A start-up ethos at Rocketship

Richard Whitmire’s On the Rocketship looks at the high-flying, fast-growing Rocketship network of charter schools. Rocketship

Rocketship is fueled by the “start-up ethos,” writes Conor Williams on TPM. The network “began as the brainchild of John Danner, a tech startup guy who cashed in his chips and became interested in the achievement gap.”  After teaching for three years and helping to start a KIPP charter school, Danner set out to provide “one million high-quality school seats…[in] 2,500 charter schools” in 30 years.

Rocketship “operates by backward mapping,” writes Whitmire. “First define your long-term goal, then decide how you will measure it, and then determine the steps that will get you there.”

Rocketship students work on computers for part of the school day, using adaptive software that lets them work at their own level and move at their own pace. Teachers target instruction to smaller groups, while aides supervise learning labs.

Rocketship’s first schools have been wildly successful in San Jose, but expanding rapidly while maintaining quality is proving to be a challenge.

Students: ‘Us deserve respect’

At an F-rated New York City high school, failing students earn quick credits through online courses, the New York Post reported.

While it’s called “blended learning,” the credit-recovery “courses” don’t include interaction with a teacher. One teacher is assigned to 475 students trying to earn credits in a wide variety of subjects. Murry Bergtraum High for Business Careers specializes in overage or held-back students who lack credits.

After the Post story ran, students wrote to defend the program. Nearly all the letters were filled with spelling, grammar and punctuation errors, reports the Post.  

A junior wrote: “What do you get of giving false accusations im one of the students that has blended learning I had a course of English and I passed and and it helped a lot you’re a reported your support to get truth information other than starting rumors?.?.?.”

Another wrote: “To deeply criticize a program that has helped many students especially seniors to graduate I should not see no complaints.”

One student said the online system beats the classroom because “you can digest in the information at your own paste.”

“Us as New York City Students deserve respect and encouragement,” one letter read. “We are the future of New York City and for some students, The future of the country.”

I doubt if that future will include business careers.

The path of Khan

Khan Academy founder Sal Khan started by creating online math tutorials for his cousins’ children, he said at the Hoover Institution conference on blended learning. Ten years later, his nonprofit reaches 10 million people a month around the world. Lessons are offered in a multitude of languages, including — with help from a 15-year-old orphan — Mongolian. 

‘If I need geometry, I’ll learn it then’

Scott Hamilton is the Forrest Gump of education reform, although with a lot more IQ points and fewer chocolates, I write in an Education Next profile.

He worked for Bill Bennett in the U.S. Department of Education and for Benno Schmidt at the Edison Project. He authorized charter schools in Massachusetts, co-founded the KIPP network, quadrupled the size of Teach For America (TFA), and introduced blended learning at urban Catholic schools. He’s been around.

Now 47, he’s started a new initiative called Circumventure, based in San Francisco. Through surveys, focus groups, field tests, and interviews, Circumventure is asking fundamental questions: Do people want what schools are offering? If not, what do they want? Can technology make it happen?

Being a “good learner” is valued by the students and parents he’s interviewed. Being “well educated” is not. “Young Millennials and their Generation Z siblings” believe they don’t need school to learn new things. They’ll do it all themselves—if and when they feel like it. “Teens think, ‘I’ll never use geometry. If I need it, I’ll learn it then’.”

Rocketship tries Blended Learning 2.0

Old-fashioned blended learning uses the rotation model:  Half the class may be watching Khan Academy videos and taking quizzes geared to their performance level, while the teacher works with the other half on the math skills they need to learn. Rocketship charter schools are trying Blended Learning 2.0, reports Education Week. The classroom has more teachers, more students and more flexibility. 

Here’s how the charter operator’s new instructional model looked in action at Rocketship Mateo Sheedy Elementary in San Jose, Calif. on a recent chilly morning:

On one side of the large, rectangular 4th grade classroom, teacher Juan Mateos leads a lesson on identifying figurative language. He projects a poem about California earthquakes on to a screen: “Palm trees begin to sway all by themselves / Here, the earth likes to dance, cha-cha-cha.”

Twenty-two students—grouped together based on their similar academic abilities, which put them in the middle of the classroom pack—are gathered on a carpet, reading along. At Mr. Mateos’ instruction, they turn to classmates and debate whether the poem is a metaphor or an example of personification.

