My Visit to School of One (Part I)

Yesterday morning, I took the long “F” train ride from Manhattan to Brooklyn’s David A. Boody Intermediate School (IS 228), one of New York City’s three School of One pilot schools. I walked away impressed — as most do from a tour like this. But, I also realized that in many discussions, we’re having the wrong conversation about what we could learn from pilots like School of One.

First, some background: School of One is a pilot program that calibrates instruction to each student’s progress.

Currently focused on middle school math, the program’s ambitious goal is to create an adaptable, minute-by-minute learning experience, challenging students just enough to keep them engaged and moving at the right pace. Each afternoon, around 5:00pm, based on the results of that day’s lessons and diagnostic tests, a computer algorithm automatically creates a detailed instructional plan for the next day. If students fall short in grasping a certain concept, for example, the algorithm will devote more time to that goal. If students learn better using some methods as opposed to others — for instance, whole group instruction vs. online tutorials — it adjusts accordingly (more on how it works).

Among the most racially diverse in New York City (34% Asian, 16% Black, 23% Hispanic and 27%), IS 228 first launched School of One as an after-school program in February, 2010. This year, students in grades 6 through 8 are receiving math instruction in the School of One environment.

It’s About Differentiation, Not Technology

While technology undergirds School of One, the core problem that the program is trying to solve is age-old: how to effectively teach all students, especially when each enters with a variety of different math backgrounds, skill levels, and interests. The solution is differentiation — not only for students, but importantly, also among teaching roles.

During our tour, Chris Rush, the program’s co-founder, emphasized that the key cultural mindset that changes with School of One is not the technology, but the way in which the program thinks about student progress. The approach attempts to meet each student at her current level and create as much growth as possible. For a 7th grader working at a 4th grade level, instruction focuses on 4th grade, attempting to lay the foundation so that as the student progresses, he has the fundamental understanding going forward. It’s a big change for many teachers and parents, since it means that 7th grade students are not necessarily getting 7th grade content. And, while each school determines its own grading scheme, Rush notes that grades reflect progress, not absolute performance: “If they are doing what we put in front of them, they get the grade.”

This progress mindset has important implications for how we judge the performance of both teachers and schools. Rush says that first year proficiency scores are not the correct benchmark, since passing the 7th grade test is not the goal for the student starting at a 4th grade level. Yet, making up ground is essential. So, the approach changes conversations with families. If a student needs to catch up, or is moving more slowly than expected, then teachers can provide options. At Boody, for example, some students have elected to forgo a few of the school’s magnet classes to catch up in math. Others learn during after school programs and some are even coming in before school, during a so-called “period zero,” for additional instruction.

Like a Surgeon

Students are used to changing classes and adapting to each teacher’s instructional approach, Rush notes, so neither the technology nor day-to-day instructional changes seem to bother them. For teachers, though, it’s a radical change. Each afternoon at around 5:00pm they find out the next day’s lessons, modality of instruction (whole group, small group, etc.), and students.

But, while it initially sounds crazy, both support and differentiation among teacher roles means that it’s not necessarily more work — just really different. Several key changes allow it to work:

To begin with, the entire math department works as a team, including student teachers. There are roles carved out for each and eventually, the idea is that highly skilled volunteers, such as a retired math professor, could help to support one-to-one instructional aspects of the program. They have a common planning period each day and while each teacher has a different “playlist” for that day’s activities, a sophisticated data system helps them identify and collectively focus on the students that are making slow progress.

Second, teachers are not preparing brand new lessons each night on the fly. Each teacher is assigned a “bucket” of approximately 30-40 lesson areas that they can be expected to teach in that grading period. Some teachers choose to plan these lessons ahead of time. More importantly, they may also get more use out of each of these lessons, allowing them to refine each one and better anticipate student challenges. For instance, instead of prepping a lesson on fractions for October 5th and then once completed, not teaching it again for another year, teachers may teach that same lesson a dozen times over the course of the grading period. Over time, Rush expects to see teachers not only specialize, but also be able to identify specific developmental needs at the lesson or unit level.

Finally, a small tower of drawers with various teaching materials, all prepped ahead of time in anticipation of what teachers might need for that day’s lessons, seemed to symbolize this different approach. Rush noted that one teacher remarked she felt like a surgeon, with a different challenge presented each day, but with all the tools and a team prepped and ready.

-Bill Tucker

More tomorrow on how the School of One model is customized to school conditions and what that may mean for its future expansion and growth.

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