Special Report

NYC’s School of One Customizes Math Learning

By Ian Quillen — March 14, 2011 6 min read
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To explain the School of One, Joel Rose has a short list of long metaphors.

Imagine a hectic airport, he says, where students are the planes, the lessons are the gates, and the passengers are the skills each child needs to master. Or envision a hospital where teachers are surgeons summoned only in crucial cases, and the students are patients whose injuries are the most difficult questions.

Even the student workspaces for the program are an exercise in symbolic reality. For example, at the 800-student Middle School 131 in Manhattan’s Chinatown, students shuffle between “Brooklyn Bridge,” “Pier 17,” and “City Hall,” each designated for a different method of instruction.

Yet beneath the program’s 5,000 online lessons from more than 50 content providers, the math-skills flow chart that brings those lessons together, the algorithm that turns lessons into an individualized “playlist” on a student’s netbook, and the data that tell teachers where and when students get lost, the fundamentals perhaps aren’t so unusual.

“The School of One is based on the premise that, in a regular school, … there are basically three or four math classes that are going on in any given period,” explains Christopher Rush, the program’s co-founder and chief product officer, who is in charge of the project’s analytics. “So why don’t we take all the kids from those math classes, and all of the teachers from those math classes, and try to use those resources more strategically?”

Maybe the open spaces and sight lines at the three School of One locations—MS 131, IS 339 in the Bronx, and Brooklyn’s David A. Boody School (IS 228)—resemble schools from the open-classroom movement of the 1960s and ’70s. Much like that movement, which lost steam in the 1970s because of the setup’s perceived distractions and organizational problems, it remains to be seen whether the approach can be effective on a grand scale.

Started as a summer program at MS 131 in 2009, the School of One’s projected budget is $7.7 million for fiscal year 2011 in mostly federal and private money, and the program currently reaches 2,000 students in grades 6-8 for one subject, math. Even with unlimited funds, developing software that could run the program’s algorithm for hundreds of thousands of users at once would be challenging, says Rose, the program’s co-founder and chief executive officer.

Yet believers in the concept, envisioned by Rose, previously the chief executive of human capital for the city’s schools, as a more effective way of structuring school time, are convinced the School of One is on to something that could change the very definition of a teacher, a student, an administrator, or a content provider.

Those believers include a strong stable of private partners, such as tech companies Cisco and Microsoft and major educational publishers Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Pearson, and McGraw-Hill. The program also recently won $5 million in funding from the Investing in Innovation, or i3, federal competitive-grant competition.

“Once you understand what they’re trying to do, you realize how archaic the current teaching method is,” says Steve Mock, the general manager of North America for MangaHigh.com, a London-based website that counts itself among School of One’s content providers. “You think, ‘Oh my God, of course it doesn’t make sense.’ That’s the thing that strikes me over and over again.”

Promising gains

Adjustment to the new model may be easiest for the students. Research from the New York City Department of Education on last spring’s first full-time implementation of the School of One curriculum, at MS 131, found 6th graders enrolled in the program averaged nearly an extra year’s achievement gain on state testing in math compared with those who weren’t enrolled. When researchers controlled for the fact that those students also participated in an after-school program, they still found participation would lead to an extra one-half to two-thirds of a year’s achievement.

Ashley Merced, a 7th-grader who teachers say has made impressive gains this school year, says the School of One’s approach has helped.

“There’s different teachers, and they teach you different math skills,” she says. “It’s not like one teacher and one big class. That’s kind of boring.”

The evolution for teachers, though, may be more demanding. While teachers are freed to develop areas of expertise as part of a team-teaching approach, they’re also asked to work according to a daily schedule that is generated just the previous afternoon.

“It’s a big culture shift at the School of One, and we don’t pretend otherwise,” Rush says. But teaching in a collaborative environment can provide competitive motivation to help teachers adapt, Rose points out.

Department heads have to tackle the dual challenge of managing their teachers in a new learning model and helping decide when specific school needs make it necessary to override the adaptive-learning model.

For example, Cathy Hayes, the math director at Brooklyn’s IS 228, helped her department secure Fridays as a “manual School of One” day, where teachers lead students though critical analysis and writing about math problems in preparation for state testing.

“You have to pull on every skill that you have to do what this job entails,” Hayes says. “It’s very much getting people to work collegially, and that you’re able to almost be a cheerleader during the day to kind of motivate people to be involved and immerse themselves in the program.”

But perhaps nowhere are the implications of the School of One more potentially transformative than in content. With students’ use of lessons from different providers to master different skills, and with all the data from that use recorded, the model could prove itself as a measurement tool for which content is more effective.“I think for some of the smaller, midsized content providers, if they have big content but just can’t afford the costs for sales and distribution, this is exciting,” Rose says. “I think for the larger content providers, they see that this is where content is going.”

But Rush says the program is still a long way from shaping thought about just which content from which providers is the most effective. With its trajectory from running one after-school summer program to orchestrating three full-time curricula, he says, the program has more data to evaluate from the last few months than from the first two years.

Meanwhile, content providers say they have only basic metrics about how effective their content has been.

“We get an idea whether a student has a good grasp on the topic or not,” says Rohit Agarwal, the chief executive officer of Newton, Mass.-based TenMarks Education Inc., another School of One content provider. “But what we don’t know is a complete picture of what happened after or before students were working with TenMarks.”

Beyond New York

In search of more data and information, Rose says the School of One is exploring establishing itself as a nonprofit organization that could set up sites beyond the 1.1-million student New York City school system.

One interested district is the 66,000-student Seminole County schools in the northern suburbs of Orlando, Fla. While officials from the district have termed the discussions informal, they have shown a video about the program to their principals.

“We’re not even sure yet if this is something we’re ready to pilot,” says Anna-Marie Cote, the district’s deputy superintendent. “We have had a number of principals say, ‘Based on what I saw, I think I might be able to do a little bit of that differentiation this way.’ ”

Will the School of One become a prototype for the 21st-century school or just a source of ideas? Rose says either would be acceptable.

“I think that we’ve had a pretty deplorable [research and development] engine in education for a long, long time,” he says. “So, hopefully, what we’re doing is creating a pathway for promising innovations that come out of school districts to reach more kids.”


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