Codifying a Next-Generation Education System: New York City iSchool

October 1, 2009

The world outside schools is changing rapidly with the advances of technology and economic requirements for a 21st-century global citizenry. Today, technology has moved into our everyday lives and is becoming a pervasive part of how we work, learn, and play (Carpenter, 2003; National Telecommunications and Information Administration, 2004; Parsad & Jones, 2005; Rainie, 2005; Rainie & Horrigan, 2005). Access to simulations, online social networking, interactive games, and cellular phones has drastically increased in the last decade. Further, the World Wide Web has become a powerful medium for commerce, communication, and information searching and sharing. According to a survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project1 covering the period 2005-06, 93 percent of teens (12 to 17 years old) used the Internet, and most of them had access to at least one high-speed service that permits a wide range of technology activities. Approximately 65 percent of teens are creating online content and sharing artifacts (e.g., artwork, photos, videos), building Web pages, writing online journals, maintaining a personal Web page, and designing their own online material by remixing content from online sources. In addition, they access the Internet using mobile hand-held devices (e.g., cellular phones, smart phones). Nearly 85 percent of teens own at least one of these social media tools and about one-third send text messages to friends regularly (Lenhart, Madden, Macgill, & Smith, 2007).

Similarly, networked communications and computer technology have transformed the modern workplace dramatically, touching nearly every career and job category from entry level to seasoned professional-making skills once confined to a small group of technology enthusiasts into basic requirements for the mainstream and bringing the global community closer to our doorstep. In the last two decades, the United States invested heavily in the application of new information technologies in virtually every sector of the economy (National Center on Education and the Economy, 2007). Today's workplaces require their employees possess a suite of 21st-century skills, including critical thinking and problem solving, collaboration across networks and leading by influence, agility and adaptability, initiative and entrepreneurialism, effective oral and written communication, the ability to access and analyze information, global awareness, civic literacy, economics education, and curiosity and imagination (Wagner, 2008; Partnership for 21st Century Skills, 2003). The demands for these skills, particularly as enabled by technology, have grown steadily over recent years (NCEE, 2007). A growing body of international and United States-based studies demonstrates that upward mobility in employment is increasingly dependent on the mastery of a set of high-level cognitive and communicative skills (Autor, Levy, & Murnane, 2002, 2003; ETS, 2005; Honey, Fasca, Gersick, Mandinach, & Sinha, 2005; Levy & Murnane, 2004; Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development [OECD], 2004; OECD & United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization, 2003). Such skills include the ability to diagnose and respond to complex situations, and synthesize and communicate multifaceted information to multiple audiences. Moreover, initial studies not only have found that skilled technology users earned wages that were 10 percent to 15 percent higher than those of otherwise similar nonusers (Handel, 2003), recent studies about globalization and technology-which are creating a leveled playing field in terms of time and distance-raise concerns that America is losing its international competitive edge (Friedman, 2005).

Despite steady progress in the availability and integration of technology innovations in workplaces and afterschool settings (e.g., homes) around the world, similar advancements in the use of technology to support teaching and learning in formal settings have been limited. Most current education systems face daunting challenges in their efforts to prepare students for the 21st century. "Workers entering the labor force in the United States are less educated than young people in many other countries. The proportion of U.S. students who graduate from high school today-about 70 percent-is smaller than that of their counterparts in most other developed countries, and fewer than half of this group graduate with the skills needed for college and jobs that pay more than minimum wage . . . " (Wagner, 2008, p. 12). This concern is all the more troubling for disadvantaged young people. Research shows persistent inequities in the opportunities students have to acquire and exercise high-level literacy skills in Information and Communication Technologies (ICT). Higher-income students use computers more often for more sophisticated intellectually complex applications, whereas lower-income students use computers more often for repetitive practice (Partnership for 21st Century Skills, 2003). Further, the full set of 21st Century skills outlined above is not taught consistently in U.S. classrooms (Schwarz & Kay, 2006). As a result, there is a serious gap between the requirements of the fastest growing jobs in the U.S. and the skills of high school graduates (Peter D. Hart Research Associates/Public Opinion Strategies, 2005). Technology access and use alone-the standard commonly used by school systems-is no longer a sufficient measure of what school systems need to offer their students. Instead, educators must embrace a vision of technology that targets the teaching and learning of 21st-century skills and closing the achievement gap.

In response to these challenges, a range of business, government, and research organizations-including the U.S. Department of Education, the National Science Foundation, the CEO Forum, the North Central Regional Education Laboratory, the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, the International Society for Technology and Education, the Technology Literacy Assessment Working Group for the State Educational Technology Directors Association, and the National Center on Education and the Economy-are calling for the transformation of current education systems. Their ultimate goal is to help create school systems that can ensure a U.S. competitive edge in the global economy (NCEE, 2007; Finn, 2008; Moe & Chubb, 2009). Public-private partnerships can play a critical role in achieving this goal, and " . . . business leaders seem determined to find something, anything, to shake things up-whatever it takes to get better results" (Wagner, 2008, p. xiii). At the core of their approach is the concept of innovation or, more precisely, "disruptive innovation."