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.

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.

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.

Future teachers

Digital learning will change teachers’ jobs, but we’ll still need teachers, writes Michael Horn in Forbes.

As blended learning grows in K–12 education, it is not eliminating teachers, but eliminating certain traditional job functions of teachers. This change in the role of the teacher is, as others and I have noted, in part about allowing computers to do what computers do well to free up teachers to do what only humans can do.

. . . It appears likely that there will be more room for teachers to focus on deeper learning by working with students on higher-order skills and the application of knowledge in rich projects. Teachers should spend less time handling mundane administrative tasks that suck up time and less time delivering one-size-fits-none lesson plans. Teachers will have far more time to work with students one-on-one and in small groups and target their interactions in more meaningful ways.

Many blended-learning schools are unbundling teachers’ roles, Horn writes.

Some teachers serve as content experts and others as mentors and learning coaches. Some focus on tutoring, whereas others specialize in small-group projects or on making the learning relevant to the outside world. Still others act as case workers or counselors (but actually spend the majority of their day in the learning environment with students) to focus on the non-academic problems—like food, health, or emotional issues—that too often trip up students (and sadly receive short shrift in many schools today).

Unbundling has enabled Rocketship Education to pay teachers more. At Summit Public Schools, a team of teachers works with students in a large learning environment.

D.C. debates growth of charter schools

The majority of public school students in Washington D.C. could be attending charter schools in a few years, reports the Washington Post.

Rocketship Education, a California nonprofit group that blends online and teacher-directed learning, wants to open eight D.C. charter schools that would enroll more than 5,000 students by 2019. Rocketship’s model has worked well for low-income and minority students in San Jose.

Rocketship’s charter application — which is the largest ever to come before District officials, and which might win approval this month — arrives on the heels of Chancellor Kaya Henderson’s decision to close 15 half-empty city schools, highlighting an intense debate about the future of public education in the nation’s capital.

. . . “Maybe we need an entire school system full of charters,” said Virginia Spatz, who co-hosts a community-radio talk show on D.C. education. “But we need to have that after public conversation, not by accident.”

Reading and math scores rose significantly in Washington, D.C. from 2005 to 2011, note Aaron Churchill and Mike Petrilli in a Flypaper post that asks: Do demographic shifts explain cities’ test-score changes? Median household income also is on the rise in D.C. (Your tax dollars at work!) 

PRI: Flip the regulations

Students are learning more in “flipped” classes that use Khan Academy lessons, concludes a Pacific Research Institute report by Lance Izumi and Elliott Parisi. Furthermore, flipping could save tax dollars and extend the reach of excellent teachers. However, the free-market think tank sees bureaucratic obstacles to the spread of flipped and blended learning.

In a pilot in a Silicon Valley school district, some fifth- and seventh-grade math teachers used Khan’s instructional videos and student-tracking software. During class, students worked on problems and projects in small groups or directly with the teacher. Math scores rose, writes founder Salman Khan in The One World Schoolhouse. Twice as many seventh graders reached grade level. With each student working at his or her own pace, “we were seeing that students who were put in the ‘slower’ math classes could actually leapfrog ahead of their ‘non-slow’ peers,”  Khan writes.

Urban charter schools also piloted Khan math lessons. At an inner-city Oakland charter school, sixth graders who started with a third-grade mastery of math reached the  fifth- and sixth-grade level in six months, Khan writes.

Excellent teachers can work with more students in a flipped set-up, argues the report, citing education technology experts Bryan Hassel and Emily Ayscue Hassel.

. . . if one class out of four in a school’s 4th grade has an excellent teacher, and she spends half her instructional time on whole group instruction and half on more dynamic/personalized learning, then if Khan takes over the former whole-group instruction, two 4th grade classes could have that teacher just for personalized/dynamic learning.

A relatively low-cost aide can supervise computer labs where students view lessons, saving money. That’s the model at Rocketship charter elementary schools, which are posting very strong test scores.

To expand Khan Academy, Izumi and Parisi recommend awarding credit for mastering subject matter rather that “seat time,” changing state funding to follow students to online and blended-learning courses and expanding school choice.

Replicating Rocketship

Rocketship Schools‘ blended learning model is producing high test scores in the network’s San Jose charter schools. Can Rocketship replicate? Learning Matters takes a look.

The model is being updated: Rocketship is considering shifting students’ online time from learning labs to the classroom and looking for ways to use online data to improve classroom teaching.

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.

K-1 kids learn math online

Online learning produced significant gains for young students at three Rocketship charter schools, according to an SRI analysis.

Kindergarten and first-grade students who used the DreamBox Learning program to practice math skills outperformed the control group by 2.3 points on the NWEA test, the equivalent of moving from the 50th to the 55th percentile. All students received 100 to 110 minutes per day of math instruction in the classroom. Half spent 22 hours on DreamBox over the 16-week period; the control group used DreamBox for only five hours.

Rocketship’s hybrid model combines traditional classroom learning with individualized instruction through online technology in the Learning Lab and intensive tutor-led small groups. Because the Learning Lab is supervised by aides rather than teachers, Rocketship saves money that can be used to pay teachers more, hire tutors and extend the school day.

It’s a big win for edutainment software, writes Venture Beat, which notes that Netflix CEO Reed Hastings bought DreamBox last year.  A long-time charter advocate who served on the state board of education, Hastings is a Rocketship backer.

DreamBox has created math software that is “adaptive.” That is, a child can log into the online game and solve problems and the game can react to the skill level of the child. If the child does well, the game adapts the lessons so that they are harder. If the child needs more help, the game adapts the lessons so they are easier.

Teachers don’t have to worry about being replaced by computers says Andrew Elliott-Chandler, a Rocketship math teacher who’s moving up to the principal’s job.

“A lot of the grunt work of teaching is switched out for getting to know kids,” he says. “That’s one of the exciting changes. As learning the math facts shifts to the Learning Lab, there is a whole array of activities and programming that I no longer have to do in the classroom and instead, I’m able to spend more time looking at my kids’ needs . . . really exploring more high-engagement, high-leverage lessons with my kids.”

Rocketship’s Chief Schools Officer Aylon Samouha says the organization is planning further studies to compare the effectiveness of the available software programs with additional tutoring and class time for teaching given concepts.

Though most Rocketship students come from low-income Hispanic families, test scores are much higher than the California average. The network is opening four new schools and wants to have a 29-school network by 2018.


What computers do best, what teachers do best

“There are things that the computer does best and things that teachers do best,” says John Danner, co-founder of Rocketship Education, in a conversation with Liz Willen on the Hechinger Report. Rocketship uses a “hybrid” model:  Students spend part of the day in small classes taught by well-paid teachers and the rest working at their own pace in a computer lab supervised by an aide. The San Jose elementary schools, which primarily serve low-income, immigrant students, are among the top-scoring high-poverty schools in the state. They even do well compared to schools with middle-class students.

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.

Rocketship hopes to open 20 charter schools in Silicon Valley by 2017 through partnerships with up to 11 school districts. Danner’s ultimate goal is to expand the Rocketship model to 50 U.S. cities, he tells Willen.