Is This The Future Of Education In America?

By David Ruenzel — January 01, 1998 25 min read
Visitors from around the world have toured California’s New Technology High School, hoping to glimpse the future of American education.

It’s hard to tell which part of Mark Morrison’s job takes more of his time: his duties as director of New Technology High School in Napa, California, or his role as the school’s resident tour guide. Over the past year, he has entertained more than 2,500 visitors—educators, reporters, policymakers, and business executives—from around the world. They come to catch a glimpse of the future of American education, a school where the computer is king, where books, chalkboards, paper, and pencils are all but things of the past.

This morning, Morrison stands in the school’s linen-white foyer, bundles of computer cable overhead, chatting in the caffeinated rhythms of a tour guide trying to convince visitors that what they’re about to see is indeed amazing. He speaks seamlessly of cultural shifts (“Who’s the expert in a world where the kids know more than the teacher?”), surfing (“We’re trying to stay on top of the technological wave”), and the virtues of running a school like an entrepreneurial business. New Technology High is, according to a brochure Morrison hands out, “the school that business built.” As if to emphasize this point, the principal points to a plaque on the lobby wall listing more than 40 corporate donors—Digital Planet, Creative Multimedia, Silicon Graphics, among them. “We appreciate their support,” he says.

New Technology High School, Morrison explains, was modeled after a high-tech business start-up. “That meant starting small, budgeting for a loss the first two years, and maximizing resources,” he says. “And it meant educating kids for what business wants: basic technology skills, a willingness to work in teams, and the ability to apply knowledge to real-world projects.”

Morrison, a former professional baseball player who looks as if he could still belt line drives, leads me down the school’s central corridor, which features not lockers and trophy cases but large glass windows behind which are classrooms filled with computers—computers everywhere. Students in Nike T-shirts, baggy pants, and other trendy garb work intently at the machines. The heads of a few are wedged between headphones; they look as if they’re scanning sonar screens for enemy subs.

Morrison stops in front of an integrated American history and English classroom. Nothing about the room says history or English. It looks like most of the other classrooms we’ve passed—all windows and white walls. There are no books in sight, no blackboard—only kids at desks scrolling through computer screens. The class is studying the U.S. Constitution. I peer over one girl’s shoulder. Her screen reads, “John Locke believed that people learn through experience.” She hits a button, and another screenful of information appears: “Montesquieu believed . . . .”

Across the hall is a computer-applications classroom; it looks just like the English/history room, only more stark. The students are either so engaged or so accustomed to visitors—Tipper Gore came through not long ago with a sizable entourage—that they don’t even notice our faces pressed to the glass. Even when we walk into the classroom and stand looking over their shoulders, the students hardly glance up.

“All the juniors here become proficient in Microsoft Word, Excel, Access, and PowerPoint,” Morrison says. “When they graduate, they’re ready to go to work—if, that is, they decide not to go on to college.”

The tour continues. More germ-free rooms with kids at computers. The few students in the corridors—those heading for a printing station or taking a bathroom break—say hello to Morrison and quickly move on. No one at New Technology High ever seems to linger. “We treat the students like employees,” Morrison explains. “We see them as responsible people who will get their work done, and so they don’t have to ask permission to get up and stretch or get a drink of water.”

This is not hyperbole: Students are indeed treated like employees. In the computer-applications class, students get six vacation days a year in addition to the regular school holidays; they simply request a day off, no questions asked. In other classes, students can actually “fire” laggard classmates in their work groups. “I’ve heard some complaints about group members who are not carrying their weight,” an English teacher tells her juniors. “What do you do? Well, what happens in business? They get fired. And you can fire someone here, too, if they’re not contributing. First, though, you have to consult with us teachers—the supervisors. And if they do end up getting fired, they’ll have to work alone.”

As the teacher speaks, she holds up a card that students who have been fired will receive; it’s the equivalent of the dreaded pink slip.

