“You’ve got to keep this country in the change business,” former President Bill Clinton urged a gathering of school reformers in Atlanta yesterday. It’s sound and timely advice progressives should heed, especially as a wave of reaction breaks over America’s two-decades- old experiment in public school choice.
Public charter schools, a form of school choice that Clinton championed as president, have come under fire from detractors who say they have failed to outperform traditional public schools. The right answer is to accelerate the growth of top charter operators and to shut down low-performing charters. And in keeping with Clinton’s admonition to stay the course of reform and experimentation, progressives should continue to look for ways to expand the concept of public school choice.
An intriguing example is New York’s innovative School of One, which offers a compelling model of choice within schools rather than choice among schools.
Founded by Joel Rose in 2009, the School of One is now the full-time math curriculum at three New York public middle schools serving 1,500 students.
The program operates in large spaces in each school to allow a variety of learning to occur, such as working in small groups or individually on laptops to complete lessons in the form of quizzes, games, and worksheets. When students arrive at school each day, they receive their “individual play lists” – their daily assignments to complete.
In essence, the School of One allows students to choose among a variety of ways of learning math depending on their unique abilities and interests. They might, for example, decide to work individually, with a peer, in groups, or with a teacher. The School of One eschews the traditional, one-size-fits-all approach to pedagogy in favor of differentiation and personalized instruction.
Students also take an assessment at the end of each day to determine if they are ready to move on to the next day’s assignment. Administrators analyze progress students are making on screens of their own and can monitor student achievement, as well as current progress via the student computer screens.
The School of One relies heavily on technology to adapt lessons to individual students. It incorporates popular tools that students already know and use daily. A 2009 study by Stanford Research Institute International (SRI) concluded that on average, students who learn by using online tools perform better than students who only learn one-on-one in a classroom setting.
The results have been impressive. According to the Educational Development Center, Inc. (EDC), there has been a twenty-eight percent rise in scores between pre-test and post-test for School of One 2009 summer school participants. Researchers also found that School of One students learned at a significantly higher rate — as much as seven times faster — than students with similar starting scores and demographic characteristics. In the 2010 Spring School Pilot, the New York City Department of Education’s Research and Policy Study Group (RPSG) estimated that School of One students learned at a rate fifty to sixty percent higher than those in traditional classrooms.
The School of One boasts a highly integrated and diverse student body in its three schools. For instance, M.S. 131 is comprised of eighty-one percent Asian, six percent Black and twelve percent Hispanic, I.S. 228 has thirty-four percent Asian, sixteen percent Black, twenty-three percent Hispanic and twenty-seven percent White students, and I.S. 339 has a student body of thirty-one percent Black and sixty-seven percent Hispanic students.
Arthur Levine, President of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation acknowledged, “New York City’s School of One may turn out to be the single most important experiment conducted in education so far. It is the future.”
Though the School of One has fostered remarkable gains among its students in a short amount of time, questions still remain. Is the model scalable for a larger group of students? How is the model different than the Montessori School model that has been around for a hundred years? Most important, even if the model is scalable and sustainable, can we afford it? The curriculum cost $1 million for the 2009 summer pilot program serving eighty students in one school. It is expected to rise to $13.3 million in 2012, when the program is anticipated to be used in 20 schools.
Perhaps some answers to these questions will surface as the program expands to four new sites in 2012. In any case, the School of One shows that New York city is, as Clinton put it, in the “change business” when it comes to lifting the quality of public education. Let’s hope other cities follow New York’s example.
Photo Credit: C.A. Muller