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Innovate or Perish? The School District of Philadelphia


The history of education reform is littered with “new, new things.”  Innovations masquerading as panaceas have distracted leaders and decision-makers for decades. TV? Whole language? The first-blush promise of computers? At the same time, student performance in the United States has largely stagnated, and the so-called agrarian, industrial model of schooling has proven resilient.

The School District of Philadelphia (SDP), like many districts around the country, is at an inflection point. Funding available for the classroom is decreasing—in part due to reductions in federal and state contributions, and in part due to legacy costs—while families and students choose viable alternatives, mostly charter schools, which themselves constitute a significant structural innovation. With dwindling resources and a diminishing student population, an operational imperative to change joins the undergirding moral imperative to provide decent schools for all children.

In this context, the innovation that is truly improving student outcomes is as much innovation in how we operate as what we implement. Developing new and innovative ways to develop, sustain and support schools is more important than the models themselves, as any student of the relentless momentum of bureaucracy can attest. As Tim Brown writes in Change by Design, “What we need is an approach to innovation that is powerful, effective, and broadly accessible…”

To this end, the SDP leadership has invested in innovative processes alongside innovative school models. Put simply, the district’s job is to create the conditions and spaces whereby school leaders and teachers can be successful in educating children, each and every one.

What follows is a quick roadmap with brief signposts describing a sampling of our current efforts to become innovative in our way of doing as well as in what we do.

New ways of doing and being

Cross-functional Action Teams

Calling on several of the practices of “design thinking,” we have built out a number of cross-functional “action teams” focused on our most important and intractable problems. One, for example, has been addressing the question of “How do we get more students into good schools?” Calling on the expertise of colleagues from all parts of the organization including facilities, academics, finance, parent engagement and school safety, as well as parents and students, we have identified a set of creative actions that we are implementing. Similarly, when we wanted to understand what we need to do to improve “customer service” at schools and within central administrations, we pulled together a team including private- and public-sector customer service experts, education experts, parents and school-based staff to engage creatively around solutions.


The first-ever TechCamp held in the United States took place over the weekend of February 23–24, 2013, in Philadelphia and brought the benefits of low-cost, easy-to-use technology to the students, teachers and administrators of the city of Philadelphia. TechCamp Philly was hosted as a joint venture between the U.S. Department of State's Office of eDiplomacy, the School District of Philadelphia and the nonprofit company Technically Philly. TechCamp Philly was also endorsed by the Secretary of State's Special Representative for Global Intergovernmental Affairs, in recognition of the advancement of technology in the service of civil society around the world. Two days of TechCamp collaboration among over 150 teachers and technologists, held in conjunction with a Code Across America Education Hackathon, resulted in the launch of 13 technology-enabled solutions to strengthen education in the city.

Open Data

The district is also very excited by its participation in both the national and local Open Data Initiative. Working with the city’s Open Data Philly repository ( and through the district’s website (, we have provided aggregated views of student information, such as student demographics, attendance, climate and academic performance. By June of 2014, the district plans to release additional data sets that will focus on areas outside of student-related data, such as human capital and financial data. We are encouraged by the interest throughout the city and hope that through crowd-sourcing efforts, the technology community will share this data. We believe that powerful visualizations and meaningful comparisons will foster knowledge and continued accountability at all levels.


EduCon is an innovation conference where we can come together, both in person and virtually, to discuss the future of schools. Every session will be an opportunity to discuss and debate ideas—from the very practical to the big dreams.

Teacher-led Convenings

In March, Philadelphia will see the first in a series of city-wide teacher convenings cosponsored by the school district, the Public Education Fund and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Building on and borrowing from the experiences of the multiple teacher networks in the city such as Teachers Lead Philly and the Teachers Action Group, the primary goal of the series is to create space for teachers to educate and inform each other and collectively problem-solve about teaching and learning in the context of the common core. Thousands of teachers across the city have expressed interest in attending, either as co-presenters or participants, and in pitching teacher-created, instruction-focused ideas for additional support.

Innovative “whats”

Philadelphia has been home to a variety of school model innovations. Here I describe two existing schools and three innovative school models slated to open their doors in September 2014.

