Special Report
Classroom Technology

Growing Pains for Rocketship’s Blended-Learning Juggernaut

By Benjamin Herold — January 21, 2014 11 min read
On the far side of the room, teacher Jason Colon works with a group of Mateo Sheedy's most-advanced 4th graders on a lesson about graphing coordinates. Students in flexible classrooms are re-grouping based on ability every six weeks or so.
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One classroom, 109 children.

For the next 40 minutes, half the 4th graders here at Rocketship Sí Se Puede Academy, a charter elementary school in a low-slung building nestled below Highway 680, will be split between the language arts and mathematics sections of the large room, working with two-dozen similarly skilled classmates and a credentialed teacher. A few will sit at a small table with the class’ lead teacher, receiving in-depth reading instruction targeted to their individual strengths and weaknesses. And roughly half the children will settle in front of a laptop, practicing math problems with help from an animated penguin named JiJi.

Welcome to the new “flexible classroom” from blended learning pioneer Rocketship Education—one of the country’s fastest-growing charter school operators, with plans to open as many as 51 more schools in nine regions over the next five years.

The Tension Between Scale and Quality

As the Rocketship charter network has added schools and students, the percentage of its students scoring proficient on California state tests has steadily declined. The organization aims to grow aggressively, with plans to add as many as 51 schools over the next five years.


SOURCES: Rocketship Education; At the request of Education Week the California Department of Education calculated the total percentage of all tested students in Rocketship schools who scored proficient or above on California Standards Tests in each of the past five school years. Only those students who met al CDE criteria for inclusion in state accountability reports were included.

Many look at Rocketship’s new approach, which represents a significant departure from the blended learning model that helped launch the Bay Area nonprofit to national prominence, and see the future.

But the story behind the organization’s flexible classrooms is also a cautionary tale about the belief that technological innovation can fuel rapid school expansion without compromising quality. Although test scores have steadily declined as the network has added schools and students, Rocketship has maintained its voracious appetite for growth. Rather than resolve that tension, the new flexible classrooms have, by Rocketship’s own admission, further strained the organization and exposed underlying problems glossed over during the group’s ascent.

Some Rocketship leaders, for example, now acknowledge that their original blended learning model—which powered the organization’s initial growth, to nine schools and 5,200 students, before its impact could be rigorously studied—may be more effective at teaching students to follow directions than to think for themselves.

Red flags also have come up around finances: Documents and interviews make clear that the new, flexible classrooms were originally devised as part of an audacious plan to cut staff, save $200,000 annually per school, and redirect the funds to help start up new Rocketship schools—a strategy that proved too aggressive, even for Rocketship, and has since been dialed back.

Fourth-graders show their work during a lesson on figurative language in a new "flexible classroom" at Rocketship Meteo Sheedy Elementary School.

And the on-the-ground reality has been messy, too. A sweeping experiment with flexible classrooms during the 2012-13 school year resulted in sharp networkwide test-score drops and dissension among the organization’s rank and file.

Rocketship CEO and co-founder Preston Smith staunchly defends the organization against critics who accuse it of pushing too hard to expand blended learning’s boundaries.

But even Mr. Smith concedes the network is at an “inflection point.”

“We need to figure out the flex model and get much more grounded on how we can consistently realize the levels of achievement we expect,” he said. “It puts us in this conundrum of do you continue to focus on innovation, and try to get it right, or do you actually start to push toward scale?”

Rethinking ‘Station Rotation’

Founded in 2006, Rocketship’s motto is “rethinking elementary school from the ground up.”

In pursuit of that lofty goal, 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.

In the center of the room, a software program delivers lessons tailored to the individual skill levels of a second group of Mateo Sheedy students. An hourly-rate aide oversees the students.

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.

Mr. Smith said those results led to immense parental demand, prompting the organization to try to grow as quickly as possible.

