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Daily News Twists Evaluation Into Cheap Shot at School of One

Last week, the New York Daily News took a careful and thoughtful evaluation of early outcomes at schools implementing New York City's School of One (an intriguing effort to rethink middle school math instruction) and twisted it into an unfair, misguided, and destructive critique. It was a textbook case of how good research can be misused and how bad reporting makes it tough to talk sensibly about efforts to rethink schooling. But for today, let's just focus on a couple of problems with what the Daily News did.

For those who aren't familiar with the School of One, it's a middle school math model that challenges conventions of the traditional teacher marching 30 kids through the familiar 180 day curriculum. Instead, all the 6th grade math teachers and students operate as a single team, and students are assigned to teachers and modes of instruction based on daily assessments and their particular learning styles. Students can pursue objectives working with teachers, online, in small groups, or whatnot, at a pace that's right for them, while allowing them to skip past the objectives they've already mastered.

Basically, the idea is to take the kind of customized school model that Ted Sizer and Deborah Meier were talking about in the 1980s, and use new assessment, organizational, and instructional tools to make it more workable. The upsides, if we figure this out, are huge: it becomes much easier to differentiate and customize instruction; learning doesn't stop when a single teacher is absent; students can skip objectives they already know; kids don't fall behind when they're absent; students can proceed through material as quickly or as slowly as is appropriate; and so on.

Anyway. The Daily News cited a new study by Rachel Cole, James Kemple, and Micha Segeritz of the Research Alliance for New York City Schools that reported that School of One had produced modest results at the three middle schools currently implementing the model as the regular in-school math program in its first year. (School of One had previously been piloted as a summer school and after-school program.) Accompanying the article, with the headline "Former NYC Chancellor Joel Klein's highly touted School of One math project dropped by 2 of 3 schools in pilot program," was an angry picture of Joel Klein and a big "F".

There are several problems with the Daily News coverage.

First, the results are based on School of One's performance for one year. I know we're eager to know "what works," but it took years or decades before folks decided that the telephone, airplanes, or the Internet truly "worked." New ways of doing things are always messy and imperfect, and require a lot of learning, tinkering, and adjusting. Bumps in the road are only untenable if one thinks New York's schools are so effective that it's unnecessary to mess with the formula. Moreover, Cole, Kemple, and Segeritz observe that "SO1 produced a mix of positive, negative and neutral results across schools and grade levels." So, a pioneering effort produces a mixed slate in its initial year, and the Daily News brands the whole thing with a big "F". (I can just see the Daily News in 1902, stamping a big "F" over a picture of Orville and Wilbur Wright and the headline, "Latest 'Airplane' Attempt Fails, Proves Air Travel Is a Dumb Idea.")

Second, the study uses grade-level assessments to evaluate the School of One program. By design, the School of One uses a competency-based model. This means that students are free to race ahead once they've mastered an objective, so sixth graders may be learning some seventh-grade content and may not have studied material on the sixth-grade exam in a year or more. The critique here illustrates how our current fascination with grade-level assessments can wedge schools and systems ever tighter into age-ordered classrooms, regardless of student need. Making precisely this point, Cole, Kemple, and Segeritz note: "When we looked within groups of similarly performing students, we found that those who were exposed to more on-grade-level skills experienced higher rates of growth on the New York State math test." (I've previously noted that the Common Core could weld schools and systems ever more tightly to a one-size notion of grade-level mastery and discourage models that encourage kids to race beyond grade-level material- this is a terrific illustration of that risk.)

Third, a bunch of the folks eagerly cheap-shotting School of One are the same people who typically celebrate the virtues of formative assessment and note the dangers of leaning too heavily on simple test-based outcomes. Cole, Kemple, and Segeritz went to great pains to point out that their year one findings "should not be interpreted as a definitive indication of the SO1's impact on student achievement. Rather, the findings are presented as initial feedback for SO1 in an effort to guide their ongoing development."

Fourth, for what it's worth, early results from the second year of SO1 implementation (2011-12) are quite promising. The school that stuck with the program (IS 228 in Brooklyn) posted student growth gains on the state assessment that were twice the average of NYC schools overall in its second year, and proficiency gains that exceeded both the city and charter school norms.

Finally, one "duh"-caliber observation: schools drop programs or close for a raft of reasons. In fact, one school that discontinued the program saw the strongest achievement gains, and the final school was shut down for a whole host of reasons having nothing to do with SO1. (In fact, the state report that led to the shutdown flagged SO1 as a strength.)

Now, let's be clear. I'm not arguing that School of One "works." I am saying that it's a terrifically interesting way to think about how to better organize teaching and learning. The three NYC pilots may or may not have done a good job of taking advantage of the opportunities the SO1 model presents. And I'm sure there'll be a big learning curve as we figure out how to organize schooling in fundamentally different ways. But, it's safe to say that the Daily News did an awful job conveying what we know about School of One thus far. And it's done a brutal disservice by suggesting that preliminary results from three pilot sites can tell us anything definitive about the potential of a wholly new way to think about how schools go about their work.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.
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