few years–made the initial years most difficult in reaching the goals so admirably laid out in the prospectus for the school.
In 2018, the School of Future remains in operation but even with its surfeit of technology devices and software SOF has slowly become similar to traditional schools elsewhere in its district in its goals, policies, and practices (see here, here, and here).
At one point this school functioned very much through technology….Where our innovation is now is to get back to the fundamentals of what an educational academic program is supposed to be like, and how you get technology to mirror or augment that.
Part of those “fundamentals” is having a regular school day of seven 56-minute periods like most high schools with an 11-minute hiatus for what used to be called “home room.” Textbooks have returned as have paper and pencil. While project-based learning occurs in different academic subjects, state standards, yearly testing, and accountability have pressed both administration and faculty to focus on getting better-than-average test scores and graduating most of their students–SOF exceeds other district high schools in the percentage they graduate.
This slippage from grand opening of a futuristic school to one resembling a traditional high school is common in public schooling as it is in other institutions.
Why is there this slow movement back from a school built for the future to the traditional model of schooling as seen in New York’s Downtown School (Part 1) and here in Philadelphia’s School of Future?
I have one but surely not the only answer. Designers of future schools and innovations overestimate the potency of their vision and product and underestimate the power of the age-graded school’s structure and culture (fully supported by societal beliefs) that sustain traditional models of schooling. That see-saw of underestimation vs. overestimation neatly summarizes the frequent cycles of designers’ exhilaration with a reform slowly curdling into disappointment as years pass.
The overestimation of a design to alter the familiar traditional school has occurred time and again when reformers with full wallets, seeing how out of touch educators were as changes in society accelerated, created new schools chock-a-block across the country in the 1960s such as “free schools” and non-graded schools (see here and here).
Within a decade, founders of these schools of the future had departed, either burned out or because they had ignored politically the two constituencies of parents and teachers who had to be involved from the start but were not. These well intentioned reformers also ignored how the structures and culture of the age-graded school have been thoroughly accepted by most parents and teachers as “real schools.”
Designers of reform seldom think about the inherent stability of the institution that they want to transform. They seldom think about the strong social beliefs of taxpayers, voters, teachers, and parents who have sat in age-graded schools and who sustain generation after generation the “grammar of schooling.”
From daily schedules of 50-minute periods to the fact that teachers ask questions far more than students during lessons to the use of textbooks, homework, and frequent tests–these features of the “grammar of schooling” or what Seymour Sarason in The Culture of the School and the Problem of Change, called the “regularities” of schooling–persist generation after generation. While they exaggerate the reform they champion, they neglect the influences of organizational structures and cultures.
Some designers give up. They realize that their grand visions cannot be accommodated by public schools quickly so they create schools of the future in private venues such as “micro-schools” or the Khan Lab School and the like.
The notion of mindful incremental change over a lengthy period of time in the direction of gradually building a “school of the future” is anathema to fired-up, amply funded designers who see their visions enacted in one fell swoop. Thus, disappointment arises when futuristic schools slip back into routines that designers scorned. Regression to the mean smells like failure to these reformers who underestimated the power of the “grammar of schooling.”