In Desk Set, the 1957 Hepburn-Tracy classic, when an inventor, played by Spencer Tracy, installs a giant computer named EMERAC in the reference department of the Federal Broadcasting Network, he tries to reassure the chief librarian, played by Katherine Hepburn, that it will make her job easier. Of course, management thinks the computer can do it all and fires the all-female staff. This being a Hollywood movie, Hepburn eventually gets her man, the women get their jobs back and EMERAC self-destructs.
On a cold windy morning last spring, 22 educators from as far away as Kentucky stepped into a math class room at I.S. 228, a middle school in the Gravesend section of Brooklyn, to view a 21st century version of EMERAC. They stopped in front of four large computer screens that resemble airport monitors. But instead of flights and gates, the screens listed the names of some 150 seventh graders who were working in small groups or individually, most seated in front of laptops. At either end of the long narrow room, four teachers taught live lessons to groups of five to ten students each. .
Joel Rose, a boyish looking former fifth-grade math teacher who once worked in human resources at the New York City Dept. of Education, raised his voice so he could be heard above the airport-like din: “The idea that one teacher can possibly personalize learning given the variability in an individual classroom is a myth. We know that some do it better than others. Even when we get a great teacher, this job is just too hard.”
Last year, I.S. 288, which got a “C” on its 2010 progress report, was one of three schools that turned its math program over to Rose’s brainchild, the School of One, a much ballyhooed experiment that is being funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Cisco, among others.
A computer algorithm determines almost everything that happens in I.S. 228’s 90-minute math classes. The school year begins with a detailed evaluation of each student—his hobbies, social life and academic performance. “If a kid says he likes technology, and mom says he likes technology, and teacher says he likes technology, let’s start off with the assumption that using technology might be an effective modality with this kid,” says Rose.
The computer generates a personalized “playlist” of a dozen-or-so target skills covering a year’s worth of study that could include remedial or advanced subjects, depending on a child’s needs. Each day the algorithm updates the playlist, based on what he has learned, and generates his next day’s schedule. No two kids get the same playlist.
“A kid shows up in the morning, looks up at the monitor,” explains Rose. “He sees that he’s working with Mr. Smith on the area of a triangle during his first period. Then, he’ll work with software on area of the triangle. At the end of the day he takes an assessment. If he does well, he moves on.” If not, it’s back to the area of the triangle, only in a collaborative activity or maybe with a virtual tutor.
Ann Wiener, one of the visitors, is a former principal who now coaches principals for the New York City Leadership Academy. Wiener noticed that every child she spoke to liked something about the program: “One kid liked the virtual teacher; but didn’t like that she didn’t get the same virtual teacher each time,” said Wiener. “Another liked the small teacher-led groups—though he didn’t like all the teachers.”
“Sometimes it’s good to work independently,” said a girl named Anika who was working on a math program on her laptop and described herself as a strong student.
A boy named Justin who also had been assigned to work independently on the computer groused: “A live teacher will explain things better.”
At another table, a small-group collaboration station, three boys huddled over a single computer screen that looked suspiciously like a Facebook page; when a visitor peered over their shoulders, three hands shot up and slammed the laptop shut. None of the teachers noticed a thing.
About eight adults work in each of two School-of-One classrooms at any given time–about half of them student teachers. That makes the ratio of certified teachers to students about 1 to 36; but, because most students are working on computers, the teacher-to-student ratio for live instruction is much smaller.
The teachers’ days also are programmed by the algorithm. Every afternoon, after the computer evaluates the daily quizzes and updates each student’s playlist, it generates the teachers’ schedules. The teachers are welcome to design their own lessons, or they can select from the hundreds of lessons on the School of One portal.
The key, says Rose, is getting teachers to act like surgeons—specialists who hone a handful of math skills that they repeat over and over. “We want teachers to do the hardest part of the job: deliver great live instruction, and check on overall student learning,” says Rose. “Everything else can be done by other adults and technology.”
“If we have kids working on computers, maybe we don’t need fully certified teachers walking around the room going ‘good job.’ Or checking on the internet connection.”
One visitor asked whether shuffling kids among modalities and instructors means that they never have a chance to develop a close relationship with a teacher. “That’s true,” replied Rose. “But, then in the old days, if a kid didn’t like his math teacher, he was hosed.”
“I’ve heard that teachers hate it,” said another visitor referring to the algorithm. “That it turns them into automotons.”
“Our survey results say the opposite,” says Rose. “The vast majority prefer teaching in School of One.”
Unlike EMERAC, which was eventually overwhelmed by the data it was fed, the learning algorithm gets more powerful every day. “We can now tell a publisher that lesson 13 on fractions is terrific, but lesson 16 on decimals stinks,” says Rose, who wants to use an itunes model to select only the best lessons from publishers, rather than buying entire text books.
The algorithm also provides feedback about the strengths and weaknesses of individual teachers.
Rose is most excited about what School of One does for live classroom instruction. “Let’s be honest,” says Rose. “At most schools the teacher shuts her door and you don’t know what’s happening in there. Some teachers prepare for five hours, some for five minutes.”
With the custom-designed open-space plan, teaching becomes “more transparent,” says Rose, recounting a favorite anecdote about a teacher who, on a snowy day when half the class stayed home, suggested showing a video. “What are you kidding?” responded her colleague.
Rose, bouncing on the balls of his feet, says: “That’s the kind of collective accountability we’re trying to achieve.”
A recent study by the NYC DOE’s Research and Policy Study Group found that, in its first year of operation as a pilot program, School of One students learned at a rate 50 to 60 percent higher than those in traditional classrooms.
School of One planned to double in size in the 2011/2012 school year. But in March, shortly after giving the I.S. 228 tour, Rose resigned saying that continuing School-of-One-style innovations “can best be accomplished through the sustained efforts of an independent organization with a national scope,” and NYC DOE has put off the expansion, citing budget constraints. The program will continue in the original three schools with News Corp.’s Wireless Generationproviding technology “leadership.” Jonathan Werle, a DOE vice- chancellor, serves as Project Manager. And the NYC DOE retains control over the School of One brand.
It is unclear what will become of a research project at NYU, which was to study eight new schools selected by Rose. Four were to get the School-of-One treatment; the others a placebo. A preliminary study by NYU researchers of School of One’s impact on middle school math achievement is expected in October—though, as the researchers note, “the first year of school-wide implementation is too early to make definitive claims.”
Back in the hallway at I.S. 228 one of the teachers explained why School of One is “a win win win” for everybody: “It’s much better for the teachers,” said the teacher, grey-haired and sporting a faux gold chain with a bejeweled Texas-star pendant over his suit jacket and tie. “The computer does everything. It generates the lessons, the tests and it grades the tests. Plus, most of the time the computer is giving the instruction. From the teacher’s point of view there’s no negative to it. Kids like it ‘cause it’s fancy. And from the administration’s point of view, it’s great. They get to save on salaries.”