High tech and high touch

Rocketship charter schools are known for “blended learning.” Students — most from Mexican immigrant families — spend two hours a day in a computer lab.  But at Rocketship’s Discovery Prep, Thomas Toch discovered a high-tech school that’s also high touch, he writes in The Atlantic.

Each morning at Discovery Prep and the rest of the Rocketship network, everyone gathers on the playground for announcements and a sing-a-long. Students receive recognition and rewards for outstanding behavior and achievement and teachers and students (the oldest are 5th graders) sing and dance to songs by Michael Jackson and other pop stars, surrounded by parent-volunteers. In the same spirit, teachers greet every student by name as they enter their classrooms, a routine that Rocketship calls a “threshold invite.” Personal connections between adults and students are paramount.

Parents are everywhere in the life of 640-student Discovery Prep. The schools organize meetings on curriculum, instructional strategies, and student behavior to enlist parents as educational partners. They take students and parents on bus trips to Stanford, Berkeley, and other local colleges and universities to get them invested in higher education. And they ask parents to spend 30 hours a year in their children’s schools and most do.

“A uniform and a deeply engrained behavior-management system creates clear expectations for students along with lots of positive reinforcement,” Toch writes. That creates a safe, orderly atmosphere.

Every day, students spend two hours in headphones in one of a hundred brightly colored cubicles in a big, open “learning lab,” doing a wide range of exercises in reading and math through programs with lots of audio and animation. They also routinely take “adaptive” quizzes that adjust the difficulty of questions to the accuracy of students’ answers.

Rocketship saves money by hiring aides to supervise the lab. The savings fund tutoring for students who need individual or small-group help. Rocketship also pays its teachers more and invests in improving the quality of teaching.

Because students work on basic skills in the lab, teachers have more time to teach advanced skills.

During my visit to Discovery Prep, a first-grade teacher was working with her students on “thinking like a scientist,” having them sit in a darkened room and develop hypotheses about what would happen when she shined a flashlight at aluminum foil, plastic wrap, and other materials.

Students’ lab results are analyzed to show their progress in mastering state and national standards, giving teachers “data dashboards” they can use to design classroom lessons, Toch writes.

But using technology intelligently isn’t enough, Toch concludes. Young students and those from disadvantaged backgrounds need caring adults. Digital education without flesh-and-blood people won’t work.