Creating New Schools: Regression To the Mean (Part 2)

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).

As Richard Sherin, principal or “Chief Learner” since 2014 said:

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.”








Filed under Reforming schools, technology use

17 responses to “Creating New Schools: Regression To the Mean (Part 2)

  1. Radical and innovative school models fall prey to an inherent law of education that makes scalability or even sustainability virtually impossible. The law simply states that intensity of an educational program is inversely related to its duration or sustainability.

    Like all scientific laws, this to is immutable:

    The other law of education that all educators (real and reformer alike) should be aware of states that, family and community culture sets the limitations (constrains) school culture. The tail never wags the dog for very long or for in any significant way. Reformers consider this immutable truth and try to improve the culture of families and communities through economic policies and jobs programs.


    • larrycuban

      Thanks for the comment, Rick. Scientific laws in schooling children? And “immutable?” That’s news to me.

      • A little hyperbolic, but not by much. Can you think of any intensive educational program, policy, or product that worked at scale and was sustainable? I can’t.

        From Larry: Consider the following innovations that became incorporated into schooling and went to scale: the age-graded school; kindergarten; junior high school; the Carnegie unit; comprehensive high school; Advanced Placement courses; online learning. OK?

  2. David F

    I live in Philly and visited this school—lots of cool bells and whistles, but I couldn’t help but think of the costs of replacing all the shiny tech when it wasn’t so shiny anymore. Without a sustained funding apparatus, these types of schools–and schools which invest heavily in ed tech (like the $1 billion for the LAUSD)–will constantly be demanding more funds. Reformers may not like it, but traditional schools can operate MUCH more cheaply.

    A quick example of the latter: my school (around 1000 students) purchased new World History textbooks. Our tech people wanted my dept to have a ebook format. However, when comparing costs, the hardback edition is around $100 and we’ll get 10 years use out of the books, while the ebook offered has a 1 year cost of $15.47. The ebook might make sense if one is a college student purchasing textbooks out-of-pocket, but not for institutions. We went with the hardback (not to mention the differences in ebooks vs print in reading comprehension).

  3. There are just so many things that can go wrong in a school like this. As a school IT guy I can see the IT support requirement for something like this is at least a magnitude greater that a regular school. The tech knowledge required of just the teaching staff sky rockets. Finding IT staff willing to accept public school pay and still have the level of knowledge and skill is very difficult. The numbers are not there. It would require constant support from an outfit like Microsoft just to provide the IT staff numbers. I also look at the professional development required of the the teaching staff. This would not be a one day in-service before school but weeks of serious training with the tech, the pedagogy, the curriculum and a dozen things I cannot even think of. PD is so overlooked in situations like this. Any new teacher coming into this school would require this extensive PD, they would not be able to walk in from a traditional school or college and succeed. Teachers are trained and experienced with the traditional school format. Walking into a school like this is far from an easy transition. The tendency will be so go to what you know no matter what the intent or philosophy of the school.

  4. Laura H. Chapman

    Longish. The grammar of schooling…grade levels, texts, teacher as sage-on-the-stage, and the like have been retained in no small part by
    —the structure of adult work-weeks and need to park young people in a reasonably safe place while educating them. Homeschoolers have some freedoms of action not available to most families today. Even the calendar year remains in place without the old reasoning with kids working at peak times in an agricultural economy.
    —the business of selling texts and tests and providing services to schools add to the difficulty that entrepreneurs have in scaling up versions of pilot programs. More than one person has observed that much of the fare offered by the tech industry is not much more than conventional content, including the equivalent of online worksheets.
    —almost all parochial schools are models of alternative education, but Montessori schools can be said to be an “alternative” now integrated into public education. Montessori education (beginning in 1911) benefitted from having a charismatic leader. The model includes authorized teacher education, authorized instructional materials, and techniques for delegitimizing challengers (or making a split from orthodox instruction explicit), capacity to expand from an anchor in early education to high school, and so on. Today’s entrepreneurs are not very patient workers in education. They want to prototype and scale up as if rapid disruptive change is wonderful.
    — the flow of funds into entrepreneurial work in education, recently to exploit mobile tech, is being offered up as a cure for “ the factory models” and place-based education. “Anywhere, anytime education” is the official mission of the US Department of Education’s Office of Educational Technology. That mission is tied to the belief that education SHOULD be outsourced to a host of service providers who will award digital badges for competencies in lieu of grades and diplomas.
    —in the decades ahead I think that the major shapers of education will be federally authorized and subsidized profit-seeking entities (including foundations and LLCs) aided by economists whose metrics are essential in marketing new models. In the degree that profits can be made by not challenging what you aptly call “the grammar of schooling,” little will have changed except who is empowered and excluded from decision-making. Not many people are paying attention to the PR on behalf of privatizing all social services and public properties. Here is a remarkably able and devoted tracker of this third sector and the emergence of so-called social impact “partnerships” (notably for preschool programs).