This fall, Rocketship opened a new school in Santa Clara County, in California’s Silicon Valley, as well as its first school in Milwaukee. A school in Nashville, Tenn., and another in the Bay Area are on tap to open in the fall. By 2017-18, Rocketship aims to serve more than 25,000 students in 60 schools across the country, according to board documents.

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.

Lynn Liao, Rocketship’s chief programs officer, said the organization has also received troubling feedback on how students educated under the original blended learning model fare in middle school.

“Anecdotal reports were coming in that our students were strongly proficient, knew the basics, and they were good rule-followers,” Ms. Liao said. “But getting more independence and discretion over time, they struggled with that a lot more.”

Like other blended learning practitioners and advocates, Rocketship has now come to believe the station-rotation model is too rigid and leaves too wide a gulf between the computer-based learning labs and traditional teacher-led classrooms.

“There’s [now] a general consensus that...station-rotation can produce impressive student outcomes within the narrow band that state testing represents,” said Andrew J. Calkins, deputy director of Next Generation Learning Challenges, a Washington group that backs blended learning. “But by itself, it’s insufficient to bring students to the level of skills and knowledge required for 21st-century success.”

The center of Mateo Sheedy's flexible 4th grade classroom is also for independent work overseen by the same aide. At right, Celeste Martinez examines a Pablo Picasso painting.

Complicating matters for Rocketship were weak school budgets and the possibility of further cuts in California state funding—both of which threatened the organizational growth slated to begin in fall 2013.

Rocketship’s response, hatched in mid-2012, amounted to doubling down on the formula that first made it a national phenomenon: To bolster academic quality, generate more efficiencies and continue growing, the group sought to leverage the power of technology even further.

Three months into the 2012-13 academic year, Rocketship began knocking down classroom walls in order to quickly pilot the new, flexible classroom model.

A Rocky Rollout

A timer inside Sí Se Puede Academy’s new, wide-open 4th grade classroom turns to zero, and the three teachers in the room give each other quick nods. One turns on bouncy pop music, the soundtrack that accompanies “rotations” in Rocketship’s flexible classrooms. Like that, all 109 children in the room are on the move.

Within three minutes, four separate groups of students are settled in new seats, engaged in four very different lessons.

The seamless rotations now are a far cry from the chaos of the 2012-13 school year, said Principal Andrew Elliott-Chandler.

During that year, when Rocketship was piloting its new, flexible blended learning model, the changes at Sí Se Puede began in 2nd grade in November. By December, the entire school was testing an alternative version of the model that had flexible groups of students rotating among separate classrooms. In April, Rocketship changed things up again, moving the 2nd, 4th, and 5th grades to the flexible spaces that remain in place today.

“Kids like to know the rules of the game,” Mr. Elliott-Chandler said. “When you try and change midyear, it’s very challenging.”

On paper, rapid overhauls of the basic building blocks of school, from classroom space to student schedules to teachers’ roles, was consistent with Rocketship’s tech-startup ethos.

In practice, it meant teachers had to continually rethink their strategies for controlling student chatter, passing out homework, and nearly everything else—and that even small classroom adjustments now required consensus among several colleagues.

Making things more difficult, Rocketship initially sought to use the new flexible classroom model to shed professional staff.

In public, the organization has historically characterized its schools’ student-to-teacher ratio as 27-to-1, but that figure includes tutors, who are not required to have a college degree and who make roughly $30,000 per year. In reality, the network’s ratio of students to credentialed teachers is 37-to-1.

According to board documents and interviews, Rocketship leaders initially considered using the new flexible classrooms to push that figure as high as 50-to-1. They also believed one assistant principal per school could be cut under the new model.

The result would have been $200,000 in annual savings per school, on top of the 15 percent management fee that Rocketship already charges each of its schools.

Mr. Smith, the CEO, acknowledged that the organization’s initial intent was to use that money to provide startup funds for new schools, but said that plan has since been scrapped.

Gary J. Miron, a professor of education at Western Michigan University, in Kalamazoo, who studies charter-management organizations, questioned Rocketship’s willingness to even consider such an approach.

