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New report lifts veil on one of city's most ambitious projects

Of all of New York City’s current reform efforts, its “Innovation Zone” is one of the most ambitious. The project — designed to cultivate experiments in personalized instruction, online learning, staffing and school time design — expanded from 10 schools last year to 81 schools this year. City officials want to bring the program to an additional 400 schools over the next three years, at a projected cost of $50 million.

But aside from a lightning-fast visit to one iZone classroom on Chancellor Cathie Black’s first day on the job and a profile of a rowdy 60-student first grade class, not much is publicly known about what the project’s new school models look like or how they are working.

Some clues can be found in a working paper released last month by researchers at the University of Washington’s Center on Reinventing Public Education. The paper speaks to the first question — what the iZone looks like — and raises questions to follow as the pilot grows out of its infancy. It also points out challenges the city will face as it tries to increase the number of laboratory schools for structural and technological innovation.

Robin Lake, Associate Director of the CRPE and co-author of the working paper, said that scale and ambition of New York City’s investment in large-scale experimentation may be unique in the nation and will offer lessons for districts around the country.

“[City officials] want to be on the leading edge of this, and I think they are for sure,” Lake said.

Here are four interesting takeaways from the working paper, which can be found in full here.

The iZone pilot schools represent a wide variety of new approaches to instruction and school structure.

Schools that participate in the iZone adopt one of three different models of experimentation.

The first group of schools is bringing in new kinds of computer-based lessons, often allowing students to work through them at their own pace. These new lessons are coming mostly from private-sector vendors such as Pearson SuccessMakers, and are often designed to give the teachers immediate feedback on their students’ work and progress.

The second set of schools is experimenting with non-traditional class and teacher schedules in partnership with the Brooklyn-based non-profit Generation Schools, which already runs a school in Flatbush.

In the third group, schools are developing new models for school structure or instruction on their own, like the New American Academy’s 60-student classes. Another example of this group of pilot schools is the iSchool, a small school that opened in 2008 and uses in-class instruction for interdisciplinary projects and turns to online courses for test preparation and for drilling content.

The iZone has set incredibly ambitious goals, and carries a price tag to match.

The city expects some schools to completely re-invent the way they operate, and to do it very quickly. “We have three years and we need to achieve dramatic, large-scale change,” the Department of Education’s Chief of Research and Development Arthur VaderVeen told CRPE researchers.

To create that dramatic, large-scale change, the CRPE researchers note that administrators and teachers at schools that join the pilot will often need to drastically re-think how their schools should operate, which will take time. City officials told researchers that they anticipate that the change in mind-set could take years.

“To get a school that already exists to reorient from the average student to something else will probably take three to four years,” VanderVeen said.

According to the working paper, the iZone project’s budget for this school year, with 81 schools participating, is $7.2 million. As the project expands to an additional hundred schools over the next three years, the cost is projected to grow to $50 million, with some of that funding coming from the city’s share of the state’s Race to the Top winnings.

That money will go towards expenses like central office costs, network support services and contracts with the private sector vendors that are developing online courses. Part of the reason the cost is so high, the report says, is because New York City is the first district in the country working with those vendors to customize their programs for their schools as they design them.

The city’s iZone strategies are meant to make good schools great, not help struggling schools get better.

“Department officials are clear that they are not viewing the iZone as a turnaround strategy for low-performing schools,” the report states. “Instead, they want iZone principles to take schools that do reasonably well with high school graduation to a much higher level of performance, where college and career readiness is a focal point.”

Still, some low-performing schools are using the programs to increase the rate at which their students earn credits as a way of moving students toward graduation. Several schools, like Chelsea Career and Technical Education High School, introduced online credit-recovery courses this year as part of the pilot.

A list of the 81 schools participating in the pilot this year is here.

The city is planning to tweak its accountability system to give iZone schools room to experiment freely.

City officials told researchers they will know iZone efforts have been successful if the schools participating in the project outperform other schools with similar students academically. But the city is also considering changing its signature progress report measures to give the iZone schools time to see if their experiments take hold.

“Officials anticipate the accountability model may need to be adjusted to measure the outcomes of iZone schools so that the schools are given some latitude to reasonably take risks without fear of landing on the district’s school intervention list,” the report says.

Another interesting note: Harvard economist Roland Fryer — best known for his experiments in paying students for good performance that yielded mixed results — is conducting a study of some of the schools in the pilot.

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