Rocketship's cofounder departing for online learning startup

John Danner

John Danner

John Danner is leaving Rocketship Education, the innovative, Palo Alto-based K-5 charter school network he cofounded seven years ago, to become an entrepreneur again. He is starting an as yet unnamed company, he says, “out of my frustration that the online learning space never embraced student-centered learning, so we are going to try to do it right.”

Rocketship announced Thursday that Rocketship President Preston Smith, a former teacher who started Rocketship with Danner and was the principal of the first Rocketship school, will become both president and CEO.

Danner and Smith said that the transition was planned from the beginning of Rocketship and that now, with Rocketship facing its next stage of growth, is the right time. Rocketship, with about 200 employees, operates seven schools with 3,800 students in San Jose with approval to open 30 in Santa Clara County within five years. In August, it will open an elementary school in Milwaukee, its first out-of-California expansion. Rocketship’s board will vote next month on whether to open the first of several schools in Nashville.

Preston Smith

Preston Smith

“We will continue to work relentlessly at Rocketship to ensure that the achievement gap is eliminated in our lifetime in San Jose and beyond,” Smith, who has overseen Rocketship’s operations over the past year, said in a news release. Bringing it to scale, including developing a cadre of new leaders, is the next challenge, he said.

Danner founded, ran and then sold NetGravity, an Internet advertising software company, before teaching for three years in Nashville. He returned to San Jose, convinced that online software, programmed to track to individual students’ learning, could fill in gaps in students’ knowledge and teach rudimentary skills, freeing up teachers’ time for more in-depth instruction.

The learning lab that students attend for 100 minutes daily, run by paraprofessionals, also saves money in personnel, which Rocketship plows back to hire two extra administrators at each school: an assistant principal and academic dean to train teachers. Most of Rocketship’s teachers are beginning teachers, recruited from Teach for America.

So far, the model has worked. The overall API score for Rocketship schools, where 80 percent are English learners and 90 percent are from low-income families, was 855 last year, far above the average for schools with minority students.

But Smith and Danner remain dissatisfied with the limitations of commercial online software and the difficulty in smoothly feeding helpful information on individual students’ performance in the learning lab to the classroom teachers so that they can tailor instruction. That’s the illusive goal of personalized learning and is one area that Danner’s new company apparently will focus on.

Smith said that Rocketship is developing the next iteration of hybrid or blended learning, which will involve integrating computers in a classroom setting.

Danner’s startup company plans to work closely with Rocketship. In order to avoid a potential conflict of interest, Danner is stepping down from Rocketship’s board of directors. “Rocketship is the first partner, and hopefully it will make it easier for all schools to become student-centered,” he said in an email.








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21 Responses to “Rocketship's cofounder departing for online learning startup”

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  1. Paul Muench on Feb 3, 2013 at 8:18 pm02/3/2013 8:18 pm

    • 000

    I agree on the discomfort with looking seriously at data. My first District Advisory Board meeting made me sick to my stomach (not using this as an expression). The district personnel trained to present the statistics to parents only wanted to say that the scores had gone up from either the prior year or from two years ago. Having looked at the long term data myself I already knew that the numbers were essentially flat. I eventually couldn’t take it any longer and had to interrupt and contradict the theme that was being presented. Once confronted the district leadership concurred that the bigger picture showed that the numbers were flat. That’s when I learned there would be no concrete discussion with parents of what was going on within the district in regards to test scores. The anticipation of contention and difficulty is so strong that avoiding the topic all together was deemed the best approach.

  2. John Fensterwald on Feb 3, 2013 at 11:17 am02/3/2013 11:17 am

    • 000

    Touche, Chris. It didn’t come out quite as I intended. I meant to indicate that my thought was pretty obvious, and Rocketship no doubt was already considering the implications.

    The larger questions you ask about the wiser use of money applies across the board, to all who oversee public education: Should it go to smaller classes, technology, professional development, Saturday classes (not if it’s just more of the same students get during the week).

    Rocketship gives tours frequently and meets with those who want to see and question the model. It’s up to charter authorizers to go further and look at the data, I agree. Often, it’s foundations that are funding the more intensive studies of blended learning and other innovations. Those multi-year studies can be expensive, and charter overseers don’t get that kind of money on the 1 percent to 3 percent fee they are entitled to as authorizers.

    Keep in mind that the lack of oversight and evaluation is hardly limited to charters. Have you seen an independent evaluation of the $2 billion QEIA program that established smaller classes in poorer districts – the deal between the CTA and Gov. Schwarzenegger? There is none, and none is planned.


