Schools That Integrate Technology: Silicon Valley

As complex as it is for an individual teacher to integrate daily use of high-tech devices into routine classroom practices, technology integration at a school level is even more complex. A classroom teacher with 25-35 students can alter the structures of her classroom and create a culture of learning, achievement and mutual respect. Hard as that is, it is do-able. I and many others have profiled teachers who have created such classrooms.

Imagine, however, schools with 30 to 100 classrooms and getting all of those teachers to work together to create school-wide infrastructure and a learning, achieving, and respectful culture–across scores of classrooms that seamlessly integrates computers to achieve the school-site’s goals. A complex task with many moving parts that is fragile yet strong. It does happen but remains uncommon.

I have observed a few schools in Silicon Valley that have integrated new technologies across the entire school requiring teachers to teach lessons using particular hardware and software. These schools vary from one another but tout that they “personalize learning,” blend instruction, and differentiate their lessons to meet differences among students. Invariably, they say they use project-based instruction.  They have created both an infrastructure and culture that subordinates technology to the larger tasks of preparing children and youth to do well academically and socially, graduate, and enter college (and complete it) or enter a career directly.

Considering what I have observed in Silicon Valley, documented nationally in my studies, and retrieved from the research literature on such schools elsewhere in the U.S., what are the common features of such schools?

Here are eight different yet interacting moving parts that I believe has to go into any reform aimed at creating a high-achieving school using technology to prepare children and youth to enter a career or complete college (or both). Note, please, that what I have garnered from direct observation, interviews, and the literature is not a recipe that can be easily cooked and served. Listing features I have  identified is not an invitation to insert some or all of these into a formula for producing such schools near and far. These schools are rooted in their contexts and context matters.

These features are:

*Recruit and train teachers who have the subject matter knowledge and skills to work with students  before, during, and after the school day.

*Recruit and train school site leaders who have the expertise and skills to lead a school and be a pillow and sandpaper simultaneously with teachers, students, and parents.

*Students have access to non-academic subjects that cultivate the mind, heart, and sensibilities.

*Equip all students with the knowledge and skills not only to enter college,  persist through four years and get a bachelor’s degree but also have the wherewithal to enter a career immediately.

*Organize the school day, week, and month that provides students with sufficient time in and out of class to learn the prescribed material and core cognitive skills to master a subject, acquire the essential skills of planning and assessing their progress in each course they take, receive tutorial help when student skill levels are below and above par, and time for students to receive mentoring from teachers they trust.

*Build a culture of safety, learning, respect, and collaboration for both youth and adults.

*Create a decision-making process that is inclusive, self-critical, and strong enough to make further changes in all of the above.

*Do all of this efficiently within available resources.

Note the absence of new technologies in the features that I have listed. Why is that?

Simply because such schools containing these features have administrators and teacher who figure out when to use software to achieve desired outcomes, create an infrastructure to support staff in using new technologies, determine which new technologies efficiently advance students in reaching these goals, and create the conditions for easy, supported use of the hardware and software. Note, then, that computers and their software are subordinate to the overarching goals for students and adults in the school.

Summit schools, a charter network in Northern California, has been working and re-working a design containing these moving parts for nearly 15 years. Over that period, they have amended, deleted, and added program features as administrators and faculty learned what worked and what didn’t. The time span, the stability in staff, their awareness of context and shifting demographics all came into play as Summit leaders and faculty figured out what to do since 2003.

Over the past two months I have visited two of Summit’s seven charter schools in the Bay area and in those two schools have watched teachers across different academic subjects teach 90-minute lessons during what the schools call “project time.” I have also interviewed administrators.  Each school was part of a different district in Silicon Valley. While one of the schools had a separate building in its district well suited to its mission, scheduling, and space for students, the other school was located on a high school campus in another district where both students and teachers worked in a series of portable classrooms. Also each drew from different populations.*

The network of Summit charter schools has been written about often and positively (see here, here, here, and here). In all instances, these teachers I observed had integrated the software they had loaded onto students’ Chromebooks, the playlists of videos and links to articles for units that teachers created, and students’ self-assessment exercises into daily lessons with varying degrees of student engagement. The charter network claims that through their Personalized Learning Plan (also see here) teachers could give each student individual help while students negotiated their ways through academic content and skills. In the two schools, I observed students during 90-minute classes in different academic subjects working on teacher-chosen projects. Students were using their Chromebooks frequently to access PLP voluntarily and at teachers’ direction.

The cliched statement said over and over again by advocates of new technologies in schools: “It is not about technology, it is about learning,” captured what I saw. Overall aims for Summit students to acquire academic content, cognitive skills, “habits of success,” and the know-how allowing students to assess their own progress involved online work  before, during and after lessons. Clearly, the school did not have to use Chromebooks and extensive software to reach the schools’ overall goals and each student’s personal ones. The technology did enable, however, the process of learning to be more efficient, more timely, and  give real-time feedback to students.

