Linking Academics, Technology and 21st Century Skills: New Tech High Schools a Scalable Model for Public Education

Linking Academics, Technology and 21st Century Skills: New Tech High Schools a Scalable Model for Public Education
Linking Academics, Technology and 21st Century Skills: New Tech High Schools a Scalable Model for Public Education



It is no secret that education and economic development are inextricably linked.  In light of the current economic crisis, it is more important than ever to prepare students for an interconnected world that demands nimbleness and innovation in order to spur economic growth and to retain America’s competitiveness.  However, many business leaders complain that students are underprepared for the workforce because what they learn and how they learn in school does not mirror today’s information-economy workplace.  Jobs in the real world require cross-disciplinary understanding, collaboration, creative problem-solving, technology integration, and global and grassroots networking.

The New Technology Foundation, a California-based organization, has pioneered a model of collaborative, technology-based learning and teaching designed to give high school students the skills they need to compete in the 21st century.  The New Tech high school model has captured the attention of business leaders across the nine states where it operates (California, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, and Texas).  Some states, like Indiana, are using the New Tech model as part of a widespread economic development plan, and the presence of a New Tech School in central Texas recently played a key role in attracting a new Samsung plant.

The New Tech model focuses on project-based learning, innovative uses of technology throughout the school, and a strong culture of student responsibility.  Since its first school creation in 1996, the New Tech model has quietly emerged as the most successfully-replicated approach to transforming high school education in the U.S with 42 public schools across its nine states.  This approach focuses on preparing students from all types of backgrounds to excel in postsecondary education and the modern workplace through smaller classrooms, cross-disciplinary curricula, increased rigor and real-world experiences.  Furthermore, the model is eminently scalable and can easily be incorporated into existing schools, putting it within reach of traditional public high schools throughout the country.

The recently passed American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) presents an unprecedented opportunity for state and community leaders to replicate this model in their states, building on President Obama’s call for increased investment in education and technology to help spur economic development.

The forum began with Barry Schuler, Former Chairman and CEO – America Online and Chairman of the Board of Directors – New Technology Foundation, who warned the audience that he might offend some of them as he intended to blame problems with education on educators and educational policy makers.

He suggests that while in other time periods, the United States saw change coming and changed the educational system to prepare for that change, preparation for the information age and the 21st century was non-existent.  Our response as a nation to the information age was, “Duh?”  We did not really plan or implement any changes, but things did change, from the bottom up.

Today’s educational system is marked by a trend of more affluent parents having left public schools a long time ago.  Those parents of means who stay with the public schools create charter schools.  Thus, we have a US system with 99,000 public schools, 4,000 charter schools, 8,000 parochial schools, and 2,000 independent schools, making it impossible to fulfill a promise of equal access and opportunity.

In Schuler’s opinion, the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act was a reasonable response to an educational crisis.  We had data on deep social divisions: sophomores who couldn’t read, high dropout rates, overall poor English language arts skills, etc.  While the legislation was able to put a lens on the problems and got people looking at hard data, it was not a coordinated effort to address the skills and tools necessary for success in the 21st century.

Schuler then went on to promote New Tech High School model as a potential solution that combines both rigorous academics with the skills necessary for success in the 21st century workplace.  He turned the presentation over to his colleagues to elaborate.

Ken Kay, President – Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21), opened by saying that New Tech High School is a living, breathing example of 21st Century Skills movement. Kay continued by contrasting the old model of education with the model proposed by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills.  Kay represented the old model with a simple double arch with content on top and assessment on the bottom.  This model doesn’t represent the demands of 21st century and our global society as content itself has a short shelf life; technology has led to a doubling of the amount of information in the world every two years.  In this ever-changing, information-driven society, students cannot learn all the content they need in school as most of it does not even exist yet.  In addition, its not enough to simply know information, students need to be able to use it, communicate with it, and collaborate with it.

P21 has developed a new model of education:


The lower arch represents Core Subjects and 21st Century Themes (global awareness; financial, economic, business and entrepreneurship literacy; civic literacy; and health literacy).  The higher arch is divided into three sections Life and Career Skills; Learning and Innovation Skills; and Information, Media and Technology Skills.  The model Kay presented may seem simple, but he indicated that it represents two years of work to build a national consensus.

It is important to note that this model is not intended to put more burden on schools, but to reconfigure how core subjects are taught.  The 21st Century themes are not four more core subjects; rather themes which should be the context in which core subjects are taught.  The ultimate goal is to create an education system designed to teach core subjects integrated with 21st Century themes to ensure all students graduate both with content knowledge, but also critical thinking and problem solving skills, creativity and innovation, and the ability to communicate communication and collaboration effectively.

One of the areas paid the least attention to by schools is “information, media and technology skills.”  People assume that technology skills mean hardware and software, but goal of the skill is to use technology to create capabilities such as information literacy. A student educated under the new P21 framework would not only demonstrate content knowledge, but also  flexibility and adaptability, initiative and self-direction, social and cross-cultural skills, productivity and accountability, and leadership and responsibility.