    • Chris Stampolis on Feb 3, 2013 at 12:57 pm02/3/2013 12:57 pm

      • 000


      Excellent question about QEIA. Three reports by CDE were required by the Legislature. The first is published at

      The second was due in January, 2012 and does not appear to be posted. The third QEIA report is due in January 2014.

      As far as the need for “independent evaluation” overall, I’m not as bothered by the need for “independent” as I am for the need of “evaluation.” When is the last time individual board members were asked any data questions by the media that go deeper than summary API? Do we have an expectation of data awareness and facility by elected Trustees?

      I appreciate your willingness to bring some light to public discussions of public education. After just a few weeks on the K-12 side of the fence, I am surprised by the depth of defensiveness that chills discussions about student proficiency. We can question data respectfully without being accused of micromanaging; we can ask about pay trends and prices of medical benefits and a whole range of financial oversight without fostering hostility; we can advocate for equity and achievement, while still supporting public schools. At least in theory.

      Some charter leaders really are focused on children and the public good. Others’ ventures are less prophetically-targeted. Surfacing reality is necessary.

      It is true overseering agencies only get 1 to 3%, and that’s not much. But it costs nothing to agendize public discussions of data at school board meetings, much of which is in the public domain at the CDE website, with the rest easily disaggregable via existing internal reports. The real cost is not so much financial as it is Trustees’ meeting time.

      I’m not sure what it is about our shared regional culture that fosters discomfort with data review and public discussion of numbers. With hundreds of millions of dollars dependent on public decisions, one might think we can have frequent collegial discussions of proficiency that go deeper than surface accolades or critiques.

      Best regards,
      – Chris S.

  3. Chris Stampolis on Feb 3, 2013 at 10:45 am02/3/2013 10:45 am

    • 000

    John, your phrase “No doubt the smart folks at Rocketship are taking all of this into account” reads more like cheerleading than journalism.

    The data from Rocketship’s first years of operation merit serious discussions about replicability. Many school board members want to know what’s working and what’s not working, so successes can scale up.

    Rocketship is funded with public money, yet Rocketship too often advocates an us vs them approach.

    And if one asks Rocketship’s chartering agency board members or those agency’s highly paid public administrators about what actually is and is not working at Rocketship, the answer is “Uh, we dunno.” That’s not a slam at Rocketship, as they do not self-oversee. It is a slam at the lack of oversight and courage to realllly get into the numbers.

    Do we need longer school days? More parent buy-in? More National Merit Scholars in teaching roles? More computerized learning? What is different? Specifics. Details.

    There is way more money in the public school system – cumulative – than even with the private folks who supplement Rocketship. Perhaps we need a JPA between public school districts to develop appropriate software for children. We definitely need to discuss the necessary changes. This is time for leadership – with a focus on real data and facts. Not just rah-rah.

    Chris Stampolis
    Trustee, Santa Clara Unified School District

  4. John Fensterwald on Feb 3, 2013 at 9:45 am02/3/2013 9:45 am

    • 000

    I think we can find common ground here:
    Paul, there was no lack of transparency that I can see on Rocketship’s part on reporting the planned succession of leadership. Suz raised a legitimate point about John Danner’s ties to DreamBox,a software company that Rocketshp uses, that I didn’t think to ask.

    Rocketship’s plan to move away from the language lab – the use of “abandon” may be too premature – was first reported in late December by PBS reporter John Merrow and teachers he interviewed in an excellent piece – Caroline, Chris and others are right in asking me and others in the press to follow up.

    Rocketship has cited the language lab as a key piece of its success, so any change – moving the computers into the classroom in some fashion – deserves reporting, along with a deeper look into the limitations of the language lab.

    I had found Rocketship’s teachers, principals and tech folks quite open about the potential and the challenges of language lab. Part of the problem was the responsiveness or adaptivity of the software now on the market, particularly for reading; part of the problem was how to get the information from language lab to classroom teachers in a way they could quickly respond to individual kids’ needs. But I have not heard anyone from Rocketship doubt the importance of personalized online learning to Rocketship’s future. Rocketship has been experimenting in some schools with a new model. We should know more within a few months about where Rocketship is headed.

    One more thought: Rocketship was designed brilliantly in response to California’s low level of funding. The money freed up from learning lab – the use of lower cost aides to run the lab – paid for what California’s schools need the most: more ongoing teacher training with on-site expert teachers to mentor them. (I happen to share the concern of those who question Rocketship’s over-reliance on beginning teachers even while it pays them more.) But if Rocketship is moving to states with more money for education, and if California is headed toward a new funding formula with more money for schools like Rocketship, serving high numbers of low-income kids and English learners, shouldn’t Rocketship then re-examine the financial underpinnings of the current language-lab based model? No doubt the smart folks at Rocketship are taking all of this into account.

