Rocketship

Thank you Cormac Harkins. It was good of you to point me to some great blogging by Larry Cuban. Three of 'em, about Rocketship charter schools. Hopefully it gave you a moment of distraction from your boy Brady Quinn's attack on Tim Tebow. *

Update Feb 23: Scott Given and Tinu Akinfolarin from UP Academy -- a turnaround school in Boston -- are spending their school vacation week in California visiting Rocketship. He sent me this photo so I threw it up here.

*

Larry Cuban co-wrote one of my favorite edubooks, Tinkering With Utopia. I read it back in 1997 in Tom Loveless's intro class on education policy.

Cuban is a retired Stanford professor, and -- this is key -- a tech-in-schools skeptic.

That's why his blog series on Rocketship is worth reading. He was impressed. Kudos to the teachers and team at Rocketship.

First blog

Second blog

Third blog

He writes:

“I Saw The Future and It Works”: A Visit to a Hybrid School

The quote in the title ran through my mind as I spent a morning in the Learning Lab and one classroom at a hybrid elementary school (K-5) in San Jose (CA). With about 500 mostly Latino and low-income students chosen through a lottery, Los Suenos is a Rocketship charter school, in a rapidly expanding network of hybrid schools in California and across the nation.

With an extended school day beginning 7:55AM and ending at 4:00, a staff of 16 certificated teachers, 8 Learning Lab specialists, and parents who are expected to volunteer 30 hours during the school year work, a band of adults work closely with kindergartners through 5th graders. Each child has an individual education plan. Nearly all of the teachers are drawn from Teach for America; none looked over 40. They make home visits and are available before and after school to both students and parents.

A Rocketship school day: 3/4 normal no excuses elementary school classes, and 1/4 of the day with each kid on a computer in a Learning Lab, staffed by aides.

Cuban continues:

All through the day on a rotating schedule, kindergartners and upper-grade students move through the Learning Lab which can accommodate up to 80 students. Each class is there for one quarter of the school day.

In these brightly-colored cardboard cubicles, each student has a computer and mouse.

Kindergartners through 5th graders find their name on the screen, login, and begin the reading or math program. Eight Learning Lab Specialists roam the large room. College students and parents in the community, the aides monitor what children are doing in their math or reading program, answer questions, and intervene when students’ attention fades or they are off-task. When students finish a lesson and pass the accompanying test, they raise their hands and an aide gives them a sticker which appears to be highly prized.

There are also round tables in the room where Learning Lab Specialists tutor small groups in either math or reading skills for short periods of time.

Worth reading his whole thing.

Some thoughts:

1. Disclosure: Rocketship beat out MATCH a few years ago at a Charter Growth Fund innovation competition thing. They got first prize, which was 100k. We got second in conjunction with our partner Tutors For All.

I'd mentally earmarked first prize money for a year's worth of chicken tikka masala and mango lassi lunches for all staff and students. So Rocketship crushed my plans with their unbelievably powerful and persuasive winning presentation.

2. Rocketship's CEO John Danner says

Q: As you move out of San Jose to more Rocketship charter schools in California and other states, what is your vision?

A: Online learning should be responsible for the majority of basic skills learning, freeing our teachers to use classroom time to teach students how to think. We believe that we will see … a 50/50 online/classroom hybrid model [with] properties that helps us scale up. First, we will have 10 teachers at each campus instead of 20. With 10 teachers on each campus, we have much less need for talent. With the extra money we save ($1M), we can double teacher pay to well over $100,000 per year.

With Learning Lab … delivering 80% of basic skills, teachers can spend their class time to teach values and higher order thinking skills. We think that both financially and from a talent perspective, the model gets more and more compelling as we drive online learning forward.

Fascinating. You could imagine Rocketship winning just on that. Finding the best teachers and offering huge base pay. Though it's hard to identify the best teachers. Though if value-added data increasingly gets published in the newspaper, it won't be long until the top performers are head-hunted and offered much higher base pay.

(I realize this "hire best" strategy hasn't necessarily worked at The Equity Project school ($125,000 base pay) in New York City, in terms of test score growth. However, it's still early in their school history, to be fair. After all, our charter school had crappy test scores in 2002, our first go-round. Maybe they'll figure it out).

3. Back to Larry Cuban. He asked Danner:

Q: Do you intend to move from elementary to secondary schools?

A: No. Teaching different academic subjects and the lack of software in those areas and the size of schools overwhelm me with the complexity of working with older children and youth.

I've had five different very sharp former school leaders visit us in Boston this year. Each wanted to chat, just bounce some ideas around. About blended learning. Each guy was considering opening a new network of hybrid schools.

We at MATCH have mused about it, too. I.e., could you plug high-dosage tutoring into a hybrid model?

Anyway, it's interesting/a bit scary that a team (Rocketship) that is leading in this space is daunted by the upper grades. But you'll see several charter networks emerge soon that will take the plunge, and few like Carpe Diem in Arizona are already rolling.

4. An insider gave me his take:

Main reason for having the kids on the computers is not what they'll learn on the computer. That's helpful, but secondary. (They've solved the computer issues, kid distraction issues, and crappy software issues that you and I have seen in other good charter schools that try to use computers). The key driver of the computer is it "reasonably" occupies the kids while others get more personal attention from teachers. Now that's not what some funders love. They love the technology. But it's really an ingenious human capital effort.

What the school does NOT have yet is a clear link to, “Johnny needs to work on phonics and these specific blends and here’s a record of his progress on the computer.” They are working on that and Gates is funding some BIG thing to allow for the kind of dashboard and control that would allow for this (vs. all the smaller companies who are trying.)

5. A scary cautionary note:

I believe there's a chance that technology will increase the Achievement Gap.

Let me repeat that.

I think there's a chance that technology will increase the Achievement Gap.

Look at Joanne Jacobs' blog today, comparing the rich kids in Los Altos (using Khan Academy extremely well) and the poor kids in Oakland (many struggling).

In some ways, the Achievement Gap is constrained by the inefficiency of traditional school. That kids at all levels are slowed down.

Free that constraint through customization/technology, and people hope/dream that it will raise the low-performers. I hope/dream that, too.

But it may raise the high-performers even faster. Thereby increasing the Achievement Gap.

6. The last word to Larry Cuban:

Here is where I change the quote–”I saw the future and it works”–made originally by journalist Lincoln Steffens after he saw the early years of Soviet Russia. After this recent trip to Los Suenos Rocketship school and listening to John Danner, I would amend the quote to read: “I saw the future and it might work for many urban poor children if we knew more about what happens to those students in high school and beyond.” I agree that the amended quote is not as memorable as Lincoln Steffens’s words, but, hey, that’s the best I can do now.