School Choice & Charters

Elite Private Schools Use Wide Range of Ed-Tech Strategies

By Benjamin Herold — March 24, 2015 7 min read
Students at Beaver Country Day School in the affluent Boston suburb of Chestnut Hill, shown here in the school’s lobby, do not take standardized tests.
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Prestigious private schools across the country are grappling with how best to use educational technologies, exploring a wide range of strategies that diverge from the approaches taken by most of their public school counterparts.

At one end of the spectrum is the $43,360-per-year Beaver Country Day School in Chestnut Hill, Mass., which offers a supercharged version of the national push to marry new digital technologies with hands-on, inquiry-driven learning.

At the other end is the Waldorf School of the Peninsula in Los Altos, Calif., where parents, many of whom are Silicon Valley tech-company executives, pay $21,500 per year in tuition for a school that allows no classroom technology at all before 6th grade.

And perhaps most emblematic of the broad direction that high-end independent schools are taking with ed tech is the $38,000-per-year Phillips Academy Andover in Andover, Mass. Founded in 1778, the 1,100-student school has taken cautious steps to integrate iPads into its classrooms and make limited use of free online digital instructional materials. But Andover, as the academy is commonly known, is focusing most of its energy on engaging faculty in efforts to develop their own digital content and explore new strategies for sharing that information with the world.

“Independent schools have a value proposition with our families: What we offer here, you can’t get anywhere else,” said John E. Chubb, the president of the Washington-based National Association of Independent Schools.

As a result, Mr. Chubb said, “there is much less online course-taking than in public schools. But what’s happened in the last four or five years is that independent schools have begun to get quite enthusiastic and aggressive about becoming creators and suppliers of online content.”

Ed-tech leaders from the public sector said that elite independent schools have many lessons to offer public schools, despite having advantages such as abundant resources, considerable curricular freedom, and highly selective admissions policies.

Multimedia: At $43K Private School, Tech Opens Doors to Different World

But the learning should—and often does—go both ways, said Kecia Ray, the executive director of learning technology for the 81,000-student Metro Nashville school system in Tennessee.

“It’s interesting to look at what other people are able to do when their structure is a little different,” Ms. Ray said. “A best practice is a best practice, independent of where that practice lives.”

As the $8 billion education technology market continues to surge, public schools have been flooded with devices, software, and digital instructional materials. Many public school students now have an extensive menu of online course offerings from which to choose.

Much of that growth has been driven by widespread adoption of Common Core State Standards, new mandates that require school systems to administer online assessments and provide virtual course options, and the desire to help teachers better tailor their instruction to students in classrooms that frequently contain more than 20 children of widely varying academic backgrounds and abilities.

“The immediate needs that have compelled public schools to adopt technology are less compelling in the independent school world,” Mr. Chubb said.

But other arguments for using ed-tech—developing the skills necessary for modern careers, for example, or the value of having richer data on student learning—apply regardless of sector, he said.

“So our schools want to do it, but in a way that allows them to maintain the distinctiveness they’ve always promised to families,” Mr. Chubb said.

Creating Digital Content

That certainly describes the experience of Andover, which serves grades 9-12.

When asked about their school’s use of technology, Andover officials excitedly discuss their external efforts, such as an institutional partnership with Khan Academy, a website that provides free online math exercises and short instructional videos to roughly 12 million users per month.

Over the past two years, faculty in Andover’s math department have created thousands of advanced calculus problems to be hosted on the Khan Academy platform for others to use.

“The professional-development value of having staff think deeply about creating content that’s going to be shared with tens of thousands of users—it’s pretty mind-boggling,” said William W. Scott, the chairman of Andover’s mathematics, statistics, and computer science office.

But Mr. Scott and his colleagues have only warily adopted Khan Academy materials for use with their own students. “My first take was more ‘this is crap’ than ‘this is fabulous,’ to be honest,” he said.

With experience, however, that perspective has changed.

First, Andover math faculty began using in their classrooms the Khan Academy content they had personally developed. Through that, Mr. Scott said, they came to appreciate the value of the real-time feedback and learning analytics the site provides to students and teachers. Now, faculty are slowly expanding their use of Khan Academy to include the site’s general content in other mathematical domains.

The school is also gradually widening an initiative to provide students with iPads for classroom use that was launched in 2013.

And Andover is making increasing use of software applications in courses such as computer science and statistics, as well as taking advantage of online opportunities that allow students to better access primary-source documents in the humanities.

One of the questions that prestigious independent schools must wrestle with, Andover officials said, is why they should change their instruction if the vast majority of their students already earn the highest possible scores on Advanced Placement exams and win admission to the country’s most elite universities.

“Where technology makes sense, we deploy it,” said John Palfrey, the head of school, who also teaches U.S. History. “But most days, we’ve got 12 kids sitting around a table, and I ask Socratic questions and write on a whiteboard. I still think that’s a great way to teach and learn.”

Investing in Teachers

In addition to its focus on creating, rather than consuming, digital content, Andover also differs from many public schools in another key way.

“Our approach is not to roll out a lot of technology, then figure out how to use it,” Mr. Palfrey said. “Our teachers use a variety of approaches, and we support them like crazy when they head in a particular direction.”

Despite their dramatically different strategies, both the Waldorf School of the Peninsula and Beaver Country Day School share that emphasis on investing in teachers and trusting their decisions.

The Waldorf School of the Peninsula, which enrolls 320 children in daycare and preschool through grade 12, foregoes the use of classroom technology altogether until the middle grades, when teachers then have the discretion to introduce the Internet and begin educating students on how computers work. Teachers at the school move with a single cohort of students from kindergarten through grade 12. By high school, students are required to have access to a computer, which they use for research, writing, and coding.

“There’s an aspect of being a teacher that’s more than just delivering content and curriculum, but has to do with supporting the development of a well-functioning human being,” said Monica Laurent, who has taught at the Waldorf School of the Peninsula since 2005. “It’s not about liking or not liking technology; it’s about using technology as a tool.”

And while Beaver Country Day embraces ed tech much more enthusiastically than either Andover or the Waldorf School of the Peninsula, the school also focuses its investment on teachers. Staff at the school receive extraordinary supports, including professional development by Google engineers, training from international experts in design thinking, and access to the school’s “innovator in residence,” whose job is to support school staff in trying new classroom methods.

“Teachers need to be encouraged to make mistakes,” said Peter Hutton, Beaver’s head of school. “We say here that when we have an initiative, everybody’s expected to be in, but there are 1,000 ways to do what you want to do.”

Many independent schools are showing increased interest in ed-tech tools and strategies now common in public schools, such as blended learning, maker spaces, and 1-to-1 computing, said Mr. Chubb of the NAIS.

Private schools can learn from the public sector when it comes to training teachers, taking initiatives to scale, and sustaining them over time, said Keith R. Krueger, the CEO of the Consortium for School Networking, a Washington nonprofit for school-technology leaders.

But independent schools’ abundant resources, extensive curricular freedom, and deep-seated resistance to one-size-fits-all solutions mean they will likely continue to use educational technology quite differently than their public school counterparts. “It’s just natural for schools that pride themselves on being independent and doing things that are unique to want to take advantage of the online space in a way that is also unique,” Mr. Chubb said.

Coverage of trends in K-12 innovation and efforts to put these new ideas and approaches into practice in schools, districts, and classrooms is supported in part by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York at www.carnegie.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the March 25, 2015 edition of Education Week as Elite Private Schools Tackle Ed Tech

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