Microsoft's new project: Building a better high school

A partnership between the software giant and the Philadelphia School District is an innovative solution to an urban crisis. But can public education survive private management?

By Christine Smallwood
Published March 13, 2005 10:03PM (EST)

"I used to be first in my class, but now I'm second," high school senior Ayesha says before turning back abruptly to her PC. No one, mind you, has inquired about her class rank. "If you'll excuse me, I have to finish typing this letter now." Ayesha is working on one of the dozen computers in the library at Philadelphia's Audenried High School, where titles such as "Cocaine and Your Nose: The Incredibly Disgusting Story" and "The Autobiography of Malcolm X" line the room. Quietly, a handful of students are using the computers the way most public school kids do: to type up papers and run Google searches for a current-issues project.

But for 700 students in the Philadelphia School District (out of a total of 52,807 in regular public high schools), all of that is about to change. As Philadelphia works to achieve its goal of becoming an entirely wireless city of the future, the district has broken ground on the country's first School of the Future, a $50 million spacecraft of a campus in one of the poorer regions of the city.

This new high school is a great idea, but it should sound warning bells to educators around the country: The privatization of educational management is here. The School of the Future itself is not the problem. In fact, it is an innovative -- and feasible -- solution to the crisis that is public urban education. But Philadelphia's hybrid system of public and private educational management threatens to shift brainpower and financial resources away from the public sector, which is responsible to every child -- whether she's first, second or dead last in her class -- and into the private sector, which is responsible only to itself.

Unlike the students of the past, who carry binders to and from their lockers, the students of the future will carry laptops from class to class and home again at night. The new school's curriculum hasn't been written yet, but it will be different from the curriculum of the other high schools in the district.

Learning will be "holistic," organized not around subjects like literature and history but around themes like the Great Depression. And despite the overwhelming presence of fancy equipment, officials insist the curriculum won't be based primarily on science and technology; rather, technology will be "integrated" into how every discipline is approached, practiced and evaluated.

Laptops and a tech-friendly curriculum aren't the only things that make this school different from Ayesha's school. The School of the Future is different because it's a model -- a laboratory, one could say, or a showroom -- that its maker intends to replicate around the world, creating a franchise of educational institutions in which technology, software and learning form a perfect union.

What also makes the School of the Future unique is that one of the poorest "companies" in the country, the School District of Philadelphia, is building it with the one of the richest companies in the world, Microsoft.

The deal is simple: Philadelphia is to provide $50 million for a new building, and Microsoft is to provide consulting and a project leader to help a district team realize the plans. The school is being built from the ground up, and Microsoft's muscle is bringing in experts to help execute everything: the computer equipment, teacher hiring, the curriculum, the building design, security, you name it. Basically, instead of building an educational technology showroom on its Redmond, Wash., campus (which Anthony Salcito, general manager of Microsoft education, said the company was considering), Microsoft is building a showroom in Philadelphia.

In 2001, the commonwealth of Pennsylvania took over the city's 270-plus failing schools. After toying with the idea of ceding all control to Edison Schools Inc. (which the community resisted), the district settled on a "diverse provider" model -- a mixture of public and private educational management. Since that time, a slew of nonprofit and for-profit entities, ranging from the University of Pennsylvania to Edison and the Princeton Review, have come in to design curricula, train teachers and administer campuses. Some of these providers are experienced educators -- like universities -- and some are experimenting in education for the first time.

The district has been trying out some things, too. Following the takeover, it changed the title of the district's head from "superintendent" to "CEO." And it contracted with test-preparation giant Kaplan to create a core curriculum for the entire district. (Commerce Bank has since gotten in on the action with its Commerce Wow Zone program, which teaches middle schoolers "financial literacy.")

School districts around the country have Coca-Cola machines and Nike-sponsored basketball uniforms. What makes Philadelphia's brand of privatization unique -- besides its being the largest ever in the history of American public education -- is its relationship to the national "small schools" movement, the trend of replacing the large, anonymous schools of the past 30 years with intimate campuses of 400 to 800 students. Throw in a $1.5 billion capital program, and the district is looking at 28 new high schools in Philadelphia by 2008. That's a lot of opportunities for diverse providers. In fact, district CEO Paul Vallas intends all 28 new schools to benefit from some kind of partnership. Nearly half will have corporate partners, and all will have at least one university partner.

"We're creating multiple school options in every region," Vallas said last December. "We want them all to have unique programs: I.B. [international baccalaureate], advanced math, science, technology and engineering, health sciences, etc. All college prep, with unique programs -- dual language."

According to the district, privatization opens opportunities that would never have been available to students otherwise. It also brings naming rights (the School of the Future is a working title; its name is available for $5 million) and philanthropic gifts. But to an increasing extent, the privatization of the district's schools has a hands-on nature. Last April the district announced the Sunoco-sponsored Academy of Petro-Chemical Sciences and Technology, a special curricular program within a vocational tech high school. According to official remarks of chairman and CEO John Drosdick, among its other achievements, "the Petro-Chemical Science and Technology Academy will respond to the need that Sunoco and the industry continue to have for qualified process operators." And Lockheed Martin is trying to convert its internship program in engineering into three similar academies in the city.

"Hey," says district spokesman Cameron Kline, "we're not going to turn anyone away with a checkbook. We'll find a way to make it work."

