Education isn't a one-size-fits-all endeavor. Nowhere is that more true than in New York City's schools, which educate more than one million students who among them speak more than 800 languages.
One of the ways the city is working to meet the challenge of effectively educating such a diverse population is through School of One (So1), an approach that uses technology to improve and personalize math instruction in five city middle schools. So1 is part of New York's iZone, an ambitious effort focused on figuring out what each student needs to learn and then providing it.
Instead of the usual 25 or so students and a teacher, So1 uses a larger room with 60 to 90 students and three teachers, with support from student teachers and/or paraprofessionals. Students are assessed at the beginning of the year so lessons can be created that are appropriate for the level each child is at.
But that's just the beginning. Every day, the program's software produces a lesson customized for each student based on the strengths and weaknesses he or she has demonstrated in work completed up to and including the previous day. Part of the lesson might be online, or it might involve individual or small-group instruction.
So far, the results have been encouraging. Radical changes in how education is delivered usually result in an initial drop in test scores, but 2011 results found that students' performance held steady during their first year in So1.
Scores rose again last year, but the improvement wasn't consistent across the board. While students at every performance level did better, the improvement was much greater among students who began at lower levels, meaning that So1 would appear to be succeeding at the most elusive of educational goals: closing race- and income-based achievement gaps.
Because the So1 approach is such a departure from the norm for both students and teachers, New York introduces the concept to each new school as an after-school program before it becomes part of the regular school day. That allows teachers to gain the training they need to be effective in the new environment.
Teacher professional development and the technology So1 requires don't come cheap. But the good news is that they are largely one-time costs that New York has been able to cover with outside funding, such as a federal Investing in Innovation Fund grant. Once the program is underway, costs are comparable to those of more traditional approaches.
While So1's additional costs are largely incurred upfront, there is reason to believe that the benefits may be more permanent. Teachers report that enhanced professional development and the experience of teaching in the So1 environment make them more adept at identifying and addressing the needs and levels of individual students, whether they are in So1 or a traditional setting.
New York is currently determining what So1's future pace of expansion will be. With so-called differentiated or individualized education attracting ever-more attention, educators and public officials -- particularly those who serve diverse student populations -- would be well advised to take a close look at School of One.