Following is a letter and essay by a Rocketship teacher sent to Diane Ravitch.
Rocketship charter schools have a goal of expanding to enroll one million children. Their model relies heavily on technology and inexpensive, inexperienced teachers who work long hours and have no union. Their schools are focused on test scores and leave out the arts and other “non-essentials.” The San Jose, California, board of education will decide tomorrow about whether to send more children and more public dollars to this poor substitute for a real school.
This letter came to me from a Rocketship teacher:
I have been reading the coverage on your blog on the lawsuit against Rocketship in its quest to build Rocketship Tamien in San Jose. I appreciate your attention to this issue. I am a current Rocketship teacher who is also concerned about Rocketship’s expansion. With a vote by the San Jose City Council coming this Tuesday, I decided I could not longer remain silent. Below you will find an anonymous letter I sent to the San Jose City Council, as well as the parent group against Tamien you featured on your blog. I wanted to send this letter to you as well. I’m not sure if it is something you would be interested in posting on your blog, but even so I wanted you to know you helped encourage me to write it.
To all those concerned and involved with the Rocketship Tamien dispute,
I am a Rocketship Teacher who has become increasingly concerned and frustrated while silently watching the dispute over Rocketship Tamien. In this letter, I hope to bring a perspective of a current Rocketship teacher. I am just one perspective and do not claim to speak for other Rocketship teachers. However, I do think my point of view, without a union for protection, is silenced and hidden in this debate. By raising my voice, I am fearful my job could be in danger. Therefore, I have chosen to write this letter anonymously and leave out many details of my own personal experience.
I have structured the letter under a few key points of my feelings about Rocketship as an organization and the direction we are headed. I hope this perspective might raise new questions in the ongoing debate over opening Rocketship Tamien. I have tremendous respect for many of the teachers I work with at Rocketship and by no means wish to attack the incredible effort and energy they put into this difficult job.
Rapid Expansion Without a Clear Model:
Just a few months into the last school year, Rocketship announced to teachers the start of “redesign.” I say announced, because it was not offered as a conversation, but as a mandate. We would be changing many of our schools to an “open-space” model. This model’s vision would have placed 100 students in a room with two credentialed teachers and one learning specialist (including in Kindergarten and first grade). Without research or proof that this was a good idea for our students, redesign was launched at several Rocketship campuses. Teachers, without a union, had no choice but to follow blindly into the “redesign” path, many teachers staying nightly until 9pm trying to figure out what in the world they were going to do in a new space with that many students.
Unfortunately, the experiment Rocketship embarked on with their students and communities proved to be rash. This year, they have slowed down and redesign is happening, for most schools, only in 4th and 5th grade classrooms. I think my biggest concern when thinking about redesign, which left many teachers bitter and caused many to leave Rocketship, is that even though Rocketship is experimenting with its model and unsure of its future direction, it still seeks to rapidly expand across San Jose and across America. It is irresponsible and egotistical to believe that a model that you have not figured out is superior to established public schools in the neighborhoods you are interrupting. This is especially true in light of last year’s CST scores which showed a decline at every Rocketship campus.
No Teacher Sustainability, Little Experience at All Levels:
Working at Rocketship is not sustainable. I personally have never had a colleague tell me, “I could work as a Rocketship teacher for the next 10 years.” I haven’t even heard a colleague say they could work as a Rocketship teacher for 5 years. Rocketship relies heavily on Teach for America corps members. Many TFA teachers come into the classroom with no experience and no perspective on what a traditional school is like. Without experience of a traditional model, I think many TFA teachers come into Rocketship blindly and follow the unreasonable expectations blindly. They grind through their two year commitment of late hours, ridiculous test score pressure, and tumultuous school and organizational environment. At the end of those two years, or even before it, many will leave Rocketship. Some will go into traditional public schools; some will run away from teaching, or what they believe from Rocketship to be teaching, forever. This turnover and burnout robs the San Jose community of veteran teachers that have worked in and understand the community.
