Fast Company

Microsoft's Class Action

Across the country, talent-hungry corporations are trying to save our struggling public schools. Are they creating smarter kids--or a fleet of drones?

Kathy Lee, a 20-year veteran of Philadelphia's public schools, may be armed with a handheld mike and interactive whiteboard these days, but she knows high-school kids haven't changed. "Is there a group that's ready to present impact statements?" she demands. "I'm going to count to 10, and someone's got to step up to the plate. Remember, your stuff doesn't have to be perfect today. It's a work in progress."

Twenty-five members of Lee's ninth-grade class hunch in their seats, avoiding her gaze. Finally, a small, lithe girl named Quetta Fairy steps forward, accompanied by three group members, to take the microphone. When she jacks her laptop into the classroom's digital projector, a Microsoft Publisher document pops up on the screen. "Our group is the Community Redevelopment Group, and this is our Action Plan," she says tentatively, as if intimidated by her own amplified voice. "Our goal is to make sure that community members can be included in the revitalization process in West Philadelphia."

"Too many conversational sidebars!" Lee interjects, trying to quiet the other students. "Quetta, can you show us the surveys you put together for the community meeting you're holding?"

"These are the questions we're going to put in the surveys," Fairy responds, clicking over to another document. "Are you aware of the revitalization effort? What businesses and factories were here when you were growing up, and do you know what happened to them? Are you willing to attend meetings to discuss what is happening in our community?"

"Thank you, Quetta. Once again, there are too many sidebars." Lee turns to the rest of the class. "I need you all to pay attention, because we're addressing the competencies you need for the 21st century. You're not going to work for the same company for 50 years, you know. The factory days are gone."

On the face of it, Philadelphia's High School of the Future, a collaboration between Microsoft and the city's public-school district, seems like the kind of out-in-left-field experiment guaranteed to inspire dissent. Yet the school opened last September to almost universal acclaim. Breathless press reports read like an old Jetsons script: Interactive whiteboards! Combination-free lockers! A laptop for every student! An NPR feature titled "In Philly 'Future' School, Books Are So 20th Century" went all gooey over the school's universal Wi-Fi and student-ID smartcards, glossing over just how these bells and whistles were supposed to revolutionize education.

But the news reports captured only part of the project and, in many ways, the least-important part. The School of the Future is not just a high-tech overlay on the traditional curriculum--it represents a wholesale tearing apart of that traditional curriculum. The three Rs are gone; science, English, math, writing, and the rest are being taught not as separate "disciplines," but as a set of interdependent tools for understanding real-world problems. And while the School of the Future may occupy a relatively radical position on the spectrum, corporate involvement in the education system is becoming commonplace, a role that has stirred plenty of controversy.

"Lockheed Martin needs engineers, and they know what the standards are for producing people who can go on to engineering school and become successful," says Paul Vallas, until recently the "CEO" of the School District of Philadelphia. He goes on, ticking off other business partners that have opened their own public schools in Philadelphia: "Sunoco hires students from the city. They know what they need in potential employees." But it is precisely that utilitarian approach that has some parents and teachers concerned. They've long acknowledged--insisted, even--that schools need to prepare kids for the modern working world. But many still want them to do something more, something more subtle. That's why they like to see their kids reading Moby-Dick rather than The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.

Still, says Mary Cullinane, director of Microsoft's U.S. Partners in Learning program, the old mode of instruction--what she derides as the "stand and deliver" method--simply has to evolve. "We push all the kids into this big funnel," she says, "and then we're surprised when it doesn't work." Cullinane has been trying for years to drive educational strategy forward. Back in 1997, when she was the technology administrator of Union Catholic Regional High School in Scotch Plains, New Jersey (and nearly a decade before the phrase "One laptop per child" even entered the vernacular), she saw to it that every student in her school was armed with a wireless-equipped notebook computer. Three years later, she joined Microsoft, where she now acts as point person for the School of the Future project. With Microsoft behind her, Cullinane's quest seems considerably more plausible. But it is also relentlessly pragmatic: "Microsoft's interest in education is very much a vested interest," she says. "More and more companies are getting worried that they're not going to be able to find enough good employees in the future, and we're one of them."