There are many examples of states actively using the P21 framework.  Ten states – Arizona, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, North Carolina, South Dakota, West Virginia and Wisconsin – have articulated frameworks.  Three more states will soon have an articulated framework, followed by 5-6 others in the pipeline.  Ideally, there will be at least 15 states on board by the end of 2009.  States are working hard on embedding 21st Century skills into state standards.  North Carolina’s State Board of Education website ( helps to show the P21 vision embedded in state policy.  West Virginia’s Teach21 initiative ( is a good example of P21 in use. Core content maps have been completed or are underway for Social studies, English, Math (June 2009), Science (June 2009), and Geography (Summer 2009).  These maps are available at the P21 website

Kay closed by describing a visit he made to a New Tech High School, which embodies the model promoted by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills.  His student guide greeted Kay with a strong handshake and walked him through the school clearly articulating the goals and purpose of each class.  The guide also shared his report card through logging into a computer. The students’ report card included both academic grades and P21 skills and the electronic format provides students the ability to log in everyday to monitor progress.  Interestingly enough, the young man, who had proved an excellent tour guide, had a poor grade in communications.  Two interventions had been assigned: 30 minutes per week with a drama coach and serving as a tour guide.

Monica Martinez, COO, New Technology Foundation and VP of Education Strategy, KnowledgeWorks Foundation began by acknowledging the $10 million in funding provided to the New Technology Foundation by the KnowledgeWorks Foundation over four years.  In addition, KnowledegeWorks has allowed her to serve as COO of the New Technology Foundation.

Martinez presented the following pie chart with three equal slices to indicate what a school that prepares all students for the 21st Century looks like.

Each element of the pie [Integrated Technology Platform, Culture that Empowers and Project Based Learning (PBL)] chart reinforces the other, in part through collaborative group work by students and team teaching by teachers. In this setting, students are asked to “own their learning” everyday and teachers are willing to learn from other teachers and students.

Project-Based Learning is not a new context, but a major new approach.  It moves learning from being teacher centered with students working alone and passively on short simple tasks that are irrelevant to the learner and for which they are accountable to the teacher to learning that is student centered with students working in teams and actively on long, complex tasks that are relevant to the learner and for which they are accountable to their peers.

In these settings, students learn how to do research, how to create a product, and what skills are needed to create their product.  Teachers act as coaches and facilitators.  Direct teaching is rare.  Instruction is diversified.  An example of a real life problem is that students are given a fictitious letter from a company and must react to it as environmental activists. To do so, they need to understand chemical reactions, ratios, conversion factors, rubrics and expectations. New Technology Schools use integrated, team taught classes with PBL as the instructional approach throughout the curriculum.  Teachers develop problems based on content standards that students, working in teams, develop solutions to through guided instruction.  This requires students to acquire and apply both knowledge and skills to resolve a realistic or real world problem.

Students and teachers have their own computers and access to a web-based portal that unifies their learning experiences. The portal is called PeBL and was originally created by teachers).  Through PeBL, student teams share documents, collaborate and create new knowledge.  Grades are posted and available for students, teachers and parents.  Students each have a student driven portfolio.

The Buck Institute for Education (BIE), a non-profit, research and development organization, conducts a National Survey on High School Reform and Project Based Learning.  Compared to other schools surveyed, the Buck Institute indicated that New Tech High School teachers:  had extensive professional development for using PBL; increased their use of PBL compared to previous years;  gave reasons for using PBL that included teaching skills beyond academics; conducted projects that specified content standards and used rubrics to guide student work; had access to a variety of web-based technologies to support PBL; conducted PBL without being limited by common challenges to PBL, such as lack of time or subject-specific models for conducting projects; said teachers were involved in school decision making and leadership; said school wide policies or structures were in place that emphasized and supported PBL use; and reported that students were involved in a variety of inquiry activities, gave their best effort and supported their peers as learners.

There currently are 39 public high schools in the New Tech network with over 8,500 students in 9 states, and another 13-15 schools expected to open by August 2009 including several each in Indiana, Louisiana, and Texas.  The model works in all demographics, with one-third of New Tech High Schools in each type of location: urban, rural and suburban locations.  Some New Tech High Schools have a small percentage of students on free and reduced price lunch (8.5% at a Northern California New Tech High School) and some have a high percentage (97% at another New Tech High School).  Half of the New Tech High Schools have over 50% of students receiving free or reduced price lunch.

To further illustrate what New Tech High Schools are like, Martinez shared a music video that was created by students at Manor New Technology High school in Manor, Texas.  In the video, two students rap about “Learning Whatever they Like.”  The video can be found on YouTube:

Martinez shared the following quote about New Tech High Schools, “These schools break the conventional links between race, poverty and academic failure.  Not only do their students receive an academically rigorous curriculum that prepares them for college and careers, they also experience learning opportunities that are culturally rich, socially and practically relevant, and responsive to their needs and interests.”  Linda Darling Hammond, 2007 “Race, Inequality and Educational Accountability:  The Irony of ‘No Child Left Behind,’”  Race, Ethnicity and Education.