The final stop on my tour is yet another glass-encased classroom. The lights inside are dim, giving the room a greenish, submarine hue. Colorful images somersault this way and that across the computer screens. “The multimedia-design class,” Morrison announces. “People from a design firm came by to see what these kids were doing and said they’d pay them $35,000 right now to come work for them.”

Technology may be the main attraction, but what truly distinguishes the school is the innovative way the faculty treat and teach the students.

Morrison departs, leaving me to watch the students in action. Their work is amazing. These seniors have already mastered basic HTML, the hypertext markup language used to create Web pages for the Internet, and they are now learning to edit graphic images they’ve created with a program called Extreme 3D. They choose from various painting options, such as “Japanese” and “airbrush,” and texture options, such as “grass.” Some move about the room, offering suggestions to others.

I introduce myself to the teacher, Cassandra Van Buren, who peremptorily states, “This is not a vocational class.” She pauses a moment and then adds, “I know I sound defensive, but a lot

of visitors who come in here think I’m just preparing kids for good jobs. But I see it as my responsibility to teach them theory and critical skills. I want them to understand the history of electronic media because those patterns are repeating in the computer culture—namely, that what began as a people’s hobby is being taken over by big corporations. Human nature invariably asserts itself in the form of advertising and commercialism.”

Van Buren came to New Technology High School from the University of Oregon, where she worked with computers. She made the move, she says, because she wanted to do something “interactive"—that is, she wanted to work with human beings as well as machines. “I need to prepare these kids for their private lives as well as for their public lives,” she says, looking somewhat somber in the room’s murky light.

Indeed, Van Buren and other New Tech teachers say that most visitors overlook key human dimensions of the school. Educational technology may be the main attraction, but what truly distinguishes the school, they point out, is the innovative way the faculty treat and teach students. This, they contend, is far more important than all their newfangled gadgetry.

N ew Technology High may be a public school, but it’s a new kind of public school, one created less by educators than by business for business. It’s a high-tech enterprise dedicated to producing what Morrison calls “industry-ready kids.”

The school’s mission statement puts it this way: “New Technology High School prepares students to succeed and compete in an advanced technology-based society. The students are empowered to be confident about themselves, their career paths, and the future.”

Both the state of California and the federal government see the school as a model that can be replicated in districts around the nation. Governor Pete Wilson’s Digital High School Initiative has dubbed it California’s first “Cool School.” And the U.S. Department of Education, which kicked in $300,000 to the school’s launch, named it a department “demonstration site.”

New Technology High was born out of economic necessity. In the early 1990s, business leaders in Napa Valley, an area known for vineyards and wineries, decided that the time was ripe to expand an economy long dominated by the production of merlot and chardonnay. Silicon Valley, a two-hour drive to the south, was booming; why not try to persuade some high-tech companies to open shop in Napa?

The problem, the business leaders quickly learned, was a shortage of skilled labor. High-tech industries wouldn’t come to Napa without a supply of technologically sophisticated workers. So in 1993, the local business community and officials from the Napa Valley Unified School District began to talk about starting a small specialized school that would produce just this kind of employee. They approached companies—Silicon Graphics, Lotus Development Corp., Hewlett-Packard, and others—and asked a couple of straightforward questions: What kind of school would they like to see? What kind of graduate should emerge from it? A number of the companies, in turn, offered both counsel and financial assistance. And in September of 1996, the school opened with 120 juniors and six staff members. Another class and additional teachers were added this year. The school now enrolls some 190 juniors and seniors, with almost equal numbers of girls and boys.

The district recruited teachers from as far away as Ohio, Washington state, and Oregon; the goal was to hire the best and brightest people it could find who also had faith in the transformative power of education technology.

Morrison describes the students as risk takers. They left their traditional high schools for what seemed at the time an educational experiment. What’s more, it was an experiment with no foreign-language offerings, football team, or music program. (Students desiring such extracurriculars have to commute between New Technology High and their old schools.)

