Paying Attention to the Way Each Student Learns: A Conversation about School of One

As part of a series of posts on the evolution of schools and organizations working to improve education, we have been exploring the factors and conditions (the “learning ecology” as John Seely Brown put it) that support and limit innovation. Over the next year, we hope to explore the “learning ecology” in a number of cities around the world, beginning with New York City. The New York City “ecology” stands out both as a place that has supported the development of a number of new small schools and a place that has “incubated” the development of a variety of learning models that seek to develop and scale new educational practices. Among those learning models is School of One, an initiative within the New York City Department of Education launched in 2009 focused on personalized learning for middle grade math. Since that time, the creators of School of One launched a national non-profit called New Classrooms Innovation Partners to create new models of learning for schools across the country. Their first model, Teach to One: Math, is currently in operation in 28 schools around the country. New Classrooms also operates School of One on behalf of the NYC Department of Education. The underlying designs of both Teach to One and School of One are the same. To learn more about the evolution of this approach, we talked with Joel Rose, the founder of School of One and currently the co-founder and CEO of New Classrooms.

School of One started with a fairly simple idea: students learn in different ways, so schools should reflect this fact. Of course, the typical structure of school is not designed for individual students but for a number of students grouped together in various ways. School of One aimed to challenge this model. Briefly outlined, then, School of One customized educational content to the strengths and needs of individual students.

Rose started working on School of One when he was a member of the Human Resources department of the New York City Department of Education. At the time, Michael Bloomberg was mayor and Joel Klein was the chancellor of education. Both were champions of providing more autonomy for schools and supporting more entrepreneurship within the public sector. With Klein’s support, School of One launched as a pilot project in the summer of 2009 and served as one of the first initiatives of the iZone.

Operating with a small team, Rose and his colleagues helped restructure a summer school program to create a more customized educational experience for about 80 students. Rose described the day-to-day operations within this pilot project as SneakerNet in that in its infancy the program essentially involved Mr. Rose and his team running around, making decisions on a day-to-day basis, and building the program in the process.

After this initial pilot project, the School of One team undertook a series of R&D and implementation cycles. They took the experiences and data from the first summer pilot and developed a slightly reworked model that they implemented as an afterschool program in three schools in the spring of 2010. Then, in the fall of that year, they embedded the School of One model in one public middle school, I.S. 228. Continuing with the original vision, this iteration of School of One “put multiple learning modalities into the same learning environment in order to personalize instruction around student needs.” More specifically, nearly 100 students worked in a math center with 6 teachers and support staff. The room was divided into sections of independent instruction, small group collaboration, and teacher-delivered instruction. Based on diagnostics that help create individual student profiles, students experienced these different modalities in ways that addressed specific strengths and needs for that student.

Nearly five years later, School of One continues operating in I.S. 228. The approach has also scaled nationally through Teach to One: Math, which is built on the same core tenets. Teach to One: Math is now found in eight states and Washington DC, where it serves around 10,000 students.

Rose explains that both School of One and Teach to One maintain deep investment in the planning and execution of ideas. For instance, in its early stages, the research and development team spent over 500 hours designing homework, just one small component of the overall learning model they’ve designed. This data can help purposefully design the learning model to address each moment of the teacher’s and student’s day. Within this framework, one question they want to address is “can we have an integrated model that enables teachers to deliver on the promise of personalized learning for every student, every day?”

Over the years, New Classrooms has faced a number of challenges. In particular, School of One and Teach to One still must be implemented within the regulations of traditional school, organized by grade levels and driven by state standards based on those grade levels. Given its rapid expansion, however, the learning model continues pushing at the boundaries of traditional school.

Through these changes and developments, Rose explains that New Classrooms maintains a consistent vision. That is, School of One and Teach to One challenge trends of what he sees as a broken system and innovatively provide individualized learning opportunities for all students.

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