Educate All Students: Larry Miller's Blog

April 25, 2013

Earth to Rocketship: More on Rocketship’s Fundamental Flaw from Scholastic Administrator

Filed under: Rocketship — millerlf @ 10:13 pm

In a January 5, 2013 posting titled “Rocketship Schools Coming Soon to an Urban Area Near You” (see below: article 2) I addressed some major issues concerning Rocketship. Following is an interesting point of view from Scholastic Administrator.

 A Cautionary Tale: Rocketship’s learning model works out some major kinks.

By Alexander Russo Scholastic Administrator Spring 2013

Hidden toward the end of a recent PBS NewsHour segment on blended learning was a surprising tidbit about impending changes for the much-admired Rocketship charter school network and its Learning Lab model.

The model—students spending 100 minutes a day in a computer room staffed by non-teachers—was “not really working,” reported PBS. The stand-alone labs would be gone within a year, and with them, presumably, the $500,000 in savings generated for each Rocketship school.

This wasn’t the only change. Rocketship’s relationship with the software company it had relied on had ended. Not long after, Rocketship announced the departure of its founder and one-man publicity magnet, John Danner.

What’s been going on with Rocketship? And what can administrators, reformers, and others learn from its experience with blended learning models and ambitious expansion plans?

Coordination between the labs and classrooms was always a concern. A feature we ran in our Spring 2012 issue [“Learning Labs101”] touched on this, noting how large the labs were and questioning whether the 60-minute computer sessions (supplemented with small-group tutoring) were too lengthy.

And yet, for the past couple of years, the seven-school Rocketship network has been one of the “it” education efforts in the nation—known for its embrace of blended instruction; low-cost, fast-growth expansion; and the ability to raise student test scores. Longtime education writer Richard Whitmire, author of the Michelle Rhee biography, The Bee Eater, was already working on a book about Rocketship. With its affordable, high-impact model, it was thought that Rocketship might be able to expand much faster than earlier charter-school networks.

Back in 2011, Danner sounded extremely confident about the model he’d developed. In an interview with The Christian Science Monitor, he boasted, “If you perfect things, like the way we develop teachers and individualized learning, [this model] should be pretty applicable in a lot of places.”

But, as is now obvious, not everything in the Rocketship model was working.

Of course, there’s no reason Rocketship shouldn’t change or improve its model—or any clear indications that the charter chain won’t continue to grow and succeed. Danner’s departure was long in the planning, according to Whitmire, and his new learning software company could help Rocketship thrive.

However, the company probably shouldn’t have touted the model—and begun shipping it out to districts around the country—before it was sure it had perfected it.

That’s the real lesson here: a warning against delivering, or accepting, premature claims of having figured something out. Vendors doing what Rocketship did run serious risks of disappointing schools they’re selling themselves to. Educators who don’t remember to scrutinize vendors’ claims closely enough need to remember they risk professional embarrassment, and school funds.

Since it’s clear that Rocketship is in transition, what might its 2.0 blended-learning model look like in the future? According to Rocketship’s marketing and communications manager Kevin Bechtel: “We envision a large learning space, shared by an entire grade level of students, with two teachers and Learning Lab aides.”

That sounds pretty good, though less dramatically different than other schools’ tech setups and perhaps not as inexpensive as the original model. Rocketship may very well recover and thrive. But hopefully with the next iteration, perfecting the model will take precedence over expansion.

Article 2 from 1/5/2013

Rocketship Schools Coming Soon to an Urban Area Near You

Rocketship Plans to Build an Education Empire According to a December 28, PBS NewsHour Report (See Link below.)

In a 9 minute TV PBS NewsHour report Rocketship  CEO John Danner stated that Rocketship Education’s  goal is for a million students to be attending their schools. This would be over 1600 schools nationally. If they contract the same lucrative deal that the City of  Milwaukee gave them , sending $600,000 annually back to national headquarters in San Jose, this will be nearly $1 billion profit annually  for Rocketship Education. Short-term they want 46 schools up and running in five years, eventually growing to 50 cities.

Rocketship clearly strives to be the largest chartering management organization in America. But with this aggressive expansion comes an increase in scrutiny. I have written about 3 of their “model” schools in San Jose raising what I consider serious issues. The NewsHour report adds to my trepidation, especially as they plan to flood the education market with their brand.

