Ed Tech in Elite Private Schools: A Look Ahead

By Benjamin Herold — March 23, 2015 6 min read
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If forced to choose, which would better help your public school realize its grandest ed-tech dreams:

$43,360 per student, per year?

Or getting rid of all standardized tests?

That was the question on my mind earlier this month when I traveled to the Beaver Country Day School, an elite independent school in the affluent Boston suburb of Chestnut Hill. One of the most expensive K-12 institutions in the country, Beaver has won national acclaim for its approach for integrating educational technology into classroom learning.

This week, Education Week will examine how elite private schools are using ed tech. Our package will include an in-depth, multimedia peek inside Beaver, which features:

  • What appears to be the country’s first “coded curriculum” (think Hour of Code, but all year long, in every class, including art and English);
  • The school’s partnership with NuVu (a kind of Ivy League-inspired makerspace on steroids); and
  • Beaver’s very own mohawk-sporting “Innovator in Residence” (who used to host this awesome Discovery Channel TV show).

For an 80’s child and product of the perfectly-fine-but-totally-bland public schools of suburban Pittsburgh, spending a couple days at Beaver was an eye-opening experience. Despite being acutely aware of my comparatively humble roots and how long ago my own pre-popular-Internet high school days were, I was determined to learn what lessons such prestigious (and expensive) institutions might hold for their public-sector counterparts.

Nearly to a person, educators at Beaver swear it’s their school’s culture, not its cash, that makes the place special.

And that culture is made possible, they say, because of Beaver’s near-total freedom from standardized tests. Without the constant threat of accountability measures, Beaver staff feel free to build exactly the environment they want.

“It’s about experimentation, across the board,” said Kimberly McCabe, a first-year middle school science teacher at the school. “Combining technology with really messy, open-ended assignments changes the nature of [what schools do.] Instead of looking for specific outcomes, it shifts you towards the problem-solving process.”

Now, that sounds great, and I saw tons of evidence of that culture all throughout the school. But I have to admit that I was skeptical. In my experience, downplaying the importance of money often seems to be the kind of thing that only people with access to abundant resources do.

But when I posed my question—would you take the $43,360 per student per year, or no standardized tests—on social media, my circle of the Twittersphere was evenly split:

Of course, the easy answer is that most sensible people would want both. The combination of abundance and freedom (along with highly selective admissions practices) is almost certainly what allows a school like Beaver to do what it does.

But I found the question to be a useful thought exercise. Reporting this story, and listening to what folks had to say on Twitter, gave me a lot to chew on.

Like: Even if public schools were suddenly swimming in money, would they be able to articulate and implement an ed-tech vision like Beaver’s? Would they want to?

Twitter again seemed split:

And while no one on Beaver’s staff said money doesn’t matter, nearly everyone I spoke with made a point of emphasizing that nearly all of the classroom software they use on their main campus is free or open source, and that most of the hardware they use is pretty cheap.

Even at NuVu, which boasts five 3-D printers and a laser cutter, the studio’s director (sorry, “chief excitement officer”) argued that many public schools (at least in suburban Boston) are better outfitted when it comes to hardware and equipment.

“The technology piece is not really what makes this place different,” said Saeed Arida, who modeled NuVu after the graduate-level architecture studios he experienced while earning his PhD at the nearby Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “We teach kids how to run a creative process, how to collaborate, and how to communicate their ideas to other people,” he explained.

So maybe, I thought, it’s also a staffing issue. I wasn’t alone:

But I was pleasantly surprised (OK, thrilled) when I discovered that one of Beaver’s most well-regarded staff members, middle school history teacher and technology integration specialist Yolanda Wilcox Gonzáles, cut her teeth in my old journalistic stomping grounds: the troubled School District of Philadelphia.

Gonzáles was a teacher at the city’s Kensington High School, which I knew pretty well. It was a tough school. Very tough. Recently in Philadelphia, teachers at schools like Kensington have been far more likely to be cast as the reason for their school’s failures than hailed as models of ed-tech innovation, and far more likely to have their contracts and benefits come under attack than to have their brains picked about how teaching and learning can be transformed.

But I seriously doubt that Yolanda Wilcox Gonzáles somehow underwent a miracle transformation that has made her a fundamentally different teacher now, at Beaver, than she was then, at Kensington.

“If I was still there, I would still be advocating for this kind of education,” Gonzáles told me. “But getting teacher buy-in would be hard. So many layers are required to get ready for standardized testing. And you have to have a [school] administration that is willing to get messy and allow for this type of teaching.”

And, of course, there’s also the issue of the numerous advantages that Beaver students bring to school with them. I lost track, for example, of how many Benzes rolled by in the school’s parking lot while I waited for my taxi at the end of my day visiting the main campus. And beyond the money are the social capital and life experiences and all the other advantages that come with wealth.

But half of Beaver’s incoming students come from public and charter schools. And I’ve met enough teens from suburban Pittsburgh and inner-city Philadelphia and all the public schools around the country I visit during my travels for Education Week to know that the talent and curiosity are there, if they can be properly tapped and nurtured.

So this week, we’ll give you an in-depth, inside look at what Beaver and other elite private schools are doing when it comes to ed tech, and why they’re doing it, and what they think you might learn from their efforts.

In the meantime, I’m curious to hear from you: Is this the kind of education you’d like to offer your students? To what extent do you feel able to do so? What is getting in your way?

Would you rather have the money or the freedom?

Photos: (Top) Beaver Country Day School student Izzy Ramras monitors water quality while making a video about her work to raise native Brook Trout as part of the school’s “Trout Technicians” team.

Eighth-grader Will Brown, 14, gets help on a video project from Beaver history teacher Yolanda Wilcox González.

-- Erik Jacobs for Education Week

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.