“I Saw The Future and It Works”: A Visit to a Hybrid School

The quote in the title ran through my mind as I spent a morning in the Learning Lab and one classroom at a hybrid elementary school (K-5) in San Jose (CA).  With about 500 mostly Latino and low-income students chosen through a lottery, Los Suenos is a Rocketship charter school, in a rapidly expanding network of hybrid schools in California and across the nation.

With an extended school day beginning 7:55AM and ending at 4:00, a staff of 16 certificated teachers, 8 Learning Lab specialists, and parents who are expected to volunteer 30 hours during the school year work, a band of adults work closely with kindergartners through 5th graders. Each child has an individual education plan.  Nearly all of the teachers are drawn from Teach for America; none looked over 40. They make home visits and are available before and after school to both students and parents.

Much has been written about elementary schools that combine online learning for part of the school day with teachers in regular classrooms teaching lessons. See here, here, and here. I wanted to see a hybrid in action. Before unpacking the above quote, however, I want to report what I saw that morning.

All through the day on a rotating schedule, kindergartners and upper-grade students move through the Learning Lab which can accommodate up to 80 students. Each class is there for one quarter of the school day.

In these brightly-colored cardboard cubicles, each student has a computer and mouse.

Kindergartners through 5th graders find their name on the screen, login, and begin the reading or math program. Eight Learning Lab Specialists roam the large room. College students and parents in the community, the aides monitor what children are doing in their math or reading program, answer questions, and intervene when students’ attention fades or they are off-task. When students finish a lesson and pass the accompanying test, they raise their hands and an aide gives them a sticker which appears to be highly prized.

There are also round tables in the room where Learning Lab Specialists tutor small groups in either math or reading skills for short periods of time.

After the Learning Lab, students line up and aides take them to their classrooms (for information on Rocketship’s mission, staffing, and schedule see Rocketship Overview).

I visited a 2nd grade classroom where 28 children were sitting in a half-circle on the floor. Their energetic, enthusiastic teacher (a second-year Teach for America recruit) asked the children to answer the question whether immigration to the U.S. was good or bad. This question launched a project from which student teams were to find answers. The teacher was going over the different activities that each team would work on in their project. She had Bloom’s taxonomy on a chart next to her listing a hierarchy of cognitive skills. The taxonomy was like a ladder going from the bottom rung of remembering facts to the top one of using critical thinking when making judgments. The 7 year-olds knew from previous lessons each rung on the ladder.

I watched as the teacher read from a slip of paper describing an activity (e.g., pick a way to solve the immigration problem)  and then ask the children to talk to their team-mates and decide in which cognitive domain on the chart before them the activity should be put.  After a few moments of students talking to one another, she asked group members where she should stick the slip of paper. Students waved their arms to be called upon each time. After each domain had an activity pasted on it, she then asked the children to form into their preassigned groups and discuss how they would begin their project. The teacher had assigned roles for each student to perform in their small group (e.g., leader, time-keeper) with different colored dots at their desks. The students went into groups and began discussing their project.

What I saw in this lesson was a novice teachers engaged in ambitious teaching with 7 year-olds. How much the students understood of Bloom’s Taxonomy to apply it to the project they were working on and answer the overall question on immigration, I have no idea. What I saw was 28 students wanting to please their teacher and engaged in the part of the lesson I watched.

I left the classroom and went to meet with John Danner, CEO of Rocketship schools. Danner had started a software company and, after a few years, sold it when he was in his early 30s. He then became a teacher for a few years before he and a former Teach for America graduate came up with the idea of Rocketship. The next post describes the interview and other observations of the school. In the final post on Rocketship schools I will unpack the quote “I Saw the Future and It Works.”


Filed under Reforming schools, technology use

33 responses to ““I Saw The Future and It Works”: A Visit to a Hybrid School

  1. This is my idea of a dream classroom!

  2. Thanks Larry for this post. I am convinced “hybrid” of “blended” is the way forward for schools.

    Our Education Minsiter,Michael Gove,has had a bit of an epiphany on this issue and we have a public consultation going on at http://www.schoolstech.org.uk which you and some of your followers might find interesting ?

  3. Bob Calder

    Those study carrels are quite isolating aren’t they? Interesting setup. The kids are being taught to focus there.

    • larrycuban

      What I saw was that most of the students, even the kindergartners, at 9 AM were focused on the software but could easily get the adults’ attention. The aides moved around and were responsive to kids raising their hands and non-verbal behavior that showed inattention. So I didn’t think that the cubicles were isolating. The low walls tried to reduce interactions and distractions and they worked. In the afternoons, however, according to one of the Learning Lab aides, even with the walls of the cubicles,kids found it harder to attend to the software and did get distracted often.

  4. Ca.

    Apart from the obvious issues (selection bias, etc), I am easily convinced that decent CBT will help elementary kids build skills.

    What has yet to be proven or even examined is whether getting kids to grade level by 8th grade will significantly improve high school results. If you are reading at 8th grade level by 8th grade, are you as well-prepared to read Romeo and Juliet as a freshman as someone who was reading at 8th grade level by 2nd grade?

    • larrycuban

      Neither yet examined or proved, Cal. I asked CEO John Danner a related question about following fifth graders who left Rocketship schools into middle and then high school to see how they did in reading, math, other subjects, attendance, and graduation. The first class of Rocketship schools would now be in high school near graduation. He said that would take a pile of money to do that and he doesn’t have it but would welcome such an evaluation of elementary school graduates.

