Imagining the School of the Future



Margaret Hayes never stops working. Taking a break at the Philadelphia Art Museum during the fall Roundtable meeting, the Scotch Plains-Fanwood superintendent began to think about the relationships between art, the Internet and learning. Although impressed with the collection when she wandered around on her own, says Hayes. “It was only when we toured the museum with a docent that I fully understood what I was looking at. The docent provided new eyes to look at what I’d seen before. That’s the value of a good teacher. Students can open any website. How do they make sense of what they see?” This insight was immediately dubbed “Margaret’s metaphor.”

That was just one of many perceptive comments during the Philadelphia meeting to imagine the American School of the Future.  It was a long, tiring and full meeting, but it was rich and powerful.  One veteran superintendent from the East coast declared it to the “best meeting I have ever attended.”  “It was a WONDERFUL experience,” said another, from the Pacific.  Yet a third, also from the East, commented that the difference between this experience and other meetings he had attended recently was like “night and day.”  Among the reasons for the excitement: A global award-winning high school automotive design team agreed to carry the Roundtable logo on its entry into the competition for the $10 million Automotive X-Prize!

The meeting was bookmarked by stunning presentations from students, the first from the Concert Choir at Philadelphia’s High School for the Creative and Performing Arts, the second from the EVX automotive design students from the West Philadelphia HIgh School for Automotive and Mechanical Engineering. It included a welcome from Arlene Ackerman, superintendent of Philadelphia Public Schools and presentations from Anthony Salcito, Microsoft’s global vice president for education, Arnold Packer, former director of the US Secretary of Labor’s SCANS Commission, and C. Kent McGuire, Dean of the College of Education, Temple University.  Other highlights included presentations from leaders of Philadelphia’s High School of the Future,  the Science Leadership Academy, and Harrisburg’s SciTech High.  Rounding out the agenda: dinner and a guided tour of the enormous collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

How to absorb all of this? Superintendents  Steven Ladd (Elk Grove, California) and Gloria Davis (Decatur, Illinois) led two very powerful group reflections on what we had seen and what it meant for superintendents back in their districts..

Several themes developed throughout the weekend. Among them:

  • Islands of genuine educational excellence exist.
  • Schools of the future are not about technology, but about people.
  • Students can be held to very high and demanding standards.
  • Effective schools have a license to pursue their vision
  • Passionate teachers need “space” to develop excellence.
  • Leadership stability is important.
  • Education nationally is at a crossroads

Islands of genuine educational excellence exist even amidst the most difficult circumstances

The impact of the two groups of students from CAPA and the West Philadelphia Academy (along with the evidence of hard and determined work evident during the site visits) had to be experienced to be believed.  The 40-member CAPA choir delivered professional quality performances with a medley of songs ranging from spirituals to Broadway standards.  It wasn’t clear who worked harder: the choir members with their magnificent voices and beautiful harmony or choir director Dorina Morrow, who strained every sinew to get the most out of her charges.  During the standing ovation the choir earned, one superintendent said to another: “It’s really something to see these kids putting so much into something they care about. It’s enough to bring tears to your eyes.”

“I know there are excellent programs like CAPA and the West Philadelphia Automotive Academy here in our city,” said Arlene Ackerman during her welcoming remarks. “Rosalind Chivis of the School for the Future and Chris Lehmann at the Science Leadership Academy are outstanding principals. But most of our students, unfortunately, don’t have access to programs of this quality. Our task is to make this kind of education available to all.”

The EVX team members closed out the student presentations. They are practically global celebrities, appearing with Jenna Bush Hager on the Today Show and on Youtube:

Out of more than 100 entries worldwide in the competition to build a competitive automobile capable of getting 100 miles per gallon, the West Philly EVX team has already made it into the final round of 43.  Months ago Mechanics Illustrated considered the EVX team to be among the top ten contestants.  These young people, and their mentors, Simon Hauger and Ann Cohen, provided impressive evidence that students’ passion can be harnessed to academic goals to produce remarkable results.  Azeem Hill hopes to go into public relations.  Karysma Cambridge wants to race cars (like her mother) and build them (like her father).  Sekou Kamara is still sorting out his options.
In addition to the student presentations, Roundtable members were impressed with the discussions of specific educational programs that they heard during their site visits.

