Teach to One: Inside the Personalized Learning Program That Bill Gates Calls the ‘Future of Math’
That’s the reality of Teach To One: Math from New Classrooms, except, of course, there’s no bunker, as this New York-based organization uses algorithms and classroom-specific information to organize daily math curriculum for 10,000 students per day.
Born as a pilot project in the New York City Department of Education, co-founder Christopher Rush tells The 74 he’s taken Teach To One: Math in an entirely fresh direction. What was once just a set of skills, a linear progression, was reconfigured from the ground up — no longer a linear idea, but instead a web of skills that encompasses year-round curriculum for each student.
Teach To One: Math creates custom curriculum, not just personalized each day by a team from the New York offices, but built with three-week “playlists” of target skills and year-round goals. “We layer on real-world projects, tasks, group learning so day to day, through your experience, you understand what you are shooting for in a two- to three-week time,” Rush says.
(Related: Why Mark Zuckerberg is committing billions for personalized learning)
Using “smarter” algorithms to help define the daily goals and learning patterns, Teach To One: Math presents a schedule for each teacher, for each student, by using more than 80 different learning products — many third party plans and some created in-house. Each lesson takes into account a state’s testing requirements and even a student’s tendencies. Rush says the algorithm matches up how students receive curriculum. “We are a little like Pandora music, teeing up more songs with harmonica,” he says. “We notice you do well with this Pearson product, but not McGraw-Hill. We will give you more Pearson.”
Time of day plays a factor. Are students coming to math after gym class on Tuesday? They might need some independent work, you know, to focus them. But on Thursday math follows English, so maybe it’s time to get collaborative. Either way, students work in the same class, but often at differing paces.
It’s this flexibility and adaptiveness that has earned the software, and the company, rave reviews. Just a few weeks ago at the influential 2016 ASU GSV Summit, Bill Gates dubbed Teach to One (New Classrooms) “the future of math:”
Rush says his teams work with teachers on both scope and sequence. A projected daily plan arrives by 4:30 p.m. local time each school day, giving the teachers one hour to negotiate changes. Early on in the process, Rush admits changes occurred almost 40 percent of the time. But years of institutional knowledge has made the process more efficient, and Teach To One: Math is now down to about 10 changes per day across a network that reaches more than 10,000 students.
Ownership for the learning remains shared, Rush says. Every student has learning targets, traceable in an online dashboard accessible by parents, students and teachers. If a student was expected to master eight skills over two weeks and only manages six, their grade may reflect that. To help with the responsibility, every student has an assigned math advisor, not just responsible for teaching math, but for monitoring schedules and intervening. “On our end, we are trying to backstop teachers and identify patterns to allow them to be successful,” Rush says.
The program has built in alerts too, with teams of people responsible for each school. New Classroom staff monitors student progress and checks algorithm-suggested plans.
New Classrooms started with math, putting an early focus on sixth and seventh grades, because the need was greatest. They’ve since expanded to fifth and eighth grades. Now the content can reach all the way from second grade through high school with hopes to spread into all grades and potentially branch into science on day.
It all does come with a cost to the school based on the level of support services included, but it isn’t uncommon for grants to cover the new way of teaching, a way that Columbia University professor Douglas Ready says results in improvements 15 percent above the national average for the initial year and 47 percent for the subsequent year.
Rush knows they must monitor their own plans and growth, so New Classrooms can offer personalized instruction no matter the school. In 2015 the Teach To One: Math program doubled in size and spanned all four time zones, a major “test” Rush says they passed.
“The reality is, we are innovating and these are real teachers, real students and we want to make sure we have it right before we grow too aggressively,” he says. “We want to be very responsible in every student’s education. They don’t get a do-over.” And that is what Teach To One: Math is all about: not needing a do-over.