Poor kids excel, but there must be a but

Rocketship CEO Preston Smith drops his kids Zeke, 7, and Phoenix, 5, off at Fuerza Community Prep.
Rocketship CEO Preston Smith drops his kids Zeke, 7, and Phoenix, 5, off at Rocketship Fuerza Community Prep. Photo: Preston Gannaway/NPR

Students — mostly from low-income, Hispanic families — do well in reading and math at 13 Rocketship charter schools in the San Jose area, Nashville and Milwaukee, concedes Anya Kamenetz in NPR. But At What Cost? the headline asks.

Then comes the complaints by current and former staffers about pressures to improve test scores, large computer labs supervised by one or two adults, a policy of not letting kids go to the bathroom less than 20 minutes after lunch or recess, and no-talking periods known as Zone Zero.

Teachers receive large bonuses for improving students’ scores on internal test given three times a year. That creates an incentive to ask for retests if a student isn’t at his or her best, said former staffers.

A kindergartener shows off her marshmallow-and-stick creation at Rocketship Brilliant Minds. Photo: Joanne Jacobs

A kindergartener shows off her marshmallow-and-stick creation at Rocketship Brilliant Minds. Photo: Joanne Jacobs

Some criticisms reflected Rocketship’s old model, which has changed in the last few years.

I visited Rocketship Brilliant Minds in San Jose last year and it didn’t resemble Kamenetz’s picture of a tech-heavy, test-prep factor.

It turns out she never visited a Rocketship school. An NPR colleague visited Rocketship Fuerza in San Jose, which happens to be where the co-founder and CEO, Preston Smith, sends his kids.

In Smith’s response, he stresses that Rocketship’s “impressive results” are on state tests, for which there are no retests without state approval. “On the most recent state assessment in California, we had 6 students retake a single test out of 4,565 tests administered.”

The charter network cracked down on retakes on its internal tests two years ago, dropping the retake rate to less than one tenth of one percent, according to Smith.

If our teachers were indeed gaming the system, once our kids move on to middle school (we only have elementary schools), their scores would logically plummet.

But in an independent study from SRI International, our alumni in middle school significantly outperform their peers. The gap-closing gains our graduates make in elementary school persist in middle school.

Rocketship does not have any network policies on bathroom breaks, he writes. It’s elementary school. Accidents happen.

The story questions Zone Zero, but ignores the daily Launch, when “the entire school gathers to recite our core values, dance, sing, and get motivated for the day ahead,” he writes.

One staffer was quoted criticizing Zone Zero. Farah Dilber told Smith her comment had been taken out of context:

“I told NPR that expecting students to be quiet at discrete parts of the school day is standard practice. Surely no one would find fault with students being asked to be quiet during independent reading. Further, these quiet parts of the day are balanced by daily singing and dancing at morning Launch, enrichment, and recess where kids can just be kids. In particular, I find it frustrating that Anya omitted this point about the balance between more structured and more exuberant parts of the day.”

Rocketship students spend 80 minutes a day using five or more different adaptive online learning programs, writes Smith. The story also implied all that time is devoted to DreamBox, which is supposed to be used for “30-45 minutes per week.”

Rocketship students average 44 minutes per week on DreamBox, according to a Harvard study, which found DreamBox use improves math performance.

Ninety-one percent of Rocketship families return the following year, according to Smith. On a survey, 72 percent of parents said they’d recommended Rocketship to another parent.

Those who feel the school is too focused on improving reading and math performance or doesn’t have enough teachers staffing the computer labs can choose another school.

No bells, many choices

In a Forensic Science class, students learn from police department forensic investigator Ryan Andrews how to calculate the angle of impact of individual bloodstains and use strings to determine the area the bloodstains would have originated.

Forensic investigator Ryan Andrews shows students how to calculate the angle of impact of bloodstains.

Salt Lake City’s Innovations Early College High School uses personalized learning to put teenagers in charge of their education, I discovered in a visit last fall. My story is now up on Education Next.

There are no bells at Salt Lake City’s Innovations Early College High School, and no traditional “classes.” Students show up when they like, putting in six and a half hours at school between 7 a.m. and 5 p.m. Working with a mentor teacher, students set their own goals and move through self-paced online lessons. They can take more time when they need it or move ahead quickly when they show mastery.

Innovations, a district school, not a charter, is located on a community college campus, so it’s easy for students who qualify to take college classes. It also shares space with the district’s career-tech center, so students can take vocational classes in subjects ranging from web design and emergency medicine to cosmetology.