  • Chris Lehmann and his team at the Science Leadership Academy are guided by what he called “an ethic of care.” Every professional in the building is responsible for advising 20 students, building relationships that last beyond graduation. A college-prep program driven by project-based learning, SLA is guided by five values: inquiry, research, collaboration, presentation, and reflection. These values were abundantly and transparently evident as Lehmann invited the Roundtable to tour his school and step into classrooms at will.
  • Harrisburg Superintendent Gerald Kohn and Principal Michael Reed of SciTech High described a turnaround in inner-city education in Harrisburg.  When he arrived in the district eight years ago, Kohn found a system with a 50% housing transiency rate and 93% of the students living in poverty and 96% minority, and graduation rates of about 50%. In five years from 2004 to 2009, the new SciTech High transformed learning opportunities for students in these circumstances.  Reed played a powerful video showing that in 2009, SciTech High, a magnet school enrolling a population that is 94% minority and 85% economically disadvantaged, graduated 100% of its students, all of whom were accepted to college.
  • Philadelphia’s High School of the Future hasn’t been without its problems.  Rosalind Chivis, the lead learner, is the fourth chief administrator in less than two years and Arlene Ackerman the third superintendent to hold office since it was planned.  A cachement area school dealing with homelessness and all the other ills of urban life, SoF is a partnership with Microsoft that set out to create best practice and bring it to scale.  It has been a cautionary tale for reformers in both think tanks and corporations, but even here Chivis shines a bright light on the possibilities.  “State standards will be our floor, not our goal,” she asserts. “We are trying to create a way of educating learners where the learners create what their secondary education will be.”  Chivis hints that the school was launched without everything in place and acknowledges that its curricular focus has moved and shifted as leadership changed.  “We’re now planning how to move ahead,” she concludes, “and I’m determined that we won’t implement anything until we are sure we can implement it properly.”

In sum, despite all the gloom and doom about American schools, islands of genuine excellence exist, created and built by educators who understand what is at stake and what they are doing.

Schools of the future are not about technology, but about people

Building a school for the future “is not about technology,” declared Anthony Salcito, Microsoft’s global vice president for education.  “It’s about people, processes, and the environment.”  In an impressive keynote address, Salcito held that these three factors are what make change possible.

For a lot of educators and policymakers, he said, “technology starts with acquisition, with buying ‘stuff.’  But no one knows how to use it.”  The technology isn’t aligned with the curriculum and assessments aren’t aligned with what’s on the teacher’s desktop.  “You will never hear me blaming teachers,” said Salcito.  “I think that leads to fear, uncertainty, and doubt.”

He went on to argue for integrating technology better into the teaching and learning environment (and not pursuing a policy of “technology first”), and defined the school of th future as an effort to push “innovation for all, to raise expectations for students and teachers — not just for the best students and most outstanding teachers, but for all of them.”

The strategy, he suggested, should be a “people first” approach that asks hard questions.  Microsoft’s analyses revealed, he reported, that what parents and students in challenging circumstances want is “safety, not gadgets.” That’s the first priority.  Then we need to start asking ourselves:  How do I deliver? What do kids want? How do I connect with students and parents? How do we get students excited? And what do we need to do to make sure students can access information?

Building from learning needs, not technology, requires creating a common vision and knowing what customers need. In that regard Salcito suggested a repetitive innovation cycle known as the “6i” process could be an essential tool:  introspection, investigation, inclusion, innovation, implementation, and introspection. The point, he noted is that innovation needs to be holistic and schools need to build structures that are “continuous, relevant and adaptive.”

Concluded Salcito:  “Data doesn’t do anything on its own.  It gives us a huge opportunity to define what individual students need, but we have to recognize and embrace what students are in school for.”  Or to put it another way:  schools of the future aren’t about technology, but about kids.

