The following is a conversation between Joel Rose, co-founder and CEO of New Classrooms, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 WNYN The Answer in New York City.
Denver: We live in an era of personalization. When we go to Amazon, it has our profile, our history, and makes recommendations on what we might want to buy. Spotify knows what we’ve listened to and serves up new songs we all most certainly like, and the excitement in the field of health these days is around personalized medicine. So, what is happening in the field of education? Well, some neat stuff like Teach to One: Math. And here to tell us about it is Joel Rose, the co-founder and CEO of New Classrooms. Good evening, Joel, and welcome to The Business of Giving.
Joel: Thanks, Denver, for having me.
Denver: If you would begin by giving us a distinction between New Classrooms and Teach to One: Math and then tell us what the organization was created to do.
Joel: Sure. New Classrooms is a nonprofit organization committing to reimagine the classroom. We create totally different learning models, totally different classroom experiences. The first one we’ve created is called Teach to One: Math, and it’s effectively a program that schools across the country – public schools, district schools, charter schools, independent schools – can adopt as their core or supplemental math program.
Personalized learning is really about tailoring each student’s experience to their specific strengths and needs, and giving students ownership over their own learning.
Denver: This is all around personalized learning, and at times it seems that everyone has their own definition of what that is. How would you define personalized learning?
Joel: Personalized learning is really about tailoring each student’s experience to their specific strengths and needs, and giving students ownership over their own learning.
Denver: You were a classroom teacher. I think it was fifth grade. Were the seeds of personalized learning approach planted then, or did they come a little bit later on?
Joel: No question. Even from my very first week on the job, I remember my principal knocked on my door, and he gave me a stack of papers that showed me the incoming test scores of the kids in my class. And there were some coming in on the third-grade level, some on an eighth-grade level, and everything in between. Then they gave me a set of fifth-grade math textbooks, and he said, “Good Luck!” As crazy as that sounds, that happens in schools all across the country, and frankly, around the world. We’ve got students who have all the unique needs and a teacher that can only teach one thing at a time.
Denver: Well, back in 2008, you were overseeing the Human Resources department for the Department of Education here in New York City. How did you go from there, Joel, to developing this concept and what ultimately became New Classrooms?
Joel: When I was working in HR, I took our HR team to go visit HR departments at places like IBM and GE just to see how they actually manage people. There are great people who work for city governments. Oftentimes, they’ve worked there for their entire career. We had always talked about the four Rs, which was recruit, retain, remediate, and in some cases, remove. But those organizations talked about five Rs, and the fifth R, they talked about that we never talked about was “role.” Are you designing jobs that are doable? I thought a lot about my own experience as a teacher and how I’m not so sure I was set up for success, given the variability in the classroom from the very first day.
“Choose your modality.” You can learn live; you can learn online, or do sort of a blend. And I thought, Wow! That’s fascinating!
Denver: Where did it go from there? How did you get this thing started? I think Joel Klein was running the show.
Joel: Exactly. A little bit later, I was visiting a friend of mine who runs an adult learning center, and when I walked in, there was a big sign in the lobby, and the sign said, “Choose your modality.” You can learn live; you can learn online, or do sort of a blend. And I thought, Wow! That’s fascinating! Maybe one of the ways to deal with the problem I dealt with as a teacher was have different modalities; have live teacher-led instruction, kids working collaboratively, kids working online– all in the same room, and somehow use technology to organize all that. So, I got excited about this idea. At the time, I called it School of One, and I wrote it up into a big proposal document and shared it with the Chancellor, and he got pretty excited by it. We raised a little bit of money, and we got it off the ground.
Denver: And he came to visit that summer, right?
Joel: Five times, actually. He brought the state commissioner; he brought the mayor; he brought Jeb Bush… anyone who he could bring to actually show them what the power of this was. He was our biggest champion.
…we’re living at a time where when you think about the power of technology and the scalability of technology, you sort of build something once; you build it right, and then it can scale. There’s not like Facebook LA and Facebook New York, and Facebook Miami – there’s Facebook.
What made you decide to move it outside of New York City and make it a national organization?
Joel: There were a couple of reasons. One was, I thought there would be a time when the mayor was no longer the mayor; there’d be a new mayor who’d come in who might say, “Yeah, this was the last guy’s idea,” and might kill it. And I didn’t want to take that risk. The second reason was though is: we’re living at a time where when you think about the power of technology and the scalability of technology, you sort of build something once; you build it right, and then it can scale. There’s not like Facebook LA and Facebook New York, and Facebook Miami – there’s Facebook. So, I thought if we could really build this once and build it right, it can impact far more kids than just those in New York City.
Denver: When you think about a program like this, Joel, you’re always thinking about the academic design. But you found out pretty early on that operational design was every bit as important. Tell us how you altered that and made that to make this a rich experience.