The Science Leadership Academy

The Science Leadership Academy is a partnership high school between the School District of Philadelphia and The Franklin Institute. SLA is an inquiry-driven, project-based high school focused on 21st-century learning that opened on September 7, 2006.

SLA provides a vigorous, college-preparatory curriculum with a focus on science, technology, mathematics and entrepreneurship. Students at SLA learn in a project-based environment in which the core values of inquiry, research, collaboration, presentation and reflection are emphasized in all classes.

The Workshop School

The Workshop School opened in September 2013, catering to students from comprehensive neighborhood high schools looking for a new way of learning. Projects rather than subjects drive the curriculum and the schedule. Teachers work intensively with students to cultivate the habits of mind to take ownership of their work. Student progress is based on demonstration of mastery and real-world impact rather than seat time. And technology is not a subject within the curriculum; it is the means through which work gets done.

The project-based learning model has four stages: 1) make it up (envision), 2) make it real, 3) make it better and 4) make it happen. All students are expected to take at least two projects through stage four by the time they graduate. Projects are managed using an online system, Project Foundry, which allows students and teachers to align project work with state standards and track credits by subject area.

The day is divided into two large, flexible blocks of time with students working on projects in the morning and learning “building blocks” in the afternoon, by working either independently with online resources or in small seminars.

Building 21

Scheduled to open in September 2014, Building 21 (B21) has as its mission to empower networks of learners to connect with their passions, discover their purpose and build agency to impact their world. Providing the support and structure for students to develop the skills and mindsets to design their own learning is central to our vision. B21 will utilize inquiry; extended project-based learning; and online instructional approaches within a mastery-based school model that engages students directly with real-world learning opportunities both in and outside of the traditional school setting. Learning happens anywhere, anytime at B21, because we are intentional about making the boundaries between traditional and nontraditional learning far more permeable. By developing networks and learning pathways that utilize time, space, tasks, groupings and assessments in a personalized and flexible manner, B21 will provide the structures for customization and choice. In essence, B21 seeks to customize secondary education at scale through a network approach to learning for high-school-age youth that fundamentally reorients the system to place the learner at the center.

New high schools

The Carnegie Opportunity by Design Challenge presents a potent opportunity for the district to begin its new school design work in a rigorous and inventive manner as it restructures systems to bring its larger portfolio management strategy to fruition. The grant funding associated with this work will result in the creation and launch of two new high schools in September 2014 and will assist the district's Office of New School Models to initiate early exemplar design work that will help the district create basic processes for intensive research, development and
design efforts for effective new high schools. As part of this work, the district has created two school design teams to support cycles of inspiration, ideation and implementation as it develops new schools. School design teams will think like designers and transform the idea of “school” into what is desirable from a student viewpoint and aligned to Carnegie's ten research-based principles. The teams will also reflect on their research to generate ideas, prototype, test, document and revise strategies aligned to each of the ten principles listed below.

The Carnegie design principles of a high-performing secondary school are as follows; a high-performing school:

  • Integrates positive youth development to optimize student engagement and effort
  • Prioritizes mastery of rigorous standards aligned to college and career readiness
  • Continuously improves its operations and model
  • Develops and deploys the collective strengths of staff
  • Manages school operations effectively and efficiently
  • Maintains an effective human capital strategy aligned with school model and priorities
  • Empowers and supports students through key transitions into and beyond high school
  • Remains porous and connected (partnerships, access to community resources, knowledge sharing with other schools)
  • Creates a clear mission and coherent culture
  • Personalizes student learning to meet student needs

Watch this space….

These short descriptions articulate a journey more than a destination. The district is furthermore committed to a set of innovations in infrastructure and service provision to facilitate the development and sustaining of new school models that better meet the needs of all students. For example, we are figuring out with our labor partners how to collaborate on working conditions and work rules to support teachers and principals in their practice. We are investing in important technology upgrades to our learning infrastructure (including our student information system and our learning management system) to provide flexible technology solutions to schools. And we continue to look for ways to engender innovation in our practice as much as in our solutions.

Paul Kihn is Deputy Superintendent of the School District of Philadelphia.
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