Students can be held to very high and demanding standards

Visiting a 10th-grade history class at the Science Learning Academy, Roundtable superintendents had the opportunity to sit in on a mock trial of Hernando Cortez. Cortez, of course, defeated Montezuma and the Aztec Empire Montezuma ruled.  Did he bring the blessings of European civilization to backward South American tribes?  Or was he a despoiler, an imperialist who stole the Aztec patrimony for the benefit of Spain, dooming thousands of natives to death in the process via violence and smallpox?  Mock trials of Cortez (and of Columbus and others), offer students a way to explore these competing narratives.

Such a trial, involving teams of students acting as prosecutors and defense counsel, also offer SLA students a one-shot approach to the five values promoted by the school: inquiry, research, collaboration, presentation, and reflection.  On the evidence available in a short classroom visit, these students meet extremely high standards of scholarship and practicality.  Acting as historians and advocates, they brandished facts, figures and theories of action with a speed and confidence that would do any litigator proud.

“We assume every kid can learn what he or she has to learn,” says Harrisburg’s Kohn, describing the program at SciTech High. The school offers AP courses, but it also offers college-level courses.  “Our system had given up on these kids eight years ago,” says Kohn.  “Today, our students are getting college credit for their work.  In Johns Hopkins’ summer science courses for college credit for high school students, our kids are getting the highest grades,” he reports proudly.  It’s not easy. The students are expected to work hard.  “If students are not getting the material, they are automatically enrolled in the After School Advancement Program (ASAP), two mandatory after-school 90-minute periods when the teachers who required the student to attend stay to tutor them.” It’s difficult work to maintain high and demanding standards, acknowledges Kohn, but the proof is in the pudding:  100% graduation and college-attendance rates.

Think auto mechanics is a snap?  Try calculating fuel flow, weight, aerodynamics and air resistance — and how they influence fuel efficiency. Or estimate the potential value of taking 12 ounces off the suspension system to increase fuel efficiency against the risk of having the suspension snap amidst a long distance race, leaving you with a miles-per-gallon rate of 105 and ten gallons unused in a disabled car.

Music is a similar story. Very few people fall out of the sky with voices from heaven.  The CAPA students’ beautiful voices have been formed, developed and toned with scales and exercises to the point that they show professional promise.

Dorina Morrow proudly boasts that CAPA provides a comprehensive and sequenced program of study in the six arts disciplines (creative writing, dance, drama, instrumental music, vocal music, and visual arts) and rigorous pre-collegiate academic instruction across the curriculum.  Meanwhile CAPA’s Vocal Music Department includes choral singing in large and small ensembles, individual voice training and development, solfeggio (vocal exercises to teach sight reading), harmony, music theory, and composition. The department also offers students the opportunity to highlight significant community events with their splendid talent, in the process presenting to the world the best of Philadelphia and its schools and young people.

The point is that effective teachers and effective schools of the future will be able to hold students to very high and demanding standards, not because students need their noses held to a grindstone, but because they deserve the best and will thrive when presented with it.

Effective schools have a license to pursue their vision

Visiting classes in the Science Leadership Academy, Roundtable co-chair Les Omotani of Hewlett-Woodmere, New York had an epiphany. “I’m struck by the fact that when we go through these schools, the names on the door — School of the Future, Science Leadership Academy, SciTech High — aren’t necessarily reflected in what you see going on in the school.”

That doesn’t mean the schools are not wonderful schools, he hastened to add, but “when I look at the classrooms in the school of the future or SLA, I don’t see technologies or laboratories that we aren’t using at Hewlett High.  The science labs aren’t greatly different from labs in the 1950s and 1960s, with the exception of emergency showers.”

In a very real sense this insight confirms Salcito’s observation that transformation is not about technology. As a small group of superintendents discussed this comment, a sense emerged that it’s about relationships.  When a school seeks a special mission from a large urban district, it gets something else as well.  It gets a license to pursue a particular vision.  The vision and the license to pursue it are at least as important as the mission.

