Growing pains

Eyeing national expansion, School of One founder leaves Tweed

Joel Rose, founder of the School of One, is leaving the New York City Department of Education

The founder of the School of One, one of the city’s most touted educational innovations, will expand that model nationally — by leaving the city Department of Education that helped him create it. The founder, Joel Rose, announced his move in an email to colleagues this morning.

The School of One is part of a national effort to re-imagine how teaching and learning happen at schools by taking advantage of technology. At the three schools that work with the School of One model in New York City, teachers still lead instruction, but they do so with the aid of a “learning algorithm” that creates a personalized program of study for every student.

The idea is to free educators from the more rote elements of school and let them, as Rose put it to us in 2009, “focus on is the hardest part of the equation, which is delivering great lessons.” In the first pilot of the program, a summer math program launched in 2009, School of One reported that its students learned significantly faster, citing externally commissioned research.

The three schools will continue to operate under the guidance of the Innovation Zone, or iZone, team inside Tweed Courthouse. But with Rose’s departure, the national apparatus around School of One — from press attention to large foundation grants — will leave the Department of Education and follow him to a new nonprofit he plans to create.

The move raises questions about New York City’s capacity to act as an incubator for educational innovation. For one, will programs incubated by the iZone stay in New York City for the long haul? Or will they follow the School of One’s path: attracting national attention for a few years and then seeking another home?

Students at the School of One's summer pilot program in 2009.

Those interested in innovating K-12 education often complain that local school districts erect only barriers to change. Outside contractors must navigate behemoth bureaucracies, waiting several years until they can get permission to do business with the school district. And the political nature of school districts, whose management is often constantly shifting, creates worrisome instability. Under a new mayor, who would appoint a new schools chancellor, would the innovation survive?

The School of One was seen in some quarters as a counter-argument; it showed that a school district was not only embracing change, but incubating it. With Rose’s departure from New York, School of One could reverse into a case study.

Figuring out how the new national organization Rose creates can continue to work with New York City may prove to be complicated. City conflict of interest rules prohibit previous city employees from contracting with the city until a substantial period of time has passed.

Rose’s email says that he made the decision to leave New York “with mixed emotions.” But he argues that the innovations that have won School of One national attention are best expanded outside the framework of the city government. Spreading the model to other cities, Rose writes, is “something that I believe can best be accomplished through the sustained efforts of an independent organization with a national scope.”

Rose’s next step, he writes, will be to create a national nonprofit to do that work.

Here is Rose’s full e-mail.

Dear Friends,

It is with mixed emotions and a profound sense of gratitude that I am announcing today my transition from the New York City Department of Education to lead a new non-profit organization that will develop and scale innovative school models for students across the country.

Arriving at this decision was not easy as NYCDOE has been a wonderful place for building and implementing School of One. Indeed I can’t think of another place where School of One could have emerged than in NYC schools over the last two years. I depart with only fond wishes and respect for the team I worked with and for the leadership that made this work possible.

But now is the time to create the foundation for broader impact. Innovation is part of our nation’s strategy to address the moral and economic imperative of improving our schools. New school models that both personalize learning and leverage the time and talents of teachers hold great promise, particularly given the budgetary challenges our schools are experiencing. Delivering on that promise will require the development and scale of these kinds of innovations, something that I believe can best be accomplished through the sustained efforts of an independent organization with a national scope.

The School of One team will continue to support the NYC program in my absence and will be transitioning to fall under the leadership of the NYC iZone. Jonathan Werle, who currently serves as School of One’s Director of Administration, will serve as the project manager. I’m confident that under their leadership, School of One is well positioned to be sustained into the future.

Thank you again for all of your support over the last two years. If you’d like to stay in touch, please drop me an email at [REDACTED] and I’ll keep you updated on my efforts.

Joel

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.