The two Summit schools in very different contexts contained these features I listed above. While differences existed between the two schools in context and staffing, both have implemented these features as best they could. Creating and massaging these many features of the Summit Schools is no easy task. It is not done once; it is a process that is constantly monitored, assessed, and altered by site leaders and staff.  Thus, listing the essential features that mark such enterprises is not a blueprint for action; it is an after-the-fact synthesis of what I saw and not easily replicable for those who have dreams of “going to scale.” It is what emerged from such efforts over a long period of time and requires tender, loving care every day. The program is fragile and easily broken by inattention, changes in leadership and staff, and declining resources. May it continue to thrive.


*Diane Tavenner, a founding teacher at Summit Prep and director of Summit Schools Network and Chief Academic Officer, Adam Carter–also a founding teacher at Summit Prep–picked the two schools. In both schools, I interviewed the principals (called Executive Directors), and they suggested various teachers I should visit. Because of scheduling difficulties, I could not see all of those recommended to me. So in both schools, I reached out to other teachers, introduced myself and asked them if I could observe their classes.  The nine teachers who permitted me to spend a 90-minute block with them taught English, social studies, science, and math. For readers who wish to see my published observations, see posts for March 13, 2016, March 16, March 21, March 23, March 29, April 1, April 6, April 12, April 18.








Filed under Reforming schools, school reform policies, technology use

31 responses to “Schools That Integrate Technology: Silicon Valley

  1. Laura H. Chapman

    What is a non-academic subject? Who decides? Is it possible to say that every subject worthy of attention in the education of young people might be made academic, but should never be merely and strictly academic.

    • larrycuban

      In California, a non-academic subject is one that is not recognized for college admission in the state system of higher education. Subjects recognized for high school graduation cover both academic and non- academic subjects (e.g., art, physical education). Thanks for comment and question, Laura.

  2. Larry Are you seeing more than “success”? Mutual respect for deviant ideas, a “could I be wrong?” Attitude. Democratic habits of mind and heart? Maybe? I too could be wrong to fear such an approach

    Sent from my iPhone

    • larrycuban

      Had I observed more of the activities in and out of class,interviewed more teachers and students,and simply been “embedded” in the school, what you suggest may well have been the case. I surely saw clues of what you suggest. Thanks for commenting, Deb.

  3. I think that the principles here are admirable, but I do not hear many learner voices; nor do I see any real suggestions as to how the learning objectives might be achieved through actual pedagogic practice.

  4. Pingback: dy/dan » Blog Archive » Larry Cuban’s Eight Features of Highly-Effective Tech-Using Schools

  5. A couple of thoughts: one of the things that really impressed me in 2008 when I visited a sort of county magnet school in Oakland County, MI that used the International Baccalaureate curriculum was the mandatory course juniors took on research methods. It included a lot of time spent on how to evaluate the accuracy and reliability of Internet sources (e.g., Wikipedia). To me, that was crucial for helping students to make intelligent use of the Internet as a research tool. Absent that sort of insightful training and experience, students in many other schools I’ve worked with in the last 24 years in Michigan (public, private, charter) tend to do exactly what educators and scholars fear and loathe: use the Internet uncritically and dishonestly. Loads of plagiarism, and plagiarism from unreliable and/or inaccurate sources.

    Of course, it was always possible to plagiarize if students had access to an older technology: books (it’s vital that we realize and remind students and teachers that books, journals, pencils, pens, paper, and much else comprise technology even if we don’t need to plug them into an outlet or provide them with batteries to make them work). So an understanding of what comprises honest scholarship and research should be explored in every school and district. However, the advent of the ‘Net has made that need even more pressing.

    Looking at your list, I was also struck by how these are clearly things we would like to see every school have. And that raises questions of what is sufficient and what is necessary (the math teacher in me must be awake this morning) for the successful implementation of far more than technology (of both the electronic and non-electronic kinds). Are there schools with all or most of the things you mention who are very successful sans a major commitment to high-tech? If so, might it be that what you’ve described goes well beyond issues of technology?

    • larrycuban

      Thanks very much, Michael, for your reflections on important features (e.g., skills in parsing sources) in the Michigan example you gave and across all schools. As for your last question, I have seen the kind of schools with features I listed that are clearly low-tech, as you suggest. And that is a major point. Thank you.

  6. Chester Draws

    The technology did enable, however, the process of learning to be more efficient, more timely, and give real-time feedback to students.

    That’s a very soft sell there.

    Technology, according to its boosters at least, is meant to transform teaching. Yet what you propose should mostly be the aim of all schools, whether using technology or not.

