Is This The Future Of Education In America?

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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.

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