Martinez ended her presentation with policy recommendations which reward states that:

  • push for classroom innovations with federal stimulus dollars;
  • invest in school infrastructure (technology, electric, broadband, etc.);
  • provide waivers for textbook funds to be used for technology;
  • invest in multiple measurements/assessments;
  • invest in community based grants to allow communities to explore innovative approaches to education; and
  •  invest in professional development for effectively teaching 21st Century Skills.


Highlights from the Question and Answer Session
Steven Zipkes, Principal, Manor New Technology High School in Manor, Texas; David Greiner, Dean of Student Services, Manor New Technology High School; and Kevin Gant, School Development Coach, New Technology Foundation in New Mexico and Texas, joined the panel for the Q&A portion of the session.

The first question was on whether New Tech graduates have been tracked through evaluation.  The reply was that New Tech is starting to collect some data.  At Napa, New Tech 75% of graduates went to college, 40% of these in STEM fields.

The second question was about teacher professional development.  Professional development is central to the New Tech model and  is a big part of what the foundation does.  One goal is the change schools of education which continue to teach teachers in the old way so that they need to reteach them when they come to New Tech.  In the long run, without schools of education on board, change is not scaleable.  The New Tech concept has to get owned by the universities that teach teachers.  Kay added that while seven years ago no deans of schools of education were interested in P21, ten deans of colleges of education and 10 representative of boards have signed on to work with P21.  This is great progress, but small given that there are 1400 colleges of education.


The next question related to whether education an be customized to individual student needs, as even PBL and one on one computing still seem to be forms of mass education.  Steven Zipkes, Principal, Manor New Technology High School in Manor, Texas was the first to reply.  He first spoke to diversity in his school.  The school is 57% Latino, 23% African American, 20% white, and 27% of students have low SES (socioeconomic status).  Zipkes then explained that while the school knows the general scope of the projects to be completed, the end products are never known as these are determined by the students and each team has different results.  Schuler emphasized that teachers are coaches and guides.  Lots of customization occurs.  The teacher’s job is to keep an eye on what is happening.  It isn’t a case of all the same or customized for each student – it works itself out with monitoring and supervision with teachers as guides.



Ken Kay is president of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, the leading advocacy organization focused on infusing 21st century skills into education.  The organization brings together the business community, education leaders, and policymakers to define a powerful vision for 21st century education to ensure every child’s success as citizens and workers in the 21st century.  Additionally, he is CEO and co-founder of e-Luminate Group, an education consulting firm specializing in marketing communications and 21st century skills services.  He has been a major voice in defining the potential and promoting the importance of information technology applications in critical areas such as education, health care, electronic commerce and government services.  As executive director for the CEO Forum from 1996 to 2001, Ken facilitated dialogue between leaders in the business, government and education fields and led the group through development of the StaR Chart (School Technology & Readiness Guide), used by schools across the country to make better use of technology in the classroom.


Monica Martinez is the Vice President for Education Strategy for the KnowledgeWorks Foundation. As the foundation’s Vice President for Education Strategy, she leads the development of new initiatives and coordination of strategic planning geared to the transformation of the national education landscape.  These efforts have been in conjunction with the Foundation’s Map of Future Forces Affecting Education. Since the map has been published, Dr. Martinez has made numerous presentations throughout the country. Since KWF started supporting the New Technology Foundation, Dr. Martinez has served as the Chief Operating Officer. Martinez founded the D.C.-based National High School Alliance, a partnership of more than 40 organizations sharing a common commitment to promoting excellence, equity, and development of high school-age youth. She currently serves on the Boards of Grantmakers for Education and AdvanceED.  Martinez received her Ph.D. from New York University and her bachelor’s degree from Baylor University.

Barry Schuler is an Internet entrepreneur and former chairman and CEO of America Online Inc.  He is best known for leading the AOL team that simplified the online service provider’s user interface, making it possible for millions of consumers to gain easy access to the Internet.  Schuler currently serves as Chairman of New Technology Foundation’s Board of Directors.  Through his affiliation with the foundation, Schuler has helped drive and co-funded the implementation of Internet-based technology to establish a project-based learning methodology consistent with the implementation of the 21st Century Learning Initiative.  Schuler is currently CEO of Raydiance, a company that develops commercial applications for ultra-short pulse lasers. In addition to serving as CEO of Raydiance, Schuler is managing director of the Draper Fisher Jurvetson Growth Fund and serves on the boards of UBMatrix, Hands On Mobile, UU See, Synthetic Genomics, and Visto.  Schuler lives in Napa, California and is a member of the Rutgers Hall of Distinguished Alumni.





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