Most New Tech students were bored at their previous schools. They wanted schooling that was hands-on, active, and participatory.

Most New Tech students were bored at their previous schools, Morrison says. They wanted schooling that was hands-on, active, participatory, and New Tech gives them this, with a curriculum that is largely project driven but still in line with the state’s academic expectations. In one history class, students study the Monroe Doctrine by producing a newsletter on its impact, complete with articles, editorials, and political cartoons. In an integrated English and economics class, students working in teams develop new products and then prepare business plans to bring them to the market. They take part in schoolwide projects, too. The entire student body, for example, produced an “electronic quilt"—actually a CD-ROM—on the history, economy, religion, and government of Napa Valley. Click on one quilt square and you can explore the genealogies of individual Napa families.

Although the students turn out impressive work, Morrison emphasizes that the school has not siphoned off the district’s whiz kids. In fact, many had less-than-stellar academic track records before coming to the school. Applicants generally have at least a 2.0 grade-point average and an algebra course under their belts, but a number are admitted with less than that. Some arrive not even knowing how to turn on a computer.

Overall, it’s a diverse group: 38 percent are nonwhite, and 30 percent qualify for the federal free-lunch poverty program. As Morrison tells it, many are “average kids who were pretty much invisible at their previous schools, wandering through the school system with no real goals. But here they succeed.”

The teachers concur. “The students here don’t float through the system like jellyfish,” says American government and economics teacher Paul Curtis, who came to the school from Napa High, a comprehensive high school of 2,000 students. “They’re incredibly purposeful.”

For this, Curtis gives less credit to the school’s vaunted technology than its pedagogy. “No, it’s not the technology,” he says. “I don’t even see the technology as the mainstay of the curriculum. Now, it’s true that there is a huge market for kids with these kinds of technological skills. Still, technology is not what this school is all about.”

Curtis praises the project-based curriculum and the fact that faculty members team up to teach a number of integrated courses. He and English teacher Jetti Matzke team teach a class called “Political Studies.” An amalgam of sociology, literature, and economics, the course explores issues of power, authority, and human rights.

But what really motivates the students, Curtis believes, is the fact that the school is run like a business. Accountability is the watchword. The students are both clients and employees—clients in that they are the ones served by the school, employees in that they have an obligation to work hard and meet established goals.

“The business model is accountability,” Curtis emphasizes as he watches students stuff an in-basket with essays. “Here we set students to work on a project with deadlines, and they meet the deadlines—no questions asked. And the work is consistently good. It’s all a question of meeting standards. Industry has standards, and so do we. At most other schools, there are no real standards, and so kids will always go for the easy grade; if you try to push kids in an environment where there are no standards, they will complain about how tough you’re being. But if there are standards—uncompromising ones upheld by everyone—the kids really will see you as a coach trying to help them meet them.”

The teachers’ professed ambivalence about technology contrasts sharply with the students’ enthusiasm.

This is all well and good, but what has attracted hundreds upon hundreds of visitors to the school, I remind Curtis, is its investment in technology. In a nation of schools still littered with dusty chalkboards and wooden desks, this is why New Technology High stands out.

Curtis stands firm. As far as he is concerned, the computer is a good tool, but that’s about it. And sometimes, he says, students are better off using more traditional tools. In his last class, he points out, most students chose paper and pencil to make charts illustrating the laws of supply and demand. “But you know, it’s a funny thing,” Curtis says, shaking his head. “It can be really hard here to get a supply of paper for that kind of work. But Hewlett-Packard will drop off $40,000 of equipment in a single day.”

At this point, Curtis’ team-teacher, Jetti Matzke, joins the conversation, having just finished conducting a spirited discussion of George Orwell’s Animal Farm. I ask the two of them if they think they could be good teachers without technology.

“Sure,” Curtis says.

Matzke raises her eyebrows. “I was a good teacher without technology,” she says brusquely.

