School of the Future World Summit Fosters School Reform Through Communities of Continuous Learning

Mary Cullinane, director of Innovation and Business Development, U.S. Public Sector Education, Microsoft

Microsoft REDMOND, Wash. – Dec. 2, 2008 – Fresh out of college, Mary Cullinane began her career at a high school in New Jersey, teaching current events to graduating seniors. It was 1990, and in the midst of the Persian Gulf War Cullinane was struck by the inadequacy of the curriculum to help her students learn about constant changes in the global landscape – especially with text books that were 3years old. Through her class Cullinane strove to help her students gain understanding of the world around them and what they needed to be successful; yet her experience made it clear that the current classroom model no longer best served her students. The need for true education reform had become obvious.

Cullinane’s goal was to give her students the skills and understanding to give back to society. But there was no way to do justice to the complex conversations and challenges in the world through the limited perspective of a textbook. “It became very apparent that the fundamental structure of teaching was a silo – classrooms with doors closed to the outside world,” Cullinane says.

In 1996, Microsoft Corp. launched its Anytime Anywhere Learning solution, which provides students and teachers with laptop computers, interactive curriculum, the Microsoft Office productivity suite and networking technology to connect students, teachers and parents. At the time, most people were skeptical of using technology in the classroom. But firsthand knowledge of the program convinced Cullinane of its potential to make learning and the classroom experience more fulfilling for students. She also saw the need for more partnership between the private sector and education. Today, as director of Innovation and Business Development for U.S. Public Sector Education at Microsoft, Cullinane oversees the company’s U.S. Partners in Learning efforts and leads a team of people devoted to addressing these needs.

Staying True to Core Competencies

To facilitate discussions around educational reform, the Partners in Learning team started the School of the Future (SOF) World Summit. In 2005, more than 200 education policy leaders from 20 countries attended the first summit on Microsoft’s Redmond campus. This week Microsoft is hosting the fourth annual SOF World Summit in Seattle, where more than 250 education policy leaders from more than 30 countries are registered to attend.

The School of the Future in West Philadelphia opened in 2006 with a student body of 750. A joint project between Microsoft and the school district of Philadelphia, the school is a test bed for a technology-based education model that can be replicated in other schools around the world.

Stacey Rainey, academic program manager for U.S. Partners in Learning, spearheaded the efforts behind this year’s summit, which is based on the theme of “What’s possible?” As Rainey points out: “Educators are frequently challenged with using dated and static curriculum to teach students about a world that’s anything but static. This year’s summit focuses on providing additional insight on responding to societal, economic and political forces, identifying their long-term impact and preparing students for what lies ahead.”

Attendees will learn how their colleagues in the Netherlands, India, and other countries around the world are embracing change, incorporating technology, and partnering with the private sector. In addition, the summit will provide a forum for education professionals to share knowledge, discuss and debate issues, and return to their schools with solutions for problems and ideas for engaging the private sector in their regions.

According to Cullinane, both Partners in Learning and the SOF World Summit grew out of a desire on Microsoft’s part to do more than simply contribute money and technology to the education sector. Instead, the goal was to work alongside educators and contribute human capital in the form of employee expertise and resources based on the company’s success.

Cullinane and her team initially focused on six states where Microsoft already had allocated financial investments. Projects ranged from helping the state of Michigan implement a better leadership development program for its principals to addressing the needs of rural New Mexico through education and economic development.

Fostering an Environment of Continuous Learning

One of Microsoft’s most noteworthy investments was the School of the Future in West Philadelphia, part of Microsoft’s alliance with state education leaders and policymakers to reform Pennsylvania’s school system. Running the length of the high school is an atrium-like promenade that serves as the social “spine” and helps foster a community of learners. Wireless networks provide students with constant Internet access, and two-story glass panels made with photovoltaic glass generate electricity for the school.

Yet what most sets the school apart is neither its design nor the infusion of technology into the lives of educators and learners; rather, it’s the approach of faculty, students and staff to the learning process. Instead of using the titles of student, teacher and principal, the School of the Future uses learner (student), educator (teacher) and chief learner (principal).

Why the odd titles? Says Chief Learner Rosalind Chivis: “When we started this partnership with Microsoft, we were encouraged to dream and think beyond what exists. If you’re going to accomplish a goal like that, you have to constantly learn. Throughout the school, from the learners to the educators, the support staff and myself, we’re all constantly learning as this school continues to evolve.”

