Are Rocketship Schools the Future? Part 3

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.


Filed under how teachers teach, Reforming schools, technology use

18 responses to “Are Rocketship Schools the Future? Part 3

  1. Pingback: dy/dan » Blog Archive » The Implicit IOU

  2. Cal

    Great post.

    I think the follow-through to high school is an essential missing piece in all of these charter schools, but also the whole mindset in education reform.

    The entire reform effort seems directed toward elementary and middle school. I’ve read many reformers, as well as the occasional dilettante pundit, express the opinion that “if we can keep them at grade level in middle school, then everything is in place for success.”

    As I said earlier, there’s simply no evidence of this. High school work ups the cognitive load in a big way. Getting kids to grade level may not be enough. There may be some other factor involved.


    • larrycuban

      Overall, Cal, I agree that, like the effective schools movement in the 1980s, the focus initially was on elementary schools. So it has been for charters. However, keep in mind that the small high school movement, initially from the alternative schools of the 1960s, got jump-started again in the late-1980s with Ted Sizer’s Coalition of Essential Schools and then Gates money in the 1990s. Nonetheless, your overall point in your last paragraph is, for me, accurate.

      • Dan

        Dr Cuban – thanks for the series on RSED! I’ll be touring there this Thursday and reading your pieces was fantastic background.

        @Cal – I think there’s a strong recognition among more established charter operators that immediate growth in proficiency test scores is not enough. The KIPP founders have been talking about “to and through” (college) as their goal for quite some time. If you read the MATCH founder’s blog “starting an Ed school” this is one of the issues he grapples with the most as well. And in my neck of the woods (Denver, CO), urban charters are mostly middle schools and high schools.

      • larrycuban

        Thanks for the comment, Dan. Let me know what your impressions are after your visit.

      • Cal

        (sorry for that leftover “both”)

        Oh, I know that many charter schools are high schools. Summit, Downtown College Prep, Aspire, EPA, and that’s just to name the ones in a 15 mile radius from Stanford.

        But the small schools coalition is on the progressive side, and most of the “famous” charter highs I can think of locally are also fairly progressive. That is, they hire heavily from Stanford, they are focused on pedagogy and a “meaningful” curriculum, and only want good test scores to keep themselves funded and meaningful, not because they think test scores are a key to a good education.

        KIPP and Rocketship Academy are reform schools, focused on behavior management, culture shift (rather than acceptance and adoption of curriculum to meet the culture), and demonstrated ability through tests.

        I was thinking primarily of our conversation in the other thread, about whether or not these gains matter to high school achievement–in a charter school or otherwise.

        Dan, I know that KIPP in particular is interested in follow-through, but I also noted that, for a program obsessed with test scores, they never provided that basic information in their follow-up. What are the test scores of that initial population they studied? They could certainly have used the SAT/ACT, if nothing else. They could have also asked how many of their students spent time in remediation. Both of those would have been excellent indicators of how well their students had maintained their skills. It would also have been useful to know if the kids who did graduate did so because of better than average skills or simple perseverance (not to be sneezed at).

        And as I said above, of course there are charter high schools. As a rule, though, they aren’t doing terribly well at eliminating the achievement gap. All the huge success stories in charter schools–the ones that everyone think can change education if we’d just do what they do–are elementary schools.

        So what happens when these high achieving elementary school kids get to high school? The assumption is that, prepared so well, they will be able to compete on equal footing. But there’s no evidence of that.

        For example, I am reasonably certain that not a single high school–charter or otherwise–has ever been able to get its black or Hispanic population to anything approaching white or Asian test scores in high school math (algebra, geometry, algebra II). If KIPP elementary school students who went on to high school had done anything close to that, I feel sure KIPP would have mentioned it.

      • larrycuban

        Thanks, Cal, for re-asserting the important hole in so much of the hype about high-performing elementary schools. That hole is: how do those kids do in high school and beyond? And for high-performing high schools, be they charter or otherwise, what happens to kids who come from these high-performing schools insofar as remediation, persistence toward graduation, and completion of degrees, and the jobs they secure in a tight job market for even college grads. The lack of such cohort studies–what used to be called “follow up” studies–strikes me as a huge hole in claims made about low-income students succeeding in elementary and secondary schools.

    • I was told at the a grand opening of Mosaic Rocketship School, that Rocketship schools operate on ADA the same as other public schools. Their philanthropic dollars are used only to aquire property and to put up two story modular school buildings to most effectively make use of land.

  3. Just a couple of thoughts: It appears from your visit that you have validated what others have discovered about Rocketship – they have passionate and dedicated teachers. The teacher is critical for success – whether face-to-face, blended or online. Although John Danner talks about the importance of online learning/blended learning for students in Rocketship (Grades K-5), I think it is really about how the teachers use that information. My understanding is that Rocketship has customized the learning lab content so that technology is easily useable by teachers. It is obvious that the teachers have been trained and guided how to best use that information to best meet the needs of their students. You and others compare Rocketship to Aspire and KIPP Schools, but I’m not sure that is a fair comparison since Aspire and KIPP run K-12 schools. Finally, I do wonder if kids on computers for two hours a day as part of their school day can really be called “blended” learning since the students always stay at school and to my knowledge, do not access the computer content from home nor do students have much control over the computer content after their initial placement. Regardless, Rocketship is making a difference in the lives of kids and that is what is the most important!

    • larrycuban

      Rob, thanks for your comments. Yes, Rocketship does have donor grants to push ahead on different aspects of their program such as creating performance indicators for teachers (Gates money). The question you raise about whether they will be able to sustain the model in California because of cuts in state funding is one that is crucial to the future of charters and regular public schools. As you know, Rob, hybrids have fewer certified teachers and have the capacity to increase Learning Lab time to half of the instructional day; Los Suenos was at one-quarter of instructional day. Rocketship’s expansion to other states–as KIPP and Aspire have done–gives their charter models more state and local funding. My hunch is that hybrids will continue to look attractive to educational entrepreneurs as long as fiscal retrenchment continues.

      • Good points, I agree. The hybrid model works well at the K-6 level when you can have fewer teachers who teach all subjects, but the funding becomes more challenging when you have subject specific teachers at the end of each online course at the high school level.

  4. And one more thing I meant to include in my last post. Rocketship has a series of grants from a variety of benefactors including the Gates Foundation. Will they be able to financially sustain their model after these grants of money and only have the ADA or charter school funding in California that all other charter schools and traditional schools are having to live with?

  5. Pingback: Are Rocketship Schools the Future? Part 3 | Jewish Education & Technology |

  6. “……..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. ”

    Los Altos School District (partly Palo Alto) was the first Kahn Academy software pilot. While certainly not the full Rocketship treatment, I believe it does indicate the high performing students’ parent will rapidly embrace appropriate classroom computer technology.

    The “control panel” approach to Kahn software is exactly how many professionals are used to managing information and performance. It’s natural for professional parents to assume that some learning would be best done by computer.

    • larrycuban

      Yep, you are correct, Don, about Los Altos adopting Khan Academy videos and “flipping” them for use in classrooms. Yet that is far from devoting 25 percent or more of a school day to screen time in a Learning Lab, as Rocketship schools do, to improve basic skills in math and reading. Whether other affluent schools will pick up Khan Academy videos is another issue quite different from the Rocketship model.

  7. Great post Larry. Ken Zeichner sent it for our writing about charters in WA coming it appears.

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