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Using Technology to Tailor Lessons to Each Student

When 12-year-old Nina Mones was in sixth grade last year, she struggled to keep up with her math class, getting stuck on improper fractions. And as the teacher pushed ahead with new lessons, she fell further and further behind.

Then in the fall of 2019, her charter school, the Phoenix International Academy in Phoenix, brought in a program called Teach to One 360, which uses computer algorithms and machine learning to offer daily math instruction tailored to each student. Nina, now in seventh grade, flourished.

“I’m in between seventh- and eighth-grade math now,” she said, proudly. “It gave me more confidence in myself.” And when the coronavirus shutdown occurred, she said, her studies continued uninterrupted, thanks to the program’s online portal.

“This is a model for personalized learning,” said Sheldon H. Jacobson, professor of computer science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a risk assessment public policy consultant.

The move toward a tech-driven, personalized learning system, like Teach to One 360 from a nonprofit called New Classrooms, is long overdue, experts say. Other industries, such as health care and entertainment, have been shifting in this direction for years. Personalized medicine, for example, looks at DNA biomarkers and personal characteristics to map out a patient’s most effective treatment, Professor Jacobson said.

And experts say the Covid-19 pandemic might be the spark that finally drives schools out of their comfort zones and into the world of innovation and personalized learning programs.

“We’ve seen an embrace of technology that was rapidly accelerated by Covid,” said Bob Hughes, director of the K-12 Education in the United States Program at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which helps finance nonprofits like New Classrooms.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, backs such programs. “Innovations like this,” she said, “can help educators meet students where they are and address their individual needs.”

A number of firms, like New Classrooms, Eureka Math, iReady and Illustrative Mathematics, have been working aggressively to bring personalized learning to the forefront.

Joel Rose, a former teacher, and Chris Rush, a technology and design expert, are the brains behind Teach to One 360, which is based in New York. When Mr. Rose first started teaching fifth grade in Houston in the 1990s, he was stunned by the number of students whose math skills were two or even three grade levels behind. “Some students were as low as the second grade, and other students as high as the eighth grade, and others in between,” he said.

This one-size-fits-all system is broken, he said, adding, “It is wildly outdated.”

So, in 2009, while working for the New York City schools chancellor, Mr. Rose partnered with Mr. Rush to create School of One (later renamed Teach to One 360), a technology driven math program for students in grades five through 12.

Here’s how it works: Students take a 90-minute MAP test, which is a standardized test measuring math skills, and a 60-minute diagnostic test to determine gaps and strengths. The program then uses algorithms and machine learning to identify problem areas and strengths, and creates a personalized daily lesson or “playlist.”

It also chooses the modality, or teaching method. Some may get their lesson through a traditional teacher-led class; others will work in small peer groups collaborating with students who are at a similar skill level; and others will work independently, using online interactive videos, games and math programs. Each student is assigned at least two different modalities a day, and a team of at least four math teachers oversees the program.

At the end of the day, students take a five-question quiz, and the algorithm uses the results to determine the next day’s lessons.

The program was rolled out to 1,500 students in three public schools — one each in the Bronx, Manhattan and Brooklyn — as a pilot project. In 2011, Mr. Rose spun off the program into a nonprofit firm, called New Classrooms, and renamed the program Teach To One.

The company has raised $94 million from such entities as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Bezos Family Foundation and the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, as well as government grants. The Gates Foundation, for example, has donated more than $31 million to New Classrooms since 2011.

ImageJoel Rose and Chris Rush outside MS 88 in Brooklyn.
Joel Rose and Chris Rush outside MS 88 in Brooklyn. Credit…Todd Heisler/The New York Times

New Classrooms faces competition from companies like Eureka Math, iReady and Illustrative Mathematics, which also offer programs to help teachers identify learning gaps and provide customized lessons.

However, most focus on current-grade-year lessons and assume that students already know the previous grades’ skills, Mr. Rose said. By contrast, New Classrooms gives every student access to multigrade curriculums and skills, which better addresses learning gaps in students who are several grade levels behind, Mr. Rose said.

“Our assessment identifies which specific skills at each grade level the student does and does not know,” Mr. Rush said. “A road map may say, go back and work on just these 10 fourth-grade skills and these 12 fifth-grade skills and 25 sixth-grade skills.”

On the content side, New Classrooms has partnered with some of its rivals, as well as online content providers like Carnegie Learning, Khan Academy, EngageNY and IXL, so that students can have access to their math content through the Teach to One portal.

Alfred Cordova, the principal at Taos Middle School in Taos, N.M., brought in Teach to One for his sixth-grade math students in 2015 to turn around his school’s dismal math scores. “Our scores had really tanked,” he said, partly because of the large number of students entering from elementary school with poor math skills.

“Very quickly, our sixth-grade students started excelling and passing our seventh and eighth graders ability-wise in math,” Mr. Cordova said. “It’s been a huge success.” He has since expanded the program to all grades.

The program also helps gifted students.

Jade Parish, a 13-year-old student at Taos Middle School, is in seventh grade but working on eighth-grade math, thanks to the Teach to One program. She said she used to be bored in the old system, where one teacher taught the same lesson to every student, regardless of their skills. “Working at your own pace is a lot better,” she said.

Currently, 27 schools across 11 states have adopted Teach to One. Still, getting schools to sign on has been challenging.

Cost, bureaucratic inertia, schools and teachers being set in their ways, and fears that technology could replace teachers are among the barriers, Mr. Rose said.

Schools are often under pressure to follow a traditional curriculum with textbooks and teacher-led classes to ensure that they cover the content needed for standardized tests. Many worry, Mr. Rose said, that veering away from traditional practices could affect test results, which would then affect school rankings and funding.

“Innovation has always lagged in education, and we are slow to change and slow to respond as an organization,” said Scott Muri, superintendent of schools at the Ector County Independent School District in Odessa, Texas, which brought the Teach to One program into three schools in 2019.

Then there’s the cost of purchasing the program itself, buying computers for students, adding math teachers and sometimes reconstructing classrooms to accommodate the different modalities. The total costs of such programs can vary substantially, and most school systems depend on grants to cover them.

Sometimes, money simply has to be redirected. “In our country, we invest a tremendous amount in K-12 and many people criticize that the current model just is not working,” Mr. Jacobson said. “So it’s not a matter of spending more money — it’s spending money in different ways.”

Teachers and principals must also be fully onboard for the program to work.

“You can have the best program on God’s green earth, but if you don’t have good implementation of it, it’s all for nothing,” Mr. Cordova said.


Ms. Mones at the Phoenix International Academy. Credit…Caitlin O’Hara for The New York Times

And this can be tricky. Some teachers are reluctant to try innovative teaching methods, while others worry that technology could eliminate their jobs.

But Mr. Muri pointed out: “The program is not stand-alone. It’s married to the teacher. Neither work by themselves — you have to have both together.”

New Classrooms is expanding its program this month to include tools for schools currently not in the core program that want to help students learn from home. Its Teach to One Roadmaps Free program offers a free 90-minute virtual assessment and cranks out a road map of courses and content that the student needs to master the grade. In this free version, it’s up to the student to find the online content recommended.

Its Teach to One Roadmaps Plus goes one step further, giving students access to the tailored online content through its portal and charging schools $15 per student per year.

Mr. Rose hopes to expand the Teach to One 360 program beyond math to other subjects within five years.

“We are so underinvested in innovation in K-12 relative to every other sector of our society,” he said. “And I think in moments like this we’re now feeling the impact of all that.”

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