How can US schools reinvent themselves? Look at TechBoston, Obama says.

President Obama calls for high-tech education solutions while visiting TechBoston, a Boston secondary school lauded for its high graduation rate.

Ann Hermes / The Christian Science Monitor
President Obama speaks at TechBoston Academy in Dorchester, Mass., on Tuesday, March 8. Obama's remarks encouraged attention to education and investment in educational technologies.

President Obama highlighted the importance of investing in education today – and of public-private partnerships – in a visit to TechBoston Academy, a 6th-12th grade public school in Boston.

While acknowledging the deficit and the tough fiscal realities, he stressed the success of schools like TechBoston and his desire to make that sort of education more widely available.

“We cannot cut back on the very investments that will help our economy grow and our nation compete and make sure that these young people succeed,” Obama said.

TechBoston made sense as a setting to highlight educational innovation and shared responsibility for education.

It’s an urban school that has shown marked success, especially when compared with others in the district: 82 percent of its students graduate, 92 percent of its first graduating class in 2006 went to college, and today, 94 percent of TechBoston graduates are in college – the first in their families to attend college, for 85 percent of them.

As its name implies, technology is a centerpiece of the school. TechBoston issues each student a laptop and requires students to take four years of science, four years of math, and four years of technology courses.

The school is a model of private-public partnerships, working closely with a local teacher residency program and numerous business partners, including Microsoft, Google, Cisco, and IBM. Created through a collaboration between the Boston Public Schools, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Boston Foundation, this "pilot school" enjoys much more flexiblity than most public schools, including the ability to have a longer school day and year. Pilot schools are part of a Boston program that allows certain schools freedoms similar to charter schools, though still run by the district and staffed with union employees.

“We need to recognize that the true path to reform has to involve partnerships between teachers and school administrators and communities,” Obama said. “And we’ll need a national education policy that tries to figure out how do we replicate success stories like TechBoston all across the country.”

Obama also mentioned the $90 million contest he proposed in his 2012 budget. He hopes it will spur research and development in educational technology, he said, adding that it should “help create digital tutors that are as effective as personal tutors, and educational software that’s as compelling as the best video game.”

Named the Advanced Research Projects Agency – Education (ARPA-ED) the fund would be modeled after DARPA (the Defense Andvanced Research Projects Agency), the military program – launched in response to Sputnik – that developed many important technologies.

This emphasis on technology is relatively new in education. Typically, only about 0.2 percent of K-12 funding goes to research and development (R&D), according to Education Secretary Arne Duncan – far less than in virtually any other industry.

“We believe the potential in the education space is pretty amazing,” he said in a conference call with reporters on Monday. “The IT revolution that has transformed so many sectors simply hasn’t done the same in education.”

Secretary Duncan cited some digital tutors that have been able to help students advance two grade levels within a year and courses that improve the more students use them as examples.

Some advocates of educational technology applaud the new initiative – to a point. Michael Horn, the executive director of education at the Innosight Institute, says he’s “guardedly optimistic.”

“This could go a long way toward answering some questions and developing critical technologies that deliver results,” he says. Still, Mr. Horn worries that if the fund isn’t accompanied by incentives for states and districts to adopt whatever comes out of this effort, then “it’s a bit like pushing a rope – we will have learned things, but it won’t change the practices.”

Horn also wishes that ARPA-ED didn’t define its objectives so narrowly as technology, but could also look more broadly into funding other kinds of research, like how the brain works, and then letting companies figure out how to best use that information to help students learn.

“This is a bit too much on the D, not enough on the R [of R&D],” Horn says.

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