The scoop

In a new futuristic Klein initiative, school happens via "playlist"

In one city classroom this summer, a computer algorithm is telling students what to do.

The classroom is actually a library at a Chinatown middle school with just 80 students, but school officials are hoping that it offers a glimpse into the future of the school system, one in which every student’s individual strengths and weaknesses are calculated before each day is planned.

Students in the new pilot program, a $1 million effort that officials are calling the School of One, take a quiz every afternoon, and then receive a computer-generated schedule each morning, called a “playlist.” A student’s playlist might tell him to begin the day by meeting with a tutor, then to complete a set of online tasks, and then to work on a project with his classmates. The program, which focuses only on math instruction, will expand to three sites in January.

Schools Chancellor Joel Klein will roll out the program today, along with its mastermind, Joel Rose, who previously worked for Edison Schools, the for-profit education management company now known as EdisonLearning. The announcement will mark one of the first initiatives of Klein’s administration that focuses on what happens inside classrooms since he unveiled citywide math and reading programs six years ago. That effort scripted moves down to how teachers should arrange their classrooms and the size of rugs.

The School of One project is based on the much different view that every student in the city should be taught a curriculum designed specifically for him or her, with technological innovations leading a transformation of the way teachers and students interact. Earlier this year, Klein told a New York Times columnist that he envisioned a school system where instruction was individualized by cutting down on the number of teachers and relying more on technology.

The School of One actually has a lower student-teacher ratio than typical middle school classrooms, with 10 students to every one adult. The summer pilot includes 80 rising seventh-graders from Manhattan’s MS 131 and, on the supervisory side, four teachers, four assistant teachers, and two high school interns, according to Will Havemann, a schools spokesman.

At the end of the summer, the department will test the students on 80 discrete math skills, and an independent group will assess the program’s effectiveness.

The department plans to open three School of One math programs in January, Havemann said. Expansion beyond that and into other subjects is dependent on the pilot’s success, he said. But he noted that most schools would not need any major structural changes before they could run a School of One program.

John Chubb, a fellow at the Hoover Institution and an executive at EdisonLearning whose new book “Liberating Learning” lays out the vision for using technology to individualize instruction and lower the number of teachers, praised the School of One in an interview yesterday. But Chubb, who co-authored the book with Stanford professor Terry Moe, cautioned that it’s too early to decide whether the program is working.

“There are lots and lots of people who are trying to figure out how to use technology to figure out its promise, which is to be able to meet the needs of students at their own pace,” Chubb said. “This is a very promising effort to try to do just that. How well it works out — who knows.”

CORRECTION: This article originally said that Joel Rose “headed” the Edison Schools company. In fact, he managed only Edison’s after school division. Rose joined the Department of Education in early 2007.

the end

A 60-year-old group that places volunteers in New York City schools is shutting down

PHOTO: August Young

Citing a lack of support from the city education department, a 60-year-old nonprofit that places volunteers in New York City schools is closing its doors next month.

Learning Leaders will cease operations on March 15, its executive director, Jane Heaphy, announced in a letter to volunteers and parents last week.

In the message, she said the group had slashed its budget by more than a third, started charging “partnership fees” to participating schools, and explored merging with another nonprofit. But the city pitched in with less and less every year, with no guarantee of consistency, she said.

“This funding volatility has created insurmountable challenges to the long-term viability of our organization,” Heaphy wrote. “We regret the vacuum that will be created by our closure.”

The group — which began as part of the city school system but became its own nonprofit in the 1970s — says its volunteers work with more than 100,000 students in more than 300 schools every year, many of them faithfully. When then-84-year-old Carolyn Breidenbach became the group’s 2013 volunteer of the year, she had been helping at P.S. 198 on the Upper East Side daily for 12 years.

