Rocketship Schools and The Future: Part 2

Rocketship has three charter schools in San Jose (CA) in 2012. Mateo Sheedy elementary (K-5) has been described in various places. I visited Los Suenos elementary last week. And Rocketship schools are spreading.

Just recently, the Santa Clara County School Board (CA) granted 20 additional charters for K-5 elementary schools to Rocketship Schools. By 2016-2017, Rocketship will be operating charters in eight school districts, serving over 15,000 low-income Latino children. In addition, Rocketship received a nearly $2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to open charter schools in Oakland (CA), Milwaukee, New Orleans, and Chicago. The pace of opening new charters and growing Rocketship schools in the next five years puts John Danner and his organization on the national map alongside KIPP, Green Dot, and charter school models that promise success to low-income minority parents and students.

The features that distinguish Rocketship schools from its neighbors in San Jose school districts and elsewhere are straightforward:

*Longer school day

*Teachers available outside classroom school hours

*individualized education plans for every student

*Widespread parent involvement in school

*Extensive computer resources devoted daily to customized basic skill instruction

*Credentialed teachers in self-contained classrooms work on writing, critical thinking, and soci0-emotional learning

*Less expensive to operate than neighboring public schools

I saw all of those features at work in my morning at Los Suenos. After the visit, I and two other visitors met with CEO John Danner to discuss Rocketship schools. We talked for nearly an hour. What follows are a few of the questions and answers that flew back and forth in a spirited conversation.*

Q: What makes Rocketship innovative?

A: The key idea with Rocketship is that there is a place for classroom instruction and for individualized instruction exactly at the developmental level of a child. We created a school model that incorporates both – we have six hours of classroom time and two hours of Learning Lab, which is where we do our individualized instruction, with tutoring and computers.

Learning Lab is not staffed by teachers; it’s staffed by instructional coaches, who generally have high school or college degrees but are not certified teachers. They get paid $14 an hour. We hand them a scripted curriculum; they oversee the work children are doing on computers, and they’re perfectly capable of providing instruction as long as we know exactly what each child needs to learn.

The net effect is that we save, with schools of about 500 kids, about half a million dollars a year, and we reinvest that then into the things that matter most for the school – training our teachers very, very well; empowering our parents; developing our leaders; paying our teachers a 20 percent higher salary than surrounding school districts.

Q: What connects classroom teachers to the Learning Lab to help teachers track individual kids?

A: We have Gates money to do fine-grained data analysis on basic skills of each kid in Learning Lab and then give teachers that information to help them in making their lessons on thinking and socio-emotional learning richer and targeted. Also I think teachers will want to access a variety of instructional options at distribution hubs. No one has built this yet, so Rocketship has begun developing something called Teacher Dashboard, and it will figure out where a kid should go, instructionally, and send them there.

Q: Do you see the Rocketship model of hybrid learning dispensing with teachers down the road?

A: Not at all. Our teachers are awesome. It’s not either/or. We just think that individualized instruction is better for basic skills. Do you really want teachers spending time on rote learning instead of critical thinking?

Q: Do you intend to move from elementary to secondary schools?

A: No. Teaching different academic subjects and the lack of software in those areas and the size of schools overwhelm me with the complexity of working with older children and youth.

Q: As you move out of San Jose to more Rocketship charter schools in California and other states, what is your vision?

A: Online learning should be responsible for the majority of basic skills learning,  freeing our teachers to use classroom time to teach students how to think. We believe that we will see … a 50/50 online/classroom hybrid model [with] properties that helps us scale up. First, we will have 10 teachers at each campus instead of 20. With 10 teachers on each campus, we have much less need for talent. With the extra money we save ($1M), we can double teacher pay to well over $100,000 per year. With Learning Lab … delivering 80% of basic skills, teachers can spend their class time to teach values and higher order thinking skills. We think that both financially and from a talent perspective, the model gets more and more compelling as we drive online learning forward.

Part 3 on Rocketship reconsiders the quote: “I have seen the future and it works.”


*During the meeting with Danner, I did not take notes or record the conversation. I recalled some of the questions that I asked and Danner’s responses. I also read a number of published interviews with Danner that asked similar questions. I provide links to those sources. Readers can see a short YouTube positive description by co-founder, Preston Smith, of the first Rocketship school in San Jose.

Readers can also see a John Danner talk on Rocketship in 2010.


Filed under Reforming schools, technology use

20 responses to “Rocketship Schools and The Future: Part 2

  1. Chris Angelini

    Dr. Cuban-
    Thanks for the additional info about the Rocketship model. I’m still a little on the fence about the 50/50 online/ classroom split, but I appreciate the use of “instructional coaches” in the learning lab. It seems as if that would be a great opportunity to cultivate and foster teaching experience for first-year TFA-ers, teaching fellows, and undergrad interns.
    I’d be interested to hear how Rocketship works with truancy, behavioral disruptions, students on IEPs, and other concerns that seem to be exacerbated in schools in urban settings. Also, I wonder if they have found any drawbacks or major hurdles to this type of hybrid-schooling?
    Looking forward to part 3…

    • larrycuban

      Part 3 will deal with other issues. I do not have answers to the questions you ask. I would have had to spend much more time at Rocketship to answer those questions.