It seems very loosey-goosey, but mentors monitor students’ progress closely to make sure they’re on track for graduation.

Personalized ed raises privacy concerns

Digital software can personalize instruction for students working at different levels and speeds. But fears about the privacy and security of students’ personal information are on the rise, reports PBS NewsHour.

At Miami’s iPrep Academy, Nicole Rasmuson teaches math, using “smart” software that analyzes mistakes, tracks how long a student takes to answer and checks for understanding, reports John Tulenko.

The software uses student data to customize lessons. “It’ll ask them, what are your interests?” says the teacher. “And so, in the word problems, it’ll — if one kid’s really interested in food, it’ll talk about cookies and that kind of stuff. It’ll even ask them, what are your friends’ names? And then it’ll put their friends’ names in the problems, too.”

Does it matter if software remembers that Jayden struggled with fractions, Maya likes soccer and Kim’s best friend in third grade was Jamie?

Education disrupted?

Students Fiona (left) and Lina do a lesson on their iPad Minis at the first AltSchool in San Francisco. Photo: Michael Short, San Francisco Chronicle

AltSchool is opening very tiny, very expensive private schools in the San Francisco area and New York City to “disrupt education,” writes Rebecca Mead in the New Yorker. 

The venture-capital-funded K-8 microschools, founded by a former Google exec, use technology to personalize learning.

A girl in the class was completing an offline task—reading a book about polar bears. A boy lay on his stomach on the carpeted floor, headphones on, using a Web site called BrainPOP to learn how to calculate the perimeters of basic shapes. “Two out of five!” he shouted . . .

Two girls sat together, laptops before them, using Google Images to scroll through pictures of seals for a social-studies assignment; occasionally, they paused to compare notes. Every so often, a student spoke with the teacher, a young woman in jeans and a loose top, her iPhone tucked under her thigh as she sat on the carpet. One girl had been using her laptop to research castles—an area of sustained interest. She and the teacher discussed princesses and castles, and whether they always went together. “That’s a good question,” the teacher said, and then asked, “Does America have princesses?”

Teachers use an app to communicate with parents. “A network of audio and video recorders captures “every word, action, and interaction, for potential analysis,” writes Mead.

Parents pay $30,000 a year. If their kids do well, is it the school?

The Silicon Valley-based Summit charter network personalizes learning for a wide range of students — many from low-income and working-class families. The schools are free to parents and operate on a modest budget. That’s a lot more disruptive.

Facebook engineers have helped the school develop its Personalized Learning Plan platform, which is being made “available, for free, to schools nationwide,” reports the Los Angeles Times. Summit is helping 19 district-run and charters schools access “teacher training, mentoring guidance and the software.”

How to spend Zuck’s bucks

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and wife Priscilla Chan celebrated the birth of their daughter by pledging to give 99 percent of their wealth — $45 billion or so — to worthy causes, such as “advancing human potential and promoting equality.” They’ll make do with the remaining $450 million.

They’ve come in for a lot of criticism and kibbitzing.

Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan with their new born daughter, Max.

Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan with their new born daughter, Max.

Some want to tell them how to spend the money:  Don’t try to change things like Bill Gates!

Anil Dash advises funding “people and institutions that are already doing this work (including, yes, public institutions funded by tax dollars) and trust that they know their domains better than someone who’s already got a pretty demanding day job.”

Others accuse the couple of trying to dodge taxes. (Giving away 99 percent of your money is not a great way to save money.)

In response, Zuckerberg explained why they set up the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, as an LLC rather than a traditional foundation. They want flexibility.

“This enables us to pursue our mission by funding non-profit organizations, making private investments and participating in policy debates.”

. . . “If we transferred our shares to a traditional foundation, then we would have received an immediate tax benefit, but by using an LLC we do not. And just like everyone else, we will pay capital gains taxes when our shares are sold by the LLC.”

The Initiative will focus on “personalized learning, curing disease, connecting people, and building strong communities,” he wrote.

“Our education work has been funded through a non-profit organization, Startup: Education, the recently announced Breakthrough Energy Coalition will make private investments in clean energy, and we also fund public government efforts, like the CDC Ebola response and San Francisco General Hospital.”

The money will be wasted, predicts Gawker’s Sam Biddle. He sneers at Facebook’s support for Summit’s personalized learning platform — with no understanding of what it is.

The Washington Post describes the couple’s plans to provide private schooling and health care for low-income families in a heavily minority community, East Palo Alto.