    • larrycuban

      Surely, “Pay for Success” was under my radar. I didn’t know about it at all. So thanks, Laura, for noting it and the post of the parent who attended the meeting at the Dirksen building on Capitol Hill. The proposal to merge U.S. Departments of Labor and Education which would further marry education to jobs–as if enough of that has not occurred in over three decades of reform–probably won’t go very far with Congress but under this Administration, “Pay for Success” and similar proposals surely have support–sad to say. Thanks for comment.

      • Laura H. Chapman

        Pay for success contracts are permitted under ESSA and Obama put $200 million into several “incubators for PFS programs, also known as social impact bonds. A major incubator was Harvard. The Obama administration put $200 million into incubating these financial products, and ESSA authorizes their use to address problems in education, specifically for “Prevention And Intervention Programs For Children And Youth Who Are Neglected, Delinquent, Or At-Risk” in Title I, Part D, Section 4108 (I).

        Pay for success contracts date back to 2011, but are now marketed internationally. The contracts are designed to assert that social and civic services can be delivered better, and with more bang for the bock, if taken over by investors and their representatives who know to scale up worthy efforts, make them more efficient, and lower costs. If the public agency agrees to the terms of the contract, the “savings” from the improved service and lower costs are paid to the investors. Investors expect to make from 7% to 13% ROI depending on the contract.

      • larrycuban

        Thanks for the info, Laura.

  5. mike g

    Great blog.

    I have definitely been guilty of your over and under-estimations.

    I think the reformer like me also underestimates, by a factor of perhaps 10x or more, the staff time it would take to make any “new school design” coherent.

    The teachers need good answers to a million interlocking detail questions. The reformer like me fails to have those readily available. Perhaps there’s a week in August and then perhaps ~25 hours together spread out during the year. But you might really need ~500 contact hours to reason through (and then codify, and then train on, and then stress test, and then fix) all the details.

    • larrycuban

      Couldn’t agree more, Mike, about continuous, sustained, and targeted professional development for any new school design is a basic requirement. Thanks for the comment.

    • The reform movement has been pretty clueless in general. The parade of failure almost endless.
      > Institutional inertia is far more powerful than you imagined.
      > Classrooms are not filled with serious, ambitious, energized, self- motivated mini-adults like you. Reformers really don’t understand classroom dynamics at all. The chemistry of 25+ students and the fatigue of familiarity. Everyone has a great lesson plan until their class of 7th graders files in after a 90 F lunch/recess!
      > You completely failed to understand the grind of teaching. Five or six periods per day, multiple preps, 25+ students per class; 125+ assignments to grade on at least a weekly basis; 180 days filled with relentless interruptions; fire drills, bus drills, assemblies, parent contacts, meetings, committees, extra curricular duties, and more.

      And now you have a “new” product or program that you think will revolutionize teaching and learning, but no one has the energy or time to give it a second thought.

      • larrycuban

        You summed up pieces of the “grammar of schooling” quite well, Rick. Thanks for comment.

  6. Hi Larry,

    Since 2006, the Science Leadership Academy – a magnet school in Philadelphia led by principal Chris Lehmann – has show consistent gains while still maintaining a curriculum based on deep inquiry and project based learning. Do you think their success could be primarily attributed to the consistent leadership? It’s interesting that two seemingly similar schools (at least in mission) could have such different experiences.


    • larrycuban

      There are lots of possible factors that go into the Science Leadership Academy–success (don’t know for sure what definition is). Stable leadership is surely one. As if continuous andstable staffing and professional development. Also student and teacher demography. I could go on but get the direction I am going, Beth. Thanks for comment.

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