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‘Innovation’ in Philly Schools Has Rocky History: #TBT

By Benjamin Herold — September 25, 2014 6 min read
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Finding ways to create “innovative” high schools seems to be a perennial policy priority for the beleaguered Philadelphia School District—and a topic that we at Education Week just can’t seem to stay away from.

This school year, despite being beset by a financial crisis, stalemated labor negotiations, and a toxic reform climate, the 131,000-student district opened three new outside-the-box high schools, the planning of which we covered last spring.

The big news so far? The founding principal of one new high school, known as the LINC (short for Learning in New Contexts), bailed on the institution she helped found just two weeks after it opened, apparently to take a better job elsewhere.

So much for experimenting with something new: If anything has been consistent through the Philadelphia district’s agonizing, decades-long downward spiral, it’s obscenely high turnover in leadership.

Last year, meanwhile, I spent months chronicling another example of Philly’s seemingly unscratchable itch to innovate: The effort to replicate Science Leadership Academy, which has won national acclaim for its success merging digital technologies with hands-on, inquiry-based learning. While the new SLA@Beeber got off to a strong start, it also had the advantage of being a selective magnet school. And all was not roses, as the school’s unsuccessful effort to help engineering and math teacher Karthik Subburam transition to a new style of teaching demonstrated. Superintendent William Hite’s efforts to leverage SLA’s success to help spark change in the city’s neighborhood high schools have also been mostly—although not entirely—stymied.

And it was five years ago this week that Kathleen Kennedy Manzo, now managing editor for Education Week, took an in-depth look at Philly’s wildly over-branded School of the Future, then the city’s biggest and boldest stab at educational innovation. Here’s what she found, courtesy of a story published on September 24, 2009 (and unearthed for me by my awesome colleagues in EdWeek’s research library):

When the $62 million facility opened in 2006 with a relatively small student population, a computer-based curriculum delivered with the latest technology tools, and a unique partnership with corporate giant Microsoft, it set out to upend a secondary school model that had changed little since the industrial era and had spelled failure for too many students here and in cities around the country. Now in its fourth year, and with its first class of seniors heading toward graduation, Philadelphia's School of the Future remains just that: an ideal whose realization remains somewhere down the road. The school's messy path to reform has included leadership instability, wavering commitment from the central office to its mission, swings in curricular approaches, technological glitches, and challenges in meeting the academic needs of a disadvantaged student population... Today...a visitor would be hard-pressed to decipher how the school is fundamentally different from a typical high school, aside from the superiority of the facility.

Most depressingly, Manzo detailed how little innovation there was in the actual teaching and learning that was taking place at School of the Future, despite the investment and hype:

The furniture is new, but students still sit facing the front of the room where the teacher is using an interactive whiteboard to write standard algebra problems. The class bell rings every 45 minutes to send the 750 students to the next period. And during those periods, valuable class time can be spent taking attendance, correcting rude behavior, and even sharpening pencils, as was the case on a recent day early in the school year, before each student was issued a laptop.

Making sense of history

Philadelphia’s rocky history with school “innovation” begins well before 2009; if you really want to be depressed, read this 1994 Philadelphia Inquirer article on the same topic by my mentor and former editor, Dale Mezzacappa.

Observers of large urban districts such as Philadelphia’s draw clear, but often contradictory, lessons from such stories.

As I wrote in the Innovation Gamble series that focused on SLA, many believe that there is abundant evidence that large public-sector bureaucracies are demonstrably incapable of reinventing themselves.

That sentiment rang out in the conclusions drawn at School of the Future in 2009 by Mary Cullinane, who at the time was overseeing the project on behalf of Microsoft and wrote a series of papers on the experience. From Manzo’s story:

At every turn, there was a challenge," Ms. Cullinane writes in one of a series of white papers commissioned this year by the American Enterprise Institute about the school's struggles and what can be learned from them. "A grading system that focused on proficiency rather than a numeric yardstick was challenged due to a computer system that only accepted letter grades. ... A community based on achieving proficiency through projects that could span across years was challenged by the need for students to be able to transfer to other schools. A later start time was challenged by the realities of late-afternoon safety concerns, work schedules, athletic contests."

But for some, the contemporary lesson to be learned from School of the Future’s past struggles is less about the Philadelphia district’s institutional failures and more about its misplaced policy priorities.

