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Pennsylvania: Creating Classrooms of the Future

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Pennsylvania’s ambitious reform project intends to gear up its high schoolstudents for the realities of a changed world.

UNDER THE LEADERSHIP of Gov. Edward G. Rendell, we are moving swiftly in Pennsylvania to prepare our students for higher education, and to ensure they’ll enter the workforce with the skills and knowledge to succeed in a newly competitive world. We have built a foundation to establish student- centered, data-informed, and differentiated teaching and learning across the Commonwealth.

Challenges and Responsibilities

As in past ages distinguished by a major economic shift, today’s educational system bears the responsibility of preparing a new generation for a changing workforce. Where the move was once from agricultural to industrial, and then from industrial to technological, the great transition now is from local technology to global information. Like all states, Pennsylvania must rise to the foremost educational challenge of the 21st century: adapting to new economic realities by equipping our students to meet the demands of a global economy. In the face of this enormous imperative, Pennsylvania faces several educational hurdles the state must first address:

Outdated campuses. Too many of our high schools are outmoded and unequipped for the new century. We must help our schools establish professional learning communities that provide innovative academic environments.

Lack of leadership. Too many of our administrators are not adequately trained as leaders in organizational, instructional, and strategic thinking. We must ensure leadership skills are enhanced at both the entry and veteran levels, in order to transform schools into 21st-century models of success.

Underprepared teachers. Too many of our school environments do not encourage our teachers to stay current in their subject-matter expertise and evolving pedagogical and classroom management approaches. This problem stratifies teachers and reinforces the notion of teaching as private practice, with new teachers entering the profession unprepared for thedemands of today’s teaching and learning.

Obsolete teaching methods. Most students are more comfortable with multitasking and more adept at using technology as an essential part of their lives than are their parents and teachers, but far too many of our classrooms still operate on the old lecture-and-test teaching model.

Our high school students are poised to enter the global marketplace or to continue their education beyond K-12, and we must ready them for a “flat” world in which competition for jobs and higher education is fierce. In addition to increasing the rigor and relevance of core academic subjects and creating inquiry-based learning environments that stress collaboration, critical thinking, and problem solving, we must educate and support a diverse population of students with different learning styles to ensure that each has the opportunity to succeed.

Laying the Foundation

Our work to date has involved developing adequate access to infrastructure, systems, and applications to support and improve teaching and learning. We have begun the hard work of streamlining our information management, planning, and reporting to improve decision-making, operations, and administrative productivity. Part of this work included developing an education strategic-planning system to integrate all the plans from each district into a single comprehensive one. This required passing legislation and securing funding to build a statewide broadband network which ensures that all schools and classrooms have access to affordable high-speed connectivity. We also had to improve resource allocation, which involved rethinking how funding, time, personnel, and other scarce resources can be used most effectively.

Celebrating Teachers

We have focused on changing the culture in education through the development of capable administrative and instructional leaders who promote strategic leadership. The state’s Keystones: Technology Integrators program identifies and celebrates model teachers who infuse technology, continuous assessment, and differentiated instruction seamlessly into their classrooms. We have rolled out a statewide grant initiative to provide handheld computers for instruction in classrooms, funding for Getting to One integration mentors, and grant opportunities that promote proven practices across the state. We also have established the Inspired Leadership Initiative to prepare principals to become the chief architects of standardsaligned systems in their schools.

Gov. Rendell has created two new commissions—one to address teacher training, and the other to focus on preparing high school students for postgraduate opportunities in higher education or the workforce. Lastly, in each of the past two years, a statewide summit has been held, bringing together deans and leaders from Pennsylvania colleges and universities of education to equip prospective teachers with both 21st-century skills and the ability to teach those skills in the classroom.

An Environment for Learning

Gov. Rendell recognizes the crucial interplay of education, economic development, and workforce preparation. He also understands the need to invest valuable time, resources, and attention in our schools. For these reasons, he supports Classrooms for the Future, a groundbreaking, $200-million high school reform project. It has been three years in the making, and it leverages all of our efforts to date.

Classrooms for the Future is resolved to put a laptop on every high school core-subject classroom desk, as well as create hightech teacher stations in all public high schools and career and technical centers in Pennsylvania. In addition to the 1-to-1 rollout, each high school will receive a teacher laptop; a printer; a scanner; imaging software; a webcam; an electronic whiteboard; a projector; digital, still, and video cameras; productivity software; infrastructure; and tech support.

But these technology tools are only that. What’s key is establishing an environment in schools that supports student-centered, inquiry-based, data-informed, personalized teaching and learning. To accelerate that transformation, we are providing stipends to Keystone teachers to mentor their peers and act as Classrooms for the Future coaches. They will guide teachers and administrators in technical needs assessments and strategic recommendations, identifying appropriate instructional and administrative technologies and delivering hands-on professional development. A robust program of online and on-site professional development will prepare high school teachers and administrators to integrate these and other technologies into their instructional practices. By building partnerships with higher education institutions and local community and business groups, collaborating with regional education service agencies, and using students as mentors and assistants, the whole enterprise will benefit.

All states must rise to the foremost educational challengeof the 21st century: equipping our students to meet thedemands of a global economy.

21st Century-Centric

When the program’s aim is met, every core-curricular classroom in high schools across the Commonwealth will be comparably equipped. However, what’s important is not what schools get from the initiative, but rather what they get out of it.

Our students live in a digital world, and our schools must adapt instruction accordingly. We have the opportunity and the responsibility to use research-based, technology-enabled practices to thrill, inspire, and capture the imaginations of our students. Classrooms for the Future hopes to create environments for deeper cognitive development through inquiry, real and relevant project-based learning, and differentiated instruction. The program turns teachers into facilitators, guides, and co-investigators; students become producers, apprentices, and co-explorers. Classrooms for the Future establishes 21stcentury instructional settings using 21st-century techniques to enable 21st-century children to succeed.

Classrooms for the Future recognizes and embraces the need for reform, understanding the role of technology as an agent of change while adopting practices that may be unfamiliar. The initiative differentiates instruction to each student based on individual learning styles, multiple intelligences, sociocultural backgrounds, and needs and proficiencies. It requires that we think about our approaches to professional development differently. It promotes utilizing time as a resource, not a constraint, and moving beyond Carnegie units and the school day and year to establish cross-curricular, project-based units that become part of student portfolios and inquiry-based oral and written presentations in and out of school.

This initiative is about encouraging and harnessing collaboration within the classroom and beyond. For example, students might examine original artifacts of the antebellum South, then webcast discussions with anthropologists to better understand the cultural exigencies that led to slavery. Or a social studies teacher might have students create a blog to identify views on the most significant causes of World War II, which can be used as the thesis for collaborative multimedia presentations.

The execution of Classrooms for the Future will be hard work, but its purposes and goals are worthy of our commitment. We know we will need courageous action, inspired leadership, and a strong professional learning community in every school. The good news is that our state has the right leadership at the right time, with the right educators, who are ready to lead and serve the students as they prepare them for their future.

Michael Golden is the deputy secretary of the Office of Information and Educational Technology for the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

This article originally appeared in the 07/01/2006 issue of THE Journal.

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