Bill Gates, Microsoft's chairman, has admitted to being "terrified for our workforce of tomorrow." And company brass had dreamed for years of building a kind of technology-saturated edutopia at their home base in Redmond, Washington. It made sense enough: The company's campus already boasted a Home of the Future and an Office of the Future; a Classroom of the Future would be a natural brand extension. The thought was that it would further Gates's ambition to use technology as a catalyst for educational reform, and that the classroom would emerge as an archetype for educators and districts across the country.

That was the plan, anyway--until Vallas entered the picture. When the former Chicago city-budget guru inherited the Philadelphia school district in 2002, it was a monkey on his back. Fewer than half the students were passing basic competency tests, and more than a third dropped out before graduation. In his Sisyphean push to reverse those numbers, Vallas had one thin reed to cling to: corporate partnerships. Successful businesses' ideas about maximizing results and solving problems creatively, he thought, might help transform the failing district. "We've been seeking corporate partners all along to help us design schools and, ultimately, to help us run schools," he says. "Our approach has been to partner with everyone we can." (This summer, Vallas took the job of superintendent of the New Orleans system, which should be every bit as challenging as Philly's.)

When Anthony Salcito, Microsoft's general manager for U.S. education, offhandedly mentioned the languishing Classroom of the Future concept in a meeting the Philadelphia district arranged with potential corporate partners, Vallas decided to go for broke. "I said to Anthony, 'Look, we're building a new high school in West Philadelphia from the ground up. Wouldn't it be great if Microsoft helped us with everything from soup to nuts?'" The $65 million for the school's construction, Vallas assured Salcito, would come directly from the district's own coffers. Microsoft's role would be to dole out not money, but knowledge and insight.

Vallas's and Salcito's timing couldn't have been better. "I sent a draft up the management chain, and Bill Gates signed off on it in about a week and a half," Salcito says. The swift decision came as a shock to many, not least Vallas himself. But from Redmond's perspective, the idea was basically idiot proof: On PR grounds alone--"Microsoft helps urban kids make good"--it would have paid for itself. Still, Microsoft went beyond a cookie-cutter school tricked out with a high-tech veneer. Instead, Salcito, Cullinane, and their colleagues took Vallas's "from the ground up" directive literally, agreeing that every aspect of the school--from curriculum to grading rubrics to staff development--would be reexamined. And to ensure the experiment's universal replicability, the first class of 170 students would be chosen by lottery, not by academic merit. Three-quarters of them would hail from the West Philadelphia neighborhood in which the school was to be built.

It's no secret that the U.S. public-school system is in splinters. A surprisingly young institution--American children were mostly taught at home or in private schools until the mid-1800s, when reformers such as Horace Mann lobbied for free public education--it now often looks like an experiment gone wrong. Scarcely two-thirds of government-educated students graduate from high school, and in poor inner-city districts, such as in Cleveland, Memphis, and Milwaukee, graduation rates have fallen below 50%.

Mann argued that public schooling would eradicate poverty and crime, and build a nation of informed citizens. But factory owners--eager for a steady supply of taxpayer-educated worker bees--quickly jumped on the idea for their own purposes, leading to curricula organized according to what modern-day educators call the "factory model." Students were trained to absorb and regurgitate information, fill out worksheets, and meet baseline competency levels in writing and math--skills that would serve them well as future foremen or assembly-line employees. According to Stanford professor Linda Darling-Hammond, author of The Right to Learn, this "batch processing" model of education--characterized by large class sizes and little interactivity--has persisted despite its glaring obsolescence.

In recent decades, a number of schools, many of them private, have tried tinkering with this outmoded system (the open classroom being one of the better-known attempts). But the push from within corporate America began when Sanford Weill, who would later become CEO of Citigroup, began applying modern business practices and know-how to public education in the early 1980s. A rising star in Manhattan's securities brokerage industry, Weill had watched two parallel trends play out: Company after company was fleeing New York, citing a lack of incoming talent, and city kids were languishing in the public schools. "You saw young people playing in the street without having a clue of what life was about and how they could become part of the system," Weill told the House Ways and Means Committee years later. "That was the beginning of the idea that the private sector should get together with the public sector and see if we could create a high-school-level program that could expose young people to a career in the financial-services industry." Such a partnership, as Weill saw it, would be win-win: Students would receive focused career training in addition to their academic course loads, and companies would benefit from a fresh infusion of qualified candidates into the entry-level worker pool.

