Silicon Valley Ground Zero for Common Core

Above: Students heading to an academic assembly stream through the halls of W.C. Overfelt High School in San Jose.

In the heart of Silicon Valley, students at Millbrae’s Design Tech High School sit grouped in a cluster of laptops and ergonomic chairs that appear to hover slightly above the classroom. There is no teacher in the image. This is 21st Century learning.

“This is Common Core at its essence,” says photographer Rian Dundon, who spent nine months photographing how the new education standards adopted by California and 43 other states are being implemented in schools across the area.

Design Tech (d.Tech) is a new charter school conceived in conjunction with the Institute of Design (d.School) at Stanford University. Freshmen students in this, d.Tech’s inaugural class, volunteered to be a part of the experimental school, which is outfitted with state of the art classroom technology. Close partnerships with local tech companies, like nearby Oracle, provide outlets for students to get a real-world look at the concepts they are learning. (Millbrae, Ca. March 2015) 

Across Silicon Valley, in the small farming community of Pescadero, a group of young students sit around a single aging computer for a class on coding. One of them holds a calculator in her hands, like a throwback to another century. This too is Common Core in Silicon Valley, though without all the bells and whistles.

California adopted the Common Core in 2010. The new standards in English Language Arts and math put greater emphasis on skills like critical thinking, reasoning and analysis. They require a stronger facility with language, both written and verbal.

Young women at Pescadero High School learn to code with science teacher Wayne Johnson in Pescadero, Ca, February 2015. Rural schools like Pescadero, on the periphery of Silicon Valley, are faced with a wider gap to technological integration than their urban counterparts. (Pescadero, Ca. March, 2015)

Dundon’s goal for this project, as he says, was to “visualize what the Common Core looks like as enacted in area schools, and to portray some sense of the meaning and social context behind the new standards.”

Many of his images point to the inherent tensions that come with trying to fit learning practices meant to nurture 21st century skills – innovation, creativity, critical reasoning and analysis; all the buzzwords associated with Silicon Valley – into school classrooms and hallways that recall a more industrial age.

That tension forms the backdrop for many of Dundon’s images. It’s in the institutional spaces that channel a river of young teens down narrow halls to classrooms plastered with inspirational messages and figures. It’s in the principal driving students home after an on-campus stabbing and the drops of blood left behind. It’s knotted into the web of crisscrossing wires that keep one very dated computer lab connected.

A computer lab at W.C. Overfelt High School in San Jose. If Common Core's tech-centric approach to “preparing kids for jobs that don’t even exist yet” is to pan out, underserved schools like Overfelt will first need to be brought up to speed. (San Jose, Ca. March 2015)

These images represent a critical moment in California’s education, and by extension its future. Common Core is the most ambitious education reform initiative in decades. It is meant to prepare students for a world that is every day being shaped by Silicon Valley. Whether it can transcend the vast disparities in income and resources available to the students attending Silicon Valley schools will be a key litmus test for its success both locally and nationwide.

As Dundon notes, the outcome of these initiatives at “schools operating in the shadows of Silicon Valley will be a strong argument for or against the Common Core as an effective approach to education.”

This story was produced in collaboration with the Silicon Valley Community Foundation and New America Media as part of a series looking at Common Core in Silicon Valley. To see the complete photo essay, visit the New York Times Lens Blog.
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