Straight Up Conversation: Teach to One CEO Joel Rose

Joel Rose is the co-founder and CEO of Teach to One, a venture that helps schools redesign classrooms and curricula in order to customize teaching and learning. Joel started his career in education as a fifth-grade teacher in Houston, and went on to serve as the New York City Department of Education’s chief executive for human capital and as the creator of New York City’s heralded School of One. I recently had a chance to talk with Joel about Teach to One: what it is, how it works, how horse-and-buggy assessment can stymie this kind of instruction, and where the venture is going. Here’s what he had to say.

Rick Hess: So, what exactly is Teach to One?

Joel Rose:  Teach to One: Math is a math program adopted by leading middle and high schools across the country that enables teachers to personalize what, when, where, and how their students learn each day. As a former fifth grade math teacher, I vividly remember having some students in my class at a second-grade level, some at an eighth-grade level, and everything in between. “Differentiated instruction” was a nice buzzword, but it wasn’t realistic with a standard, textbook-based program. I simply couldn’t meet every student where they were each day, much less also cover the grade-level curriculum.

This isn’t a problem that can be solved with software or an app. It’s a structural problem that requires fundamentally reimagining the classroom experience so that it’s oriented around meeting the unique needs of each student. That’s what Teach to One is—a fundamentally different learning model that includes an academic component (with familiar features such as skill maps, playlists, learning progressions, content, and assessment) and an operational component (with features such as homework logistics, substitute teacher contingencies, and student traffic flow). We’ve also integrated some powerful technologies, including the generation of unique daily student schedules based on what each student is ready to learn and what approach is most likely to work best.

RH: For someone who’s not familiar with this sort of thing, is there an easy way to explain how this actually works?

JR: Imagine you’re a seventh grader. You’ve got reading in Room 201 during first period and P.E. in the gym during second period. For third period, you have math. Instead of walking into a traditional classroom, you join 100 of your peers in the school’s math center, which is a large open space. You’re greeted by a handful of teachers, spread out across several different learning stations. You look up at a big TV monitor, find your name, and see which station to go to.

Depending on the day, you may spend the first 35 minutes at one station working on probability with a teacher and 14 peers whose skill progressions happen to intersect with that concept. Then, you may spend the next 35 minutes at another station working with a small group of peers on activities that also cover the probability concept. For the last 10 minutes, you’ll take an online exit ticket on probability to assess how well you’ve learned the concept. We’ll then take the data from that exit slip and generate a unique schedule for you the next day based on whether you’ve learned probability or need some additional time with it.

RH: Teach to One emerged from New Classrooms, which emerged, if I remember rightly, from School of One. Can you say a bit about how all this evolved?

JR: In 2008, I was overseeing human resources for the New York City Department of Education and began to wonder whether recruiting and developing talented teachers was enough. Our team started to look at how other sectors think about talent and realized that we had never truly examined whether the role of the teacher was doable and sustainable. About that time, I happened to meet a friend who was running an adult learning center in South Florida. I entered the lobby and saw a big sign that said something like, “Choose your modality. Learn live, online, or a blend.” That’s when it hit me: A teacher’s job isn’t as doable as it could be because teachers can only teach in one modality at a time. If we could thoughtfully integrate other modalities into a classroom—teacher-led, collaborative, online—teachers would not only be able to personalize learning for each of their students, but it would also be a more fulfilling and sustainable professional experience for them.

I wrote the idea up into a proposal and called it School of One. New York City chancellor of schools Joel Klein was extremely supportive of the idea and helped me raise some initial funding to get it off the ground as a summer program in 2009. That’s when TIME named it one of the year’s best inventions. In 2011, with the blessing of then-Chancellor Dennis Walcott and Mayor Bloomberg, I left to start New Classrooms as a national, non-profit organization to further develop the idea and make it available to schools across the country. We decided to call the new version of the program Teach to One.

RH: What are some of the practical benefits you’ve seen from how it affects teaching, learning, or the student experience?

JR: Academically, we’re seeing some promising data on the impact of Teach to One. A third-party evaluation conducted by Douglas Ready at Teachers College found that students made annual academic gains equivalent to a half year of additional learning compared to national averages. English-language learners and special education students accelerated their learning at an even greater pace. More studies are underway. It’s also important to remember that the program isn’t static. Each year we’re able to make enhancements to the program, and we’ll soon be able to use some new technologies—such as machine learning—so that each student’s daily schedule reflects an even more sophisticated understanding of what’s likely to work best for them.

RH: What are some of the practical challenges that schools encounter or that you’re still wrestling with?