Weill's first Academy of Finance, sponsored by American Express, opened in 1982 at Brooklyn's John Dewey High School with 35 students. Over the following two decades, 600 public academies opened in 40 states, each with its own career-focused specialty: finance, hospitality and tourism, or information technology. At every stage, new business partners joined the conga line. To date, AT&T, Citigroup, Lucent, Oracle, and Verizon have all bankrolled their own academies under the auspices of Weill's nonprofit National Academy Foundation. The foundation plans to open 160 new academies within the next five years, bringing dozens of corporate partners on board along the way. One of its most tireless supporters has been Gates, who presented Weill with a $5 million grant from the Gates Foundation in 2006.

Other companies have followed Weill, looking to shore up their supply of human capital. Since its inception in 1994, IBM's Reinventing Education initiative has dispersed $75 million to more than 20 school districts across the country, so they can reinvent their classroom offerings according to the company's "Learning Village" guidelines. Google inaugurated the Google Teacher Academy earlier this year, which invites educators to learn how to incorporate Google into their lesson plans and become "technology evangelists." In May, Ernst & Young published a white paper titled "Best in Class: How Top Corporations Can Help Transform Public Education," a list of recommendations to other companies hoping to overhaul local public-school systems.

Science, English, math, and the rest are not taught as separate disciplines. The three Rs are gone. The school tears apart the traditional curriculum.

Self-interested corporate funding has prompted some cynicism. But that reaction misses an essential point--Weill's experiment failed in one critical respect: He had conceived of the academies as feeders for firms like Citigroup and American Express, but that pipeline never materialized. Of the 45,000 students who currently attend the academies, says J.D. Hoye, the foundation's current president, "only a small fraction" end up working for sponsoring companies. Yet in the big picture, Weill's efforts were a smash. More than 90% of National Academy Foundation students graduate from high school, compared to sub-50% to 70% in the struggling urban districts where most academies are located, and 80% eventually obtain two- or four-year college degrees. Five to 10 years after graduation, 85% of alumni continue to work in white-collar jobs.

Cullinane is based in New York, where she helps manage Microsoft's Partners in Learning education-reform program, but one week a month, she leaves her desk and returns to Philadelphia. Known to the kids affectionately as "Miz Mary," Cullinane is an evangelist. She sees the School of the Future as part of a much broader and more complex bid to change American education. Around the time Vallas and Salcito were first planning the school in West Philly, Microsoft helped found an advocacy group called the Partnership for 21st-Century Skills, which encourages schools nationwide to adopt their own curriculum reforms. The partnership's members run from Apple and Adobe to AT&T, Cisco, Dell, Intel, and dozens of other corporate giants who agree that public education is in dire shape. Part of Cullinane's role is turning the School of the Future concept into a replicable meme, one personal encounter at a time.

On the day of my visit, Cullinane leads a tour beginning in the School of the Future's Interactive Learning Center, a student library showcasing bizzspirational tomes such as Who Moved My Cheese? One of the first PowerPoint slides she shows to the dozens of educators features a boldfaced caveat: "This is not a prescription, only an example." "People think we have the answer here. I don't believe that," Cullinane says, projecting from her diaphragm to make sure the people in the back row can hear. "People ask us, 'Why haven't you discovered the silver bullet?' But there is no silver bullet. We're going to show you our innards, and you can decide if any of that is going to support your development."

Cullinane describes a Bertelsmann-commissioned study comparing the effectiveness of two distinct teaching styles: standing in front of the class and lecturing, or a more free-form manner, using dynamic digital aids and encouraging direct student participation. "Now, which group did better?" she asks. "Raise your hand if you think it was stand-and-deliver." Thinking they see the answer coming, no one moves.

