"School of One" pilot program uses technology to differentiate instruction

For all the alarming statistics illustrating that public education in America is in trouble (see Fordham President Chester E. Finn, Jr.'s discussion here on flat SAT scores, stagnant or falling NAEP scores, and bad news from the ACT), there are probably equal numbers of education reform solutions floating around the education policy stratosphere. But you would be hard-pressed to find many that simultaneously address two of the most formidable barriers to scalable reform: human capital challenges and the pressing budget deficits facing nearly all state and local governments.  

The education reform community has become obsessed with the human capital variable (an article here by Ed Week calls the Gates Foundation's emphasis on teacher effectiveness the search for education's "magic pill"), yet our ability to improve it (or anything else in education, for that matter) has been seriously hampered by the current economic woes. Even the giant chunk of stimulus money recently handed to states is plugging holes in their budgets rather than launching or ramping up education reforms.

One innovative pilot promises to enhance teacher effectiveness, capitalize on the power of data to inform instruction, infuse schools with much-needed technological innovation, and improve student performance. All this, and it is estimated to cost about the same as what we spend to operate traditional schools.  

Called School of One, it launched this summer out of New York City's Department of Education. Its mission is to "provide students with personalized, effective, and dynamic classroom instruction so that teachers have more time to focus on the quality of their instruction" (see School of One's website here). Students engage in many types of instruction and learning: large group, small group, one-on-one tutoring, virtual tutors, and online educational games.

School of One leverages technology to accomplish its lofty mission, combining a wealth of data from students' personalized profiles (including academic diagnostic data as well as information on students' learning modalities and interests), and from a digital lesson bank containing over 1,000 lessons from professional educators. All of this goes into a learning algorithm, which then generates a unique daily schedule for each student based upon his/her specific academic needs and learning modalities. In short, each student has their own Individual Education Plan (IEP). 

Now before your brain flags the word "algorithm" as either too math-y, confusing, or gimmicky to keep listening, be assured that the technology behind School of One is both straightforward and intuitive. Each student receives a "playlist" that lists the skills they need to focus on, and student schedules are displayed on a computer screen resembling an airport's flight monitor. Anyone who can work an i-pod or make it through an airport could function well in this classroom.

Perhaps most important to point out is that the intention of the technology is to complement the talents of the teachers, not supplant them. School of One allows teachers to provide all students with differentiated instruction.  

Joel Rose, creator of the School of One and Chief Executive for Human Capital at the NYC Department of Education, has an interesting perspective on human capital challenges facing public education. Citing statistics that among NYC's eighth-grade teachers, only 13 percent can get 80 percent of their class to reach proficiency in math, and only six percent can do so in reading, Rose points out that teachers have to be almost "superheroes" in order to reach the needs of all students.

And these statistics-grim as they might be-are a snapshot of a city with a very competitive teaching pool (NYC has over six applicants for every teaching position the district fills). Among the three million teachers in America, how many superheroes can we reasonably expect? In other words, if human capital is the be-all and end-all variable, then American schools - and urban schools in particular - have to find new ways to maximize our teaching talent. 

Hearing Rose speak and recalling my own teaching days (Rose is a fellow TFA alum), I can't think of a single educator who wouldn't appreciate the convenience of 1,000 sample lesson plans and built-in daily assessments. Even his teacher-as-superhero analogy isn't far off. If I'm honest, I realize that a significant reason I burned out during my stint in the classroom was because I took on the simultaneous roles of the teacher, the lesson bank, the technology, and the algorithm. It isn't impossible to reach all students' unique learning needs this way. But it certainly isn't easy.

Ohio's spending on primary and secondary education is forecast at $8.2 billion in FY2010 and $8.1 billion in FY2011. Even though the percentage of the state's budget spent on education will increase in both years, this represents a six percent decrease from 2009 spending. Stated simply - we're going to have to do more with less.  

The premise of School of One - using technology as a tool to help teachers differentiate instruction - is one that we think many Ohio educators and politicians could get excited about. As Ohio works to improve student achievement during tight fiscal times, we think School of One is worth paying close attention to and learning from. The program's potential to enhance teacher effectiveness, improve student assessments and data collection, and garner political momentum - all while not breaking the bank - introduce powerful reform possibilities, not just for the Big Apple, but for states and districts across the nation looking for ways to give students the education they deserve and need.

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