During the debriefing led by Steven Ladd, this sense was broadened and reaffirmed.  A group at one table reiterated that it is not about technology, but people, and that the title of the school is largely irrelevant to its success.  It is relationships and not a focus on the future that will determine the success of the School of the Future and it is the “ethic of caring” not science that is producing such strong results at SLA.

“It is shocking and startling to see what can happen when a group of people are pulling in the same direction,” reported SLA’s Lehmann.  “Everyone who comes here wants this and buys into the vision. The vision is that we want our graduates to be thoughtful, wise, passionate and kind.”

Passionate teachers need “space” to develop excellence

“I loved listening to the choir from the School for the Creative and Performing Arts,” said Simon Hauger of the West Philadelphia Academy for Automotive and Mechanical Engineering, leader of West Philly’s EVX team.  “That was a wonderful performance.  CAPA is a school that has clearly created space for that kind of excellence.  The question is how do you create space for passionate teachers and students to do this kind of thing?”

Eleven years ago, noted EVX program manager Ann Cohen, no one was talking about green cars. So the EVX program has an 11-year head start on the competition.  West Philadelphia High School enrolls about 1,000 students. The automotive academy, part of a Philadelphia Academies partnership with corporations, enrolls about 150 students; the EVX program involves perhaps two-dozen students after school.

EVX is one of 43 teams from around the world that were chosen in October 2009 for the next round of competition for the automotive X-Prize.  EVX is competing against a “Great China” team (including members from China, Hong Kong and Taiwan), Cornell University, Tata Motors of India (which purchased the Jaguar Motor Company in 2008), and teams from England, Finland, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Thailand, among others. All have passed a rigorous review of their business plans and initial technical specifications. They are now working to meet the challenges of the next technical qualification round, which will take place in Spring 2010.

These teams are working to design and build production-capable, super-efficient, clean vehicles that people want to buy.  Different teams include scientists, engineers, fuel specialists, corporate CEOs, Le Mans winners, Grand Prix drivers, as well as the high school students and teachers from West Philadelphia EVX.

This is a very big deal.  It demonstrates that given the space to develop their passion, American teachers can help students from one of the most impoverished and challenged communities in the United States compete with the best in the world.  And when the EVX team rolls out its final product, promised Hauger, the Roundtable logo will be displayed on it.

The passion of the teachers at SLA, said Lehmann, is for transformation.  With technology, he noted, it’s easy to continue to support the same kind of schools, along with some “shiny new toys.” What is needed, he argued, are transformed schools.  “As Neil Postman pointed out, when Gutenberg introduced the printing press you didn’t wind up with an old Europe and a new printing ability, you wound up with a transformed Europe” because it was now easier to break the old barriers between the literate and the illiterate.
We need to ask two questions, said Lehmann:  “Are we transforming schools with technology? And, are we using technology to empower students and their learning?”
Kate Reber and Kathleen Ayers, English and History teachers at the School of the Future talked about the challenges and satisfactions of getting a new school up and off the ground.

“Knowledge is connected,” said Ayers, and “profound knowledge is organic and self-directed. You can’t take statements like that and then turn around and ask, ‘Why aren’t you doing things the way we’ve always done them?’ ”  The challenge is to take ninth-graders, who have spent their school life in traditional classrooms, and turn them into project-based learners.  In pursuit of that vision, the two of them spent time in Brazil at Microsoft’s Innovative Education Forum and brought back ideas about peer coaching, and standards-based/aligned curriculum that is self-paced so that students can complete high school in three years if they wish.

At Harrisburg’s SciTech high, “every week, every teacher in the school assesses every student on whether they are getting the material or not,” reported Kohn.  “If they are not, they are placed in mandatory after-school courses, taught by the teachers who required them to participate.”  Teachers benefit from monthly vision meetings and weekly learning walks where they are encouraged to “browse and borrow from each other,” said school principal Michael Reed.

The essential point, repeated throughout the weekend, was that passionate teachers need space not scripts to define excellence and insist on it.

Leadership stability is important

A leitmotif throughout the meeting, never expressed, was hard to miss. Stability in school and district leadership is essential.