"You sure?" Cullinane says, grinning as though preparing to pull a scarf from her sleeve. "Actually, you would be wrong--in fact, there was no difference in the groups' scores when they were tested on the material directly afterward. But, when the groups were tested again one year later, the students in the traditional group could remember almost nothing, and the other group was expanding their detailed knowledge of the topic to other subject areas. As teachers, what kind of legacy do we want, kids from the first group or kids from the second group? And as a Microsoft person, which kid do I want to hire?"

Those data are at the center of the School of the Future's curriculum--and the heart of its revolutionary potential. For all the pomp and circumstance that surrounds corporate-ed projects, many just piggyback career-related classes onto traditional scholastic fare. At Weill's Academies of Information Technology, for example, students take classes such as Digital Media, Advanced Web Tools, and Introduction to the Internet, but also slog through freshman English and sophomore-year social studies.

The Philadelphia school district and Microsoft, by contrast, have opted to dynamite the stand-and-deliver approach and rebuild from scratch. Under George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind policy, the educational focus in America has been squarely on coaxing students to perform to preset standards--on teaching to state tests, which is essentially the factory model with a fresh coat of paint. From the School of the Future's perspective, that strategy is nonsensical. Teaching the three Rs in a vacuum, with no attention to practical skills and application, is like handing a kid a golf club, without explanation, and expecting him to become Tiger Woods.

Cullinane's position is that a more interactive, integrative classroom environment helps kids retain knowledge better and engage more actively in learning--and an intimidating array of research backs her up. In addition to the Bertelsmann study, she cites the Jasper-Woodbury experiments conducted at Vanderbilt University in the 1990s, in which researchers challenged teenage students with real-world problems that demand cross-disciplinary thinking. (In one scenario, a hiker finds an injured eagle in a remote mountain pass that can be reached only by personal aircraft; students work in teams to figure out the best way to retrieve it, given a fixed wind speed and fuel capacity.) Compared with students in traditional math classes, the Jasper-trained pupils performed better on tests of math and science knowledge; they also had stronger general problem-solving skills. In a separate trial of the Jasper method, students scored higher on measures of creativity as well.

Inspired by such results, Salcito, Cullinane, and the Philadelphia Board of Education swept aside the old "silo learning" model and replaced it with one in which subjects are subsumed into open-ended topics: "How are our identities constructed?" or "Should the U.S. be concerned about bird flu?" Traditional disciplines are applied in the course of exploring these broader questions, exercising students' writing, calculating, and analytical skills concurrently, as well as the career-oriented skills on Microsoft's "education competency wheel," including organizing and planning, motivating others, dealing with ambiguity, and working in a team setting. In Kathy Lee's "learning sessions," for instance (School of the Future denizens steer clear of talking about "classes"), students like Quetta Fairy are investigating the growing pains associated with Philadelphia's urban renewal. Every aspect of this real-world transition lends itself to an instructional opportunity. Eminent-domain laws that allow the city to raze buildings and homes are grounds for an in-depth online investigation into how legislative systems operate--and for discussions about how to create an open forum for residents of affected neighborhoods. The question of how new buildings should be designed serves as a springboard for polishing kids' trigonometry skills. In another lesson, kids did Internet research to pinpoint areas in the city that they felt were not receiving their share of social services. And a study of slavery prompted laptop-driven examinations of the students' own family trees. "I asked my mom for the last names of our relatives, and I researched my entire family back into slave times," says Tyler Wilson, one of Lee's students. "It was really cool."

In developing those lesson plans, School of the Future teachers have the option of pulling down prototypes from the Microsoft Web site, which the company has collected over the years. All of them have three common core elements: They're geared toward molding students into more-critical thinkers, more-confident communicators and presenters, and more-experienced users of Microsoft software--theoretically, all characteristics of the ultimate 21st-century employee. (Predictably enough, many of the plans, available for free on Microsoft's Web site, carry tag lines such as "Software required: Microsoft Internet Explorer, Microsoft Word, Microsoft Excel.")