Questionable practices

  • Their main source for teachers is Teach For America, that is, uncertified teachers that enter the classroom with only 6-weeks of training. 75% of their teachers are from Teach For America.
  • Rocketship schools are also founded on use of “learning labs.” Learning labs are staffed by hourly employees who, as the report notes, “…lack teaching credentials.” Rocketship says that the “learning labs” save enough money for each school to hire 6 fewer teachers yearly, saving up to half a million dollars a year. The problem admitted in the PBS report is that the “learning labs” don’t work, even though students spend 25% of their day in the lab, sitting in front of computers. (See report below.) Yet Rocketship’s “success”, as claimed on their web site, is because “Rocketship has a very innovative instructional model that utilizes the Learning Lab as a place for students to master basic math and reading skills.
  • Rocketship does not offer arts or music in its curriculum.
  • Disturbing data from 3 of their “model” schools in San Jose data shows the low enrollment of special education students (They admit to 5% special education student enrollment.) While the San Jose school district has a special education population of more than 12%, the Rocketship Si Se Puede Academy has only 14 special education students total. Its sister school, Rocketship Mateo Sheedy Elementary, serves only 15 special education students out of a total of 270 students. The newest school, Rocketship Los Suenos Academy, serves only 11 special education students. Keeping the number of special education students below 20, as shown in all three schools, means that special education is not considered as a subgroup required to make “adequate yearly progress” under No Child Left Behind.
  • In the selection of students Rocketship operates charters that enroll students via application. Therefore, it necessarily follows that the Rocketship will enroll a different mix of students than the low-SES-area neighborhood public schools.  As one observer stated, “If Rocketship thinks it has discovered the secret to effectively educating low-SES-area students, let Rocketship take over a low-SES-area neighborhood school — enrolling all the neighborhood school children and only the neighborhood school children — and let’s see how Rocketship’s model works when Rocketship has the same students as the neighborhood public school.”

To see the PBS report, go to:

http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/education/july-dec12/rocket_12-28.html

Below is a transcript of the PBS, NewsHour report:

Transcript

JEFFREY BROWN: Now we look to a California education experiment called the Rocketship Model that involves teachers, kids and parents and aims to expand one day to serve a million students.

NewsHour’s special correspondent for education, John Merrow, has our report.

JOHN MERROW: The Model T was the first, the first innovative and affordable car available to the masses. Others had built good cars, but Henry Ford figured out how to build a lot of them. He and his moving assembly line proved that quality can be mass-produced.

Mass production is a problem the auto industry solved over 100 years ago, but it’s an issue our education system has yet to figure out. America has lots of terrific schools. People open great schools every year, but typically open just one. Nobody has figured out how to mass-produce high-quality, cost-effective schools.

John Danner is the latest to give it a shot. He created an innovative charter school model with replication in mind. Charter schools receive public funding, but are privately managed and operate outside of the traditional public system.

JOHN DANNER, Rocketship Education: Our public education system’s not really set up for change.

JOHN MERROW: Before going into education, Danner founded and ran a successful Silicon Valley startup. He designed his new education model after teaching for three years in a traditional public school.

JOHN DANNER: Causing change within that system’s really, really difficult. And I think that’s actually what charter schools were created to do, was to shake things up, do things differently.

ADAM NADEAU, principal, Rocketship Mosaic Elementary: All right, Rocketeers, it is 7:55. Let me hear you loud and proud. Good morning, Rocketeers!

STUDENTS: Good morning, Mr. Nadeau.

JOHN MERROW: Rocketship’s seven schools are among the top-performing low-income schools in California. Once open, they operate entirely with public funding. The Rocketship Model has a few key parts that make it work. The first happens every morning, during something called Launch.

ADAM NADEAU: Launch is a really powerful experience for us. Getting all of those kids, all the teachers, everyone in the community, parents included, in that same spot, doing some things together, it’s meaningful.

STUDENT: Good morning.

ADAM NADEAU: Good morning.

JOHN MERROW: Adam Nadeau is principal of Rocketship’s Mosaic Elementary School in San Jose, Calif. He says it all starts with high expectations.

ADAM NADEAU: We’re trying to get kids at or above grade level, build the academic skills, but also build the character skills.

JOHN MERROW: Each school serves about 600 students, kindergarten through fifth grade.

JOHN DANNER: They’re low-income, they’re immigrants, they’re often with parents working multiple jobs. If you think about the lives of the families and the children that are coming to this school, they have every possible strike against them.

JOHN MERROW: Parents are encouraged to participate in Launch because they are a critical part of the model.

VERONICA BARBOSA, parent: It’s just amazing how the community comes together and just cheering for our school, like if we were cheering for our favorite football team.

JOHN MERROW: But Launch is about more than team spirit.

VERONICA BARBOSA: They encourage you to come in and help out in the classroom to see how your child is getting educated.

ADAM NADEAU: Getting families in there is really challenging, but it’s really important. If they’re going to know what a high-quality classroom looks like, they have got to see it.

JOHN MERROW: The hope is that, after students graduate from Rocketship and move on to middle school, their parents will advocate for high-quality instruction there. The next part of the model is about recruiting and supporting teachers.