“Opening new schools and calling it innovative is not really the challenge,” public-education activist Helen Gym of Parents United for Public Education told me in an interview this week. “You need a healthy district in order to sustain, nurture, and care for [innovation] over time.”

In order to do that, Gym argued, districts like Philadelphia are better off focusing the majority of their time and resources on recognizing and supporting the valuable assets they already have, rather than chasing fads.

But in the current reform climate, she said, “innovation is defined more by what’s new than by what may be truly innovative.”

“The folks who are quietly doing great work with a stable staff, that may not be considered exceptional these days, because they don’t have a cute logo for their school or they’re not able to synthesize it into a snappy digital presentation for the latest funder,” Gym said. “But they are the backbone of a system that serves primarily high-needs young people who need stability and solidity more than they need the latest thing to come across the table.”

Clearly, I’m not alone among Philadelphia-schools watchers in thinking about this stuff a lot (if you don’t believe me, just read the lengthy discussion in the comments that followed this op-ed published on the Philadelphia Public School Notebook in response to the final installment of my series about SLA).

To be honest, such cogitation generally makes me want to throw back a few stiff drinks and write grumpy things on Twitter; it can often seem as if there’s not much reason for hope, whatever your political and policy predilections may be.

Challenged to be hopeful

But almost always, the experiences and perspectives of the folks on the frontlines push and challenge me to be better.

Consider this passage in the 2009 Ed Week story:

This year, for example, freshmen are taking Project 100, a class that will guide students through all the technical, academic, and intellectual processes required for creating high-quality multimedia projects. Thomas Gaffey, a math and technology teacher, designed the course as a way to help the school fulfill its promise of more creative and engaging instruction. Later in the school year, he plans to teach students in his math class about slopes and then have them apply those lessons while designing and constructing staircases for a local organization that builds houses for the homeless. Students who do well in Mr. Gaffey's technology class are assigned to work on the school's help desk, fixing broken laptops and troubleshooting glitches in software programs for teachers and students. "This is what this school is all about; the learner learning best through doing," he said. "There's been a lot of frustration among teachers because the school isn't what it was supposed to be. But we're trying to get back to that."

After six years at the School of the Future, Gaffey is now the chief instructional technologist for Building 21, one of the three new unconventional high schools that opened this year.

I suppose some might look at that fact as yet another sign that nothing in Philadelphia public schools ever really changes—not even attempts to innovate.

Admittedly, as a skeptical reporter and cynical Philadelphian, that was my gut reaction.

But after talking with Gaffey on the phone this week, I came away with an altogether different feeling.

“My biggest fear is working with people who don’t believe it’s possible to make education better,” the former computer engineer told me. His work, he said, “is not about a particular school or district or demographic [group]. It’s that every school, no matter how good or bad it is, can be better.”

Gaffey said that 2009 was a particularly tough year at School of the Future, and that unfortunately the media was there in droves to document it all (one publication even went so far as to use the headline “School of the Future: Lessons in Failure.”)

But the staff at the school never gave up, he said, and things did improve in the following years, despite the onset of the Philadelphia district’s epic meltdown and the constant churn of principals, regional superintendents, and school chiefs during that period.

Gaffey’s frustration built, though. He was searching for an opportunity to run freely with everything that he was learning, much of which seemed invisible to the wider world.

When word came that Superintendent Hite was going to back the opening of three new schools—quick on the heels of closing dozens of others—Gaffey was conflicted, but not for long.

Like so many in and around the system, he still believes he can make a difference—despite the chaos of funding crises and rancorous politics, despite the decay of the existing system and its mostly failed attempts to reinvigorate itself, and despite the daunting scale of the challenge they embrace daily.

More than anything, the feeling I got from talking with Tom Gaffey was that he wanted me, too, to believe in the possibility that he and his colleagues might really be able to make school better.

The skeptical reporter and cynical Philadelphian in me won’t allow for throwing history and good sense to the wind and jumping on this latest version of the “innovation” bandwagon.

But I’m sure as hell glad that the Tom Gaffeys of the world keep fighting the good fight regardless.

Photo of students outside of Philadelphia’s School of the Future by Jason Rearick for Education Week (2009).

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.