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In action, School of One mixes high- and low-tech teaching

I reported earlier today about the School of One, a new program to personalize instruction for every student. This morning I got to see the program in action.

Inside the library at MS 131, where bookshelves had been covered with canvas, one set of students dialed in to distant tutors by phone while another set worked one-on-one with teachers in a section of the room called “The Bronx Zoo.” At the same time, data analysts manned a behind-the-scenes command center, where a powerful computer calculated exactly what each student needed to learn.

For a classroom being revolutionized by technology, some of the interactions between teachers and students were decidedly low-tech. In a partitioned area of the library called “Brooklyn,” a teacher patiently redirected several of the dozen students sitting around a large table when they shouted out. “I want to play games,” one boy called. “I want to go home,” another interrupted.

In another part of the library, a girl talking with a distant tutor through a headset raised her hand and summoned a teacher. “I need a pen!” she said.

School of One founder Joel Rose said today that tasks that can be uniquely accomplished by teachers should be all the teachers do. “What we want our teachers to focus on is the hardest part of the equation, which is delivering great lessons,” Rose said.

So at the School of One, teachers aren’t expected to do much daily planning. Instead, the same computer program that generates students’ schedules also gives teachers a personalized lesson plan for each day along with suggestions about the best materials to use. The four teachers added materials of their own to the program’s “lesson bank” before the summer started, and most also augment the curriculum materials suggested by the “learning algorithm,” according to a teacher, Matt Miller.

Teacher Matt Miller works with a small group of School of One students. In the background, students work independently. (<em>GothamSchools</em>)
Teacher Matt Miller works with a small group of School of One students. In the background, students work independently. (GothamSchools)

Miller, who has taught at MS 131 for four years, said School of One offers more than lip service to the in-vogue tropes of data-driven teaching and differentiated instruction. He said the school’s teachers are communicating more than ever about what works in their instruction. And he noted that the program’s robust data collection schedule has the potential to let curriculum publishers about which materials are most effective.

Schools Chancellor Joel Klein said he asked School of One officials to make sure the pilot program didn’t cost any more on a day-to-day basis as a regular summer school program.

The vast majority of the program’s $1 million price tag, 90 percent, went into developing the “learning algorithm,” the bank of curriculum materials, and other things that can be scaled up without much additional cost, Rose said. The program’s development has so far cost the city about $300,000, with the balance being footed by private companies such as Cisco and Microsoft.

A sign posted at the event said the city hopes to expand the program to 20 schools in three years. “We’re moving as fast as we can,” Klein said today. “I wish we could say we were going to roll it out tomorrow.”

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