  2. Sandy

    I am truly eager now to see how you unpack your quote.

    Nearing the end of 34 years as an educator, I’m feeling more and more like the help, the hired hands entrusted with the children, but not trusted. Something must be wrong with the teacher PR machine. It’s one of the reasons I want perhaps to run for school board. I attend civic meetings and hear residents talk like all the mistakes in schooling are made at the hands of the teachers. Somehow teachers are the ones who make policy and unreasonable demands and want more tax dollars for their greedy selves.

    So let’s reduce the number of teachers! Less money – for whom? Put it back into the school, how? Not measure performance of students who left 5th grade, incredible.

    I read this blog entry last fall. It tells the story of my educational experiences, right down to being required to coach the cheerleaders, sponsor the newspaper, and Hunterize my classroom. Are things really more dire in the school reform arena, or just more of the same packaged in a new box? Will there ever be a time that we assail poverty with the same vociferousness that we assail education?

    • larrycuban

      I read the fictionalized story of Sara the veteran New York teacher. Reform after reform has worn out Sara. You say her experiences mirror yours of the past 34 years. And then you ask, I suspect out of much frustration with both the public’s unreasonable distrust of teachers and repetitive reforms, two very tough unanswerable questions. Should you run for the school board, you may want to add another tough question to the two that you ask: As a veteran teacher who knows what it is like to teach for nearly 35 years, what expertise and wisdom do I have that will help all district students achieve school board goals? Finally, Sandy, if you want to “assail poverty with the same vociferousness that we assail education, I would not recommend running for the school board; I would recommend running for public office, joining an organization (or starting one) that has that goal.

  3. One point and two questions:

    1. Danner doesn’t see Rocketship spreading into secondary education because, as he said, “Teaching different academic subjects and the lack of software in those areas and the size of schools overwhelm me with the complexity of working with older children and youth.”

    But Carpe Diem schools are the secondary equivalent of rocketship. You can watch more here:

    2. In your visit to Rocketship, what did you think was lacking in a student’s experience there?

    3. Would you send your own kids to Rocketship or Carpe Diem?

    Thanks for your time,

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, Frank, for mentioning Carpe Diem as a secondary school model. There are others as well.
      Here are my answers to your questions:
      *”In your visit to Rocketship, what did you think was lacking in a student’s experience there?”
      I was at Los Suenos one morning. That is all. I would need more time observing and talking to children and aides in the Learning Lab; observe at least half of the teachers lesson over the course of a week; interview the teachers at least twice; interview parents randomly picked from a list of those who have fulfilled their obligation to volunteer–well, you get the picture, Frank.
      *”Would you send your own kids to Rocketship or Carpe Diem?” I and my wife would not have sent our two daughters to Carpe Diem had that school been available to them in the mid-1970s to early 1980s. What the school offers sounds fine on paper and looks even finer in the video, but as parents we did not then feel that online experiences was worth the time spent in front of screen rather than in classroom even though they had mixed experiences with various teachers.

      As for Rocketship, the school aims to take low-income students who are already behind in the primary grades in reading and math and bring them up to grade level with anywhere from 25 to 50 percent of their time spent at the computer with online programs. Our two daughters were not in that situation and the schools they went to were not re-segregated at the time. They were integrated schools. So we would not have sent our daughters to any of the Rocketship schools.

  4. I have to admit, this is the first time I’ve seen a hybrid school described in a way that makes me think there’s actually a “there” there.

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  8. Actually, Carpe Diem doesn’t seem to me very much like Rocketship, in that students at Carpe Diem are able to work entirely from home if they would like. Any model that allows students to go through school without dealing directly with good teachers seems inherently limited, given all of the research about the high importance of teacher quality.

    A more similar model is the BLAST program from LA Alliance Schools, which attempts to use the teachers more efficiently by focusing their attention on those things that computers can’t do–such as leading literature discussions or advance students’ thinking on conceptual math problems.

    It is a model very similar to the one that we will be deploying in Ghana and South Africa at African School for Excellence (, which we believe has the potential to provide affordable, reliable, globally-competitive education to students in the developing world–something that doesn’t exist today.

    (Btw, to Sandy’s question on “where does the money go,” I think Mr. Danner is fairly clear where the money goes: increased teacher salaries, better teacher development, and greater contact with parents. Makes sense to me.)

  9. Karla Alvarado

    HI Larrycuban I’m a parent of twin boys and they go to a public school here in redwood city ca, We are trying to open up a rocketship school here in redwood city and we are doing our best to bring more parents to come and support us, I like what you have wrtting and would like for you if you can come to one of our meetings that we will have and to come and support us. Thank you.

  10. Charles

    I have one question; how does blending learning accommodate students with specific learning disabilities?

    • larrycuban

      On the one day I visited in January 2013, I did not see (but nor did I ask) about accommodations for student learning disabilities. I suggest you get in touch with the current president of Rocketship who was principal of one of the first such schools.

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