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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