The EVX team leadership has been together 11 years.  That’s why this small group of students has such an impressive head start over transnational corporate giants.  Chris Lehmann has served as principal of the Science Leadership Academy since its inception.
Gerald Kohn has served as superintendent of schools in Harrisburg for eight years.  His was the original blueprint that pulled SciTech High together (and served as a resource for the establishment of the Science Leadership Academy).  Lisa Waller, a legendary Harrisburg educator got the school off the ground for the first three years (2002-2005) before succumbing to cancer.  Her convictions are memorialized in the Lisa Waller Reading Room:  “I may not be here to see the full dream, but I am glad I planted some seeds.”  Mike Reed has been principal for each of the past five years.

At the School of the Future, by contrast, leadership turnover has been a constant.  SoF was a vision of superintendent Paul Vallas, who left to lead the Recovery School District in New Orleans.  While a search progressed, an interim superintendent led the district before Arlene Ackerman took over the superintendent’s chair.  When Rosalind Chivis assumed the lead learner role at the school, she was, she reported, the fourth administrator in less than two years.

Under different district and school leadership, the School of the Future has moved from one instructional and curricular approach to another.  It opened interested in Theodore Sizer’s “essential schools” approach and emphasizing essential questions and project-based teaching and learning.  By the second year, it held on to essential questions, but began to emphasize team teaching and more free-form approaches.  For about four months late in the year, the school began to emphasize a more coherent instructional approach, at the insistence of Chivis, and is now developing a written curriculum based on national standards.

“The secret of success is consistency of purpose,” said a 19th -century English prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli.  W. Edwards Deming, the American father of total quality control adopted the phrase as the first of his 14 steps to improve industrial quality.  (Others included “drive out fear” from management;  “institute leadership” not supervision based on targets; and “cease dependence on mass inspection.”)  Ignored in the United States after World War II, Deming preached the gospel of statistical process control so successfully in Japan that he wound up in 1960 with something almost unheard of: a medal from the Japanese emperor for his contributions to Japanese industry.  The Malcolm Baldridge Awards presented to American firms by the president of the United States to recognize quality are modeled after the processes involved with the highest quality awards made in Japan:  The Deming Prize.

Consistency of purpose is as important in American schools as it is elsewhere in the world.  If leadership loses interest or moves on to other interests, maintaining a sharp focus on the hard work of excellence is that much more difficult.  While some turnover is unavoidable, leadership stability is an important component of maintaining consistency of purpose.

Education nationally is at a crossroads

Temple University dean J. Kent McGuire provided a notable capstone to the meeting’s formal presentations.  Describing himself as a recovering grantmaker, a humble program director, an inglorious former Federal official, a dean, and a local school board member, he reported himself to be fascinated (and it seemed unimpressed) by educator’s “striking obedience to No Child Left Behind.”

The schools you have been looking at, he observed, are “a deliberate effort to break the high school mold.  It’s unfortunate that they are the exception to the rule.”

When I look at Washington, DC, he declared, “It is apparent they have a clear view of what needs to change.  But 400 Maryland Avenue (home of the US Department of Education) believes none of these changes will occur without a lot of external pressure.  The Race to the Top Fund is an effort to disturb the existing system, which the people in Washington consider to be biased toward the needs of adults, not children.”  Washington, he said, is convinced that adult needs drive the workday, teacher assignment, the school year and the school day. “The audit systems being put in place are designed to audit general effects and to focus on embarrassing adults,” he noted.

Leaving that idea floating in the air, McGuire turned to his experience as a school board member in a New Jersey district, which had run through three superintendents in seven years.  “When I look at our curriculum, it looks like we’re still fighting the Cold War,” he observed.  “It’s broad and very thin.  It’s repetitive across different grades. The high school curriculum is almost impossible to penetrate, with gates and barriers and pre-requisites designed to keep certain kinds of kids from getting anywhere near the rich, high-fiber parts of the curriculum.”