“It is wrong to call these schools ‘charter schools,’ ” Mr. Miron said. “The appropriate name should be ‘franchise schools’ or ‘corporate schools.’ ”

The rocky pilot of the new flexible classroom model also led to internal complaints.

Fifth grader Daniella Castro works on a Chromebook in a quiet corner of the 5th grade flexible classroom at Mateo Sheedy.

The organization lost 29 percent of its teachers after the 2012-13 school year, badly missing its internal targets for retention.

Those who stayed remained skeptical, Mr. Smith told the Rocketship board.

“There is a consensus amongst school staff that the instructional model will not help Rocketship achieve its mission,” he wrote in an August 2013 memo.

Test scores plummeted in the first year of the new model, too.

Mr. Elliott-Chandler, the Sí Se Puede principal, summed up the problem.

“The story became about change and innovation, which is different than focusing on writing instruction,” he said.

Slowing Down

For critics, there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical of Rocketship’s emphasis on quickly bringing innovation to scale, both in California and across the country.

Mateo Sheedy Assistant Principal Casey Rowe sits in on a 5th grade math lesson. "The open space exacerbates the challenges of a normal classroom," he said.

“It might work for developing technology, but these are children,” said Roxana Marachi, an associate professor of education at San Jose State University. Ms. Marachi advocates Rocketship “halting their expansion plans and putting more resources into research on what they’re already doing.”

While that appears unlikely, the organization has eased off the throttle.

Shortly after becoming CEO in March 2013, Mr. Smith limited Rocketship’s use of flexible classrooms to grades 4 and 5, where the organization found the most academic benefit. Kindergarteners remain in self-contained classrooms, and grades 1 through 3 continue with the station-rotation model.

In addition, said Mr. Smith, the flexible classrooms are no longer being looked at to generate cost savings.

And for now, the new model is also being limited to the Bay Area: Rocketship Southside Community Prep, which opened in Milwaukee in September, is not using flexible classrooms in its first year, and neither will the new school set to open in Nashville next fall.

In his August 2013 memo to the Rocketship board, Mr. Smith wrote that the rapid change last school year “turned up pressure on schools while reducing focus and support on academic results” and that “underlying gaps in our academic systems and teacher preparation became apparent.”

In an interview, he said the organization has committed to going slower with its new model.

See Also

Read a related story: ‘Flexible’ Classrooms: Blended Learning 2.0?

“We stepped back and said, ‘OK, we think there’s something here worth pursuing,’ and now we’re doing it in a much more limited and focused manner,” he said.

But Rocketship still faces pressure of several sorts.

In Milwaukee, for example, the organization missed its student-enrollment targets this year by a significant margin, leaving a roughly $1 million hole in its new school’s budget.

Meanwhile, blended learning enthusiasts, undeterred by such troubles, remain eager for Rocketship to remain aggressive.

“The advance guard in the field has to be willing to take something of a risk, because there’s a lack of evidence that the traditional school model has brought all of our students where they need to be,” said Mr. Calkins of Next Generation Learning Challenges.

The greatest pressure, though, comes from within: Rocketship officials maintain a steadfast conviction in the power of the educational model they are developing.

Sitting in the flexible 4th grade classroom at Sí Se Puede Academy, Mr. Elliott-Chandler watches a teacher take six students through a lesson on finding synonyms in a text. It’s high-level reading instruction the children likely wouldn’t have received as the lone advanced student in a typical classroom of 30, sitting alongside many children still learning how to sound out words.

Those struggling students will now get tailored lessons, too; Rocketship’s flexible classrooms allow for daily work with small groups of students at eight different skill levels.

Despite the painful changes of the past year, Mr. Elliott-Chandler is optimistic about the future and says he couldn’t imagine a return to the traditional public school where he started his career.

“It’s now 10 years since I started working there, and they’re still struggling,” he said, the old Rocketship swagger resurfacing.

“That’s what incremental change will get you: incremental growth.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 29, 2014 edition of Education Week as New Model Underscores Rocketship’s Growing Pains


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