Microsoft likes to describe the school's environment as "continuous, relevant, and adaptive," but it's clear that "relevant" is the program's real linchpin. Shirley Grover, the school's principal (aka, chief learner) until she resigned in July, says that many teachers bristle when students ask them the time-honored question, Why do we need to know this? But from her point of view, if a teacher can't answer that one, the lesson plan is underdeveloped.

One year into the experiment, it's way too early to assess just how well the School of the Future is doing. Certainly, it is beset by the same problems plaguing most urban schools ("Too many sidebars"), and many students still read and write below grade level. Their advancement as a group will not be tracked until they take their first state-administered tests in 11th grade, more than a year from now. And because School of the Future students still must meet the proficiency levels in traditional subjects mandated by No Child Left Behind, they also have access to individually paced online courses and other resources to make sure they stay up to grade level in crucial areas such as algebra and reading. Still, these kids already come across as seasoned presenters and communicators. "Before, I wasn't excited about learning," says Wilson, an open-faced teen with a ready smile who wears a different college sweatshirt every day to remind herself of where she's headed. "Going to school on Saturday to work on a project? Yeah, right. But this school really makes us all want to participate and be heard." Last spring, Wilson won an award in Philadelphia's National History Day contest for a digital documentary she and other students created on the city's involvement in the Underground Railroad.

For her part, Grover loves to talk about how the kids' new practical knowledge has upped their prospects on the job market. She brings up Black History Month, when the students wrote interpretations of Langston Hughes poems and presented them--in PowerPoint, naturally--to residents of a local senior-citizen center. "One kid used Microsoft Movie Maker to weave the other kids' PowerPoint presentations into a movie, with music," she says. "An employee at the center was so impressed that he said, 'I'll pay you to make another movie for me.'"

"How well do you conduct yourself in front of a group? How well do you use these computer applications? That's the pace of business," says Amy Guerin, a spokeswoman for the Philadelphia school district. "We are constantly selling and pitching for our jobs--that's how the world operates. Any one of these kids could pitch a toy, pitch a story, pitch an initiative at City Hall."

Not all parents and educators are convinced that the purpose of public education is to build a nation of pitchmen. And since Microsoft is open about the fact that it isn't just in this for the good karma, it's worth asking whether these students will receive a balanced, broad-based education. Is this work missionary--or mercenary?

"When the scoreboard at a high-school football stadium is branded with the name of a soft-drink corporation or a local business, we don't spend much time worrying about the motivations," says Christian Long, a school planning consultant and former president of DesignShare, an online global forum that addresses the future of education. "On the other hand, when we talk about partnerships that bring together corporate and educational leaders to help shift learning for entire systems and societies, we should raise the bar of conversation."

"I don't like this idea that if you're not preparing kids for the high-tech world, they're not worth anything," says Susan Ohanian, a former teacher and the author of Why Is Corporate America Bashing Our Public Schools? "These companies seem to be devaluing a lot of other skills that are very necessary." Jim Horn, an education professor at New Jersey's Monmouth University, is still more direct. "The efficiency experts have been hard at their message, which is that we need to streamline these schools and make them operate like successful businesses. But schools should not be work-preparation centers. They should be places where children are nurtured and receive multifaceted educations."

Cullinane insists that preparing kids to be all-around thoughtful, productive human beings and equipping them to meet the demands of the workplace are not mutually exclusive goals. "The tools we're giving them are going to be applicable regardless of their life choices," she says. "Whether you're a scientist, an accountant, or a stay-at-home mom, your ability to effectively communicate ideas and learn on the fly will directly correlate with your success. Imagine a mechanic who needs to learn the changes from one model year to the next, or a new recruit who, all of a sudden, receives an opportunity to present her ideas to the group vice president. These scenarios happen every day, and School of the Future learners will be well equipped to handle them."

It's easy to make a straw man of the School of the Future, to presume that Microsoft is chiefly out to create a future generation of Redmond cubicle warmers. But that assumption overshoots the mark. After all, the Philadelphia school district is the final arbiter of what makes it into the school's curriculum. And if filling its own future ranks had been Microsoft's primary aim, it could have just opened a private School of the Future near corporate headquarters, built a tunnel between the two, and handed the kids a stack of programming manuals. "I'm not sure the kids are particularly affected by the Microsoft name on the door," Long concedes. "They are affected--positively, I think--by the access to human capital, ideas, and resources. As for being mini-Microsofties, it's doubtful."

