Is A Start-Up Ethos The Best Hope For American Public Education?


Education reform habitually generates more heat than light. For all the hype about “watershed” policy moments or existential “threats” to public education, the core experience of American PreK–12 education hasn’t actually shifted much in recent years. Remember how No Child Left Behind was supposed to dramatically overhaul public education? Well, now the Obama Administration’s waivers system has put it in mothballs. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Until they don’t. That’s where charter schools come in. Given the difficulty we’ve had turning around struggling district schools, some in education figure that it’s time to start over. Charters have hiring, curricular, and schedule latitude that most district schools can only dream of. Research shows that when states have effective oversight built into their charter laws, these schools get stronger student results than their district peers. And yet, charter schools only serve around 4 percent of American students. Even if it’s easier to build better schools from the ground up, they’re hardly expanding at a rate that would fundamentally remake education.

RocketshipNo one has explored charters’ promise as aggressively as the Rocketship network. While many high-performing charter schools have been cautious to expand, Rocketship has kept the pedal on the floor from the very start. Their ambition has proven both controversial and difficult to sustain. In his new book, On the Rocketship, Richard Whitmire offers a landscape view of the network’s struggles and triumphs as they try to scale high-quality educational offerings.

Rocketship began as the brainchild of John Danner, a tech startup guy who cashed in his chips and became interested in the achievement gap between students of different races in the United States. After teaching for three years and helping to start a KIPP charter school, Danner decided to set out to provide “one million high-quality school seats…[in] 2,500 charter schools” in 30 years. How? By beginning a charter school network that would operate like a startup. In Danner’s mind, this means focusing relentlessly on offering students from low-income families the best possible education as efficiently as possible. As Whitmire puts it:

In the traditional education world, who even tries such radical change? In that world, failing schools often go untouched for decades. And if something appears to be working, you leave the model untouched. That’s not how it works at Rocketship, which operates by backward mapping: first define your long-term goal, then decide how you will measure it, and then determine the steps that will get you there.

The book is full of decisions in this mold. Rocketship schools are perhaps most famous for their approach to “blended learning.” The network’s core model relies upon adaptive software and online tools to support student learning and identify students’ strengths and weaknesses. The computers also maximize the number of students the network can serve, by allowing teachers to target their instruction to smaller groups as they rotate in and out of the schools’ “Learning Labs.” For instance, this is how one of the network’s schools can have just 16 teachers (not counting aides) for its 630 students, while keeping classes small.

What about those tiny schools? They’re consciously designed to minimize costs and maximize production. Whitmire notes that the average Rocketship classroom is about ⅔ the size of the average American elementary school. They have little or no outdoor space beyond a basic playground, and “the principal’s office, copy room, or faculty lounge, has a way of getting transformed into some kind of academic function involving students, not adults.”

The startup approach extends into Rocketship’s approach to human resources. The network hires lots of young, alternatively-certified teachers, pays them (higher) salaries, trains them to teach within this unconventional model, and holds them to extraordinarily high expectations. It rapidly rewards successful instructors with more responsibility (and attendant expectations, of course).

At its core, Rocketship dares to ask “Why not?” when it come to truly audacious reforms to American public education. Whitmire’s book covers the rocky road they’ve traveled as a result. Big gambles do, in fact, deliver equally (at least) large challenges. After a series of rapid wins and school openings in the Bay Area, things became much more difficult. Their opponents have gotten increasingly organized, considerably slowing the network’s rate of growth in the area. Still, Rocketship opened a school in Milwaukee, and is opening schools in Nashville, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere in the next several years.

Even the slowed expansion brought difficulties. Changes in California’s school funding pushed Rocketship to dramatically overhaul their use of technology (a change discussed in detail in the book). Their generally strong student outcome data have looked less strong in recent years. Perhaps most surprisingly, Danner left to return to the tech world halfway through Whitmire’s year covering the network.

In a field accustomed to continuity, Rocketship has struck more than a few nerves. Critics see its small buildings, technology-driven efficiency, and approach to staffing as callous and corporate. But is it obvious that schools cannot learn anything from the startup model? Are we so confident that our existing school and district model is the only effective way to educate students? Indeed, are we confident that it’s effective at all?

Last week, the National Center for Education Statistics released new results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress showing no improvement on the nation’s achievement gap. Rocketship’s model, like all school design models, has more than a few disadvantages to go with its advantages. But it’s hard to fault them for taking a radical approach to such an intransigent problem.

Conor P. Williams, PhD is a Senior Researcher in New America’s Early Education Initiative. Follow him on Twitter: @conorpwilliams. Follow him on Facebook.