Seventy-five percent of Rocketship teachers come from Teach for America. About half have less than two years of classroom experience. All teachers get professional development.

JUDY LAVI, teacher, Rocketship Mosaic Elementary: I have someone in my classroom almost every single day, sometimes every other day, giving me feedback and just holding me accountable to high-quality instruction.

JOHN MERROW: Another part of the model, teachers do not belong to a union.

CRISTINA CALLAGY, teacher, Rocketship Mosaic Elementary: We do have an at-will employment contract, or non- contract, I guess.

JOHN MERROW: Could you be fired tomorrow?

CRISTINA CALLAGY: Well, I don’t think they ever would. I’m valuable to the school. I produce good results with kids. And so they would have no reason.

JOHN MERROW: If the unions came to you and said, John, we’d like to unionize Rocketship, what would you say?

JOHN DANNER: I would say absolutely not. We’re a startup. You know, in startups, you basically do something different every day. Any major school district has a 450-page kind of contract that literally says minute by minute what teachers are supposed to do. So the fit between how that’s evolved and what Rocketship is like is just a bad fit.

JOHN MERROW: No union, is that a problem?

JUDY LAVI: I’m making more money than I made when I was part of a union. I have more job security than, I would say, than when I was part of a union. So I’m not sure what I would need a union for.

JOHN MERROW: With no union contract, Rocketship can decide what to pay teachers.

Andrew Elliott-Chandler is the principal of Rocketship Si Se Puede Elementary.

ANDREW ELLIOTT-CHANDLER, Rocketship Si Se Puede Elementary: I was excited to offer some of our third-year teachers doing well almost $70,000 this year.

JOHN MERROW: That’s almost 30 percent higher than a third year teacher earns in a neighboring district. Rocketship teachers typically make at least 15 percent more, thanks to this part of the model. It’s the linchpin that makes Danner’s financial model tick: the learning lab.

Every school has a room like this, lots of computers and kids, but no classroom teachers. Learning labs are staffed with hourly employees called individualized learning specialists, who lack teaching credentials.

MELANIE HANG, individualized learning specialist, Rocketship Mosaic Elementary: Yes, I have five classes that I coach. So that’s probably about 150 students.

JOHN MERROW: For about one hour every day, students practice math and literacy skills. They work independently at their own pace. The computer is able to track and guide the progress of each student.

It’s something educators call differentiated learning. Some students work on basic skills, while others advance to more challenging lessons.

The learning lab allows a school to hire six fewer teachers, which Rocketship says results in savings of up to half a million dollars. That money is used to pay teachers higher salaries, fund academic deans who help teachers get better, and train principals for future Rocketship schools.

But one thing the savings are not used for, art and music classes.

VERONICA BARBOSA: I wish we could have art and music in the school, but at the same time if you want your child to have that in their life, you can make the effort to try and get it, like, after school or on the weekends.

JOHN MERROW: The learning lab saves schools a lot of money, but there’s just one problem: They’re not really working.

JUDY LAVI: There’s definitely an aspect of us kind of not knowing enough about what’s going on in learning lab to be able to use that in our classrooms.

ANDREW ELLIOTT-CHANDLER: We don’t yet get data that says, OK, teach this differently tomorrow because of what happened here. And that is — that is a frustration point.

JOHN MERROW: A problem we saw is that some students in the lab do not appear to be engaged. They sit at their computers for long periods of time, seemingly just guessing.

JUDY LAVI: That’s definitely not the ideal situation. The ideal situation would be that they’d get help from somebody in the learning lab who would explain the concept to them. Then they would go back and practice it.

JOHN MERROW: Rocketship says it’s about to make a big change to its model.

ADAM NADEAU: If I had to guess, I would say you come back in a year, you won’t see a learning lab.

ANDREW ELLIOTT-CHANDLER: Next year, we’re — we’re thinking of bringing the computers back to the classrooms and the kids back to the classrooms.

JOHN MERROW: What this new model might look like and how it may affect the school’s bottom line is unknown, but the leaders are not worried.

ANDREW ELLIOTT-CHANDLER: Innovation, I think, is one of the most exciting reasons to be at Rocketship. It’s exhausting, but it’s also exhilarating. Things change dramatically every year.

JOHN DANNER: If you want to try some things, and you can prove that they work, nobody tells you not to do it in — in the charter world.

JOHN MERROW: New Orleans, Nashville, Indianapolis, and Memphis have all approved charters for Rocketship schools to be built in their cities. Next year, two new schools will open in San Jose and one in Milwaukee. Danner plans to have 46 schools up and running in five years, with a vision of someday serving 50 cities and a million students. If he succeeds, Rocketship could become the Model T of education.

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