    (The only actual transformation from technology that I have seen is that teachers can be contacted by students at any time. I’m not convinced that is going to fly unless we are paid more to compensate.)

    Given that the technology is not free, but costs money and time — and an opportunity cost because other things cannot be done — is there any evidence that heavily technology schools are getting better value for their money than schools using their time and money differently? Particularly in light of your comment that “The program is fragile and easily broken by inattention, changes in leadership and staff, and declining resources.”

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for comment, Chester. In answer to your question, I have found no replicable and solid evidence “that heavily technology schools are getting better value for their money than schools using their time and money differently.”

      • Chester Draws

        Cheers Larry. I can’t say I’m surprised, but it is nice to see someone take the time to really check it out.

        So where to now with technology, in your opinion?

        Does it actually have any realistic chance of transforming teaching? Will it continue to make things incrementally better, if we use it with care and attention to detail? Or is it a busted flush?

      • At the risk of getting my fingers slammed in a chester draws, let me suggest that it’s not teaching, but rather learning that technology is most likely to change. Not that tech will replace teaching; however, as a learner, I am so grateful for computers and the Internet. Access to a range of free lectures and courses in mathematics and other disciplines has been fantastic for me. Lectures are still lectures, but when you can rewind and rewatch at will, it opens new vistas (for me, at least). Having strong resources for students at various levels of development via the web is potentially powerful, and I have made use of a very short, excellent series of video lectures online by the Aussie mathematician and teacher par excellence, James Tanton, in my intermediate algebra classes for the last 2 1/2 years. I don’t simply show the videos while kicking back and having a nap, however. I am a VERY active participant when I show them, and I do my best to make the students become active viewers.

        I’ve seen outstanding teaching without technology, but in mathematics, having access to decent graphics/computer tech makes enormous sense. I use a free calculator site,, a great deal in my teaching. If I taught linear algebra, calculus, and some other subjects, I would definitely be using software tools and having students explore mathematics with same.

        In my earlier career as an English teacher, I rarely thought about any sort of high tech, and in retrospect, I’m not sure how much teaching with it I’d do, but it’s hard to know, having been out of that loop for the most part since about 1979.

        All that said, might I suggest that we not confuse the technology with the technocrats and salespeople (and politicians, privatizers, ad nauseam). And let’s also try to remember that pencils, pens, paper, etc. are technology.

      • larrycuban

        Your experiences as a learner, Mike, and how electronic access to new and difference sources of information has had an effect on you and your teaching–you make clear. To what degree that digesting new information and using the skills learned via devices and software will transform learning for K-12 students is an unknown to me. Figuring out whether teaching practice has changed and in what directions is hard enough. And that is what I focus upon. Thanks for the comment.

      • larrycuban

        That is what I am working on now for my next book, Chester. In looking at exemplars in classrooms, schools, and districts and then reflecting on the entry of desktop computers in the 1980s and where the U.S. is now (through the prism of Silicon Valley) I believe I can answer your questions. Thanks for the comment and questions.

  7. Reblogged this on From experience to meaning… and commented:
    Interesting observations and insights!

  8. Pingback: Diigo Links (weekly) | Mr. Gonzalez's Classroom

  9. chris1289blog

    Have you heard of Khan Academy?

    • larrycuban

      Yes I have.

      • chris1289blog

        Your post reminded me of it. I use it all the time. A priceless tool!

      • #chris, could you explain how you make use of it as a priceless tool?

      • chris1289blog

        It’s free. It’s online. It’s also an app. And it’s education.

      • Chris, I know all those things. I was asking if YOU could specify how YOU use it as a priceless tool. As a student? A teacher? A peer tutor? Please give some particular examples that have led you to call it a “priceless tool.” That’s a rather bold claim; it would be helpful to hear specifics.

      • chris1289blog

        I watch the videos usually once, do the coursework online. I actually write the stuff out in a book. I also create my own math problems to solve. If Sal is teaching 5th grade fractions I might copy his problem and most certainly do my own. I try to figure out the mechanics, the ‘why’ behind it. I don’t draw many of the examples but I get what Sal means.

        I also enjoy working more often on an actual laptop, not a tablet though I don’t mind.

        Other than this you can look it up on YouTube. There’s a spray of videos on it. You’ve got kids in 3rd grade learning how to put together robots the size of a Rubik’s cube. You’ve got 6th graders learning programming.

      • larrycuban

        Thanks Michael and Chris for exchange of comments.

      • chris1289blog

        Good talking to you, Michael!

  10. Pingback: Learning from Mistakes and Ethics #IDT | Kinetic ED

  11. Pingback: Diigo Links (Weekly) | Another EducatorAl Blog

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