Rocketship's Latest

Saw this via our friend Dai Ellis. 

Christina Quattrocchi at EdSurge writes:

Rocketship Education is a charter school network in hot demand, courted by urban school districts across the nation. Both Kaya Henderson, Superintendent of DC Public Schools and New York City’s outgoing mayor Michael Bloomberg have publicly said they’d welcome Rocketship schools in their districts. “Out of every large urban city, someone has come to ask us to build schools in their city,” says Charlie Bufalino, Rocketship’s manager of growth and policy.

That enthusiastic embrace isn’t hard to understand. The San Jose-based elementary school network has been at the forefront of innovative school models. Through its use of tech, Rocketship has broken down the traditional factory school model, rethinking things like the bell-schedule, the role of teachers, the way kids are grouped, and even the physical space itself. And according to Rocketship managers, the CMO isn’t yet done; innovation, they say, is in Rocketship’s DNA. These experiments have been paying off in climbing test scores. Over the past eight years, the school has consistently outscored both district and state tests for low-income population schools. 

But now, as Rocketship expands nationally with plans to open more than 40 new schools in six additional cities, the edtech darling will face its toughest challenge ever; land-battles, anti-charter groups, diminished test scores and consequently questions about the use of tech in its schools.

First, lest I forget: if you don't read EdSurge, and you are curious about edtech, you should. 

I blogged Rocketship back in 2012, mostly noticing the blogs of the inestimable Larry Cuban. 

At the time, an insider told me his view on RShip:

Their 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.)

Then about 11 months ago, a Merrow report suggested some changes were coming to the model. 

EdSurge, in March 2013, described those changes:

Signs of changes appeared back in December 2012, when a PBS report suggested that teachers did not know enough about what was happening in the learning labs. This was reflected in the study,  which stated that Rocketship "leaders wanted to fix a disconnect they saw between what happened in the lab versus the classroom by bringing the online work closer to the teachers, giving them more control over the digital learning students experienced and letting them integrate it more into their teaching..."

To accomplish this, Rocketship's new model will shift focus from running purely adaptive programs, to using programs that give teachers greater control over content that gets assigned.

This new model also involves putting computers into a flexible, open-space classroom that may house as many as 115 students, along with three teachers and a full-time individualized learning specialist. Teachers are expected to pull groups of students as needed for into smaller learning groups for direct instruction or projects.

It's worth noting that this new model will only apply to Rocketship's fourth- and fifth-grade classes. In early pilots, the transition raised challenges such as adjusting to a new schedule, finding the balance between teachers' expertise and students' needs, and figuring out how to best facilitate collaboration between four teachers in one room.

Is it working?  Unclear. 

The March 2013 EdSurge article as yielding "impressive results" but a few paragraphs later says "Rocketship's impressive test scores have wilted. In 2013, the combined API scores dropped 46 points to an average of 822 across the network."  A spokesman mentions the new model as one cause of the decline. 

Remember, per my earlier blogs, Rocketship is trying 2 things here. 

First is effective use of technology to drive learning, where they seem to be admirably pioneering but still struggling. 

Second is to use technology to free up some money to do something like the "traditional" No Excuses charter, which could still lead to kids being much better off than they otherwise would. 

So my suggested edit for the article: "The edtech darling will face its toughest challenge ever; land-battles, anti-charter groups, and especially recruiting and training excellent teachers (particularly with TFA alums, a favorite among charter, in shorter supply as the charter growth exceeds TFA's growth), and promoting the right teachers to principal....the same challenges which KIPP, AF, and Uncommon have tackled. "