Joel: Sure, when you’re really thinking about the classroom experience, there are certain elements around learning progressions and skill maps and content and assessment– all the things that you’d expect to see in any classroom. But to really make this work, you also have to think about things like: Where do kids put their backpacks? What if there’s a substitute teacher one day? How does grading work? How does homework work? Because you can’t just put the burden of all those logistics on the individual teacher to figure out for themselves. So, when we thought about the design of Teach to One, it’s not only the academic component, but it’s all those logistic components that really make the difference between a good program and a great program.
Denver: I suspect you probably debated whether you should be making this a for-profit or a nonprofit organization when you started, and you chose the latter. Why was that the case?
Joel: As I went out and talked to folks about this, a couple of things I learned. Number one, there are many venture capitalists, if not most dare I say, that want nothing to do with the K12 sector. There’s 15,000 fragmented and sometimes resistant-to-change – no not always – school districts, and there have not been a lot of success in venture-funded educational companies because of the nature of the marketplace itself. It’s just not conducive to rapid scale. So, while I thought we might be able to raise some money, I wasn’t so sure we could actually succeed for the long haul. We always thought we needed high levels of R&D investment to get this right in a market that was probably fairly slow-moving. That’s the exact opposite of what private capital is looking for– which is lower upfront investment and quick to scale. So, that’s why we decided to go nonprofit.
…only about a third of kids are leaving elementary school ready for middle school math, and less than a third actually leaving middle school ready for high school math. You’ve got kids coming in to middle school with these gaps– They don’t know how to multiply or fractions– that are really getting in the way of their being successful. And if they leave eighth grade without the predecessor skills to be successful for algebra, their chances of catching up are very, very low.
Denver: Your initial focus has been on middle school, and it has been on math. Why was that the sweet spot?
Joel: What the national data shows is only about a third of kids are leaving elementary school ready for middle school math, and less than a third actually leaving middle school ready for high school math. You’ve got kids coming in to middle school with these gaps– They don’t know how to multiply or fractions– that are really getting in the way of their being successful. And if they leave eighth grade without the predecessor skills to be successful for algebra, their chances of catching up are very, very low. So, what we thought is: if we could come up with a solution that could really accelerate all kids, particularly those who come in behind and get them ready for algebra, that would be where we wanted to focus our efforts.
Denver: So, let’s look at this from the student perspective. Let’s say, I’m your typical seventh grader. How is this going to work for me on a day-in/day-out basis?
Joel: You’re a seventh grader; you go to one of the partners schools we work with, and you have reading first period in room 206; you have PE in the gym, second period; third period, you have math. And instead of walking to room 105, you walk into what’s typically a large open space with lots of different stations. In some stations, kids work with teachers. In some stations, kids work with software. In some stations, kids work with one another on different kinds of projects. And above each station, there is a sign. This is Columbia University. This is NYU, whatever the case may be. When you walk in, you look up. You see a big TV monitor that looks like what you might see at the airport, and you see your name, and you see which of those stations you’re supposed to go to.
So, you might spend the first 30 minutes working with Mr. Smith in linear equations at NYU. The next 30 minutes working online at linear equations at Columbia, and then the last 10 minutes, you take an online assessment in linear equations, and then you’re off to social studies. That’s your whole student experience. What we then do is: we take the data from that online assessment and create a new schedule for you for tomorrow based on how you did today.
Denver: That’s unbelievable. How quickly will I get that schedule? Let’s say I have a math class from 11 to 12 o’clock or 12:15 or whatever it may be; when would I find out where and what I am going to be doing the next day?
Joel: The schedules are generally done by 4:30 local time, so we do about 10,000 schedules each day all done by 4:30 local time.
They like the mystery of : What am I going to learn about today? And with whom am I going to learn? And where am I going to learn? They love moving around, if you just think about how sometimes pretty boring it is to learn out of a textbook? This is a much more dynamic experience for them, and frankly, one they have more ownership over.
Denver: How do the kids like this?
Joel: They love it. They like the mystery of: What am I going to learn about today? And with whom am I going to learn? And where am I going to learn it? They love moving around, if you just think about how sometimes pretty boring it is to learn out of a textbook? This is a much more dynamic experience for them, and frankly, one they have more ownership over. They basically show that they demonstrate they’ve learned a particular skill or content, and that lets them move on. They have much more control in this environment than they do in a traditional model where the teachers are really guiding the pace and the content of the students’ experience.
Denver: I can see it’s just right sized for them. In other words I may not know something, but I’m going to learn it tomorrow, and this algorithm, or whatever it is, will indicate that I’m ready to learn that. So, it won’t be something beyond me, and it won’t be something where my eyes will be glazed over because I already know it.
