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Laptops of the World

In inner-city Philadelphia, a pilot program is arming its high schoolers with laptops. But in countries like Norway-and increasingly in the developing world-that's the norm. Why is the United States so behind? And is it worth it to play catch-up? "You can learn so much from the bathrooms," muses Bing..

In inner-city Philadelphia, a pilot program is arming its high schoolers with laptops. But in countries like Norway-and increasingly in the developing world-that's the norm. Why is the United States so behind? And is it worth it to play catch-up?

"You can learn so much from the bathrooms," muses Bing Howell, a London-based education consultant who joined my tour around Philadelphia's School of the Future. While I am here to understand the school's one-laptop-per-child program, and our tour guide is keen to show off the SmartCard-operated lockers and electronic blackboards, Howell just wants to go the bathroom. "They speak volumes about whether the kids feel valued," he explains.By that standard, the students at the School of the Future are being prepared for lives in the executive suites. The men's room, with floor-to-ceiling tiles, pristine white sinks and urinals, and not a hint of the smoke-and-piss smell typical of most high school latrines, was even more impressive than the combination-lock-less lockers.My August tour of the School of the Future (and its bathrooms) is a relatively low-key affair. A partnership between Microsoft and the School District of Philadelphia that cost $62 million to build and opened in 2006, the high school has received far more official visits, like a delegation of Hong Kong high school principals and the education minister of Greece. Tony Franklin, the warmly competent face of Microsoft at the school, walks us through the building on a friendly auto-pilot.Built on a small hill at the edge of an enormous city park, next to a giant Gilded Age-era Civil War memorial, the school building sits above its neighborhood. Several buildings directly across the street are boarded up and others-like Philly Discounts Clothing, Golden Dragon Chinese and American Food, and Dollar Plus-testify to the neighborhood's poverty. By contrast, the blindingly white School of the Future, designed in a modernized classic style reminiscent of Richard Meier's starchitecture, stands out like a beacon. Out front, a pair of black metal sculptures celebrate classical education, depicting little Roman children crowded around toga-clad educators. Inside, the open-plan cafeteria, eerily quiet before the beginning of the school year, looks more like a university student union than a public high school. The ultra-wired conference room with sunny floor-to-ceiling windows and earth tone walls looks more Silicon Valley than stodgy, ragged, East Coast metropolis.
In the world's largest economy and leading technological innovator, the laptops-in-schools concept is still rare.
Of course, the one-laptop-per-child concept is not unique to the School of the Future. The eponymous American nonprofit has famously distributed thousands of low-cost laptops everywhere from Peru to Cambodia. What is notable is that in the world's largest economy and leading technological innovator, the concept is still so rare. America, after all, is the country that invented the computer. (ENIAC, arguably the first true computer, was built just a few miles from the School of the Future, at the University of Pennsylvania.) But while the United States integrates computers on the patchwork, pilot-program model of developing countries like Peru, many of our economic peers-especially in technophilic Scandinavia-are embracing them as universal, an essential part of 21st century education. As an American high school student might ask: What's up with that?

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