Heaphy’s full message to volunteers is below:

Dear [volunteer],

It is with a heavy heart that I write to inform you Learning Leaders will cease operations on March 15 of this year. This organization has worked diligently over the last few years to sustain our work of engaging families as Learning Leaders, but the funding landscape has become too challenging to keep our programs going. While we have been able to increase our revenues from a generous community of funders, we have ultimately come to the conclusion that without a consistent and significant base of funding from the NYC Department of Education, we cannot leverage foundation grants, individual donors, or school fees sufficiently to cover program costs.

In the face of growing financial challenges, Learning Leaders reduced its costs as thoughtfully as possible — and in ways that did not affect our program quality. Rather, we sought to deepen and continually improve our service to schools and families while eliminating all but the most necessary costs. These efforts reduced our budget by more than 35 percent.

At the same time, we sought greater public support for our work with schools and families across the city. We are grateful to the foundations and individual donors that have believed in our work and provided financial support to keep it going. We were gratified when schools stepped up to support our efforts through partnership fees. While these fees only covered a portion of our costs, the willingness of principals to find these funds within their extremely tight school budgets was a testament to the value of our work.

Throughout an extended period of financial restructuring Learning Leaders advocated strongly with the Mayor’s Office and the DOE [Department of Education] for a return to historical levels of NYC DOE support for parent volunteer training and capacity building workshops. While we received some NYC DOE funding this year, it was less than what we needed and was not part of an ongoing budget initiative that would allow us to count on regular funding in the coming years. Several efforts to negotiate a merger with another nonprofit stalled due to the lack of firm financial commitment from the DOE. Over time, this funding volatility has created insurmountable challenges to the long-term viability of our organization.

We regret the vacuum that will be created by our closure. If you have questions or concerns about opportunities and support for family engagement and parent volunteer training, you can contact the NYC DOE’s Division of Family and Community Engagement at (212) 374-4118 or [email protected].

On behalf of the board of directors and all of us at Learning Leaders, I offer heartfelt thanks for your partnership. We are deeply grateful for your work to support public school students’ success. It is only with your dedication and commitment that we accomplished all that we did over the last 60 years. We take some solace in knowing that we’ve helped improve the chances of success for more than 100,000 students every year. The Learning Leaders board and staff have been honored to serve you and your school communities.
Sincerely,

Jane Heaphy
Executive Director

Rise & Shine

While you were waking up, the U.S. Senate took a big step toward confirming Betsy DeVos as education secretary

Betsy DeVos’s confirmation as education secretary is all but assured after an unusual and contentious early-morning vote by the U.S. Senate.

The Senate convened at 6:30 a.m. Friday to “invoke cloture” on DeVos’s embattled nomination, a move meant to end a debate that has grown unusually pitched both within the lawmaking body and in the wider public.

They voted 52-48 to advance her nomination, teeing up a final confirmation vote by the end of the day Monday.

Two Republican senators who said earlier this week that they would not vote to confirm DeVos joined their colleagues in voting to allow a final vote on Monday. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska cited DeVos’s lack of experience in public education and the knowledge gaps she displayed during her confirmation hearing last month when announcing their decisions and each said feedback from constituents had informed their decisions.

Americans across the country have been flooding their senators with phone calls, faxes, and in-person visits to share opposition to DeVos, a Michigan philanthropist who has been a leading advocate for school vouchers but who has never worked in public education.

They are likely to keep up the pressure over the weekend and through the final vote, which could be decided by a tie-breaking vote by Vice President Mike Pence.

Two senators commented on the debate after the vote. Republican Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who has been a leading cheerleader for DeVos, said he “couldn’t understand” criticism of programs that let families choose their schools.

But Democrat Patty Murray of Washington repeated the many critiques of DeVos that she has heard from constituents. She also said she was “extremely disappointed” in the confirmation process, including the early-morning debate-ending vote.

“Right from the start it was very clear that Republicans intended to jam this nomination through … Corners were cut, precedents were ignored, debate was cut off, and reasonable requests and questions were blocked,” she said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”