Joel: That’s right. And if for some reason, you don’t get it after a couple of sessions today, guess what? We’re going to try again tomorrow in a different way. Whereas in the traditional model, if you don’t get the lesson that day, the teacher might just move on, and you’re going to have that gap, and that gap is going to come home to roost at some point down the road.
Denver: Do the best students like to be challenged like this because pretty much, this all comes easy to them! Now all of a sudden, you set up a model where it could get a little tough.
Joel: That’s a great point, Denver. I would say many of them do. The ones that don’t like to be bored, love to be challenged. Yes, there are some that say, “ Wait, I don’t understand. Math has always been very easy. Now all of a sudden, it’s not easy. This can’t be me.” In many cases, yes, they haven’t been challenged enough. For some kids, being challenged is exactly what they need to learn. The struggle is really where the learning happens. Sometimes, the advanced kids haven’t necessarily struggled enough.
Denver: That’s right, and then you have to deal with the parents too.
Joel: We’ve had that situation as well.
Denver: How does this personalized learning model, where you’re really meeting kids where they are, how does that square with this long-standing regimen of having kids meet grade-level standards?
Joel: It’s a real challenge, particularly when you get to middle school. The way school is organized is when you’re in sixth grade, you learn sixth-grade stuff, and then take a sixth-grade test. Then you go to seventh grade and learn seventh-grade stuff, and take a seventh-grade test, and so on and so forth. When a kid walks in to seventh grade on a fifth-grade level, it may not be the best thing just to give that kid seventh-grade material. You have to go back and properly fill those gaps in service of getting that student ready for high school and ultimately ready for college. The tension comes in when the teacher says, “Look, in our school, my evaluation is tied to the seventh-grade test. So, we really need to focus on the seventh-grade material,” when what’s actually best for some kids is a mix of both grade level, pre-grade, and in some cases, post-grade content to really enable them to accelerate.
Denver: Would you like to see the way we do student assessment changed?
Joel: There are a number of assessments out there right now that actually do measure growth from each kid’s starting point to their ending point. A number of schools use those kinds of assessments. We would argue those assessments are much better indicators of how students are progressing than tests that are just focused on sixth grade or seventh grade or whatever the grade level happens to be.
Denver: When you talk about personalized learning, you also think of the different ways that children learn. Some like to be taught before they’re going to do anything. Others like to dive in and then get feedback for what they’ve done, and of course, the preferable modality is for one kid in terms of the way they take in and retain information. Does this model allow for any of that?
Joel: Very much so. There are nine different modalities, nine different ways that kids can learn in Teach to One. Some of them are independent. Some of them are with teachers. Some of them are collaborative. What the algorithm is doing each day is figuring out: what are the different ways that seem to be successful for each kid and preferencing those approaches, not making those exclusive. If you’re a student that doesn’t seem to do well learning collaboratively, for example, we still want you to have some collaborative experiences. But we’re going to preference those that seem to be the most effective for you.
Denver: Speaking of the algorithm, now you’ve worked with thousands of students, in a whole bunch of different states, and I would imagine you have millions of data points; have you been able to utilize that data in such a way to make the system even smarter?
Joel: We’re just starting to do that. Absolutely. Really, our core funders have basically said to us, “We want you to play the long game. Don’t worry about scale so much, but let’s use the data you get every day to really crack this code.” And that’s really been our focus. So, today, every student schedule is based on their own history and a bunch of different business rules or academic rules we would say in our organization. But what will ultimately be is every student schedule won’t just be based on their own history. It will be based on the thousands of kids who’ve been in this exact situation. And how do we use all of that intelligence, even leveraging things like machine learning to make sure that every student is positioned for success every single day?
Denver: How are you leveraging artificial intelligence?
Joel: We’re just starting to begin to ask these questions. How do we use the data we gather every day to really recognize the patterns to truly understand for this student, in this situation? What does the data help to tell us about what would be most effective for each student? Some of that analysis we can do on our own, but some of it requires machine learning to help us to recognize what those patterns actually are.
Denver: Where across the country is Teach to One currently being used? And how many schools are you in right now?
Joel: We’re currently in 39 schools in 11 states across the country, everywhere from California to New York. We’re in Oklahoma, in New Mexico, in Illinois, Georgia, serving just under 10,000 kids.
Denver: Have you been able to measure the impact in seeing the kind of academic gains students are making from this Teach to One?
Joel: We have. There’ll be some third-party studies coming out on that actually in the next few weeks. Each year, we’re showing gains that are roughly one-and-a-half times the national average when we look at assessments that measure kids’ starting points to their ending points. Meaning, if the student nationally gains six points, a student at Teach to One is gaining nine points. We’re also seeing even stronger gains for English language learners and students with special needs.
