School & District Management

IBM Attracts Praise For ‘Reinventing Education’

By Andrew Trotter — January 10, 2001 4 min read
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School districts and states that took part in the International Business Machines Corp.'s “Reinventing Education” program have shown that technology—coupled with other school improvement measures—can help bolster students’ reading skills and improve teacher-parent communication and management of school information, according to an independent assessment of the program.

“What had to be in place at the senior level was a real commitment to a real school reform plan,” said Bob Spielvogel, a senior scientist at the Center for Children and Technology in New York City who conducted the research. He presented his findings to a group of educators and IBM officials during a December conference at the company’s offices here.

Mr. Spielvogel said the school leaders who succeeded also tended to be realistic about the challenge of devising new ways of using technology. “Those people who look at technology as a silver bullet have not got the political staying power [to allocate] time, leadership, and money,” he said.

IBM launched Reinventing Education in 1994 to combine the computer company’s research, technical, and consulting muscle with the experience and expertise of school personnel at an early stage in the development of high-tech tools.

The original partners, selected in 1994 and 1995, were West Virginia and Vermont and eight urban districts: Broward County, Fla., which includes Fort Lauderdale; Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C.; Chicago; Cincinnati; Dallas; Philadelphia; San Francisco; and San Jose, Calif. These sites have all spent their grant money, in some cases a couple of years ago. IBM provides an initial financial commitment that is set up to last about 3 to 5 years.

Still, all but one of the original projects continue, financed by the districts and states, and with the company’s continued collaboration. The second round of sites, announced in 1997, were New York State, Maryland, South Carolina, and Texas; and the public school systems of Atlanta; Boston; Detroit; Houston; Memphis; New York City; Rochester, Minn.; and Durham, N.C. According to Mr. Spielvogel, the only Reinventing Education project that failed was in the Dallas schools, where district officials had hoped to use technology to raise science and math achievement.

“Dallas had a number of projects at the same time that its leadership was under crisis. They couldn’t commit to the program,” which was discontinued by mutual agreement after one year, Mr. Spielvogel said. Dallas has had six different superintendents in the past seven years.

Other failures have been avoided largely because IBM has chosen the recipients for the grants carefully, Mr. Spielvogel said.

Robin Willner, who supervises the projects for IBM, agreed. “We picked our partners very well: All were doing well, and they had a vision for getting better,” she said.

International Interest

Beyond that, Ms. Willner pointed out that the $35 million the company spent on all the grants was magnified by the time and effort of many individual IBM employees. “On any given day, there are 30 or 40 people in the IBM research lab working on solving problems in Reinventing Education projects,” Ms. Willner said. For example, “Learning Village"—an IBM software tool used by schools in the program—was “rewritten from scratch four times,” she said.

Learning Village is a collection of software communication and data-sharing tools that are known in the business world as “groupware.” They have been specialized for education to include tools to create student portfolios and teacher lesson plans online. Other tools developed from Reinventing Education projects include d software, tools, and instructional software for reading. (“IBM Shares Results From Field-Tests of Technology,” Feb. 26, 1997.)

The success of the program is now attracting worldwide interest. Reinventing Education went global in 1999, and now includes projects in Brazil, Ireland, Italy, Singapore, the United Kingdom, and Vietnam.

Stanley S. Litow, the president of the IBM International Foundation and the vice president of the company’s corporate- and community-relations division, said he has learned that despite differences in the ways education is governed, organized, and conducted in different countries, the similarities are more profound: All nations must train skilled teachers, assess students, find ways to engage parents in their children’s learning, and use data to make decisions, he said.

But success does not come easy, Mr. Spielvogel said. Having studied the program since 1995, he said that the collaboration between the company and the school districts and states has been uncommonly deep and effective. But it also hinged on a good selection process for partners, clear and meaningful goals, and effective school leadership.

Mr. Spielvogel said the initial experiences of Reinventing Education participants were “fraught with lots of problems,” many stemming from using experimental software and having to coordinate the new processes with human behavior and managerial logistics. “You’re talking about organizational- behavior change—even modest amounts [of such change] are difficult,” he said.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 10, 2001 edition of Education Week as IBM Attracts Praise For ‘Reinventing Education’

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