JR: While Teach to One is focused on personalization, the broader K-12 system is deeply oriented around standardization. This can set the stage for different kinds of challenges. First, the way in which schools typically procure materials is oriented around the adoption of textbooks aligned to grade-level standards. In some states, new models like Teach to One that are focused on personalization may not meet states’ curricula requirements, many of which are the products of decades-old rules that never contemplated a world where we might not need to standardize. Second, it takes pioneering teachers, principals, and district leaders to embrace the shift toward holistic personalization. They too operate in a world focused on standardization, and so making the shift to personalized learning requires vision and conviction. These early adopters will be critical, and we need more of them.

Third, there’s a real tension between a standardized accountability system that’s focused on grade level standards with the philosophies of personalized learning and meeting kids where they are. When the seventh grader is actually operating at a fourth-grade level, we have a hard choice to make: meet him where he is, knowing he’ll likely learn a lot but do poorly on the state test, or expose him to seventh-grade content, knowing he’s not likely to learn most of it, but may pick up a few points along the way.

If we’re ever going to fully embrace personalized learning, we need to embrace competency-based assessment and an accountability regimen that enables all students to achieve high standards in the long run while giving them a viable path to get there from where they currently are.

RH: How widely is Teach to One currently being used, in terms of schools or students or what-have-you? And how big is the Teach to One operation?

JR: This year, Teach to One: Math is being used in 38 schools across the country. Our team of about 140 is headquartered in New York and includes a robust R&D team working on the next generation of Teach to One, as well as coaches across the country who support the schools we are serving.

RH: You’ve raised concerns about how state assessments can understate the educational benefits of something like Teach to One. Can you say a bit about this and explain what the issue is?

JR: We all believe in high standards and accountability and want students to graduate high school college- and career-ready. But the reality is that far too many of them come into middle school far from that trajectory. In math, because so many of the skills and concepts build upon one another, the gaps that students have from prior grades keep them from succeeding with grade-level material. Schools today are wasting precious instructional hours teaching kids skills and concepts they simply aren’t ready to learn. That can turn them off to math, turn them off to school, and make the already difficult job of the teacher far less fulfilling.

The same is true for students at the top. Many are fully capable of going beyond what’s reflected in their state’s standards, but teachers simply aren’t able to offer them that opportunity because they’re accountable for performance on the grade-level test. An accountability system that expects all students to achieve the same standard of success in a single year regardless of their starting point is magical thinking. Programs like Teach to One meet students where they are and enable them to accelerate from that point forward, far beyond what they might otherwise do. But when students are learning skills and concepts from grade levels that are different than their enrolled grade, state assessments—which largely focus on grade-level standards—are far less likely to pick them up. And it’s forcing many students to have instructional experiences that are misaligned to what they truly need.

RH: Any suggestions on how states can retool assessment to address this challenge?

JR: A better solution would be for states to develop a competency-based accountability structure that schools could opt in to, where they could track each student’s success against each of the standards. A state could, for example, issue a credential for Algebra once a student demonstrates mastery on something like 45 of the 51 related skills—regardless of how old they are when that hit that milestone. In this kind of system, schools would be accountable for the rate that students accelerate. If in one school students master 65 new skills and concepts, while in another they master 20, that tells us something about the overall school performance. It also gives students and parents far more insight into what students already know, what they still need to learn, and how their growth and performance compare to different peer groups. There are other approaches as well, but that’s the general direction we need to be going.

RH: On another note, you’ve just raised some substantial funding to revamp and improve Teach to One. Can you say a bit about how much you’ve raised and what you guys have in mind?

JR: We’ve spent the last five years focused on figuring out how to make Teach to One viable in all different kinds of schools. We’re now operating in district, charter, and independent schools; in urban and rural schools; in red states and blue states; at schools with a variety of enrollment and staffing levels; and across four US time zones. We generate thousands of schedules every day and are getting more efficient at that each year. We called this “cracking the operational code.” As a result, we are now in a position to use the data we collect each day to “crack the academic code” and learn quite a bit about how kids learn math. What are the optimal learning progressions for students to learn fractions? What happens when we expose students to skills and concepts if they aren’t fully proficient in all of the predecessor skills and concepts? What lessons seem to have the greatest impact in geometry? We’re moving into a stage where we’ll have the ability to ask and answer many of these questions, improve our model, and share this with the broader K-12 community.

Last year, we launched a capital campaign to raise $50 million to support this work. We’re roughly 70 percent of the way there and are deeply grateful to the donors who share in this vision. And while our priority during this time period is not rapid growth, we will look to partner with a limited number of district and school partners who share in this vision and are committed to the ideals of personalization.

— Frederick Hess

Frederick Hess is director of education policy studies at AEI and an executive editor at Education Next.

This post originally appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up.

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