      • Cal

        I can’t see it taking that much. Rocketship Schools are in SJUSD, aren’t they? SJUSD has pretty good data and most of the kids should still be in that district. It’d be a fairly simple matter to search out the year by years on the first 50 kids or so. Small sample size, but interesting to check out.

      • larrycuban

        I agree, Cal. I put it to John Danner in a similar way but he said it was expensive so they contracted with SRI to measure cohorts in different years (2007, 2008, etc.) so no longitudinal data was collected.

  5. Cal

    Whoops–that last comment was mine.

  6. I look forward to your next posting about this hybrid school. So far something about this approach really troubles me, but I can’t quite articulate it yet. Normally I am all about project-based learning, and I operate off of a loose workshop model in my classroom much of the time. What you describe here, however, seems very.mechanized, or canned. How important, authentic and genuine are teacher-student relationships at Rocketship? Do kids and teacher spend truly valuable and extended time together, esp. one-on-one, or are the kids simply being moved through tasks according to a schedule?

    • larrycuban

      A visitor would have to spend far more time in Los Suenos classrooms than I did to get a sense of the project-based learning for both teachers and students.

  7. Gary Ravani

    I’m sorry, but real education to me still mans to encourage “interactions.” not restrict them. And the interactions are best mediated by a qualified, experienced teacher, not some “five week wonder” from TFA. Perhaps this is the model of the future. After all, the kids test scores do go up, even if the tests are terrible and the curriculum demeaned.

    I too, have had interactions with the leadership of Rocket Ship. Afterwards I always feel a powerful need to go out and buy a used car.

    Oh, “Brave new World.”

  8. Cal

    Larry–I couldn’t reply to your last comment to me for some reason, but I wanted to say how satisfying it was that you asked the same questions I would have. I shall pretend that it’s GMTA.

  9. Of course this is great stuff because it contains all the key elements of learning. These seem to be combinations of open and closed work, a degree of individual and team approaches, surprise and engagement, long and short time on tasks as appropriate, technology as needed, the idea of a journey and best of all high adult support throughout. In the UK learning engagement relies on the holy grail approach…first find an amazing teacher able to engage kids in learning. We have the rather dull RSA inspired ‘competencies curriculum’ which contains no competencies or rocket science and is in the wrong schools…

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  11. jendo89

    I would be very interested to know what background the children had or had been taught about immigration. Was it described as a “problem”?! Was there any indication that they’d been learning about this in class before this? Was that knowledge “activated” before they went off to solve a problem that stumps our entire country?

    It seems in the lesson you’ve described, they learned primarily about categorizing in Bloom’s than anything else. That’s at best a second level skill.

    Similarly, I’d have loved to have heard what the discussions in the project groups were like. It seems to me that 2nd graders aren’t the most likely to have a lot of information at their fingertips to do a good job at a project like this.

    Off to read the next two installments!

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for asking the questions but, sadly, I do not know what occurred in earlier lessons and did not stay long enough in the classroom to get answers for you.

  12. Andrew

    Are the kids happy?

    • larrycuban

      I have no idea whether the kids are happy.

      • Phil Piety

        I visited Rocketship a few weeks ago as part of research for a book I am writing. The kids were the same ages as my own and they all looked about the same as mine in school. The campus I visited had a modest jungle gym in the center and the classroom buildings were around it and a little garden. As I was going between the rooms I was observing the kids were out there and seemed to be having a great time.

      • larrycuban

        Phil, did you see the Learning Lab and classroom teaching? If so, what are your impressions?

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  15. Sridhar Rajagopalan

    The model looks great and is probably aspirational for all schools – a combination of individualised and team learning with strong teacher support where needed. Is data available on cost-per-child and is there data on actual impact on student learning (and holistic learning, ideally)?

    • larrycuban

      Hi Sridhar,
      The per-child cost data should be available from Rocketship. I did not ask for it when I visited. As for data on “actual impact on student learning” what are available are test scores (which, as you know, capture a narrow slice of what students learn. The rest of the data I heard about are individual stories that teachers and parents told about impact.

  16. I did see the learning lab and a little classroom instruction.
    The lab seemed fine. I was impressed with the plywood dividers that parents made to separate the kids at a table. The kids seemed engaged. The work they were doing was varied. None of it looked terribly high-tech or that pedagogically advanced. Still, I the kids seemed engaged and it was differentiated so I am open. It would be nice to see a more in-depth study.

    What I saw in the math class looked pretty normal given I have a kid in the same grade. It was small group instruction, very orderly. The teachers were almost all young TFA types, but the kids seemed to respond well to them and the same in the media lab.

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  18. Kristie

    As a parent at a Rocketship school and a former teacher I can tell you that it is a “work” in progress. The Learning Lab as it was is gone and they now have computers in their classrooms. I can see how the model works but I must add that the parents are really doing the heavy lifting too. We have a lot of homework and are expected to test our children at home. This I think is key to their improved test scores. When I started giving my son his sight word tests and math tests at home I was really mad at myself for not doing this when I was a teacher. Rocketship teaches parents to be teachers and in doing so they are making the parents responsible for their own child’s education. Rocketship is far from a perfect model but in San Jose where all of our neighborhood schools seem to be behind it is nice to know that people from all backgrounds can go to a school where the child comes first.
    I see that people from your posts are not to keen on Teach for America teachers. My sons teachers come from the best schools in the country and they are inspiring these kids to greatness.

    • larrycuban

      Thank you very much, Kristie, for describing changes in Rocketship that you have experienced. Your explanation for why test scores have risen in Rocketship schools may be correct–that is, working with parents to get homework done and test children at home. I appreciate your taking the time to tell readers of your experiences.

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