In my conversations with teachers during my visit to New Technology High, I found that many shared Curtis’ and Matzke’s so-what attitude about the technology. Several made it clear that they were tired of the media treating them like computer salesmen instead of teachers. Most reporters, they complained, drop in and ask a few all-too-obvious questions—"Do you like computers?” to the students, and “Is it fun to teach with technology?” to the teachers—and then they go file yet another story about kids turned on by technology.

The teachers’ professed ambivalence about technology, however, contrasts sharply with the students’ enthusiasm for it. They do almost all their work on computers. They dutifully, even happily, use computers to spin out essays, art, spreadsheets, frameworks for physics experiments, and much more. They also use them to spit out e-mail—lots of e-mail. At the beginning of each class, students are given a few minutes to send messages and read those they have received, which include assignments, corrections, and composition edits from their teachers.

A few teachers consider the unrelenting use of e-mail problematic. “The e-mail needs to be refined,” one teacher told me. “Too many kids are sending inappropriate messages. In fact, we need to have a discussion—a deep philosophical discussion—about how kids can lose themselves in this technology.”

History teacher Deborah Aufdenspring shares this concern. Like Curtis she talked about the computer as a valuable tool, but one that has to be used with caution. “It’s easy to get swept up in the technology, to hide behind it,” she said.

As part of an integrated U.S. history and American literature class, Aufdenspring’s juniors were researching the American Revolution. They had spent the last couple days role-playing, writing editorials from the perspectives of various stakeholders—Thomas Paine, Patrick Henry, a British loyalist. As Aufdenspring and I talked, the class prepared for a mock NewsHour With Jim Lehrer television show that would include interviews, debates, and a surprise appearance by King George. “When I say, ‘Give me liberty or give me death,’ I’m not kidding,” one student proclaimed. “War is the only option because we’ve tried everything else.”

Aufdenspring mentioned the work of Sherry Turkle, an MIT professor of sociology who has written extensively about the role of technology in reshaping human psychology. Turkle’s new book, Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet, is both a celebration of the computer’s capacities to spur human imagination and a warning about the way people can get lost in virtual worlds. “Turkle has written seminal stuff about how technology can create barriers between people,” Aufdenspring said. “You can see all of that here in how kids can get locked into that screen. And so we always have to refocus, to be vigilant in regards to breakdowns between humans.”

Aufdenspring, who had come to Napa from a school in the foothills of the Sierras where she first experimented with computers in the classroom, emphasized that New Technology High has a lot to offer. It is, she said, a worthy model for other schools. But the technology combined with the school-as-a-business philosophy could be a double-edged sword. Teachers have to remember that their students are still teenagers and that teenagers—as well as adults—need to come out from behind their computer screens and live in the world. “The business metaphor is good in that it makes us treat kids with respect—as people who can and will do good work,” she said. “But what’s bad about the metaphor is that it can make us forget that these are 17- and 18-year-olds with emotional and developmental needs.”

At New Tech, the only library is a virtual one. Aside from the standard course textbooks, there are few books around the school with pages you can actually turn.

Something else frustrates Aufdenspring about the school. “I long for some books,” she said. At New Tech, the only library is a virtual one. Students wanting to learn about, say, the Republican, Democratic, Libertarian, and Green political parties pretty much have to visit their Web sites on the Internet, as Aufdenspring’s course syllabus encourages them to do. In addition to the Internet, students have an abundance of education software to turn to. But aside from the standard course textbooks, there are few books around the school with pages you can actually turn.

Unlike Aufdenspring, the students didn’t seem to mind this; they said they could get what they needed via the computer. I told a number of students about an article I’d read in the July 1997 issue of the Atlantic Monthly that questioned the benefits of classroom technology. In the piece, writer Todd Oppenheimer mentions New Technology High, noting that some students at the school were suffering from eyestrain and carpal tunnel syndrome because of their many hours spent in front of the computer. The students laughed; that was ridiculous, they said. For them, working on the computer and reading text on a screen was absolutely normal. And they were suffering no ill effects. The technology engaged them, they said. When Aufdenspring asked her students to turn off their machines for a lecture on early New England, you could hear the collective moan.