Sometimes the district doesn't even turn away companies without checkbooks. "We've always had external partners," said Vallas, "but never one quite like this."

What Microsoft has to offer the district isn't money -- after all, if it funded the Philadelphia program, the argument goes, the School of the Future couldn't be replicated. Could the company realistically traverse the globe, handing out checks in Bora Bora and Belize? No, what Microsoft is providing is better than money. It's Management 101.

"Microsoft has more to offer than just technology," Vallas said. "Microsoft has their creativity to offer, their process -- the Microsoft process, the Microsoft system."

The company is helping the district streamline and modernize all of its internal bureaucratic processes -- its business operations. From record keeping, communication and information sharing to transportation, human resources and billing, Microsoft is doing what the private sector has always done for the public sector: increasing efficiency.

The School of the Future is the first high school Microsoft has offered to build from the ground up, but Philadelphia is not the first district it has tried to improve. The company has also helped Washington state train teachers and administrators to use technology effectively; contributed $4 million to help Michigan teachers achieve their No Child Left Behind requirements and make students aware of opportunities in the workforce (ahem); and allocated $3 million for professional development for principals in Virginia, including a special emphasis on "business management skills."

According to Salcito, Microsoft is working with districts in New York City, Miami-Dade County, Fla., Orange County, Calif., and Chicago on collaborative Web portals, student information systems and tracking programs. And conveniently for districts facing increasing pressures to meet No Child Left Behind standards (and scrambling for funding if they don't), Microsoft's Web site now offers information on "Microsoft Solutions in Support of NCLB" and funding sources for education.

The School of the Future employs the corporate jargon of the future, like Microsoft's "competency wheel," a pie chart of strengths that "stakeholders" should possess. When a committee of educators failed at wheel-based planning, Microsoft decided to assign the task to Lominger, the private company that handled Microsoft's own wheel. Microsoft also had a hand in developing the building's design, which abandons straight hallways, desks and a cafeteria for flexible space, workstations and faux-urban street corridors (replete with faux-urban street signs). Mary Cullinane, Microsoft's "technology architect," talks about how the design coheres to the company's ideal of "continuous, adaptive, relevant learning." And it does. It also looks like the bastard child of a shopping mall and a corporate campus.

According to Microsoft's David Driftmier, general manager of worldwide education strategy, the company sees itself as playing an "enabling role" in education. "We're not an education company. We're a software company. Technology is what we know." Besides, he added, "it's not about the technology; it's about the people that use the technology."

Greg Butler, director of worldwide K-12 education strategy, seconded that notion. "Part of our corporate mission is to enable people and corporations to develop their potential. It's to our benefit to produce people that can work in companies like ours."

It is nearly impossible to find a critic of the School of the Future. Part of this is due to simple misinformation: Many Philadelphians -- even education activists -- wrongly assume that Microsoft is paying for the school's building costs. Yet even when they learn the terms of the deal, they tend to associate Microsoft's foray into public education with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has invested $600 million in the creation of small schools. Just last month, the Indianapolis Public Schools announced that it had received $1.3 million from the Gates Foundation to convert its five traditional high schools into 21 small academies, part of a $11.3 million package that also envisions the creation of 10 new high schools (public, private or charter) in the metropolitan area. New York City's small-schools bonanza (27 high schools, 14 middle schools and 11 sixth-to-12th-grade schools) is backed with $58 million from the Gateses.

The Philadelphia project has no ties to the Gates Foundation, but small schools and integrated technology are trends that the Gates Foundation has popularized. The Gateses have unquestionably done marvelous things for students -- provided computers, trained faculty to teach with computers, reduced class size. And in the process, they've spread the idea of specialized academies and encouraged a market-based approach to school construction. District CEO Vallas' driving passion -- many small neighborhood schools that offer kids a free-market choice of where they go -- is vintage Gates.

But the question, as always, is who actually gets to choose. The independent group Research for Action, which released a report on the effects of privatization in Philadelphia last May, has found that citizens have been closed out of decisions surrounding partnerships.

"There's very little public input about which companies come to Philadelphia and why, and to which schools they'll be assigned and for what they'll be held accountable," said RFA's Eva Gold. "Our concern is that given that public education is a public institution, there should be public dialogue and discussion about these issues, with the public playing a role."

"The district is using the small-schools language, but what's the real definition of 'small schools'? Community control, community involvement in decision making ... It's sort of the opposite of what the district is trying to do," Eric Baxon, executive director of the Philadelphia Student Union, told the Philadelphia Inquirer.

And then there's the tricky issue of the transfer of capital from the public to the private sector. "Can we afford to have a company extracting a profit from a profoundly and chronically underfunded school district?" asked Paul Socolar, who edits the Philadelphia School Notebook, a quarterly grass-roots education publication. "And when a company gets a contract to do something the district hasn't done well, shouldn't we figure out when and how to transition back to having the school district do the job and thereby keep all that money in the local economy?"

The privatization of education management is here, and it's not going away. The urgent conditions that led to the 2001 state takeover make Philadelphia a special case. But communities around the country would be wise to watch their local school boards carefully as they struggle to respond to the challenges of high-stakes testing and the increasing pressure to provide more for students with less public money. You can bet that Microsoft already is. In fact, the company has already had meetings with Chicago-area educators interested in their own School of the Future.

Christine Smallwood

Christine Smallwood is on the editorial staff of the Nation and co-editor of the Crier magazine.

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