Education July/August 2010

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?

Launched in 2009 as a summer program in Chinatown, School of One posted encouraging initial results. An audit by the city school system, weighted for demographics and starting point, found that students’ diagnostic scores improved by 28 percent between the beginning and end of the program. Given the school system’s intense focus on the achievement gap, the program seemed to Klein and some of his colleagues like a natural candidate for schools with large black and Latino populations.

I.S. 339 was the ideal site for a beta test. The school is 67 percent Latino and 31 percent African American. Almost all of its kids are poor enough to qualify for free or subsidized lunches. Its principal, Jason Levy, is an ardent techie who publishes a blog called Principal 2.0: One Principal’s Thoughts on Building a New Kind of School. When he arrived at I.S. 339 six years ago, he obsessed over how he could use technology to improve the school’s woeful test scores.

Levy made the school wireless, gave every kid access to a laptop, and had teachers dispense assignments though e-mail. Perhaps most important, he took a rudimentary stab at personalizing education by grouping his teachers into teams assigned to the same students, enabling them to compare notes and design specific strategies for kids who were faltering. The results were impressive. When Levy arrived, only 9 percent of I.S. 339’s kids were at grade level in math, and only 12 percent in English. Last year, 62 percent were at grade level in math, and 40 percent in English.

But Levy wasn’t satisfied. “We [had] had, on our best days, flashes of differentiation,” Levy says. “But we hadn’t been able to sustain something systemwide. We had all the preconditions, but we didn’t have the package.”

I saw the package on a warm spring day. It was just after 3 p.m., and kids were streaming out of I.S. 339, laughing and joking. Along with a group of education-policy wonks and potential funders, I met up with Rose in a large first-floor classroom, where a sky-blue School of One banner hung from the rafters and 30 or so kids in small groups were hashing out the nuances of seventh-grade math. Some worked by themselves on laptops, with headsets linking them to a virtual tutor. Others were at a dry-erase board with a teacher or high-school tutor. At the front of the room, a large electronic monitor, like an airport arrivals board, identified every student in the room and the station where he or she should be working.

Before Rose showed us the session, he’d stood outside explaining several charts and graphs on the wall, providing some context for what we were about to see. Everyone else listened patiently. I did my best to fit in, but inside I was agitated. I wanted to figure out for myself what I was seeing, I didn’t want it explained. I caught myself thinking, I wish he’d just let us see the damn program. I was much the same in school—bored by the lectures full of instructions on how to experience content, and desperate to experience it myself.

In my junior year of high school, I was assigned Macbeth in English class. I failed English that year—they lost me at hamartia—and was kicked out of my magnet school. When I landed at my zoned high school, for my senior year, I had to retake English and reread Macbeth. But this time I got a teacher who simply handed us the book and told us to go to it, and saved the lectures on hamartia for after we’d learned to appreciate the text.

“Some students can sit for a long time in a classroom, and then some can’t,” says Blair Heiser, School of One’s math coach. “It’s not necessarily a learning disability; they might need [to get] the information in a different way.”

I think that what went wrong with me and school, went wrong very early and was never fixed. Daniel T. Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, says that one of the biggest barriers for kids in school is the narrow entryway to success. “You’ve generally got one shot at school,” Willingham says. “And if you’re no good at reading and arithmetic, you tune out, and school becomes a place where you’re not very happy, where you go to fail.”

The problem, Willingham argues, is that the “one shot” is tightly defined—reading in elementary school, for instance, is about pulling the main idea from stories. It’s not seen as part of social studies, the arts, or science—classes rarely taught at the elementary level. But the same basic comprehension skills come into play in those areas as well. “I tell music teachers that they need to start telling people that they’re reading teachers,” Willingham says.

School of One’s most promising aspect is the variety of ways it allows kids to succeed at math—the many ways a student is allowed to “get it.” Next year, in the three pilot schools, the after-school program will be expanded to replace the current math curricula.

The long-term hope is that the model will prove successful enough to be applied to other subjects. But that will also depend on funding. At the moment, School of One is a public-private partnership. So far, the program has cost $3.3 million. Thirty percent of that funding has come from New York City’s Department of Education. But the other 70 percent has come from venture philanthropists like the Robin Hood Foundation and the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation. For all of Chancellor Klein’s support, he is insisting that School of One’s implementation at any given school not increase that school’s overall budget—a stiff challenge that Rose insists he can meet. School of One also faces technological obstacles—it needs a school that’s wireless and has a laptop for every child.

As for the classroom of the past—of my past—I entered school just as educators began grappling with the computer’s potential to help teachers and students. By the time I was in high school, we were using the computer lab once a week for math. But we were using it the same way we used pen and paper—a teacher at the front of the class and all of us following along. The computer lab bored me as much as the chalkboard. By then, I knew that I wasn’t taking to education-as-mass-production. I thought I was lazy (and maybe I was) and lacking the will to learn. But as I watched the kids at I.S. 339 working at their own pace and in their own way, I wondered if all I had ever really needed was the equivalent of a warm hug from a cold algorithm.

Ta-Nehisi Coates is an Atlantic contributing editor. He blogs at ta-nehisicoates.theatlantic.com.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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