It is not just inexperience on the teacher end, it is also inexperience on the administrative end. If you teach for three years at Rocketship, you may have just as much or more teaching experience as some administrators at Rocketship. Rocketship claims to have a robust teacher training and development program, but unfortunately that training comes from inexperienced educators, which I think highly questions the value of such training. When I have heard this concern brought up, usually the value of veteran teachers and experience is scoffed at as unnecessary. This, I think, is part of a larger issue at Rocketship. In my opinion, Rocketship believes itself superior without the experience or results to support it.
Instability of Student’s Day:
Rocketship, to save money by hiring fewer teachers, has a rotational model. Students move throughout the day between different classrooms and spaces, largely three: 1) Literacy, 2) Math, 3) Learning Lab. Literacy teachers have two classes during the day, while math teachers have four, which I think greatly contributes to lack of teacher sustainability. Building relationships with 60 or 120 elementary students and their families, as well as maintaining classroom culture throughout the day, is difficult, emotionally draining, and exhausting.
I truly believe that this middle school model of rotation is not appropriate for elementary school students and creates a culture of instability that breeds behavioral issues. When students are rotating through multiple spaces throughout the day, they do not have consistent behavior expectations, consistent authority figures, or often enough eyes monitoring the transitions. I do not believe this model suits every child, particularly those with special needs. I believe many of our students crave a more stable environment, especially for our students who may experience instability at home.
Students also spend about one hour a day on computers which, as Rocketship has admitted in the PBS special, is not currently effective in pushing student learning. However, because we have a higher student to teacher ratio than traditional schools, students continue to be “held” in the learning lab until their math and literacy classes open up. I do believe that online learning has incredible potential, but Rocketship is using it for too long every day which breeds a lack of investment and boredom in our student’s experience in the learning lab.
Anti-Union Anti-Traditional Public School Rhetoric:
Rocketship claims unions will block their ability to expand and innovate. What that means practically for teachers in the case of the “redesign” experiment last year and day to day decisions of the organization, is that we effectively have no voice or tangible power in this organization.
The PBS special had two Rocketship teachers who claimed that they did not need a union, that they were valuable to Rocketship and safe. Both of those teachers were slated and have now become administrators at Rocketship. PBS didn’t dig, but if they had done some digging, they would have found plenty of disillusioned teachers for their interviews. Or perhaps, they wouldn’t have since we have no union protection. Rocketship also pushes its anti-union, anti-traditional public school rhetoric on our families. I have had many interactions with parents where claims are made about unions or public schools in the area, that have been garnered from Rocketship, that are wrong or over-generalized.
Rocketship, I believe, is not here to provide pressure and competition to traditional public schools. They, with their goals of expansion to reach 1 million students, are here to take over. It is essential to that goal then, to discredit traditional public schools and the teachers at those schools. Students, because of state funding per child, become dollars Rocketship takes from a traditional public school with every child it recruits. This in turn puts more pressure on established districts to lay off teachers and will, eventually, lead to school closures.
Test Scores as the Ultimate Goal:
Rocketship is obsessed with its tests scores. As a charter, they live or die by those test scores. We are now asking our students to learn how to bubble multiple choice questions as early as kindergarten. Teachers are constantly in cycles of testing (which again, is to 60 or 120 students which contributes to the unsustainability).
I believe that knowing where our students are and working to address knowledge gaps is important, but test scores have taken over the culture of Rocketship schools. The stress put on teachers I believe translates directly to the students who are constantly being assessed. Last year, my and other teachers’ salaries were based largely on one computer examination that is given to the students three times during the year. Science, social studies, art and general play time have all become victim to the testing grind. I do not believe Rocketship is cultivating creative, innovative, challenging, minds.
In closing, I do not believe that Rocketship is an organization to be given blind trust. The parents at Rocketship are just like the parents protesting against Rocketship Tamien. They want the best educational experience for their students. I send this letter in the hopes of raising more pause towards Rocketship, its lobbyists, and the tighter hold it is trying to establish over San Jose’s elementary schools.