Learning from disruption

Rocketship charter schools experimented with 100-student “flexible” classrooms, then returned to its more conventional — and very successful — blended-learning model. Was it just a failure? asks Christina Quattrochi on EdSurge.

In Rocketship schools, students spend 3/4 of their time in teacher-led classes of 27 students and the rest in a learning lab, where they work on adaptive software.

Two years ago, Rocketship put fourth- and fifth-graders in 100-student spaces for the entire school day.

Three teachers and one learning coach decided everything from the class schedule to how the 60 Chromebooks were used.

. . . In a class of 100, one teacher could give a lecture to 20 students, much like a traditional classroom. Meanwhile, another teacher could oversee small group projects for 30 students. 40 students could be working independently online, with the remaining 10 receiving one-on-one tutoring from the third teacher.

Learning gains “depended a lot on the dynamic of the (teaching) team . . . and that dynamic is difficult to control and predict,” says Charlie Bufalino, manager of growth and policy. “So thinking about scaling and building it into a model was difficult.”

Rocketship has “throttled back” its ambitious multi-state expansion plans.

Test scores fell. Rocketship went back to the old model, with some modifications. Teachers in grades 3 to 5 will get 10 Chromebooks in their classrooms and more time for collaboration.  This year, schools will implement a 40-minute “flex block” in which students in the same grade will be “grouped based on their skills and work collaboratively on targeted practice assignments.”

“Disruptive innovation” can disrupt students’ learning write Richard Whitmire and Michael Horn on the Hechinger Report. But, even after the experimental year, Rocketship’s students are doing much better than their neighborhood friends in the nearest San Jose Unified school.

Take Mateo Sheedy, the Rocketship school that suffered the biggest setback. Mateo Sheedy embarrassed itself as its test scores fell. The 2013 student proficiency rates for its students fell to 62 percent in English and 76 percent in math (from 2010 proficiency rates of 83 and 90).

. . . if Rocketship were not around, where would its students go to school? . . . Gardner Elementary, a San Jose Unified school (is) located less than a mile away from Mateo Sheedy. The schools serve a similar demographic of students, both in terms of the percentage of Hispanic students and in terms of the poverty rate. The proficiency rates for Gardner students in English and math for that same year: 19 percent and 32 percent, down from 30 and 45 in 2010.

Rocketship saw a problem and moved quickly to fix it, they write. Mateo Sheedy and the other Rocketship schools “mostly recovered” this year,  according to the network.

Whitmire is the author of On the Rocketship: How Top Charter Schools Are Pushing the Envelope.

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  1. I’m glad they saw that there was a problem and fixed it. That said…

    WHY do giant classrooms with 100 students in them constantly get promoted as the latest great innovation? Every few years, like clockwork, somebody thinks that they’ll establish a ‘classroom without walls,’ an ‘open environment’ where kids can collaborate and 2-3 teachers can run the whole thing. I think the word ‘open’ hypnotizes people.

    Giant 100-child classrooms *always* end up being noisy, distracting, chaotic petri dishes. Every time. I have yet to hear about one that works; they always end up putting the walls in to keep the noise and distraction down.

    Over 30 years ago, my husband was in a revolutionary first-grade classroom with 90 kids and 3 teachers. He remembers it being constantly noisy. The kids got sick all the time, and nobody learned anything. About 30 years ago, my K-8 school opened a new wing for the 7the and 8th grades. There was lots of fanfare about the amazing new open classrooms. In a few years, they had to put walls in. And I keep hearing the same thing, again and again, and it’s a new innovation every single time.

  2. The K-3 I attended over 40 years ago was designed around the open classroom plan, (I don’t know exactly when the school opened, but it was still relatively new when I started kindergarten.) The walls between adjacent rooms were actually sliding panels which could be opened to double or triple the size of the classroom, so the two 2nd grade classes (for example) could be merged into one large class.

    In the four years I spent at that school, there was precisely one time that I recall the panels being opened to make a larger room – and that was for an open house. Otherwise, the classrooms remained individual classrooms. I was fortunate enough that through the 4th grade, the vast majority of my teachers were old-fashioned normal-school type teachers 🙂