Tech Valley's Dan Liebert says the students' access to various technology at the high school allows them to gain a deeper understanding of their subject matter.

Oct 27 2008

Working Together

A handful of innovative high schools across the country are mixing technology and project-based learning to redesign their schools. Find out what they are learning and how it will affect your schools.

A handful of innovative high schools across the country are mixing technology and project-based learning to redesign their schools. Find out what they are learning and how it will affect your schools.

The setting is pure high school. Students cluster around each other in Metallica T-shirts and jeans, some slouch, some play with their hair. The banter flies back and forth:

“Oh my God, I remember that.”

“Seriously, grow up.”


But blink your eyes and take another look. Right in front of you, the future of high school is being invented. The students are deeply engrossed in project-based learning. Working in teams of four, they easily switch between computer notebooks and graphing calculators as they puzzle collectively over linear equations. Their work is part of a larger project in which they are attempting to determine if the water in the nearby Hudson River is finally clean enough to drink and fish in. After being on the river's banks and taking soil samples, they are attempting to put their data into the proper context.

With test scores declining in the United States as quickly as eager graduates from India and China claim more engineering and science jobs, it may not be an exaggeration to say the country's future depends on the results of what is happening across the country in classrooms like this one.

Over a lifetime, a high school dropout earns $260,000 less than a high school graduate.

These sophomores are the first class of Tech Valley High School, in Troy, N.Y. They are at the vanguard of a growing movement, one of dozens of schools throughout the country that are creating new and innovative learning models. While this number is a drop in the bucket compared with the 18,400 high schools in the United States, the work being done at Tech Valley and other schools has a much broader goal than just improving the lives of their graduates.

In this day and age of thinking big, the teachers, administrators and students who make up these schools – including administrators Dan Liebert and Raona Roy at Tech Valley – are aiming not just to break the outdated modes of high school, but to create students who are ready to work, contribute and thrive in today's global 21st-century marketplace.

“It's an appropriate evolution,” says Carl Strang, the director of the Northeastern (N.Y.) Regional Information Center who helped set up Tech Valley slightly more than a year ago.

Growing Problems

The problem with high schools today can be summed up in three ways: The studies offered are not rigorous enough; U.S. students aren't keeping pace with international students; and too few students make it to graduation.

According to a 2006 study from the National Center for Education Statistics, more than one in three college students take a remedial course in at least one subject during their first two years. Looking overseas, U.S. students rank 25th in math and 21st in science among students from 30 industrialized countries tested in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study. By the end of eighth grade, U.S. students are two years behind in math when compared with peers in other countries.

The news gets worse when you realize those numbers represent only those students who actually graduate from high school. Nationally, slightly more than 70 percent of students graduate; that rate dips to nearly 50 percent for African-Americans, Hispanics and low-income students. Seventy percent of eighth-graders can't read at grade level, and most will never catch up.

These problems are exactly what led to the creation of New Technology High School in Napa, Calif., in 1996. Three years later, the New Technology Foundation was created, and today the group counts 42 schools under its umbrella; Tech Valley is the newest.

“The genius of what happened here was that they took the best of practices and put them together in one model,” says Susan Schilling, the foundation's CEO. That meant giving students access to their own computers and other technology, covering the curriculum in project-based learning and drawing upon the expertise of people in the community.

For instance, at Tech Valley last year, the school invited an engineer to work with teachers to help create a project for freshmen. Students were given the task of creating a way to use solar power to heat water. The engineer explained the project to the students, visited with them in the middle of their work and returned to help judge their final efforts.

“The question I never have to answer is, ‘Why are we doing this?' ” says Liebert, the school's principal.

Education expert Gary Stager agrees, saying educators need to take that very question more seriously. Project-based learning not only helps answer that age-old question for students, but “supports collaboration because diverse expertise is needed to solve multifaceted problems,” says Stager, the executive director of the Constructivist Consortium and a visiting professor of education at Pepperdine University. “Whether you're an auto mechanic or brain surgeon, you work on a ‘project' until it is done. Too few students enjoy the sense of satisfaction accompanying the completion of a project and of a job well done.”

Models Multiplying

While the New Tech schools all operate under the same theories of community involvement, accessibility to technology and project-based learning, other schools are attempting to reinvent high school in their own way.

Envision Schools, a group of four charter high schools in the San Francisco area, focuses on helping students become the first in their family to attend college. The schools have different themes, but all share a technology-rich environment that combines project-based learning with regular exhibitions of student work. Envision's leaders worked with professors at Stanford University to create its curricula, and like New Tech, its students meet all the local requirements and take the appropriate local tests.

“College has to be the standard to work toward,” says Envision Co-Founder and Chief Education Officer Robert Lenz. “Ninety percent of jobs need some post-secondary training.” His schools not only help students improve their academic performance and 21st-century skills, but also help them apply to the right colleges.

“Our students know themselves well, their areas of strength and where they need more help,” Lenz says. “They go into college with their eyes wide open and know the academic rigor.”

High Tech High is doing similar work in its eight charter schools in the San Diego area. The schools, including two middle schools and an elementary school, specialize in math, science and technology, and students must complete internships in addition to their schoolwork.

The Science Leadership Academy is a high school created through a partnership between the School District of Philadelphia and The Franklin Institute, a 184-year-old group that promotes a passion for science and technology learning. Students here mix laboratory work and project-based learning with dual-enrollment programs at area universities and career development internships in laboratory and business settings.

