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School of One boosts individual learning

In the School of One, students move through material using the methods with which they learn best.
In the School of One, students move through material using the methods with which they learn best.

Although an innovative school model in New York City called the School of One has just started its first full year of implementation, it already has garnered national attention for its middle school math program, which is being hailed as a pioneer for a new method of education based on each student’s individual learning experience.

In traditional classrooms, teachers lead students through the curriculum at the same pace, and every student is expected to learn the same material at the same time. The School of One focuses on learning progression, but students might begin the same lesson at different points. State test results and other assessments identify which skills a student needs to develop, and those skills make up a student’s “playlist,” or individual learning plan.

School of One students receive a daily schedule based on their own academic strengths or needs. The schedules are tailored to each student’s ability and to the way that student learns best.

School of One CEO Joel Rose, a former teacher, said the inflexibility of traditional course curriculum concerned him and prompted him to imagine what learning might be like if it were tailored more to students in an individual learning experience.

“In a traditional classroom, we know that when a teacher may be teaching, not every student is ready to learn,” said Rose.

Math instruction is of a particular concern at a time when math skills are essential for success in college and the workforce. Instead of a one-room lecture-style math classroom, students in the School of One’s middle school math program enter an open space with several different learning stations that let students learn with a teacher, with software, via online tutors, through group collaboration, or by working independently.

Rose said this form of learning lets students “choose their modality,” and not every student is at the same achievement level upon entering the classroom.

“We’re operating on a middle school level,” said Rose. “We have some students [who] have gaps in third and fourth grade skills and some students [who] are ready for ninth grade.”

To accommodate this spread of skills, the School of One administers daily assessments to determine what kind of middle school math lesson a student needs next.

“We have data about each student. We know precisely what skills they’ve mastered, what they haven’t mastered, and what they should be ready to learn,” said Rose.

These data then are matched by computer to a lesson bank with more than 5,000 middle school math lesson plans from 50 different content providers.

“Our algorithm looks at those two data sets … and creates a unique schedule for each student and each teacher every day that effectively matches the student with the lesson that is most likely to be successful for them,” Rose said.

The result is a television display at the front of the room that resembles an airport departures and arrivals schedule. Each student’s name is displayed, along with his or her station schedules for the day.

“We have some students [who] love working with technology and some [who] don’t; some [who] love working in groups and some [who] don’t,” said Rose.

Teachers do have the ability to override a student’s individual learning schedule based on their professional judgment, but they are able to start off with a strong set of recommendations. This computer process allows for each student to be matched with the way he or she learns best.

So far, the algorithm is working. A study conducted by the New York City Department of Education concluded that School of One participants achieved more than nine times the math skill growth than their peers in a third of the time.

The School of One currently operates only in New York City, but Rose hopes this year will generate the information needed to continue expanding the program.

“This will be our first full year of implementation, so we want to rigorously evaluate the results and continue to learn what makes this model successful,” said Rose. “If the data continue to show promising results, we’d like to expand School of One into additional schools both inside and outside New York City.”

This expansion seems more likely now that the School of One has secured an Investing in Innovation Grant from the U.S. Department of Education, which will allow school leaders to further develop the system’s infrastructure. While it is currently focused on middle school math, Rose isn’t limiting the future.

“We really want to make sure we get math right first, but our view is for every subject, live teacher-led instruction 100 percent of the time for 100 percent of the kids may not be the right answer, and figuring out the right way to integrate other modalities into other subjects is something we think will hold a lot of promise in lots of subjects,” Rose said.

The School of One is currently operational at M.S. 131 in Manhattan, I.S. 339 in the Bronx, and I.S. 228 in Brooklyn.

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