School of One: It’s About Differentiation, Not Technology

Bill Tucker has a two-part article up, offering some useful perspectives on this NYC Schools innovation. Example, differentiation is central to the strategy:

…While technology undergirds School of One, the core problem that the program is trying to solve is age-old: how to effectively teach all students, especially when each enters with a variety of different math backgrounds, skill levels, and interests. The solution is differentiation — not only for students, but importantly, also among teaching roles.

During our tour, Chris Rush, the program’s co-founder, emphasized that the key cultural mindset that changes with School of One is not the technology, but the way in which the program thinks about student progress. The approach attempts to meet each student at her current level and create as much growth as possible. For a 7th grader working at a 4th grade level, instruction focuses on 4th grade, attempting to lay the foundation so that as the student progresses, he has the fundamental understanding going forward. It’s a big change for many teachers and parents, since it means that 7th grade students are not necessarily getting 7th grade content. And, while each school determines its own grading scheme, Rush notes that grades reflect progress, not absolute performance: “If they are doing what we put in front of them, they get the grade.”

This progress mindset has important implications for how we judge the performance of both teachers and schools. Rush says that first year proficiency scores are not the correct benchmark, since passing the 7th grade test is not the goal for the student starting at a 4th grade level. Yet, making up ground is essential. So, the approach changes conversations with families. If a student needs to catch up, or is moving more slowly than expected, then teachers can provide options. At Boody, for example, some students have elected to forgo a few of the school’s magnet classes to catch up in math. Others learn during after school programs and some are even coming in before school, during a so-called “period zero,” for additional instruction.

Joel Rose resigns as head of School of One

Rose resigned in March to start up a new non-profit foundation to advance the concepts developed by School of One. Why couldn’t he build the foundation directly in the NYC schools? Andrew Rotherham offers this perspective:

…School of One was developed by New York City but needs to spin out of city government as its own non-profit organization so the idea can be replicated elsewhere. But, as a city employee, Rose cannot negotiate the terms of that spin-off even though he’s the person who should and will run the new non-profit. What’s more, under the city’s conflict of interest rules, he cannot even talk to the city for a year after leaving employment there. That makes sense to prevent undue lobbying, but how could you possibly launch or run a program in the city’s schools without being able to talk to city officials?

The city could set-up a city controlled or “captive” non-profit, but most observers agree that’s not a good idea over the long haul given the politics surrounding school administration. Run it from inside the city’s Department of Education? Public sector bureaucracies and innovative ventures are pretty incompatible today because of a variety of rules and practices around procurement, contracting, and so forth.

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