Education is at a crossroads was his message and even current reform efforts “do not promise to arm students with the skills they’ll need to navigate these gates and barriers.” He argued that the competition for stimulus funds is designed to shake up the system. “My theory: I don’t believe the Race to the Top Fund of $4.5 billion is about improving achievement. It’s the Obama administration’s effort to gauge just how much money it will take to persuade states to agree to things they never would have accepted before. Will $4.5 billion be enough to get states to agree to link salaries for teachers to student achievement?  Will it be enough to encourage new entrants into the market who have not entered it before?  Can $4.5 billion create new pathways into teaching?”

All of this is happening, he noted, with states at a fascinating leadership impasse.  In Pennsylvania alone, 70 legislators ran and won election last year on pledges not to increase taxes, this at a time when the existing revenue structure cannot support current needs.  Education, he noted, is seeking funding in the face of other domestic entitlements that take pride of place:  health care, Social Security, retirement packages. The truth, he said, is that the school district benefits committee on which he sits has nothing to discuss: “Counties govern all the major decisions about benefits.”

He suggested that the Roundtable had a leadership role to play in thinking about teacher quality and assessment.  The US Department of Education and the National Academy of Sciences have $300 million available to develop new assessments.  “The Roundtable should get involved in this and demand not only more money for this effort but a redirection of the funding to create more authentic assessments.” If the point is to redirect instruction and learning, he argued, assessment results can’t be produced six months later and used to embarrass educators.

There’s another $300 million available to look into teacher effectiveness.  “The Roundtable should jump on this too. The US Department of Education is pretending that improving teacher effectiveness is much simpler than it really is, especially around the issue of evaluating teachers on student achievement.”

Reflections and Next Steps

This rich stew of presentations and site visits left Roundtable members with a lot to chew on during the reflective discussions led by Steven Ladd and Gloria Davis.  The discussions were framed by provocative questions from each of them — What brought you here? What struck you about what we’ve seen?  How has your thinking shifted?  What are you going to do with this when you get back home?  The responses generated were as provocative as the questions:

  • The collegiality of the group and the safe harbor of the Roundtable offer an opportunity to reflect on what’s important; it provides each of us individually with the courage to move forward.
  • The increased capacity for learning outside school promises to turn the whole model of schooling on its head.  We are no longer the “keepers of the knowledge.”  Students now have the ability to learn without us.  How do we react to that?
  • The power of belief in students in these schools was overwhelming.  The importance of student voice was hard to ignore.  This belief structure provides students with a greater sense of efficacy and control of their own destinies.
  • This weekend confirmed for me the wisdom of Harvard’s Richard Elmore.  He argues that the problem of all organizations is the problem of the smallest unit.  We need to stop making policy at 30,000 feet and get down to schools, to teachers, to classrooms and to students.
  • I wonder how, in an age when technology threatens to isolate us all, we become docents who can build relationships in the classroom.  It’s a mistake to think of learning in isolation; the nature of learning is social.
  • It doesn’t take much time. It is very clear within a matter of minutes when you walk into a school whether it has its act together or not.  And it’s equally clear when a school is adult-oriented or student-centered.
  • Why is anyone surprised that giving kids in challenging environments a laptop to take would practically guarantee the kid would be beaten and the laptop stolen before he got home?  I didn’t expect student safety to come up as an issue as many times as it did.  And I didn’t expect to hear about superintendents convening “gang summits” to work with gang leaders to map out general procedures to ensure children’s safety.
  • How do we deal with a society that doesn’t want to support schools and is content to blame schools for everything that goes wrong?
  • We need to ask: What are we committed to?  How do we create environments that feed teachers’ passion?  The world is different.  Students are different.  High schools are not different.  How do we shift from management to empowerment — for students, for teachers and for school leaders.

Looking Ahead:  The Roundtable spent some reviewing and amending a draft “elevator speech” and statement of beliefs and agreed that its next two meetings would be in Portland, Oregon (July) and Alexandria, Virginia (October).  The topics:  the very issues J. Kent McGuire urged the Roundtable to address.  First, teacher quality; and second assessment.

Ideally at one or both of these meetings we will come up with a new insight to match the power of “Margaret’s metaphor”!

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