Joel Rose is the DOE’s Chief Executive for Human Capital. He just completed a six-week pilot program at M.S. 131 in Chinatown. During the pilot, called “School of One,” classrooms were organized using new high-tech methods to maximize student learning and better prepare students for 21st century jobs.
Q. How did you get the idea for the School of One?
I’ve had these ideas in my head for a while. I taught fifth grade in Houston for three years after college and since then, I’ve always focused on personalizing instruction. I remember trying to figure out the answer to one particular question: if, as a teacher, I was working with just a small number of students in my class at one time, what would the rest of the students in the class be doing? Sure, good teachers can find ways to differentiate. But doing it consistently on an individual basis is a tall order that requires hours of planning each night. So, in the absence of a good answer to that question, most educators teach largely to the middle.
Last spring, I was visiting a friend in Miami who owns a company that provides training to adults on specific technologies. When you walk into one of their centers, there’s a big sign that says, “Choose Your Modality.” You can learn live with an instructor, you can learn at home online, or you can do what they call mentored learning, where a student comes in and a teaching assistant is there to help out. I thought, that’s the answer I’ve been looking for! If a teacher was working with only a handful of students, then the rest of the students in the class would still be learning—but through different modalities. I started talking to more people who were involved in this particular sector, and I wanted to understand more about the technology. The idea crystallized in the last couple of years, and then I wrote up the School of One proposal and shared it with the Schools Chancellor last summer. He was a big, big supporter of it, and he said to me that innovation is one of the hardest things to get in any organization. Not long after, I met with Cisco, who gave us our initial funding, since this was very much in line with their vision for education, which they call Education 3.0.
Q. What exactly is School of One?
The best way to explain the School of One is to contrast it with what it’s not. When most of us went to school, we had a teacher issue us a textbook. Our teachers would march us through each chapter, giving tests along the way until the end of the year when they got to the end of the book. That works for some kids, but it’s too fast for some and too slow for others. Students who may not have mastered content from the previous year could fall further behind. And for too many kids, it’s boring.
School of One is a way of organizing a school differently. First, we provide instruction based on exactly where a student happens to be academically and let him move at his own pace. So the seventh-grader who missed a few sixth-grade skills begins where he left off the previous year, learning those sixth-grade skills. Second, we complement live, teacher-led instruction with other forms of instruction—we use different types of software, virtual tutors, small group activities, and independent activities all at the same time. Finally, we use technology to integrate all of these forms of instruction so that each student has a unique schedule each day based on how he did the previous day. We project that schedule onto monitors around the room in a way similar to the information you might see at the airport, which helps students know where to go at different times. Because we use all of these tools, we’re able to personalize instruction based on what a student needs and based on how they learn best.
For this pilot, we decided to focus on one grade—students entering seventh grade—and one subject, math.
Q. What do you see when you walk in to a School of One classroom?
There’s what you’ll see, and there’s what’s going on behind the scenes. Behind the scenes, we’ve closely analyzed state assessment results and internal assessment results, and we know for each student exactly the right skill she should be working on at that point in time. Also, we understand, based on survey data of the student, her parent, and her teacher, how she learns best. We’ve also worked with 11 content providers—including many of the largest educational publishers—to assemble over one thousand math lessons, across several instructional modalities, such as live lessons, collaborative lessons, and online lessons. Also, we’ve identified which types of lessons work best for which types of kids at a given point in time and created unique schedules for them each day. All of that happens before you actually walk in the door.
When you do walk in, you might see a small group working with a teacher on the particular skill that the students happen to be focusing on that day. You may see other students working with teachers in groups of three to twelve kids. Other students will be working online with a live tutor or working with software, all at their own level and at their own pace. Finally, some kids may be working by themselves in a low-tech way or being tutored by some of our high school interns.
Q. How did you train teachers for this program, and how does School of One change teachers’ roles in classrooms?
Teachers received approximately 16 hours of professional development. Half of that time was spent helping them internalize what we were trying to do, how that impacts the day, and getting them to buy into the concept. The other half was spent giving them time to plan. As I explained, we give each student a different schedule each day, depending on their previous day’s performance. That also means you have to give each teacher a different schedule each day, so we e-mail the teachers every evening letting them know what students they’ll be working with on what skills the next day. In order for them to be able to do that, we give them a lot of time up front to pre-plan their lessons.
We think this makes a teacher’s job more sustainable and more effective. The analogy I like to use is the analogy of a surgeon. A surgeon focuses on two things. One, she is focused on the hardest part of the surgery. And the second thing she’s focused on is the overall health of the patient. So, we want our teachers to focus the same way, on the quality of their lessons and on the overall learning of the student. A whole lot of what happens in between, from creating assessments to organizing the day, we’re trying to take care of on the back-end so they can focus on those two main things.
Q. What’s next for School of One?
We want to take this slowly and make sure we get the model right. There have been too many reforms over the past 25 years that have tried to scale too quickly and many good ideas have been lost along the way. We’re not going to fall into that trap. We’re going to go back into research and development mode this fall and plan to open again in three schools in the spring—just in math and just in the sixth grade. Hopefully, the following year we’ll have five schools, grades six and seven, and the next year, 20 schools, grades six, seven, and eight. By that point, we should be able to look at the data and determine whether or not it’s appropriate to scale this more broadly.
Q. Do you eat, breathe, and sleep School of One?
Yes—and thankfully my wife has been incredibly supportive throughout this process.