RAND: Personalized learning leads to progress

Gates-RAND ContinuedProgress-ChartIn schools using technology to personalize learning, students made greater academic progress than a control group, according to a RAND study for the Gates Foundation.

Students with the lowest prior achievement made the greatest gains in reading and math.

Researchers followed 11,000 students attending 62 K-12 charter and district schools.

Teachers and administrators are using data generated by personalized learning tools to adapt their teaching, according to the study, notes edSurge. The most successful schools use data to group students and give students the opportunity to discuss their data with their teachers. They also create spaces for personalized learning.

Charter schools using personalized learning saw strong effects, but district schools, a much smaller part of the sample, did not, Neerav Kingsland points out. Was it personalized learning — or just highly effective charter schools? I think that’s a valid point.

When computers pick lessons

A blended learning classroom at David Boody Jr. High School in New York City.
A Teach to One math classroom at a New York City middle school.

A computer system decides which students need which math lessons at Boody Intermediate School in Brooklyn, writes Nichole Dobo on the Hechinger Report.

In a corner of a very large room, John Garuccio wrote a multiplication problem on a digital whiteboard. A computer system had identified which 20 students — out of 150 sixth graders in the room — need this lesson, based on yesterday’s quiz.

“Where does the decimal point go in the product?” asked Garuccio. When a boy provided the right answer, he added, “Tell me why. It’s good to have the right answer, but you need to know why.”

Teach to One: Math combines small group lessons, one-on-one learning with a teacher, learning directly from software and online tutoring.

Math class spans two 35-minute sessions, with students and teachers rotating to new stations after the first session. . . . On a recent day in December, the classroom was staffed with one math director, five teachers, two teaching assistants and a technology aide.

. . . The software used by the Teach to One system pulls lessons from a database created and curated by the program’s academic team.

A recent study found above-average learning gains at most Teach to One schools. In the study’s second year, Teach to One students performed 47 percent better than the national average, notes NPR.
Teach to One co-founder, Joel Rose, “credits that to the algorithm’s ability to improve itself, but also to second-year schools becoming more acclimated with the program and learning how to train teachers to better use the software.”

Here’s Justin Reich’s analysis of the research and the response by New Classrooms.

How to blend tech and teachers

Liz Arney’s new guidebook, Go Blended!,  shows “how schools should think about using technology and blended learning to better serve students,” writes Andrew J. Rotherham of Bellwether Education Partners.

Arney, one of the contributors to the Blend My Learning blog, is director of “innovative learning” for Aspire Public Schools‘ charters.

Blended learning — using learning software for part of the day — is often used to enable students to work at their own pace, freeing teachers to work with small groups.

Techies try home, un and micro schooling

Parker and Simon Cook.

Parker and Simon Cook are “unschooled” in Berkeley.  Credit: Timothy Archibald/Wired

Homeschooling — and unschooling — are attracting well-to-do techies, reports Jason Tanz on Wired.

Chris Cook never liked sitting in a classroom. He dropped out of college to work on computers. Samantha Cook blogs about parenting, education reform and other topics and “started a network of hackerspaces for kids,” writes Tanz. She “unschools” their two boys at home; their daughter has chosen private school.

“The world is changing. It’s looking for people who are creative and entrepreneurial, and that’s not going to happen in a system that tells kids what to do all day,” Samantha says. “So how do you do that? Well if the system won’t allow it, as the saying goes: If you want something done right, do it yourself.”

. . . Jens Peter de Pedro, an app designer in Brooklyn, says that five of the 10 fathers in his homeschooling group work in tech, as do two of the eight mothers.

“There is a way of thinking within the tech and startup community where you look at the world and go, ‘Is the way we do things now really the best way to do it?’” de Pedro says. “If you look at schools with this mentality, really the only possible conclusion is ‘Heck, I could do this better myself out of my garage!’”

Technology is making new education models possible, says Jyri Engestrom, a “serial entrepreneur.” He started by homeschooling his children with his partner, Caterina Fake, co-founder of Flickr and Hunch. That became a 10-student “micro-school.” Now students go part-time to an AltSchool  micro-school in which “teachers help students create their own individualized lesson plans,” writes Tanz. AltSchool is a startup created by an ex-Googler.

Homeschooling has its limits. Many parents don’t have the time, personality or ability. But the technology-enabled micro-school could be the next big thing in alternative education.

Disrupt and personalize

Online learning can personalize instruction — and make it less boring — says Michael Horn in a Reason TV interview. Horn is co-author of the new book, Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools.