Technology Enabling School Reform

##AUTHORSPLIT##<--->The School Design Model at Brewster Academy,Part II

In the May1996 issue of T.H.E. Journal, we described a secondary school reform project atBrewster Academy, a c'educational independent school in New Hampshire. At thattime the project was midway through its implementation phase, facing the manyand varied challenges associated with a comprehensive school reform effort. TheBrewster project was an early example (1992) of systemic site-based reformusing a design approach. The School Design Model (SDM) (Bain 1994) developed atBrewster included reforms as fundamental to the recreation of positiondescriptions, salary structures and the career progression path; the design ofnew buildings; and the creation of a new curriculum.

The schoolwas also a pioneer in what have become known as “laptop schools,” places whereall students and faculty carry portable computers and access a ubiquitouscampus network. Brewster was one of the first secondary schools to introducethis kind of access to information technology, and certainly the first toaccompany a laptop program with a comprehensive school-wide re-engineeringeffort. In the intervening years, the school has been cited widely as anexample of systemic site-based school reform (Bain 1996; Bain, Fallon &Smith 1999; Brosnan 1996; McCord 1999; Brown 2000; Dimmock 2000).

Eight years have passed since the development of the designplan and four years since the original T. H. E. article. In that time, much has changed in the broadereducational landscape and in the evolution of the SDM at Brewster Academy. Theschool has managed to sustain its effort and energy for reform, evolving into agenuine learning community enabled by a technological operating system (SchoolTools OS) that automates Brewster’s reforms in unique and powerful ways.

In this follow-up we will review the design approach, anduse examples to focus specifically on the way technology has been used toenable and sustain a successful school reform effort. We will also summarizethe results of the project to date.


The School Design Model at Brewster Academy

The SDM is a methodology for site-based school reform. Eachelement of the SDM is based upon established research in teaching, learning,technology and school leadership, which is then combined with an intensiveimplementation process at the site (Bain 1996). The model includes thefollowing elements:

· Needs Assessment.

· Policy Building.

· Teaching and Learning from a StudentPerspective.

· Curriculum.

· Inclusive Instructional Support.

· Professional Development.

· A PersonnelModel.

· Technology.

· Space, Infrastructure and SchoolOrganization.

· Evaluation (Bain 1996).


Transformational Technology

In our original article, the discussion of technologyfocused heavily on a description of the infrastructure, hardware, personnelrequirements and cost. While the things we were doing at Brewster wereinnovative, much of what we represented was learning about technology. This wasdone through communicating and teaching with new technological resources. In2000, Brewster’s technology use has evolved to the extent that the paradigmdescribed in our original article has been inverted. Instead of learning abouttechnology or leveraging learning with new information resources, technology isused to create the learning experience through its direct application to thedesign, delivery and support of instruction.


The Curriculum Authoring Tools

Brewster’s approach to curriculum design calls for teachersto acquire sophisticated skills in a range of teaching methods, includingclassroom and information management skills, technology applications andauthentic assessment. While we taught these skills in our six-week pre-servicetraining experience, it quickly became clear that there was a differencebetween teaching the “ingredients in this sophisticated curriculum recipe” andactually pulling it all together into a coherent classroom teaching approach.Faculty needed to see how all the parts connected and interrelated. Thelearning curve was steep and we knew from existing reform efforts thattranslating better practice into sustained improvement in classroom teaching isan area where many reforms fail (Pogrow 1996). We needed a vehicle to make allthat was taught in our training program a workable classroom reality.

We concluded that relational database technology could beemployed to build a suite of curriculum design tools that would make thoseconnections. The tools known as the CATs (Curriculum Authoring software Tools)are comprised of 21 related database files that enable curriculum developers tomake those connections between the elements of the school’s training program,and build them into a coherent model of curriculum design and delivery. Theyenable teachers to:


· Frame yearlongcurricula.

· Design authentic assessmentproducts.

· Plan modules (5weeks) and units (1 week) of instruction.

· Build lessons forthree achievement levels in the same class using best practice lesson designtemplates.

· Integrateteaching resources into electronic lesson plans and launch them directly from aplanning tool.

· Track portfolioitems.

· Deliver classroom instruction according tothe school’s design.

· Manage therotation of groups through activities in a multi-level classroom.

· Provide studentsand parents with access to all aspects of the curriculum in order to monitorand participate in the management of their own instruction (Bain & Huss1999).

· Improvecollaboration between faculty and students in the learning process by buildinga common design framework that is available to both students and teachers.


What is the significance of the CATs in Brewster’s reformsand what makes these tools transformational? First, they help to make reformmore practical and accessible for teachers. The CATs were designed by mappingthe process backward: from the classroom to Brewster’s professional trainingexperience. What would teachers need to take the lessons learned in traininginto the classroom? What resources would they need in order to manage differentgroups in the classroom? How would they access different lesson plans andtechnological resources? The answers to these questions provided the frameworkfor the design of the software.

Second, in order even to contemplate the development ofcurriculum authoring software, the school community had to put “a stake in theground” regarding those practices that it believes exert a strong positiveinfluence on student learning. What approaches should teachers master? We callthis defining the pedagogical and curricular core competency, a processundertaken as part of the SDM (Bain1999). Technology serves teaching and learning best when we can be clear onwhat we want it to do. By committing to specific practices in teachingcollaboration, in authentic assessment, in classroom management and in buildinga program with which all faculty were expected to be skilled, the essentialcharacteristics of those practices could be represented in the software tools.Instead of a generic lesson planner, we produced a tool that increased thecapacity of teachers to use well-researched teaching practice. The toolsreinforce the elements of the curriculum model, while retaining an opportunityfor teachers to do creative things with them. The software functions like acurriculum word processor, providing the conventions of best practiceformatting, yet leaving the development of creative end product in the hands ofthe user.

Building both consensus and commitment around whatconstitutes effective practice is challenging. However, when it d'es happen, animmense technological potential is created. In the CATs example, technologyremains fundamental to the very creation of instruction. Used in this way,technology can improve the design and delivery of the learning product whilealso embracing new and more powerful technology-based learning resources. Thetools make a sophisticated curriculum development process an accessible goalfor all faculty members.


The Professional Growth Tools

Our second example of technology enabling reform addressesthe vexing question of professional growth and faculty performance appraisal inschools. How should teachers be evaluated and how can an evaluation systemserve the professional growth goals of individual faculty members and theschool? Defining the core competency, providing good training and building newsoftware tools may appear to be all that is necessary for the success of amajor curricular reform. As we have learned, this is not the case if the goalis to elevate the quality of practice across the school. The key additionalingredient is a program of professional growth that provides ongoing supportand timely feedback while teachers are trying new things in their classes.

A suite of professional growth tools has also been developedat Brewster. They are based on the school’s definition of its core competencyin teaching, curriculum design, collaboration and teamwork, professional growthand the use of technology. Now in use for three years, the tools have beenemployed to build collaborative performance reports, gather and analyze surveysand conduct classroom observations over the school network (Bain 1999).Teachers can go online to observe peers, complete surveys and give and receivefeedback to peers and administrators, as well as receive feedback fromstudents.

Because the focus of the professional growth tools is on thecore competency, best practice becomes the domain of interest of allstakeholders. The questions on the student survey ask students for specificsabout their teachers’ demonstration of the core competency. The items on self,peer and supervisory surveys are aligned with the student surveys, and theresults can be triangulated with classroom observations and the teachers’curricula (Bain 1999). The focus and clarity in the definition of what is beingevaluated raises the collective intelligence of the organization (Engelbart1998) by creating a common understanding of those things that the communitybelieves exert an influence on learning. Students, teachers and parents alllearn about good practice because it is no longer a mystery. The organizationbuilds institutional mastery and leverages what it values as best practice (Bain1999).

The technology makes all kinds of feedback possible. Theclarity of purpose this provides allows us to build tools that can address thewell-documented logistical challenges associated with valid and timelyperformance appraisal. The technology provides for easy cross-referencing ofinformation using different methods and multiple sources. The evaluationproduct is rich in perspective. The information gathered serves not only as abasis for individual feedback, but can also be used to take the pulse of theschool (Bain 1999).



Improved student growth and overall school performance arethe promise of all school reform efforts. Despite this goal, positive findingshave been elusive, especially at the secondary level. From the outset, the goalof Brewster’s evaluation plan was to produce results that would stand the testof external scrutiny. We have used conferences, books and scholarly journals asour benchmark in this regard. One of our key objectives was to be able togather information on both the outcomes of our reform effort, and the processesconnected to those outcomes. For example, research tells us that successfulimplementation of better teaching practice should result in improved studentperformance. We have completed over 800 classroom observations that focus onboth student engagement and providing teachers with the support to implementthe best teaching practice. Each are strongpredictors of student achievement. Brewster’s average classroom engagement is89%, while the implementation of best practice in direct teaching, cooperativelearning and peer tutoring is 87%.

