California Charter ‘Rockets’ to Hybrid Learning Success

Published March 24, 2010

A San Jose, California-based charter-school network has set out to show fewer teachers plus more focused computer time can add up to improved learning for disadvantaged students without breaking the bank.

Cofounded by John Danner and Preston Smith in 2007, the nonprofit Rocketship Education is forging an innovative path with its hybrid learning model. Elementary students spend a quarter of their school day on software programs that instill basic math and literacy skills while tailoring the lessons to individual abilities and progress. Outside the Learning Lab, the rest of the students’ day is spent in a traditional classroom setting.

‘Unique Pedagogy’

“Rocketship Education’s unique pedagogy should be applauded for mixing technology to give kids extra practice and individualized instruction with block scheduling to offer each child a real individualized learning plan that meets the child’s needs,” said Lisa Snell, director of education and child welfare for the Los Angeles-based Reason Foundation.

A former software entrepreneur turned elementary school teacher before returning to his native California, CEO Danner teamed up with Smith—”a rogue district principal” who now serves as the school’s “chief achievement officer”—to mesh their skills and get Rocketship off the ground.

“He was very clear on what it took to create a high performing-school,” Danner said of his partner.

Results thus far have borne out their strategy. Rocketship Mateo Sheedy Elementary in San Jose was the first school to open, serving nearly 80 percent low-income students and an even larger share of nonnative-English speakers. Despite those disadvantages, the school has scored 926 on California’s Academic Performance Index (API), well above the state’s 800 benchmark score.

Rethinking Teaching

Danner says teachers should be treated like white-collar professionals. Demands on teachers’ time and energy are less than the intensive KIPP model but greater than a typical California district elementary school. His schools are able to maintain low class sizes while hiring only three out of every four teachers needed in a traditional setting.

“It’s a hard job,” said Danner. “We don’t believe even in hybrids that kids are going to get a year and a half’s progress without a lot of adult time.”

One of the greatest advantages of the successful hybrid approach is the productivity gained for the same dollar value.

“Rocketship has used technology to reduce the school’s labor costs and allowed the school to reinvest,” said Snell.

The money saved by hiring fewer teachers is invested not only in higher salaries (including merit-based bonuses) but also in student intervention programs, curriculum upgrades, and a four-year, intensive training program for school leaders.

“The hybrid school model saves so much money that it’s like receiving a half-million dollar check each year,” Danner said.

Future Plans

Seeking continuous improvement, Rocketship’s next objective is to speed up the organization’s assessment process to provide teachers with “real time data” about individual students’ specific academic strengths and weaknesses.

In all, the network has nine charters, two of which have begun operations (Rocketship Si Se Puede opened in San Jose last fall). The goal is to have 10 Rocketship schools open within four years and perhaps branch out to another state. As the network grows, Danner says he hopes to work with software vendors to focus on upgrading the program’s online learning resources.

Although Rocketship is a nonprofit, the venture has some prominent corporate supporters.

“I’m excited about Rocketship driving the next generation of online learning using their Learning Lab as the test bed for great new online curricula,” said Reed Hastings, Netflix CEO and co-chair of the network’s National Strategy Board.

‘Air Cover for Innovation’

A larger objective of Rocketship’s leaders is to combine the high academic quality achieved by many charter networks with the large scale of school districts, to expand educational opportunities dramatically without exhausting funds or the supply of quality teachers.

To achieve that goal, Danner said he believes the most important step policymakers can take is to reduce the legal and regulatory burdens he sees as biased against online learning. He says a bottom-up, generation-long effort to make American education more cost-effective could be achieved with help from the growing political consensus in Washington, DC, to turn around low-performing schools.

“It creates an awful lot of air cover for innovation,” Danner said.

Ben DeGrow ([email protected]) is a policy analyst for the Independence Institute in Golden, Colorado.

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