Sunday, June 14, 2009

Sometimes the Best Ideas Crash and Burn

The recent news regarding the Microsoft School of the Future's Sad Decline to Failure is, without question, a disappointment to those of us interested in transforming education for overall improvement in America.

The new bleeding-edge public high school in Philadelphia is the brainchild of Microsoft who wrapped its innovative ideas for education reform around a partnership with Philadelphia Public Schools (and their funding) for creating a model school touted as one that would revolutionize education. "This cutting edge school would teach at-risk students critical 21st century skills needed for college and the workforce by emphasizing project-based learning, technology, and community involvement." says eSchoolNews in their June 1, 2009 article outlining the reasons for failure. Add LEED certification for a "green school" and we've got a great idea, right?

Well, problem is, they ignored reality.

That's right. They (Microsoft and the school district) ignored the real fact that expecting Philadelphia Public Schools to take this beautiful new school, toss in some nice technology and contemporary ideas, undergo initial training from Microsoft, and thence majically transfigure several centuries of traditional teaching into a learning habitat akin to nothing less than education nirvana was, without doubt, a story straight from some faraway fantasy land. It would be like asking an entire culture to spontaneously change their religion.

But change, we have found out, requires a tremendous amount of effort to sustain. And change can only survive when the outside pressure for change is consistently greater than the internal pressure to remain the same. I would suspect that the outside pressure for education change in this environment was fairly low. Remember that the surrounding neighborhood there in Philadelphia appears to be one of mixed existance including those who probably care greatly about education, and those who have abandoned their run-down row houses.

To be fair, though, there were speedbumps, or rather, roadblocks along the way. In the time since the school opened in 2006, the district has had three different superintendents, the school has had four different principals, and the school's teachers were not allowed to have any additional professional development above and beyond what was afforded any teacher at other "regular" schools in the district (thanks likley due to the labor union). And like the "blue screen of death", Microsoft said upfront it did not intend to run the school itself. It would provide some initial training and then turn the day-to-day management of the school over to the district. Good luck.

And with federal No Child Left Behind legislation leaving hopes for contemporary change in the lurch, the idea of radical changes in how public high schools do business in this country seems, in this case, to have run smack into reality.

In April of 2008, an administrative team from my school district visited the Philadelphia School of The Future. I'll outline how that visit went in my next post.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

On students being able to use cell phones in school.

We're now seeing momentum build on the notion that perhaps cell phones could be used by students within regular classroom lessons. (Do I hear the distant scream of a high school assistant principal somewhere out there?) Anyway, one of my perspectives on the issue of whether or not large public school systems should allow students to use cell phones and their related "applications" in guided lessons follows: (After all, don't all students today have cell phones in their pockets? Why not leverage them as an instructional tool?)

While today’s cell phones have evolved into sophisticated communication devices, many with e-mail and Internet access – and most with digital camera capabilities – their effectiveness as a practical instructional tool may be overshadowed by their influence as a negative distraction in the classroom environment. The challenges of keeping students on task while preventing disciplinary issues because of cell phones are factors that diminish their attractiveness as a tool for teaching and learning. Other issues to be considered include equitable access, cost, and cellular signal coverage.

First, while many students today do have cell phones, some do not, which creates the potential for unequal access by students. Secondly, the introduction of cell phones for academic instruction could present an undue financial burden for parents who may view them as a required school item for which they have to pay for. (read: another increase in school fees for our "free education") And finally, cell phone reception inside many of today's newer schools is either poor or, in some cases, nonexistent. The newer schools with new seismic-rated building codes require concrete-filled block walls (CMU block) which many times prevents consistent cellular signal reception building-wide. This is clearly a hindrance to reliable cell phone operation, unless a district goes to the expense of adding cellular signal repeaters inside the school.

And to further complicate the discussion of student cell phone use in schools, and perhaps more importantly, many cell phones function as web browsers giving students the ability to visit web sites and view web pages. Because of federal FCC regulations, public schools are bound by the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) which specifies that the school district maintain Internet safety procedures including strict measures for blocking and filtering students’ access to inappropriate content. Futher, the district must also have the ability to monitor their online activities. If students are permitted to use these uncontrolled communication devices during the instructional day, the district would lilely lose the ability to filter their Internet content or to monitor their online activities, putting the district at risk of non-compliance with CIPA.

Because progressive school systems ussually have a wide variety of other resources and tools for integrating technology into the learning process, the risks and liabilities associated with student cell phone use in schools outweighs their benefits -- at least right now.