Twenty yards away, teacher Jason Colon works with 22 of the school’s most-advanced 4th graders, also grouped according to ability. The children sit in pairs, facing each other across their desks, binders upright between them. To keep this ambitious lot engaged in his math lesson about graphing coordinates, Mr. Colon has the children create their own x- and y-axes, plot “battleships,” and attempt to sink each other’s fleets—a creative twist on the classic board game.

The lowest-performing 4th grade students work at learning stations or laptops. An aide keeps an eye on them while “working from a scripted curriculum to help four students learn letter sounds.”

Then Mr. Colon reteaches a lesson to the low performers, the middle group moves to computers and Mr. Mateos “adapts his lesson to push the more-advanced students to write their own figurative language.”

Under Rocketship’s old “station rotation” blended learning model, still used in early grades, class sizes are more traditional, and students of mixed abilities rotate from regular classrooms to stand-alone “learning labs,” where they receive computer-assisted instruction. Rocketship officials say that under that model, it’s difficult to address the needs of top- and bottom-performing students—a challenge many schools face.

Teachers now specialize. Mr. Mateos teaches each reading and language arts lesson in three different ways. Mr. Colon adapts math to three different groups.

In a flexible day, a student may spend time in a group of five students to 109 students.

Rocketship made its name by posting very high test scores for low-income, Latino students. Test scores fell when schools shifted to the flex model, reports Ed Week. Rocketship also was trying to save money on staffing and open new schools.

In response, the charter network is slowing the transition to flexible classrooms, using flexibility only in grades 4 and 5 in existing schools. The new model no longer is expected to generate cost savings.

Blend, flip, disrupt

In Blend, flip, disrupt, I report on a a Blended Learning in K-12 conference at Stanford’s Hoover Institution.

When she introduced Khan Academy videos and quizzes to her sixth-grade math students, Suney Park had to “give up control,” she said.  “That’s hard.”

But the software lets her students work at their own level and their own pace, moving on only when they’ve mastered a lesson. More are reaching proficiency, says Park, who teaches at Eastside College Prep, a tuition-free private school in all-minority, low-income East Palo Alto, California.

“I’ll never go back,” Park said.

Before she tried blended learning, she struggled to “differentiate” instruction for students at very different levels. “You can try it, but you can’t sustain it,” she said. “Teaching to the middle is the only way to survive.” Now, her advanced students aren’t working on a task devised to “keep them out of the way.” They’re moving ahead.

Personalizing lessons for each student’s needs and providing immediate, actionable feedback on each student’s mastery (or not) are two of the biggest advantages of blended learning, said Michael Horn, co-founder of the Christensen Institute.

If you could design a school …

“If you could design a school what would it look like?” In Milpitas, a middle-class district near San Jose, Superintendent Cary Matsuoka asked teachers and principals how they’d redesign their schools, reports EdSurge News. Propsals had to “integrate technology, use data to inform instruction, be student-centered and flexibly use space, time, and student grouping.”

As a result of the design challenge, two-thirds of the district’s elementary school classrooms are now using “blended learning.” Students spend part of the day using software that adapts to their individual learning needs and produces data for teachers.

Some plans were patterned after Rocketship, a charter network with five schools 10 miles south in San Jose with deep experience in experiment with technology–including teaching 90 student in one space at a time. Other schools, such as Marshall Pomeroy Elementary School run by Principal Sheila Murphy Brewer, instead focused on addressing the diverse needs of a school where fully half of the  506 students are English language learners. “Blended learning came out of the necessity of reaching all abilities,” she says.

Some classes use a one-to-one model, each student equipped with a Chromebook. Others rely on in-class rotations with some students on computers, some doing independent or group work, and others getting direct instruction from a teacher.

All blended classrooms use iReady, an adaptive reading and math program. Other popular tools include Khan Academy, Edmodo, Newsela and No Red Ink.

Burnett Elementary School’s learning lab relies on a huge garage-style door that slides up to divide the space into two rooms–and to harkening back to the days when Silicon Valley startups began in garages. The space is meant to be used for mixed purposes, offering soundproof areas for students to work on projects, while others can quietly work on the computer or receive direct instruction in small groups.

In classrooms, students are also doing classroom rotations. In the fourth grade math class, students rotate every twenty minutes between Khan Academy, group work on Common Core performance tasks, creating their own videos on Educreations, and peer coaching. Students put their name on a ‘peer coaching’ board, to volunteer to help other struggling students. Their teacher, Allison Elizondo, stands by to help struggling students and ensure that all goes smoothly.