Chivis has been in education for more than 30 years. She has been involved in the School of the Future since it was first conceived in 2004. Throughout the process, Chivis and her colleagues have appreciated the experience, commitment and resources that Microsoft brings. The 6i development process outlines the phases (introspection, investigation, inclusion, innovation, implementation and introspection) of assessing a school’s needs and determining the best solution. And the education Competency Wheel, a tool that was created for Microsoft’s own HR department to identify job candidates and develop employees’ core competencies, has also been adapted to assist schools.

“I’ve been very comfortable with the 6i process because it aligns with the way I like to do business,” says Chivis. “But regardless of a person’s leadership style, the structure of the 6i process makes the implementation of a solution much smoother. Once you’ve gone through the first four steps, you’re ready to implement confidently.”

The Payoff of Public-Private Partnership

Dr. Maurice Ghysels, superintendent of the Mountain View Whisman School District in Silicon Valley, shares Chivis’ appreciation for tools such as the Competency Wheel and 6i process. He learned about them at the Microsoft Institute, a three-day professional development workshop that gives administrators and staff members a solid grasp of behavioral interviewing methods and ways to incorporate technology into the classroom.

Cuts in the California state budget are forcing Ghysels to slash the district’s budget by $1.5 million for the next school year. Still, he says his district is positioned to ride out the economic turmoil: The quality of job applicants is up, the annual performance index increased 21 points last year, parent satisfaction is very high, and more neighborhood kids are choosing district schools over private schools.

“Four years ago I literally couldn’t fill a position,” says Ghysels. “Instead, I had to bring in an interim principal for a year. But the last two principals who were picked for their schools were appointed. There wasn’t even a selection process because they graduated from our leadership academy. We groomed both of these candidates to be leaders, and they‘ve been absolutely slam-dunk success stories. It’s because of Microsoft’s role as a leading supporter of the Mountain View business community that we have a stronger, more talented team in this district.”

Each student is given a laptop computer to access the School of the Future portal, based on Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007. This portal allows teachers, students and parents to easily communicate and share homework assignments, test results, and report cards.

The School of the Future has seen similar improvements. For example, during its first year of operation, student attendance rates were at 93 percent (compared with a district average of around 78 percent). School of the Future junior Tyler Wilson attributes the change to a variety of factors, including smaller class sizes, caring teachers, the use of engaging technology, and adoption of a new grading scale. “When I was in middle school I would settle for the basics – getting a C was fine because I was excelling in comparison to many students and wouldn’t get in trouble at home,” says Wilson. “But at the School of the Future we don’t have regular grades like an A, B or C. This opened my eyes as a student and a learner who wants to be successful when I get older. It also opened my mother’s eyes to push me to do better. Now that I know I can do better, a B – or ‘proficient’ – isn’t acceptable. Instead, I strive for advancement in every project and assignment I do.”

Using technology in all her classes has also given Tyler the skills to succeed beyond the walls of the school, whether in job interviews or internships. And from beyond the walls of the school, her mom can also keep tabs on her daughter’s education using the School of the Future portal, built on Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007. “My mom stays in tune from the portal, so she can check my homework assignments, what class I was late for or what pop quizzes I had, all from her computer at work or at home,” says Tyler.

Creating a Community of Partners

Results like this are encouraging for Chivis and her colleagues. But the journey to school reform in Pennsylvania has just begun. “We’re doing everything we can to create the model for an education that’s relevant and adaptable, but we’re nowhere near where we want to be,” says Chivis. “I can’t tell you how many times we started, balled it up and started over again. And you know what? That’s OK. We look at the School of the Future as a test bed. And I think that notion makes it ok to take risks. So we’re looking forward to creating all sorts of innovative, engaging best practices that we hope can be used across our district and hopefully the world.”

In 2006, Microsoft increased its investment in holistic school reform projects, like the School of the Future, through its Innovative Schools program. This program is designed to capture the processes, best practices and lessons learned from Philadelphia’s School of the Future and similar efforts in Singapore, the U.K. and several other countries to help educators from around the world benefit from the work of their colleagues.

Hardly a week goes by in which Chivis and her staff don’t get a call from some international organization, either making inquiries about the school’s resources or design process, or wanting to study various aspects of the school and its processes. Many of these companies and organizations want to be a part of this work, to partner with the school and provide their resources as well. Chivis credits this fact to Microsoft.

For Cullinane, it all goes back to the premise of Microsoft demonstrating its commitment to education by creating a community of companies that partner with schools and provide access to their resources and expertise.

“The word hasn’t been created that describes the difficulty of education reform. And the challenge is too big to be addressed by the installation or deployment of certain software. Microsoft’s primary contribution is still in the area of technology. We’ve helped implement change in people development, environmental development and other areas, but everyone has something to contribute. Finding where they can contribute is worth the effort.”

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