School of One

Once a school troublemaker, Ta-Nehisi Coates became a successful journalist.  He wonders if a personalized education would have worked for him. In The Littlest Schoolhouse in The Atlantic, he looks at the School of One, a personalized after-school math program for seventh graders at a three New York City middle schools.

Joel Rose, a Teach for America veteran, uses computers to teach each child at his “optimal level.” He worked with Wireless Generation to create an algorithm weighing a student’s academic needs, learning preferences and classroom resources.

. . . first, the student and his parents and teachers are surveyed about his classroom habits. Then the student takes a diagnostic test to see how well he understands basic math. Those data are then sent to the New York Department of Education’s headquarters in Lower Manhattan, where School of One’s algorithm produces a tentative lesson plan. That lesson plan is then e-mailed to the student’s teachers, who revise it as they see fit. At the end of every day, the student takes another short diagnostic, which is used to create another tentative lesson plan that appears in the teachers’ inboxes by eight o’clock that evening.

The result is that one student might learn to add fractions at a dry-erase board with a small group, while another student uses the Internet to practice calculating the area of a circle with a tutor in Kentucky, while still another student learns about factoring through a game on his laptop.

Piloted in 2009 as a summer program at a Chinatown middle school, School of One raised scores by 28 percent. Coates visited tech-savvy I.S. 339, a Latino-and-black school in the South Bronx that’s trying the program.

Principal Jason Levy, who started as a Teach for America teacher, had tried to personalize education by “grouping his teachers into teams assigned to the same students, enabling them to compare notes and design specific strategies for kids who were faltering.”  Test scores rose dramatically with 62 percent of students now on track in math, up from 9 percent six years ago.  Levy welcomed School of One.

. . .  30 or so kids in small groups were hashing out the nuances of seventh-grade math. Some worked by themselves on laptops, with headsets linking them to a virtual tutor. Others were at a dry-erase board with a teacher or high-school tutor. At the front of the room, a large electronic monitor, like an airport arrivals board, identified every student in the room and the station where he or she should be working.

Next year, School of One will replace the math curricula in the three pilot schools. Most of the funding will come from private foundations.

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  1. Diana Senechal says:

    It is very hard to know, from articles about the School of One, how this plays out in terms of the study of math. It seems that this program relies on a definition of math as a succession of skills. As soon as it becomes something subtler or more difficult, the School of One may show serious drawbacks. It does not seem to be set up for something beyond skills.

    The School of One relies on another assumption: that students should be practicing math during math class. In my view, homework is the time for practice. The lesson should be devoted to the topic, and the teacher and class should have room and time to go into depth. Then the students take their understanding home with them and practice it.

    My main reservation about the School of One is that it creates a need for more of itself. Once students are learning at their own pace in this manner, they will not be able to study together in a single class in subsequent grades. Their levels will be too far flung, and they will have little tolerance for a whole-class situation. But at the upper levels, a single proof can take up a whole lesson. It is not necessarily good for a class to be fragmented and for teachers to be delivering lessons that a computer has generated. It is not necessarily good for a lesson to be limited to what students can put into practice right away.

    I can see how the author of the article would think he might have thrived in a School of One. But does it do justice to the subject of mathematics?


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