Denver: What’s been the challenge to get into schools? I’ve talked to people on this show who said there’s no greater challenge in this world than trying to get into a public education facility. But given those difficulties, is there anything that’s particularly challenging of trying to get schools to adopt this model?
Joel: I think there are a few barriers. The first barrier is the accountability systems, again, are based on grade level and expectations, and our program takes a slightly different approach. The second barrier is cost. Schools are really organized to say, “I hire teachers, I buy textbooks.” This is such a different beast. So finding ways to sort of help them find the dollars to support the adoption for early adopters is important. I think the third is oftentimes, in school districts, there is not as much of a desire for dramatic change. Many of the folks that are running the districts have themselves been successful in the old model of doing school, if you will, and so trying to help people to understand there’s a totally different way of thinking about this problem really requires identifying the early adopters that really want to go down that path.
Denver: Joel, have you seen any downside in the Teach to One approach, maybe some things that you had not foreseen, but have really become unexpected challenges?
Joel: I don’t think we really foresaw the policy challenges being as much of a barrier as they have been. I think we thought naively that if we could demonstrate the kinds of gains we’re demonstrating, more schools and districts would raise their hands. But frankly, many of them were saying, “What I really care about is the sixth-grade test or the seventh-grade test or the eighth grade test because that’s what the state is telling me I should care about; and the state says: “That’s what the feds is telling me I should care about.” That barrier has been one that has been more profound than we expected it to be.
Denver: We talked a few moments ago about how students like the program, and they like it. What about the teachers?
Joel: That’s actually been one of the wonderful surprises about this experience. When we designed Teach to One, it wasn’t only to design a better experience for kids. It was to design a better experience for teachers. Teachers are effectively in Teach to One co-teaching with their colleagues. One of my colleagues likes to say, “You go from teaching as neighbors to teaching as roommates.”
So, you no longer are the sixth-grade math teacher or the seventh-grade math teacher. You’re a math teacher. You’re in the space with four or five of your colleagues. All the sixth graders come in for math; then they leave. All the seventh graders come in, and then they leave. Same with eighth grade. So, it really requires teachers to collaborate much more deeply than they do in the traditional model which is a fairly isolating job. And for the vast majority, that is a much better, more fulfilling experience to work with your colleagues in this way. There are some that wish they just had their four walls and shut their door and could do their thing. That’s for sure. But the vast majority will say this is a much more fulfilling role for them than the traditional teaching role.
Denver: I know that you are absolutely laser-focused on making this Teach to One model better and better and better. But with that being said, what are your expansion goals? And do you ever think of maybe getting beyond just math?
Joel: We would love to one day. When we started New Classrooms, it was designed to both start with Teach to One: Math, but one day look at other subjects and other grade spans. And it just can’t be true that live teacher-led instruction organized out of a textbook is the best way to teach kids anything. There have to be other ways of integrating other modalities. So, we’ll be one day quite excited to explore what this can mean to other subjects, to other grade spans. But for the time being, we really want to get math right, and once we feel like we’re pretty far down that road, we’ll begin to explore that.
Denver: Let me close with this, Joel. The name of your organization is New Classrooms, and you believe that our capacity to design and implement a fundamentally different classroom is now within our grasp. What’s it going to take to see that happen, not just in pockets, but across the nation?
Joel: It’s really going to take a few things. Number one, it’s going to take meaningful investments in R&D. That has really been the fuel for progress in nearly every other sector in our society, from telecommunications to healthcare to transportation. Fueling the design of new approaches to challenging problems is absolutely vital to this being a success.
The second is the early adopters. It’s finding the schools and districts that raise their hand and go, “We really want to be on the cutting edge of new learning models. Sign us up. We want to basically be the ones that are setting the trend for where this country can go. The third is going to be policy, making sure that we have the space in our political systems and our policy environments for schools to really do things differently, that are really setting the stage for the future as opposed to just reinforcing what we’ve done in the past.
Denver: Very exciting stuff! Joel Rose, the co-founder and CEO of New Classrooms and Teach to One: Math, I want to thank you for being here this evening. If there are teachers or parents or students out there who want to learn more about this approach, what is your website and what kind of information will they find there?
Joel: www.newclassrooms.org. You can see videos, see more detail about how the model works, skill maps and learning progressions and some of the press we’ve gotten. as well as a way to click for more information, and we can get in touch with you if you want to learn more and to explore whether this is a fit in your community.
Denver: Thank you, Joel. It was a real pleasure to have you on the show.
Joel: Thank you, Denver.
Denver: I’ll be back with more of The Business of Giving right after this.
The Business of Giving can be heard every Sunday evening between 6:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Eastern on AM 970 The Answer in New York and on iHeartRadio. You can follow us @bizofgive on Twitter, @bizofgive on Instagram and at www.facebook.com/businessofgiving.