Will School of One Expand to a School of Many?

Students are engaged in independent learning with software and the teacher is available to help answer questions.

Correction (6/23): Updated to note that School of One received a federal, not a state grant.

It's a defining moment for School of One.

What started as an experimental after-school program two years ago has grown into a core part of three public schools in New York City, and education industry observers are watching closely how this tech-based, personalized instruction program plays out in the real world -- and how or when it will expand.

What makes School of One a contender to watch is its re-conceptualization of the school day. Students arrive at school in the morning and receive a "playlist" -- a schedule adapted to each student's level of progress -- of what and how they'll learn math that day. They might work in small groups, practice drills on the computer, confer with a virtual tutor, or work one-on-one with the classroom teacher, or all of the above. Based on the students' progress -- daily quizzes, other assessments, and teacher input -- a new playlist is created for the next day.

So far, the overall level of progress for School of One students in math has been encouraging, according to co-founder Christopher Rush. But it's more complicated than just looking at scores. Deciding the future of the program can't be based on a single year's record, and it must be tailored to each school's needs and community.

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At the moment, School of One's future could go in one of several different directions. A few months ago, co-founder Joel Rose left the New York City Department of Education, which runs School of One, in order to start a nonprofit organization to expand the program. And though School of One received a federal grant to extend it from three to seven years, those plans have been pushed back until fall 2012, not 2011 as was originally scheduled.

I spoke with Christopher Rush, co-founder and chief product officer of School of One about its future.

Q. What are the short-term and long-term plans for School of One?

A. School of One as a program is in the process of figuring out how to expand outside of New York City, whether or not that’ll be a partnership in New York, or whether it’s a new organization that’s unrelated to New York is yet to be determined. That’s why the other founder Joel Rose left the New York City Department of Education a few months ago. For next year, that means at minimum we’re going to focus on our current schools and focus on improving the quality of the program.

We received an I-3 grant in the fall of 2010 to expand to four more schools in New York City, but we’ve delayed that grant by one year (to begin 2012-13) to figure out our long term growth strategy.
We’re hoping to have that figured out in the next couple of months.

Q. What are some of the possibilities?

A. One way or another, this type of knowledge will expand outside of New York. It’s just whether it’s the School of One program, whether or not there’s a partnership with New York City and there’s a new organization to do that, or whether or not there are two separate initiatives that do that. Everyone is  just figuring out what the right governance and legal structure is around that.

School of One

As soon as they enter the School of One math center, students look up at the large monitor to see where they're scheduled to learn.

Q. New York City has been fairly forward-thinking when it comes to incubating this kind of innovation. Are other school districts and cities interested in it too?

A. There are a number of other cities in the country that are pushing to do something similar, and we’re in conversations with them, but they don’t want to be public. Demand has been higher than we can fill.
That’s all part of the figuring out the right way to expand. That’s what we’re trying to work out.

Q. What kind of feedback have you had from the education community?

A. People seemed to be really embracing it, and a lot of people are coming to visit. The educational community seems to be giving us space to get this right, and not demanding that it be done right, right away, and understands the complexity of trying to innovate under the purview of a school district and trying to figure out the right way to scale that, and extend it and share it.

We've been impressed by how understanding and appreciative and supportive the industry at large has been. And that’s been a fairly unique experience for this project that a lot of other people haven’t experienced. Why are people so uniquely supportive of this? What made this different? We don’t claim to be the silver bullet or to be perfect, and since we’re self critical, they don’t need to attack us.

Q. What do you want to change or improve or tinker more with as you learn more about the progress of School of One?

A. We’re a model program, and we think of ourselves as an air traffic control system, and now we need put good planes in it. This means finding good content. Right now we’re subject to what content is out there. We can start to identify what good content really is, and the more we do that, we realize better content needs to be created out there and helping to drive that is important to us.

Different schools have different cultures. We’re starting to shift our attention away from technology and look at what are good classroom practices that make some of our learning modalities successful or not successful. Figuring out the school culture, operational, and instructional design piece is becoming more important and more interesting. It’s an input to the model. Unfortunately, the model gets measured based on both content, and teachers and everything that’s in it, and now that we have a model, we want to improve everything in it.

Q. Is the New York City Department of Education helping find that content?

A. Right now School of One is a New York City project, so we do collaborate with some other departments, but we also do a good deal of it in-house.

Q. Is it a possibility that School of One will create the content too?

A. We don’t see ourselves as the ones to build the content, but to work with our content partners on that. But we can help provide analysis and guidance on what seems to be content that works well with our program or in general.

Q. How did the teachers respond to the program this past school year?

A. We haven’t done post-mortem with teachers because the school year is still running. But we’ll start with reflection exercises with each of our schools, once they can step back and breathe a little bit. We’ll work with teachers the last week or two of school year, and go into summer to use their feedback.

Q. How would you describe student performance this year?

A. We still have to get a number of results back, but as far as students learning skills and making progress, and growth, it’s all been great. The way we measure it is by number of skills everyone learns during the course of a year because everyone has a customized curriculum.

On his way out the door, a teacher hands the student the evening's homework sheet, which is customized to match his skill level.

In a traditional classroom, every grade level has somewhere between 45 to 60 skills that is taught throughout the year, and those may include  a little bit of circling back to skills that were taught before, and on top of that,  teachers don’t typically make it all the way through the full 45 to 60 skills they are expected to teach. At all three of our schools, it looks like the average student who is in the program is mastering at least that number of skills (45 to 60) or more. We won’t have all the final numbers until the school year ends.

At the same time, there’s the state test. In our program, some kids we took backwards to earlier grade levels because that’s the level they were performing at. As a result, we don’t actually expect to have a huge spike on the state test this year, for these students who were below grade level, we might actually expect to do a little worse than year one. However, if you look at the longitudinal effects of our program – we expect that over multiple years, students will do better on the state test.

School of One does not focus on test prep. So if you have a seventh-grader who’s operating at a fourth-grade level, you could’ve done test prep for them to get them onto grade level content, and as a result, they possibly could earn a mediocre score on the state test. Our program instead aims to meet students where they are. A student operating on a fourth-grade level might get to fourth, fifth or sixth grade skills, but they still wouldn’t do well in a state test that tests seventh-grade skills.

But next year, if the student is performing at the same rate, they should do well on a state test, and have a solid foundation of skills. So depending on how far behind the student is will depend on how far they make it in a single year. We recognize that for some students that means, one step back can lead to two steps forward next year, and it depends on where they start.

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To learn more about how School of One works, read Bill Tucker's recent articles and listen to the Freakonomics podcast.

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