Monday, June 14, 2010

The Littlest Schoolhouse

A very interesting article in The Atlantic about the new School of One that is being tried in NYC, which tailors instruction to each student:

In 2005, I was hired by Time magazine. I had an office 23 floors in the air, in Midtown Manhattan. I used to look down on Sixth Avenue and wonder about the distance between my scholastic and professional lives. How could I utterly fail in practice and then succeed in the game? People constantly tell me that I should wear my dropout badge with pride. But I never have. I really wanted to succeed in school. More troubling to me: I've always known that the unquestioning support from my parents allowed me to bridge the gap between school and the world; but all my life, I saw bright kids who couldn't count on that support. What about them? What, I wondered, were schools doing to help them? And if I went to school today, would I find a classroom better able to cope with a student like me?

I took these questions with me to I.S. 339, a middle school in the South Bronx operating a promising after-school math pilot program called School of One. The biggest difference between my work life and my school life is that my job allows for a high level of personalization. Unlike my teachers in school, my editors don't unilaterally insist that I do a story a certain way; instead, we come to an agreement. Intriguingly, School of One attempts to apply that same kind of personalization to the teaching of math. To put that in the edu-speak vernacular of Joel Klein, the chancellor of New York City's schools and one of the program's biggest boosters, School of One tries to "move from the classroom as the locus of instruction delivery, to the student as the focus of instructional attainment."

School of One is the brainchild of a Teach for America vet named Joel Rose. A former Houston-area elementary-school teacher, Rose watched the kids who left his class graduate to everything from high school to the county jail. He wanted to know why educators were able to reach some kids but not others. So he tracked down his former students and talked with them about how their experiences in his class had affected their future. After hours of conversation, Rose began wondering about the possibilities of an individualized curriculum.

Teachers generally work on a mass-production model—if 30 kids are in the class, the goal is to find a method that will allow the highest percentage of them to succeed. A great teacher can employ secondary methods to get through to laggards, but given the variables that individual students bring to the class, a handful of kids will inevitably be shortchanged. Teaching each child at his or her optimal level with the optimal technique has traditionally been left to private schools and expensive tutors. But with more schools employing computers, Rose saw a chance to bring boutique education to a mass public-school audience.

He envisioned a classroom broken down into stations, each one designed to teach specific skills in different ways. A kid who needs to learn how to calculate the area of a circle could be taught in a group with a teacher, with a virtual tutor, or with a computer program. "The vision I had was a large open space with different modalities happening at the same time," Rose told me. "I don't know a lot about technology. But I did talk to people who know a lot about technology. I said, 'I've got this crazy idea. Is this even doable?' And they said, 'Yeah.'"

School of One is the tangible result of those conversations.


The Littlest Schoolhouse

Brainy but easily distracted, the author barely made it through high school and dropped out of college. Would a program like New York's new School of One, which uses technology to tailor learning to each student's style and pace, have made all the difference?

By Ta-Nehisi Coates

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