Microsoft Philly Learns: It's Hard To Start A School

Recently the Stanford Graduate School of Education was surprised that its charter school was shut down for low performance. It's not clear that corporations fare any better. USA Today:

From the beginning, everything about the $63 million School of the Future was designed to be different.

Built in the city's rough Parkside section with district money, the school partnered with Microsoft on new approaches to curriculum, instruction and hiring. It attracted reform-minded teachers and students bent on avoiding traditional high schools.

The vision was for a paperless, textbook-less school that embodied the motto "Continuous, Relevant, Adaptive." Each student would get a take-home laptop on which to keep notes, do homework and take tests.

But learners are chosen by a lottery of public school students. Most are low-income and without home computers, yet they are expected to manage their high school careers on a laptop.

...The school's first set of standardized test scores last year were dismal. Only 7.5% of 11th graders scored proficient or higher in math; 23.4% scored proficient or higher in reading.

Cullinane notes that the school can't control students' education before ninth grade, but said test scores don't tell the whole story."It is a long-term journey and we have to get away from short-term yardsticks," she said.

Similarities Stanford and Microsoft failed schools:

1. Horrible test scores are excused by leaders

2. Project-based and interdisciplinary learning continues even when it becomes clear that it doesn't put teachers in a position to succeed, and doesn't address the gigantic basic skill deficits of kids

3. Rapid principal turnover because the model is nearly impossible to execute

4. Meanwhile, lots of tours, because the "sponsoring institution" has a big investment of brand and/or cash.

All the while, there were tours, tours, tours. More than 3,000 people from 50 countries have visited the school, said Cullinane, worldwide director of innovation for Microsoft Education.

Senior Mahcaiyah Wearing-Gooden, 18, said she led countless tours as a freshman, showing off computerized blackboards ("smart boards") and digital lockers that popped open by waving an ID card.

At MATCH, unlike this school, we both anticipated the low skills and we tried to not overwhelm the "traditional teachers" by asking them to lead the projects; we had separate staff lead those.

Yet we still flailed in our first couple years.

(Though not this badly; we still outperformed all the other open admissions high schools in Boston, which was sort of sad).

Luckily, unlike these folks, we had steady leadership from a great principal (Charlie); a Board of Trustees that asked good questions and loved it when we were tough on ourselves (instead of needing us to pretend we were great from the jump); flexibility under the law to change our approach (keep the college prep mission, change how we'd get there, literally stripping the name Media And Technology Charter High off the building).

I hope these folks can turn it around, too.