School of One Leaving the Nest

Today, School of One honcho Joel Rose announced that he’s departing the New York City Department of Education to launch an independent effort to take the School of One to scale. It’s not yet clear what the new organization will be named, but Rose will be founder and CEO. Rose drafted the original proposal for School of One back in summer 2008, while serving as NYCDOE’s chief executive for human capital. Running the School of One became Rose’s full-time job in February 2009.

For those unfamiliar with the School of One, it allows teachers to customize what a student learns each day on the basis of what he has already mastered, does so with an eye toward the ways that student learns best, and organizes instruction to maximize the efficient use of school resources. The School of One manages these feats (currently, just for middle school math) by collecting data on which learning objectives students have mastered and how they like to learn, then assigning them each day to appropriate lessons–making use of traditional instruction, small group instruction, solo tutoring, online tutoring, computer-assisted instruction, and so on.

One of my favorite things about School of One is that it’s a solution that doesn’t imply new costs. It’s a way to optimize whatever dollars a school is spending on math instruction–to squeeze more juice from the orange–and doesn’t entail new outlays. As Bruno Manno and I note in our just-released book Customized Schooling, it’s a classic example of the kind of problem-solving that becomes possible if we can think beyond the strictures of whole-school reform.

So, what’s up? Here’s the deal. There were two ways that Rose could have grown the School of One–as a “captive” entity within NYCDOE or as a “noncaptive” nonprofit. The big difference: so long as School of One is a captive entity, the NYC chancellor has the right to name the board. This means a single disinterested or hostile chancellor could kill the whole thing. This possibility makes it a lot tougher to raise philanthropic investment. It’s also important to remember that the NYC chancellor’s only job is serving the kids of New York City–which promised to make any attempt to build a national provider inside the DOE a recipe for ongoing conflict. So Rose is leaving NYCDOE to build a new entity that will build a scaleable version of the School of One and then seek to delivery it nationally.

In leaving the NYCDOE, Rose will find it much easier to raise the capital needed to grow. Insiders estimate that he’s looking to raise $30 million over the next couple years and are confident the money will now be forthcoming. That said, there are all kinds of complexities. The intellectual property is New York City’s, so the new entity is going to have to work from scratch. (Of course, the NYC School of One model was built as a proof point and not with an eye to scale, so a lot of the technology has to be redone anyway.) Job one for Rose’s new entity is negotiating an agreement with NYCDOE that establishes a partnership which will permit Rose’s new entity to manage the three programs already in operation.

The situation poses challenges for NYC. The most immediate is i3. New York City won $5 million to open four new School of One sites this fall. Those new sites are now apparently scheduled to be delayed a year. Will be interesting to see how ED feels about that.

What’s more, working out the status of Rose’s new outfit has been complex, and makes clear just how the rules and regulations that apply to public systems make it so tough to take solutions to scale. For instance, I’ve been told that once an employee leaves NYCDOE they’re not permitted to discuss official business with any current employee for a year. This prohibits collaboration between Rose’s new effort and NYC’s School of One–and means his endeavor would proceed without any communication with DOE’ School of One team members, principals, or teachers, and would prohibit them from working with Joel as they pursue i3 implementation.

Addressing that requires a waiver from NYC’s conflict of interest board. However, such a waiver can only be requested once a negotiated agreement is in place–and such a negotiation is only permissible “at arm’s length” (e.g. it requires that Rose not be an employee). Thus, Rose quit to pursue such an agreement. Sources tell me that Rose has been working with DOE lawyers for over a year on this, but they weren’t allowed to delve into specifics (due to the “arm’s length” thing). Rose will name an interim replacement to run the DOE’s School of One, and insiders are hopeful that things will be worked out by summer.

If this all sounds confusing, it’s because it is. To sum up: Rose had to quit NYCDOE in order to negotiate the agreements that permit a waiver enabling his new outfit to do such basic things like talk with the DOE’s School of One team, manage NYCDOE’s School of One, and help DOE implement their i3 grant to open School of One in four more schools.

What are the takeaways? Two big ones for me. First, as I argue in The Same Thing Over and Over, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to have 14,000 school districts each trying to do their own weak imitation of a model that someone else has figured out. So finding ways to seed this kind of disciplined problem-solving and then allow the designers to take it to scale with an eye to fidelity and execution makes terrific sense. The School of One story shows promising signs of how that can work. Former chancellor Joel Klein consciously sought to make NYC an alpha site for creative problem-solving. That attracted funding and talent, and spurred smart thinking. The DOE deserves credit and recognition for its role. However, delivering those advances more broadly requires, as Carnegie’s Tony Bryk has argued, providers with the ability and incentive to deliver those advances beyond their initial test site. Hence, Joel’s new outfit.

Second, it shows the limitations of depending on districts to serve as alpha sites. Geographically based districts funded by public dollars and overseen by local officials have little interest or incentive in delivering services more widely. They’re not rewarded for it, and they risk being savaged for directing time, energy, or funds anywhere other than local classrooms. Meanwhile, rule and regs crafted to guard against malfeasance make it hard to grow programs like School of One beyond a district’s confines or to deliver them intact. The result is lots of sharing of “innovations” and “best practices” that features clumsy imitation and shoddy execution. A serious transmission process for innovation requires much more attention to rewarding districts that serve as alpha sites (starting with philanthropic and federal research support), easing the transfer of new solutions from district hands to independent entities, and creating a culture where such a dynamic transmission belt is regarded as a good, healthy, and normal thing.

-Frederick Hess

This post also appears on Rick Hess Straight Up.

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