BOSTON — A small school in Dorchester is now in the national limelight after President Obama visited Tuesday. The president touted TechBoston Academy as proof that good schools can thrive in tough neighborhoods.
Hundreds of people lined the streets near TechBoston Academy to try to catch a glimpse of Obama. The school of 800 students in grades 6-12 sits amid triple-deckers and small businesses in an area known more for poverty and crime than presidential visits.
“Students here come from some tough neighborhoods, am I right? Yet the graduation rate is some 20 points higher than the rest of the city. Twenty points higher,” Obama said.
The president’s 20-minute speech was mainly directed at the TechBoston students. He said they have proven there is no excuse for failing schools.
“I wanted to come to TechBoston so the rest of America can see how it’s done. You guys are a model for what’s happening all across the country,” Obama said.
TechBoston is a pilot school, which means it is a public school whose administrators have more flexibility to do things like lengthen the school day and change curricula. The school also partners with private companies and philanthropies — like the Gates Foundation — that pay for the level of technology at the school that its name suggests. These were the main ideas the president touted Tuesday — more federal money for education, but also sharing the responsibility with the private sector and using innovative technology.
“I’m calling for investments in educational technology that will help create digital tutors that are as effective as personal tutors, educational software as compelling as the best video game. I want you guys to be stuck on something that’s teaching you something, other than just blowing something up,” Obama said.
The president is proposing a $90 million competitive grant program to find new technologies that might improve education.
To get a look at some of the latest educational video games the president is talking about, I visited MIT. Scott Osterwiel, creative director at MIT’s Education Arcade, showed me a game designed to help teach math to middle school students, called Lure of the Labyrinth.
“In this case you come into a room and all you’re told is you have to get something out of a vending machine,” Osterwiel said.
To get pizza out of the vending machine, I essentially have to determine how to pay for it.
“So you’re doing algebra, you’re solving for X. In this particular puzzle you didn’t get it in enough tries,” he said.
“I failed middle school math?” I asked.
“No. Failure is a normal part of game play. Kids don’t even think of it as failure. They think of it as the necessary step along the way,” Osterwiel said.
This game is now used by thousands of teachers across the country and Osterweil said a half dozen more are being developed.
But not everyone is convinced that technology should be the center of education reform.
“Technology is a tool. Technology is not the primary way children will get educated, regardless of how sophisticated it is,” said Boston Teachers Union President Richard Stutman.
Stutman said computers can’t take the place of teachers, and most city schools do not have the infrastructure to accommodate the latest technology.
“Not every school has everything a TechBoston has. The schools that I represent, the other 134 or so, do not have the benefit of the Gates Foundation,” he said.
Nevertheless, Stutman said he welcomes the national attention and said it’s been a long time since a sitting president visited a city school.
“George Bush came to the Latin School with Sen. [Edward] Kennedy, I’m gonna guess, 10 to 15 years ago. So this is a big deal. This is quite an occasion.”
It was a special occasion for the TechBoston students — many of them screamed they would not wash their hands after high-fiving the president Tuesday.