11/16/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The School of One: The School of Tomorrow

Right now millions of American children are going back to the same old schools. But this summer I saw the future of American education in a middle school in New York's Chinatown: The School of One.

The New York City Public Schools' Middle School (MS) 131 has adopted a bold and radical experiment. "The School of One" is a prototype for our nation's schools in the decades to come. It's a model much more powerful and potentially far-reaching than any other reform, including much-ballyhooed charter schools, to date.

Today's schools are an anachronism. They resemble the assembly lines of the industrial era, when they were conceived. Groups of 25 to 30 children, beginning at age five, are moved through 13 years of schooling, attending 180 days each year, and taking five major subjects daily for lengths of time specified by the Carnegie Foundation in 1910. These schools are time-based -- all children are expected to master the same studies at the same rate over the same period of time. They focus on teaching -- how long students are exposed to instruction, not how much they have learned. They are rooted in the belief that one size fits all -- all students can benefit equally from the same curriculum and methods of instruction.

We have learned much about education since today's schools were created. We know now that what students learn and what they are taught are different, and that learning is what matters. We know that children learn different subjects at different rates, some slower and some faster. We know that children have different learning styles, which make different methods of instruction more or less effective for them. We also know that today's new technologies offer the prospect of individualizing education for each child and gearing instruction to the student's particular learning style and most effective means of instruction.

In the years to come, we will be challenged to rebuild our schools to reflect these realities, largely because our information economy, which focuses on achieving common outcomes rather than seeking common processes, demands it. Our schools will shift their attention from teaching to learning, time-based to outcome-based education, and mass instruction to individualized instruction.

This is what MS 131 and School of One are seeking to do today. The school is piloting the new approach -- the brainchild of New York City Public Schools Chancellor Joel Klein and the schools' Chief Executive for Human Capital, Joel Rose -- in a single seventh-grade summer math course. The program will expand to three schools next spring.

The School of One turns the current model of education on its head, flipping the relationship between teaching and learning. Student learning becomes the focus -- the driver -- of schooling. Specifically, the School of One translates fifth- through seventh-grade math into 77 skill and knowledge areas. Students are assessed on their mastery of each area, and the program is geared to each student's areas of strength and weakness. The goal is for each student to master all 77 skills and body of knowledge.

By tying instruction to each student's most effective learning style, the School of One individualizes student learning. A learning profile is generated for each student based upon prior academic performance, student and parent surveys, and ongoing assessment in the program. Based on the profile, students are assigned to particular methods of instruction -- small- and large-group instruction, peer tutoring, individual tutoring, asynchronous instruction, and independent study. To date, a bank of 1100 lessons in different modalities have been developed.

After 100 years with "time" as the dominant factor in education, the School of One eliminates it as the constant in education. Instead, time becomes variable and students advance by mastery.

Educators benefit, too. They effectively get rid of high-stakes tests for assessments, instead introducing "just-in-time" assessments in each skill and knowledge area. They also do away with the need for students to repeat a grade or entire course, including subject matter they have already mastered.

This approach means tying instructional resources, and dollars, more directly to the approaches that improve each student's performance, rather than throwing costly larger-scale solutions at individual problems. And that, in turn, promises a better return on public investment in education, one that more closely assures each student's readiness for the workforce and avoids the pitfalls of one-size-fits-all expenditures that don't fit all.

For more than a quarter-century, America has been undergoing a school reform movement. So far, charter schools have been the primary advance, but they do not fundamentally change our model of education.

New York City's School of One may turn out to be the single most important experiment conducted in education so far. It is the future.