“Yes, they like technology,” Aufdenspring told me later. “But they like Hamlet, too.” Still, the technology absorbed students’ time and attention, and some teachers found it a tug-of-war to engage them in other matters. Math teacher Carolyn Ferris told me she had removed many of the computers from her classroom last year to make “lecture space.” In a school like New Technology High, this admission seemed surprising, almost heretical. But Ferris offered no apology.

“I just didn’t have their attention,” she said, standing in a room that looked almost traditional with its simple chairs and work tables. “They were e-mailing and logging on to the Internet. They were fixated upon the technology. I needed to talk to them without them staring into the screen.”

Ferris also worried that the computer was becoming a crutch for her math students; she believes it is important for students to work with paper and pencil. “They can measure a segment with the computer just by clicking on a line,” she said. “But they don’t get a real sense of what the length of that segment really is. So I use rulers, contractors, paper—old-fashioned tools that can still be put to good use.”

If teachers at New Technology High see computers at times as a distraction and the business metaphor as a bit too button-down, both the technology and the corporatelike environment seem to have had a salubrious effect on the students. Compared with most other high schoolers, New Tech students are model workers. Without complaint, they churn out essays, solve problems, and prepare lab reports. Over lunch, between classes, and during other free moments, they continue tapping away at their computers.

As hard as the students worked, I saw no competitive mean-spiritedness. In fact, the youngsters displayed an unusual collaborative spirit. True to the school’s emphasis on teamwork and group problem-solving, New Tech students worked together and consulted with one another, often gathering in twos or threes around a computer. “You can’t afford to work alone or to be competitive here,” one senior told me. “There’s too much work to be done, and so you’d better learn how to work with other people or you won’t get it done.”

Indeed, at New Technology High, the computer seems to have given new plausibility to the John Dewey saw, “learning by doing.” With the computer, savvy students as never before can, as one student put it, “produce a lot of different stuff.” They use Pagemaker to edit and design magazine pages; Adobe Photoshop to download and work with images; Excel to calculate budgets. There is little evidence of the passive indifference that characterizes so many schools and classrooms. These tinkering students, each with a computer, showed the kind of natural curiosity and independence that progressives praise but almost never find.

And yet, when asked about their school, the students sound a bit like their teachers: They like the technology, but it’s not what makes their school good. “I came here from continuation school after I had a son and a job working minimum wage,” explained Robert, a junior who continued to keystroke even as he spoke. “I never liked school before; the teachers never seemed committed. But here they’re always around, willing to help us out. I’m here a lot of evenings until 7:30, and so are they.”

Devina, a bubbly African-American senior who had come to New Technology a year earlier from one of the district’s large comprehensive high schools, made it clear that her schooling was a lot more than navigating high-resolution screens. She talked of essays she and her classmates had written on the Cold War, a research paper on the Scopes evolution trial. “And don’t let anyone tell you we don’t read books,” she said. “People say that, but it’s not true. Last year, we read The Grapes of Wrath and The Great Gatsby.”

Russell, a baseball-capped senior working next to her, pitched in: “People think we spend all our time surfing the Web, but we’re not even allowed on the Web unless there’s an academic reason or we have some extra time. And we don’t have the time—every four weeks there’s a big project due.”

Devina added, “At my old school, you could sit in class and do nothing day after day. You could turn an assignment in and that was fine, or you could not turn it in and that was fine, too. No one really cared. But the attitudes are completely different here. The teachers push you hard, but they help you, too.”

The students are more likely to praise the personal attention they get, the school’s small size, and their teachers’ high expectations.