What isn't in doubt is that something has to give in the American education system. Barring a sudden onset of political courage, change will more likely come not from Washington but from the hundreds of companies, including Microsoft, that are taking it upon themselves to invest in the talent supply. "Does being involved in the schools give us a competitive edge?" Cullinane asks. "Well, we would be thrilled to see companies around the world devoting time and resources to improving education. Our economies would all benefit from such an investment, as would our communities, and, most important, our children."

In some ways, the question of whether or not mini-Microsofties, Sunoco-ites, and Citigroupians will throng tomorrow's schoolyards is a distraction from the more critical issue of who will oversee how these corporations are granted access to the system--and what they will do once they get it. One ominous sign, according to Eva Gold, principal of Philadelphia-based educational nonprofit Research for Action, is that when public-private partnerships start to multiply, the public side of the equation can atrophy. After the state took over the Philadelphia school district, for example, it disbanded the existing Board of Education; now most decision making about the district's future happens behind closed doors. "When the district engages with outside providers or partners, these are not publicly discussed decisions," Gold says. "There are weekly meetings of the school-reform commission, but you have to submit in writing what you're going to say beforehand, and you have three minutes to talk about it. It's not a time for dialogue." Monmouth University's Horn agrees: "A system run by bean counters instead of a democratically elected school board leads to a breakdown of the democratic process," he says. "The purpose of education should be defined by the community where the school sits, by the parents and teachers."

Yet considering the level of desperation poor urban districts have reached, it's easy to see why improving student performance might eclipse consensus building on the priority list, at least temporarily. Certainly the parents and teachers in West Philadelphia seem largely in favor of this particular oligarchy and its potential for delivering swift and dramatic results. What's more, talk to a group of these students and you come away believing that they are among the most curious and articulate 14- and 15-year-olds around. They're determined to build meaningful lives--and, more important, actually believe they can.

Few if any of those plans, it's worth noting, seem to include Microsoft. Tyler Wilson wants to be a doctor or a psychologist; Ryan Wheeler, inspired by a learning unit on forensics, wants to be a criminologist. Almost all of the students see the school's small classes, nurturing staff, and achievement-oriented culture as their ticket out: "My sister tells me every day, 'I want to be like you. I'm getting there--just watch,'" Wheeler says. "But she already got knifed."

Public-private partnerships can be capricious, and it's hard to predict how this one will evolve. Given the sheer number of companies getting involved in school reform, we could be heading toward a bewildering hodgepodge of curricula and philosophies in schools across the country. Whether this corporate patchwork constitutes a utopian vision or an Orwellian one will be for administrators, parents, and students to decide.

"What I'm curious about is whether Microsoft will continue to develop authentic relationships with the school's staff, students, and local community in the years to come," Long says. "Starting a school is one thing. Sticking it out as a key partner as the school faces normal growth challenges, acquires new leaders and programs, and embraces the ongoing realities of urban education is another."

For now, Microsoft seems determined to stick it out, helping develop new curricula, integrating new Microsoft technology into classrooms, and burnishing the project's public image. After Cullinane finishes fielding questions from our tour group, it's on to the next task: preparing for the arrival of a group of educators from Kuwait. A few students who have been using Rosetta Stone programs (not a Microsoft product) to teach themselves Arabic will step in as assistant tour guides; more-seasoned translators will help ensure that the Microsoft message passes through the language barrier intact.

"This school provides proof positive of what can be done," Cullinane says. "Our goal now is to share it as widely as possible. We don't want to limit it to the parameters of 'If a company like Microsoft and a school district like Philadelphia decided to build the School of the Future, what would it look like?' Now the question can be, 'If a country like the United States and industries like technology, manufacturing, and service decided to make education their number-one priority, what would it look like?'"

Elizabeth Svoboda is a freelance writer based in San Jose, California, and a contributing editor at Popular Science.

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