“When you give kids freedom, they just go for it,” says Elizondo. “I don’t see myself as a traditional teacher, I see myself as a coach.”

The Hechinger Report looks at blended learning in an Aspire charter elementary school in Los Angeles.

On a recent Monday morning inside Freddy Esparza’s second-grade classroom, . . . a small group has gathered on the rug to hear Esparza read “The Country Mouse and the City Mouse.”

The remaining students log into their computers. One student reads a non-fiction book about beluga whales. Another takes a quiz on synonyms and antonyms, posting a perfect score. “Yessss!” he whispers, pumping up his little fist.

I’m attending (and tweeting!) a conference on blended learning today at Stanford’s Hoover Institution. I’m also finishing a freelance story for Education Next on a blended learning experiment in Oakland elementary and middle schools. Oakland Unified teachers typically have 32 students of widely varying achievement, aptitude and English proficiency levels – and no aide. Without adaptive software, differentiation is “fairy dust,” as one principal put it.

Time-tech swaps can raise teacher pay

Blended learning can personalize instruction — and enable teachers to earn at least 20 percent more, write Emily Ayscue Hassel and Bryan Hassel on Education Next.

In Time-Technology Swaps, excellent teachers “reach more students, for more pay, within budget, without having to increase class sizes,” they write. Lower-paid aides supervise the online-learning time.

Blended-learning teachers can also use some of their freed time for planning and collaboration.

Master teachers take the lead

A master teacher, an assistant and blended learning produced “great results” at a new charter school with very disadvantaged children, concludes Public Impact‘s Opportunity Culture project. Touchstone Education opened Merit Preparatory Charter School in Newark in 2012 with a class of sixth graders. Most were several years below grade level; 90 percent came from low-income families.

By March 2013, seven months into the school year, students demonstrated two years of growth in reading and 1.25 years of growth in science. In math, where Touchstone leaders were unable to hire a master teacher, students made three-fourths of a year of growth by March.

The model allows master teachers, who lead teams of novice and developing teachers, to earn up to $100,000 a year, within per-pupil funding. Tiffany McAfee, the master teacher in literacy, worked with first-year Teach For America teacher Jonathan Wigfall in the school’s first year.

Laptop-equipped students were grouped by skill level. McAfee lead whole-group instruction and helped students work through their playlists of individualized lessons, while Wigall rotated among students to help them with questions and keep them on track.

For example, one day students worked in groups to study slides on figurative language,then watched a music video while listening on headphones,taking notes on examples of figurative language in the lyrics. Meanwhile, both teachers moved through the room, overseeing their work. Students then came together for a whole class discussion with McAfee, who asked higher-level questions about the purpose of figurative language and the author’s intent.

Helping less-experienced teachers improve their skills is part of the master teacher’s job. McAfee and Wigfall reviewed the week’s data every Friday and planned the following week’s lessons. The master teacher also worked with the school’s reading specialist and the special education teacher to plan the daily, three-hour reading block. (Students are pulled out for an hour of P.E.)

Next year, Merit Prep will hire a master teach in math in hopes of achieving gap-closing progress.

Charlotte, North Carolina is redesigning teachers’ jobs to improve low-performing schools, write Public Impact’s Emily Ayscue Hassel and Bryan C. Hassel in Education Next.  Again, the idea is to give more students access to excellent teachers, while using novices in support roles.

Charlotte, N.C.’s Project L.I.F.T.New Teaching Roles Create Culture of Excellence in High-Need Schools explains the plan. In One Teacher’s View of Becoming a Paid Teacher-Leader, a veteran teacher talks about becoming a multi-classroom leader.

Study: Blended math boosts learning

Students learned significantly more when they used Carnegie Learning’s hybrid algebra program — a blend of online and classroom instruction — reports a two-year Education Department study, which used a randomized control group.

There were no significant results in the first year, reports Ed Week‘s Inside School Research.In the second year, students who used Cognitive Tutor Algebra I improved by 8 percentile points.  That’s double the amount of math learning most high school students achieve in a year, said Steve Ritter, a founder and the chief scientist of Carnegie Learning, in Pittsburgh.

The improvements were similar across students of different ethnic and socioeconomic background, and high, regular, and low initial math ability, Ritter said. The researchers found similar improvements among participating middle school students—higher-performing math students typically take algebra in 8th grade rather than in high school—though the middle school sample was not large enough to show significant effects in the same way as the high school students.

Usually students worked with the individualized tutorial program for two days a week and spent three days learning in the classroom.