Because the New Tech schools attract a lot of visitors (more than 800 came to Napa last year), students get practice talking to adults and explaining what standard they are working on.

SLA bases its work on five core values: inquiry, research, collaboration, presentation and reflection. “We train citizens for the 21st century,” says founding principal Chris Lehmann.

New Technology principal Howard Mahoney has an easy way to observe these schools. “I like to watch the high-performing middle school students who were always the stars in their classes. [At New Tech, the work] is a struggle, they can't just repeat what their teacher said. They have to learn how to work cooperatively in a group.” He says these students take several weeks to acclimate, but they always end up mastering the new requirements.

Technology's Role

Tech Valley's Raona Roy says project-based learning allows students to understand that sometimes there is more than one solution to a problem.


While many of these schools feature “technology” in their names or prominently in descriptions of what they do, Mahoney finds the word's use ironic.

“Technology isn't the biggest achievement [here]. It's a tool that facilitates project-based learning,” he adds. “It allows for collaboration, it extends the classroom walls, and all students turn in their work online.”

Most workers don't spend their day talking about what programs they used or what hardware helped them finish a job; likewise, students at these high schools expect to have the appropriate technology whenever it is needed. Bad weather, for example, doesn't keep Tech Valley's students from their schoolwork: During a snowy day last winter, one homebound student spent the day working from his house by collaborating with his teammates via e-mail and doing other online work.

When he returned to school the next day, he told Roy, the school's director of institutional advancement, “You ruined my snow day.”

“Technology allows us the ability to integrate a deeper understanding of the content,” says principal Liebert. “It makes the kind of teaching and learning we need possible.”

Envision's students have found that their technology use is a big asset once they leave the classroom. The students are proficient in graphic design, video, audio and web design, Lenz says. While they work with technology “at a pretty high level,” the school's goal is not to churn out web designers, but well-rounded students who can use the appropriate technology needed for a task, he adds. Still, when students intern at a nonprofit or small company, they invariably become the tech person in that team because of their school training.

Pepperdine's Stager sums up technology's impact in the classroom by saying, “Computers offer [students] an intellectual laboratory and a vehicle for self-expression.”

While Tech Valley's two classrooms have the maps and clocks that adorn every classroom wall, they seem like artifacts of an earlier time. Each class has interactive whiteboards, all students have notebooks and graphing calculators, and most important, students and teachers regularly access the school network that holds all their work and assignments.

“The reliability of technology and the Internet” has allowed these types of schools to flourish recently, says Northeastern Regional's Strang. He recalled that when he started as a teacher in 1987, his school had four phone lines for the entire building. “[Today] we're at the right place at the right time with the right tools.”

The Ripple Effect

While the work in each of these schools is impressive, the real test will be whether their experiments generate changes in high schools across the country.

“We are committed to innovation and creativity in teaching and learning for the 21st century and to making the school a resource for participating districts – and to the wider learning community in New York state and beyond,” says Roy.

Strang and others admit Tech Valley doesn't have all the answers, but he hopes the public school can create a bank of projects that other high schools in New York can try.

Lenz says he is optimistic that high schools will pick up on these changes, but he's unsure of how long the transformation will take. “We're moving that way. I really believe schools [in the future] will look more like our schools.”

The Nonprofit Influence

Who's the most powerful person in K–12 education today? Quite possibly Vicki Phillips.

Phillips is better known as the education director for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The former Portland Schools superintendent oversees the foundation's education grants, meaning that at a time when public money for education is hard to come by, she's sitting on $3 billion in grant money earmarked for schools. The foundation has given away more than $1.4 billion since 1999, helping to create or redesign more than 2,000 new schools.

Other major nonprofit organizations are also handing out money to improve education, including:

  • The Eli Broad Education Foundation, which has given $250 million for school improvement projects during the past 10 years. The Broad Prize for Urban Education is given annually to the district that shows growth in student achievement and a narrowing of the achievement gap between whites and minorities. The prize was doubled to $2 million for this year.
  • Former Netscape president James L. Barksdale committed $100 million to teach literacy in his home state of Mississippi, creating the Barksdale Reading Institute.

Disruptive Technology

“The horse is out of the barn,” says Tech Valley High School principal Dan Liebert.

“The future is now. Class is in session,” writes Harvard Business School professor Clayton M. Christensen.

What are they talking about? In short, technology. Liebert explains that the question in schools shouldn't be what technology to include, but how to use the technology that schools have. Christensen, author of Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns, argues that only through technology will schools be able to successfully create the individualized learning plan that each student should have.

When Liebert mentions that it's estimated that by 2010 the world's technical field information will double in size every 72 hours, he views the information positively. “There is no way individuals can keep up with that kind of information explosion. The old method of accumulating information as learning is obsolete. This means we have to learn how to collaborate and use technology.”

Indeed, Raona Roy, Tech Valley's director of institutional advancement, says one teacher was overjoyed when she discovered the school's structure made her more of a coach than an expert. “I love this because now I don't have to know everything,” she told Roy.

Christensen, along with co-authors Michael Horn and Curtis Johnson, argues that using technology to disrupt the typical style of learning will change the way the country educates its students. State-accredited online courses rose from 45,000 eight years ago to about 1 million such classes today. But that's still just 1 percent of classes offered in the country.

As online classes gain more converts, Christensen says, education will naturally become student-centered, based more on individual learning styles and pace than would be possible in a class of 25 students.