Eductationnext has an update on Microsoft’s School of the Future located in Philadelphia. The school opened a few years ago with a untraditional image of what a school should be. It would involve incorporating technology into education, including giving students laptops, project based learning, teachers working in teams, and the “course of study would be dynamic, interdisciplinary, and driven by their interests”. The school was designed and launched by Microsoft, but is a collaborative effort with, and operates within, the School District of Philadelphia. This means that the school was not paid for by Microsoft, so that if it was successful it would be scaleable by being able to operate within school districts budgets. However, there seems to be a problem executing the vision of the SOF within the restrictions of the districts school system:

For starters, the school district’s computer couldn’t accept SOF’s narrative-style report cards, which evaluated students’ proficiency in the core competencies rather than giving them traditional numeric grades in individual subjects…. By the middle of year three, the district had pressured the school to begin using its core curriculum and, like other neighborhood high schools, administer biweekly benchmark tests based on it. Two periods a week were set aside for mini-projects.

Even without the problems of working within the district, the school’s brand new model of education is creating difficulty for their traditional model of students:

The students, almost all African American, more than 80 percent of whom qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, came with skill levels all over the map; a majority read at a 5th-grade level or below. Used to worksheets, paper-and-pencil tests, and being asked to regurgitate information, many weren’t prepared to take control of their own learning. Some thrived on the project-based, interdisciplinary, and technology-rich model, and were finally able to connect to the purpose of school; others simply found it bewildering.

And as others have found, the technology-heavy model of education has problems of it’s own:

“I would spend 30 or 60 minutes of a period deleting games from the computer,” lamented one teacher. Students would be instant messaging and checking emails during class. “When you’re exhausted because you’ve been telling kids to stop playing Halo all day, you’re not actually teaching them literature or skills or the content that they need to drive their own learning.”

So is the project doomed? It doesn’t sound like it. The students perform no better on standardized tests, but appear to be getting a more enriching educational experience that is tailored to their interests. In a country with a 30% dropout rate, just getting kids to like being in school more is a good thing if it can lower that number. Also, one thing that is also clear is that the school is evolving, adapting, and learning to fulfill it’s mission within the constraints of the school system. It may yet hit it’s stride. However, this school does provide another lesson in the difficulty of implementing radical reforms within the existing system.

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