Date: 
Wednesday, January 19, 2011

New CRPE paper documents radical school innovation program in New York City

iZone schools employ technology to tailor teaching.

New York, NY - Eight years of New York City's public school reforms have significantly but incrementally improved students' performance and graduation rates. In order to bring about more dramatic progress, the district created a radical new initiative through which schools fundamentally change their structures and employ cutting-edge technologies to support student needs.

Launched in 2010, the Innovation Zone, iZone for short, is an ambitious program that expects to produce upwards of 100 schools in the next three years. The iZone schools are being asked to reinvent themselves by fully individualizing student learning in order to achieve student mastery of subject material, not simply basic skill proficiency.

New York City's iZone is the focus of a new working paper from the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) at the University of Washington Bothell. Based on interviews and school visits in New York City, the report looks at the goals and challenges of the young initiative.

Rather than prescribing a standardized approach to curriculum, staffing, school schedule, and testing, observe researchers Robin Lake and Betheny Gross, the iZone schools are supposed to explore and innovate with student-centered mastery designs. The iZone school designs are characterized by five core principles:

  • Performance assessment & mastery-based grading
  • Personalized learning plans
  • Multiple learning modalities (e.g., a combination of independent student work, small group instruction, one-on-one instruction, student collaborative activities, online instruction)
  • New staff and student roles
  • Globally competitive standards

The authors discuss how new models will be tested and how the successful models will be expanded from the original 81 pilot schools to upwards of 100 schools throughout the city. The authors also look at some of the significant challenges that the iZone represents for the NYC Department of Education and for other districts hoping to embrace new technological innovation: dealing with resistance from teachers and parents, assessing how well innovations are working, managing the risk of failed innovations, and paying for the significant cost of such investments (up to $50 million).

The initiative's champions, however, believe the approach will produce breakthrough results that prior reforms could not.

"What we are proposing has radical implications for the way schools organize," Arthur VanderVeen, NYC Department of Education's Chief of Innovation Research and Development told CRPE researchers. "Moving schools to this is going to be hard."

In the end, the success of the initiative may rest on whether the district has built strong enough foundations for talent development, support networks, and evaluation systems under Children First to allow iZone schools to lead the country in innovation.

New York City's iZone is part of a series of reports from CRPE's Portfolio School Districts Project.

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