We’ve Come a Long Way, Baby!

February 3, 2015

Paul CurtisEvery once in a while, the universe likes to remind me of how old I really am.  Last week was one of those moments and it occured while purging my home office of old tax records, bank statements and a forest worth of other papers that I no longer needed.  Among the piles I came across an article from the Napa Register announcing the start of a planning process for a “Tech High School” that will teach “marketable job skills such as computer-assisted drafting, graphics, video production, robotics and desktop publishing.”  A committee had been formed to develop the organizational structure and funding possibilities for the new school and was comprised of business and community leaders, students, parents, and educators including a still-wet-behind-the-ears teacher named Paul Curtis.  The cold splash of reality came when I noticed the article was from January of 1994, more than 20 years ago.  Where did all that time go?

Once I got over the shock of being reminded of the relentless march of time, I could appreciate the enormous impact the work of that small committee had on myself, the community of Napa and the larger national conversation about what education systems must look like to best prepare students for their futures.  From those early meetings, the first NTHS was born, a national network of 160 New Tech Schools were grown, and Napa Valley Unified was inspired to one of the most innovative public school districts in the nation.

I was also reminded of how that original concept giving kids a set of technical skills for the workplace evolved to a larger vision of a better learning model that engages student interests in a rigorous, relevant curriculum and strives to maximize their individual potential.

Original VisionCurrent Vision
A program targeted at junior and seniors in high school.Instructional approaches that transcend grade levels and that can be applied K-12 and beyond.
A program designed for some kids who’s needs weren’t necessarily being met by the traditional school system.Reinventing teaching and learning for all students in order to get higher student achievement and college/career preparation.
A program designed to impart technical skills such as word processing, spreadsheets and web page design.A program designed to close the achievement gap, impart deeper learning skills critical for success including critical thinking, collaboration and communication.
Loosely defined instructional design around team teaching and projects.More formal PBL design framework and tools to aid unit design and help ensure rigor and content mastery

Some of the evolution is easy to spot.  Teachers and students now use laptops instead of large, fixed desktops with CRTs sitting on them.  We’ve grown from one small school in Napa to a growing network of 160 schools across the country comprising almost 50,000 students.  We’ve moved from our first Learning Management System (one of the first in the world build on customized Lotus Notes tools) into the cloud based Echo that supports .  We’ve also moved from focussing on upper level high school students to addressing the needs of all K-12 students.

But much of our evolution less obvious and was honed over the years of ongoing hard work to constantly improve the quality of education student receive in our partner schools. For example, our shift to measuring critical thinking in combination with content and the development of our Knowledge and Thinking rubrics has helped us focus on increasing the rigor of PBL units.  Another example is our move from measuring student effort in the form of “work ethic” to our focus on student agency which incorporates the attributes of persistence and a growth mindset.  But at the core, we are still working toward the same end … giving student what they will need for success in college, careers and civic life.

Original New Tech OutcomesToday’s New Tech Outcomes
Critical Thinking
Written Communication
Oral Communication
Technology Literacy
Citizenship and Ethics
Work Ethic
Career Preparation
Knowledge and Thinking
Written Communication
Oral Communication

It’s clear that the best practices of New Tech will continue to evolve and be refined.  The influence of more personalized learning techniques that better cater to each student’s needs is already pushing our thinking around ensuring each student can demonstrate mastery of subject matter before moving on.  And as the number of schools grows, the importance of creating robust collaborative network that is organized around adult learning and constant reflection and improvement becomes more and more important.  Thankfully, the culture of learning and improvement is alive and kicking at New Tech Network and you can bet we will continue to evolve as we strive to create a nation where every public school has the capacity to realize the full potential of each student.