Rocketship Education, a once-renowned charter movement, goes for scale and could be sacrificing quality as a result

The essential idea behind Rocketship Education, when it opened, was almost on par with Henry Ford and the Model T. Basically, despite what naysayers might argue, there are excellent schools in America, and new ones do open up every year — or get new leaders, or more mature leaders, and start making strides. But typically it’s 1 here and 1 there — there’s no real model for mass-producing excellent education. Many networks have tried, and most have not succeeded, or — if they have — they’ve succeeded in a small pocket (say, “Anacostia in DC” or “south Chicago.”) Rocketship was audacious from the jump, openly talking about one day serving 1 million students.

The approach needs to be dialed back a bit at present, though — and that’s maybe not a great thing for Rocketship, which had plans to open 51 new schools in nine regions across the next half-decade.

Let’s start with their basic model, described here by EdWeek. You will hear this referred to as “blended learning” in other postings around the Internet:

The organization has relied on technology to accelerate student achievement, while cutting labor costs. For years, schools in the network have used the “station rotation” model of blended learning, with students cycling each day between about six hours of traditional classroom time and two hours of computer-assisted instruction in “learning labs.” That model, which helped give birth to the blended learning movement, has allowed Rocketship to replace one credentialed teacher per grade with software and an hourly-wage aide, freeing up $500,000 yearly per school that can be redirected to other uses.

OK, so every year they have about half-a-million dollars they can redirect to other uses (and this is per school). Those funds were often going back to create new schools. Again, the model was to mass-produce high-quality education — which in and of itself is a semi-preposterous notion, given that every child and every neighborhood in America is different in its own way. So their books were alright, and they were expanding — reaching scale — but what about their quality? That’s where things get murky.

At the beginning, things were strong:

The approach generated impressive test-score results, particularly in math: Rocketship’s early academic results far outpaced state targets, ranking its schools among the best in California when it came to serving English-language learners and students from low-income families, who represent the overwhelming majority of Rocketship students.

But as of late … not as much.

But as the network has grown, scores on California state tests have trended downward. According to an analysis performed at the request of Education Week by the California Department of Education, the number of Rocketship students scoring “proficient” or above in English/language arts has plunged 30 percentage points over the past five years, to 51 percent, while math proficiency rates have dropped more than 14 points, to 77 percent.

It should be noted that the newer model of Rocketship — in the last two or so school years — involves more targeted instruction, which people might conventionally know as “tracking,” but the modern-era term for it is “Blended Learning 2.0.” You can read a description of that here.

This chart goes back to that tension between scale and quality. As Rocketship has expanded, the test score side has obviously decreased:


I taught for a couple of years (Teach for America) and I’ve circled the education space in various capacities for a number of other years, and my basic two cents is: you can’t really mass-produce in education. It’s not a business. (Well, it is, but in a different way.) When we tried to make it a business on the sheer accountability side — which is basically how No Child Left Behind felt (that’s when I was teaching, right at the beginning of that arc) — it failed. Teaching at the public school level (and hell, at the private school level too) is about a connection between student and teacher (most important), but also a partnership between parent and school, school and community, and relevance and work. Without those things, nothing is going to ever happen that’s productive. If a teacher is checked out, that’s the worst thing; but if parents view a school as akin to day care, that’s right up there. If the school isn’t engaged with the community, that’s a problem — and if the work isn’t tied back to some kind of relevance (“Where could this skill be used?”), that might be your second-biggest problem behind a teacher being checked out. You need to fire on all these cylinders; in a way, running a 300-student neighborhood school can be more challenging than running a consumer products division of a Fortune 500 company. There, you need to crank out products and deal with issues. It’s hard, but it’s almost not as multi-layered as running a school (and yet, the pay difference is about 12-15x).

Diane Ravitch is now trying to stop Rocketship expansion:

And some call the whole thing ‘Planet Ponzi:’

Look, you can mass-produce a car pretty easily — we’ve been doing that, with generally high levels of success, since the 1920s. You can mass-produce Fritos and you can even turning online shopping into a mass-produced miracle (Amazon did that, basically). You can’t do the same with how kids learn, because so much of it is contextual to a specific community and specific experiences. I’m not saying here that you should only prepare students to live and work in that community — i.e. effectively telling them that they’re trapped — but you need to understand how the context comes back into the school, because it does.

On the broader side of splitting up the instructional day, that’s a good idea — but the class sizes are too large. There’s 109 kids being dealt with in that initial EdWeek example. 109! That’s insane. Even in five groups of 20, multiple kids are off-task. There are a million different studies about what class size does and doesn’t mean — I won’t bore you with them, because you’re probably not even still reading anyway — but I think smaller groups is, at the very least, a good idea. A group of six means each kid has five distractions in addition to the main work you’re trying to do. A group of three is two distractions. Now, the biggest challenge is, and always has been … how do you make the work interesting enough that the discipline almost does itself? That one’s a big question, and I’ve only seen a few elementary/middle teachers ever nail it (hell, college professors don’t often nail it; they rely on the idea that you should be mature enough by 19 not to get completely off-task, but walk around and check what’s on those laptop screens here and there).

I honestly believe that anything — any concept, any idea — that makes an effort to help with education is a good thing. I think they can (and do) go off-track pretty quickly in pursuit of bigger ideas, or financial efficiencies, or what have you — but more people need to be thinking about this general topic, because it is our future.

Ted Bauer