Both Devina and Russell said that they liked working with the technology, but even more they liked the smallness of the school, the fact that their teachers know them well. Other students said the same thing, and I remembered something history teacher Aufdenspring said when I asked her if she thought the students liked this school better than their previous ones. “Sure, they like it better here than at their traditional schools, but look at the comparison. They were each one of 2,000 kids at their previous schools; here they are one of 200, and everyone knows who they are.”

In the computer-applications classroom, I talked with several students working on a desktop publishing project. I asked whether they miss their previous schools, with their sports teams and extensive course offerings.

“Oh, yeah,” said a girl named Adele, her voice full of sarcasm. “Look. At a school like this, we don’t have to put up with destructive kids who don’t want to do anything. We’re all here because we’ve chosen to be here, and that eliminates that kind of crowd.”

Another girl, Andrea, said, “Everyone hangs out with everyone here. It’s not like in a big school where you hang out with this group of 15 forever.” She paused and then changed directions. “We’re always being watched here, someone is always paying attention. You can’t just go into a corner and disappear.”

Is New Technology High really America’s school of the future? Or will it remain an anomaly in a nation of chalk-and-talk schools? Certainly the creators of New Technology High think of it as the first of a new generation of schools. New Tech has in fact recently hired its own public relations person—with the help of yet another corporate grant—to convey this very message.

“Kids all across the county can benefit from an education like this,” Jo Anne Miller told me on her first day on the job. “New Technology High will not remain a lighthouse school but will be one of thousands of such schools across the country. A lot of schools will be using technology to produce well-educated, industry-ready kids.”

School director Mark Morrison agreed. “It’s like the movie Field of Dreams: If you build a school like this, students and teachers will come. Good teachers want to be part of something like this.”

But some New Tech teachers, unimpressed by the public-relations spin, expressed doubts. “Some things at this school are replicable elsewhere,” said economics teacher Paul Curtis. “Like the team-teaching and the project-based learning. But it would be hard to get the same favorable ratio of teachers to students, and few schools could afford the kind of technology we have unless they could be turned into money-generating facilities—like training centers that can charge fees.”

Computer-applications teacher Carole Toy questioned whether the New Tech model would work in a typical high school of 2,000 students. “The truth of the matter is that a lot of teachers wouldn’t really want something like this anyhow,” she explained. “They wouldn’t know how to use this technology, and many wouldn’t care to learn. It takes a lot of effort to adjust to something new.”

There is perhaps a bit of irony behind all this tech talk. After all, at least part of what makes New Technology High successful, as teachers and students at the school take pains to point out, are its more ordinary virtues. Although the school’s press releases tout computers, software, connections to business, and industry-ready kids, the students themselves—the people the school actually serves—are more likely to praise the personal attention they get, the school’s small size, and their teachers’ high expectations.

Even Morrison, a tireless promoter of technology, acknowledged that the computer is not the key to his school’s success. “This is a high-tech environment, but it’s a ‘high touch’ environment, too,” he said. “The computer is a magnetic tool for students, but it is being small and personal that really makes the difference.”

At one point during my visit, as I sat in on Paul Curtis’ economics class, one of his seniors took a moment to show me the computerized syllabus for the course. He clearly loved the school and was planning to go to college next year. Gathering his things at the end of the session, he said, “You know, what really matters here is the commitment from teachers. The technology is of secondary importance. The computer is a side thing—it really is.”

New Technology High preps students for high-tech jobs using a curriculum steeped in computers and teamwork. Kids thrive in the school’s businesslike climate; some are even given “vacation” days to use as they please.

“It’s like the movie Field of Dreams,” says school director Mark Morrison, here with teacher and administrator Maria Lopez. “If you build a school like this, students and teachers will come.”

Cassandra Van Buren, a multimedia-design teacher, rejects the notion that she is simply readying students for computer careers: “I need to prepare these kids for their private lives as well as their public lives.”

Frustrated by her students’ fixation on e-mail and the Internet, math teacher Carolyn Ferris cleared her room of many computers. “I needed to talk to them without them staring into the screen,” she explains.