For years, trying to "fix" public schools' problems has become kind of a parlor game. Nearly everyone involved in education (and a good many people not involved) have taken a shot at coming up with the "answer" for why this country's K-12 schools aren't better. We at District Administration are not exempt from this trend.
But as I was finishing an interview with Mary Cullinane of Microsoft recently, she said something that made me see the problem in a different light.
Microsoft is partnering with Philadelphia to create a "high school of the future." Those plans are detailed in-depth in the "Microsoft High" article.
When I asked her what the biggest surprise of the project was so far, she said, "Everybody keeps asking, 'What's the one thing you're going to do to make this different?' That's the wrong question. [The innovations planned for this school] are all just pieces of the pie. When you do all of these things [that we're planning], then you'll achieve success."
Asking, "How does technology make a difference in a student's education?" is the wrong question, she said. Trying to isolate one part of a school, or a student's day, in order to find out what works for education, is difficult and liable to lead to misconceptions.
Now this isn't some sort of cop out. Cullinane wasn't saying she, Microsoft or Philadelphia shouldn't be held accountable for the school they are building. Quite the opposite, the company plans to do discovery briefs every few months, letting the public know exactly what it is doing and why. The first three briefs will deal with the building and planning process, creating a wireless infrastructure and the building's design. The goal of each brief, and the project in whole, is to share the process of how to create an environment where curriculum drives the space, she said.
This school, which won't open until September 2006, will have numerous interesting elements to it. It will feature a one-to-one computing model, a wireless network and a broadband school-to-home connection. The building will also be eco-friendly, using natural light and having plans for water conservation and recycling. Many more decisions will be made before the doors open for the first students.
Cullinane freely admits that one of the big lures of taking on this project for Microsoft was the ability to create a model of a school that other urban districts could emulate. Still, she said, after the school opens, even if it is a success, it may be hard to pinpoint why.
Will the success be the ready access to some sort of computers? Will it be the natural design? Will it be the data-tracking system that allows an administrator to see all the elements of a student's day--such as whether he visited the nurse, ate lunch, and flunked that math test in fifth period. Or will the success depend on whether an adequately prepared teacher has made a connection with her students?
This wasn't the first time I had heard this argument, but for some reason it struck more of a chord this time. Maybe it's because the words come from a key employee of the largest software maker in the world. Maybe it's because after chasing this argument around for years, her message came at the right time. Maybe it's because after seeing so many of these innovations--from a computer for each child to distance learning to whatever big thing your district is currently trying--come in isolation and fail, it is obvious that one program or purchase isn't the magic solution.
In fact, trying to determine why her words had such an impact on me seems about as hard as it would be for an administrator to nail down the one reason students aren't learning in school.