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In 2006, former software engineer John Danner co-founded Rocketship Education, a national nonprofit elementary charter school network based in San Jose, Calif., with Preston Smith. The network is gaining attention for its “hybrid” model of learning, which blends classroom teaching with small-group tutoring and individualized online learning. Danner, who won the John P. McNulty Prize last year for his innovations, has no small ambition: He wants to expand the Rocketship model to 50 U.S. cities and eliminate the achievement gap by 2020.
Rocketship’s expansion agenda comes at a time when online learning is exploding and as President Barack Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan are pushing for more high-quality charters to open nationally. An estimated 1 million students at the K-12 level took an online course in 2007-8, according to the Sloan Consortium, an advocacy group for online education.
That’s up from 47 percent two years earlier. The Rocketship model, described in a recent Education Next cover story, calls for a longer school day, with students spending part of their time in a computer lab. They progress at their own speed without fully credentialed teachers overseeing them, but also spend time in traditional classrooms. Detailed descriptions of emerging models for blended learning can be found in a January 2011 white paper, “The rise of K-12 blended learning,” published by the Innosight Institute.
Rocketship now runs three K-5 charter schools in San Jose that serve overwhelmingly low-income, immigrant students, and it hopes to partner with as many as 11 school districts in Northern California to open 20 charter schools in the Silicon Valley area by 2017. The charter network is aiming to become “a national example of education transformation,” according to the San Jose Mercury News. This push hasn’t been embraced by teacher-union leaders, the paper notes, and it has been questioned by some superintendents as well.
Two of three schools operated by Rocketship rank among the 15 top-performing high-poverty schools in California, according to Education Next’s cover story. It has also been reported that Rocketship wants to expand to the District of Columbia Public Schools. Bill Turque of The Washington Post recently noted that what gets “edu-entrepreneurs excited is that the hybrid model can be operated with fewer certified teachers, generating savings that can be used for instructor pay and new schools.”
Recently, I spoke with Danner about Rocketship’s model and Danner’s hopes for the future. Here are excerpts from our conversation.
Why do you call your network “Rocketship,” and what distinguishes your model from other tech innovations?
A rocketship takes you from where you are to where you want to be. Given that we serve communities that are 90 percent low-income in the most at-risk sections of town, the answer is to get them where they want to be. There is almost infinite demand [for our schools] from low- income parents once they understand what it is we are trying to do. The 21st century will be defined by schools that use technology appropriately for what they do best. There are things that the computer does best and things that teachers do best. We think that computers do basic skills best. Traditionally, people have maligned computers in the education space for ‘drill and kill,’ but computers help kids practice things and help kids who don’t understand what they are practicing figure it out and go back to the original lesson. Computers can adapt on the fly to an individual child’s mistakes or successes, and that would be impossible for a teacher in a class of 25-30 kids.
What are some of the things that teachers do best?
We think it is social and emotional learning, and helping kids to think critically, along with project-based learning and integrating skills. Very few teachers became teachers to teach basic skills. They became teachers because they like to work with kids and help them learn values—and take what they know and apply it to problems, and help kids understand and cement concepts. There is a big difference between that and what you will see in low-income schools, where teachers have to spend all their time on basic skills. We can do both.
What does success look like for Rocketship, and how do you know you are achieving it?
Success looks like kids who are extremely well-prepared for secondary school with a very clear understanding of what it takes to go to college, and parents who understand what their children need to get to college and can be strong advocates for them.
Can you give me a specific example of how the Rocketship model has changed the life of a student?
We had a child who came to us with a cumulative file or record about three inches thick, meaning that he’d been in trouble a lot. He was just in third grade. It said things [in the file] such as ‘this child is no good, there is no point in his coming to school,’ and all kinds of terrible things. Students like that can do really well [at Rocketship]. He went from [performing] far below basic, which is the lowest level of performance in California, to becoming advanced in math and proficient in reading in his first year. He is now at a KIPP school, about to go into the seventh grade. The main thing that happens when you become academically successful in elementary school is that … you will no longer have self-esteem problems. When you are feeling good about yourself, it makes going to school eight hours a day or six hours a day a heck of a lot easier, and it leads to much lower dropout rates.
How have you capitalized on all of the new technological tools that students often have access to at home—but not once they walk into the classroom?
When a kid comes to school, puts away all their electronic devices and learns by sitting in rows in front of a blackboard the way they have for 100 years, it is probably not the best way to learn—especially when you have all these new tools and technologies. Our thesis is that for whatever reason, education has fought against it, because it’s last in technology adoption. And that creates a huge amount of opportunity for us to do what public education should have been doing for the last 30 years but hasn’t been, for whatever reason.
Just because a new technology is innovative doesn’t mean that it’s any good. How do you know that what you are using truly improves learning?
We think technology when not applied thoughtfully is kind of like an electronic babysitter. There’s a lot you need to do right to get the results to be strong. A lot [of innovations] use technology at a lower cost or to have the flavor of the month, but they aren’t thoughtful about how to increase student learning … will it be better for kids? It could be a bubble … we are humble enough to know if we don’t get it right, it won’t lead to better results.