The answer is maybe. But not for all schools.
Like KIPP, Aspire, YES Prep Schools, Uncommon Schools and other charters including regular schools that have aimed at enrolling low-income minority children and youth–the bottom tier of the U.S.’s three tiered system of schooling (see post)–hybrids like Rocketship are the latest generation of the “effective schools” movement that began in the late 1970s. Aimed at urban failing schools, Ron Edmonds’ work on whole-school reform energized districts across the country as they replicated his five features (strong principal leadership, climate of high expectations for students, focus on basic academic skills, etc.) that seemingly accounted for high-achieving slum schools. John Danner meets Ron Edmonds (Interview).
What the standards,testing, and accountability movement has done for the past two decades is create different models of “effective schools” to rescue students from toxic urban schools. Rocketship schools founded just before the recent economic recession offers a less expensive hybrid model that combined historically underused technologies to customize learning basic skills with conventional classroom teaching aimed at stimulating creativity, thinking, and enriched forms of learning (see features of Rocketship schools in Part 2).
As in the past, these models concentrating on historically under-served populations have adopted features from one another particularly as budgets are cut and technology costs drop. So a Los Angeles KIPP Empower Academy, for example, adopts blended learning and becomes a hybrid. Or the Houston (TX) district creates schools that contain the features from KIPP and other high test-scoring models. .
My hunch is, however, that Rocketship, like KIPP and other options now available, will not penetrate most middle- and upper-middle class white and minority school districts. Over 80 percent of charters are in cities. Suburban charters have grown in the past decade as assuredly as demographics–urban minority residents moving into first-ring suburbs–have changed. Perhaps, the Evanstons (IL), White Plains (NY), and Daly Citys (CA) of the country are places where Rocketship schools might be welcomed but I would predict that few upper-middle class Palo Altos (CA), Northbrooks (IL), and Lexingtons (MA) would embrace Learning Labs and Teach for America recruits. Nor would donors ante up funds–as they have in generous amounts–to help establish such suburban charters.
The point is that Rocketship schools and similar ventures are niche projects tailored to rescuing the poor from low-performing schools in an environment where state and local spending has declined and will continue to drop for the next few years. That is not a criticism but merely an observation looking back nearly 40 years to the Effective Schools movement.
I, for one, believe that educational models like Rocketship entering urban districts during hard economic times stretch the imagination of what educators believe can be done with children and youth. I also believe that schools borrowing from the Rocketship model is both sensible and wise. The model will be critiqued and flaws will be found, as one would expect with any innovative intervention in a high-risk venture. Remember, like most businesses, many new schools, be they charters or otherwise, fail.
But the Rocketship or Kipp or Green Dot model is not tailored for all schools or all children. These elementary and secondary schools are a stripped down chassis of an “effective school.” Commonly such schools have few arts and humanities offerings, little science and social studies, and is sharply focused on getting students academically ready for the next level of education. Not so for affluent suburban schools and independent private ones. They have rich offerings in all of the above areas that the stripped down chassis lacks.
Also consider that the teaching staffs of schools such as Rocketship often have staffs with hardly anyone over 40 years of age or a decade of experience in teaching. Heavily dependent upon recruits from Teach for America and similar programs, these schools have high turnover rates.
Finally, there is no evidence that Rocketship graduates do well in secondary schools since no cohort of fifth graders has yet been followed into high school. Separating customized instruction in basic skills from higher level skills and socio-emotional learning, creative and critical thinking in regular classrooms is an IOU to children and parents that such a split will lead to lower rates of high school dropouts, higher rates of graduation, and college admissions for Rocketship students. Thus, absent such evaluations, it is a promissory note, not a fact.
Here is where I change the quote–”I saw the future and it works”–made originally by journalist Lincoln Steffens after he saw the early years of Soviet Russia. After this recent trip to Los Suenos Rocketship school and listening to John Danner, I would amend the quote to read: “I saw the future and it might work for many urban poor children if we knew more about what happens to those students in high school and beyond.” I agree that the amended quote is not as memorable as Lincoln Steffens’s words, but, hey, that’s the best I can do now.