What do students think of the teaching at Brewster? Thestudent surveys are gathered using the network twice each year. Students ratetheir teachers at an average of 3.3 on a four-point scale in over 6,000evaluations. Teachers are also asked to share their perspectives on theirperformance in the areas of collaboration, teaching, program implementation andprofessional development. Their average rating is also 3.3 on a four-pointscale, which correlates highly with peer and supervisory evaluations of 3.59and 3.35, in addition to the results of the student survey feedback. Theseaverages are based upon 981 performance surveys. While the statistics provide aconvenient overview, more important are the trends across items and thecommentary, which, as previously stated, comprises the bulk of the evaluativefeedback. Of particular interest is the fact that each of the informationsources described here targets the core competency from multiple perspectivesand methods. This convergence across methods and participants in the evaluationprocess creates the lens through which to view the outcome data. In this waythe sample of summative findings that follows can be viewed within the contextof what is being done to attain them.


Summative Results

An eight-year longitudinal study of SAT I performance (Bain& Ross 1999) shows average increases of 92 points in combined SATperformance for students participating in the SDM program over those whoparticipated in the traditional independent school experience. The magnitude ofthis improvement was consistent for students with learning disabilities whoshowed an 84-point increase over students in a traditional program. Brewsterenrolls a heterogeneous student population, intentionally seeking students witha broad cross-section of abilities. Its achievement profile is consistent withthat of the average U.S. high school, although it includes an elevated numberof students with learning disabilities. The results of the SDM program are notattenuated by sampling from an elite subset of the broader school population,but include results achieved by students with learning disabilities, many ofwhom perform less well on standardized tests.

Brewster has an average studentretention rate of 91%, which exceeds The National Association of BoardingSchools’ Benchmark for HighRetention by 14%. Brewster’s 1998 SDM retention has improved a remarkable 25%over the 1992 pre-SDM figure (66%). From a technological perspective, Brewsterstudents outperform students in a traditional technological program by over 50%in applied information technology skills (Bain, Hess, Jones & Berelowitz1999). Brewster’s classroom software tools have been shown to improve studentachievement and extend opportunities for discussion beyond the classroom todormitory and home (Bain & Huss 1999).

Over 50% of the graduating classes of 1997 and 1998 areattending universities and colleges in the “most competitive, highly competitiveand very competitive categories,” according to the top rankings in Lovejoy’s Guide to Colleges (Bain &Palmer 1998).



In the year 2000, Brewster feels that it makes excellentcurricular use of technology. Yet, because that use came about by rethinkingthe way we teach, how we build curriculum and the way we support and evaluatefaculty, we believe that we have only begun to realize our technologicalpotential (Bain 1999).

When developing Brewster’s design, we recognized that thechallenges of school reform seemed to be in the details, not simply thetechnical challenges of new curriculum and the infusion of technology, but inthe intricacies of the human dynamic associated with changing attitudes towardlearning and learners. In the last eight years we have expended much of ourtime and energy thinking about our teachers as learners and developing andrefining the strategies, methods and tools to leverage the benefits of theirgrowth. Both the Curriculum and Professional Growth Tools share a common theme.They represent uses of technology that begin with a definition of what teachingand learning means in a school. Brewster’s definition of its core competencymay be different from that of other schools. However, we have learned thatregardless of the elements of a school’s core competency, such definition isessential if technology is to truly leverage a school’s learning potential.

This is a far greater challenge for a school than creatingsoftware, as it requires that the school pool its collective intelligence tocome up with policies and practices that bring faculty together around a sharedvision of learning. We know that this can be a daunting task for schools,although confronting it seems to be inevitable as schools invest more of theirresources in technology. Not to do so increases the likelihood that technologywill be underutilized, or at best be used to automate past practice instead ofenabling meaningful reform.




Dr. Alan Bain is the Associate Headmaster of Brewster Academy andthe author of the School Design Model, on which the school’s re-engineering wasbased. Prior to working at Brewster, Dr. Bain served on the graduate educationfaculties of the University of Western Australia and Lehigh University. Hisinterest focuses on the role of technology in school reform, an area aboutwhich he writes and is frequently invited to speak throughout the United Statesand internationally.


E-mail: [email protected]



David Smith arrived at Brewster in1969 after obtaining his Master’s from Villanova University. Since that time hehas participated in every aspect of Brewster life, as a dormitory parent,coach, student council advisor, Director of Admissions, Dean of Students andclassroom teacher. In 1974 Mr. Smith became the youngest Headmaster in theschool’s 150-year history. He has been a member of the Board of Trustees of theNew England Association of Schools and Colleges since 1992, having previouslyserved as the New Hampshire representative on its Commission on IndependentSchools.


E-mail: [email protected]






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This article originally appeared in the 10/01/2000 issue of THE Journal.