The DeHavilland Blog

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

High Tech High, and coming full circle

The big news in business/education partnerships last week was the opening of Philadelphia's High Tech High, which was built in partnership with Microsoft. Details on Microsoft's role, from a story on

The school is being touted as unlike any in the world, with not only a high-tech building -- students have digital lockers and teachers use interactive "smart boards" -- but also a learning process modeled on Microsoft's management techniques.

"Philadelphia came to us ... and asked us to design a school," said Craig Mundie, chief research and strategy officer of Redmond, Washington-based Microsoft. "We're going to take our best shot."

The company didn't pay the $63 million cost -- that was borne by the Philadelphia School District -- but shared its personnel and management skills. About 170 teens, nearly all black and mainly low-income, were chosen by lottery to make up the freshman class. The school eventually plans to enroll up to 750 students.

Mundie said companies have long been concerned that schools aren't churning out graduates with the skills and know-how that businesses require in employees to compete globally -- and mental acuity is especially critical to Microsoft.

"Our raw material is smart people," he said.

School district CEO Paul Vallas said he was impressed by more than just the company's technology.

"I was also taken by their culture," Vallas said. "They created a culture within which ideas can be generated and acted upon."

Additional insight on the partnership from The Philadelphia Inquirer:

The school is Microsoft's biggest venture in a school to date. The company donated $100,000 to name an area in the building, but did not provide equipment or software or otherwise fund it. It instead gave personnel time, best practices, and access to its network of "international thought leaders."

The company has a local office and will continue to assist, Grover said.

Microsoft mogul Bill Gates greeted students in a video clip and said he, too, would visit.

The school district already is spreading what it has learned from Microsoft. It has borrowed design features for other new schools being planned, said Paul Vallas, district chief executive. And it has modernized more than 1,000 classrooms with others in planning, he said.

"I want people to say, 'I may not be in the building of the future, but I'm in the classroom of the future,' " Vallas said.

The district's hope that a donor would step forward with $5 million for naming rights has not come to fruition, but officials say they haven't given up.

Microsoft will not make the bid, said Microsoft's Mary J. Cullinane.

"This is really about let's devote human capital and provide the district with access to our organization," she said.

This looks to be a well-designed partnership, to be sure. Microsoft has been careful to remove themselves from preferential commercial treatment, so there are no commercial motives evident - it's really about taking an active role in preparing the workforce, with undoubtedly significant benefits in terms of public goodwill, image as a thought leader, and employee morale.

I highlight this project because it seems to be an indicator that we're coming full-circle regarding the way we think about business/education partnerships. Back in the first half of the 20th century, there was significant and substantive involvement in education by the business community. Business leaders sat on school boards and helped to design and manage vocational programs, all with an eye on the quality of the labor pool and specific workforce needs.

Something happened in the 60s and 70s, and business involvement in education was scaled back significantly - at least until the 80s, when A Nation At Risk, combined with Reagan's calls for action from business, brought it roaring back, and business' engagement continued to grow through the end of the century. The National Association of Partners in Education (now defunct) reported that between their 1990 and 2000 partnership surveys, involvement on the part of small businesses grew 35%; business association involvement grew 36%; and involvement by large corporations gew 29%.

But from what I've seen, the vast majority of these initiatives don't qualify as partnership efforts - businesses and schools working collaboratively to benefit instruction. I would classify many as either support operations, efforts to provide schools with additional resources (such as money or volunteers) that are then allocated based on the unilateral decisions of the schools. Many others could be considered as independent, tandem operations - groups that develop curricula that are then either offered to schools as completed products, those that offer scholarships directly to students, or those that manage contests rewarding academic achievements but that are done independently of schools.

I'm not implying in any way that these efforts do not have value; I'm simply saying that they're not partnerships. One side or the other has unilateral authority and decision-making power in how programs are designed and managed, how resources are allocated, and on which outcomes these initiatives are focused.

However, I do think we're coming full circle, back towards the true business/school partnerships of so long ago, when I see collaborative, peer-based ventures like Philadelphia's new High Tech High, certification programs run by companies like Microsoft and Cisco, and administrative-level collaborations run by groups like the Montgomery County Business Roundtable for Education.

It will be interesting to see whether we continue to move in this direction, or whether such true partnerships will remain exceptions to the rule.


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