  5. Paul Muench on Feb 3, 2013 at 7:22 am02/3/2013 7:22 am

    • 000

    I got the general point about transparency being good. My question is, do you think something in this particular case is not transparent that should be?


    • CarolineSF on Feb 3, 2013 at 7:45 am02/3/2013 7:45 am

      • 000

      The learning labs have been widely promoted and hailed as the reason for Rocketship schools’ high test scores. In light of that, I don’t feel that the explanations given have clarified the reasons for scrapping them. Since I need to stay relatively nonpartisan in public discussion these days, the best I can say is: Please badger the Rocketship sources until they give a clear explanation. That’s the press’s job.

  6. CarolineSF on Feb 1, 2013 at 11:10 am02/1/2013 11:10 am

    • 000

    I don’t see how anyone could assume *failure* about Rocketship. But this organization has been widely hailed based on its test scores and its Learning Lab model. When it suddenly announces it’s abandoning the model that has been hailed as a success, the appropriate response for journalists is to ask a lot of questions. When the rather larger-than-life founder announces, almost simultaneously, that he’s leaving, this should prompt journalists to ask even more questions.

    Calling for thorough, aggressive journalism isn’t tantamount to assuming failure.


    • Paul Muench on Feb 1, 2013 at 10:02 pm02/1/2013 10:02 pm

      • 000

      Why aggressive instead of insightful or thorough? Aggressive seems to imply that force is required in order to uncover something that is purposely being hidden. And what better to hide than a failure when success has been touted. Seems pretty clear from my perspective.

    • John Fensterwald on Feb 2, 2013 at 10:30 am02/2/2013 10:30 am

      • 000

      Caroline: If Rocketship announced it was abandoning online learning, THAT would be news. Best I can figure is that it is experimenting with online learning in a different setting, which will prove challenging because the economic model is based on savings from a learning lab.
      Danner is not suddenly abandoning the charter organization. I don’t know if the transition was envisioned from the opening of the first school, as he says, but it’s been in the works for several years. Preston Smith has been running Rocketship as president for a year; he’s been getting his MBA this year to be in a better trained to be a CEO.
      I would not characterize what’s happening as two “upheavals” or even related. I do plan to follow up with appropriate questions.

      • navigio on Feb 2, 2013 at 12:00 pm02/2/2013 12:00 pm

        • 000

        Personally, I agree with Caroline that when it comes to managing and running charters that intense focus and transparency is a requirement. Ostensibly, the charter movement was at least partially intended to ‘teach’ the traditional public system different and/or better ways of serving society. If it does not do that, it loses an important part of its raison d’être, imho. I might even go so far as to say transparency is even more important for charters. But even as bad as traditional public systems are with transparency, I have never found a charter even close to that. Too bad.

        • Paul Muench on Feb 2, 2013 at 3:29 pm02/2/2013 3:29 pm

          • 000

          Usually helpful to remind ourselves of what is good and useful. But do you have any reason to think that the level of transparency is inadequate for what is happening.

          • navigio on Feb 2, 2013 at 10:49 pm02/2/2013 10:49 pm

            • 000

            Hi Paul. I admit that ‘reason’ was written in French, but I’d bet you got it.. ? Can we learn something? Or should we just pretend the charter system is a parallel universe and deserves zero focus and maintains no responsibility to society? I think the reason was clear from my comment. Are you saying you disagree?

  7. Chris Stampolis on Feb 1, 2013 at 10:08 am02/1/2013 10:08 am

    • 000

    Hi John. Change is not bad. Smart leaders encourage appropriate change! The challenge to address is how to foster communication as this is not typical Silicon Valley “king of the mountain” where someone is conquered or bought out at the end. Rather charters are taxpayer-funded experiments that should encourage replication of success. School board members neither should be cheerleaders for the status quo, nor blind followers of trends. If Rocketship knows a part of their pedagogy has mislaunched, we all need to know what and why – not to discredit, but to ensure taxpayers do not replicate a charter’s errors in school districts.


    • el on Feb 1, 2013 at 12:31 pm02/1/2013 12:31 pm

      • 000

      Thank you, Chris – exactly so.

  8. Chris Stampolis on Feb 1, 2013 at 8:33 am02/1/2013 8:33 am

    • 000

    Rocketship has produced some impressive results and now is the time to address replicability to neighborhood school models where merited. One reason I opposed the issuance of county-benefit charters, rather than district-benefit charters, is Santa Clara County Office of Education’s low resources to charter oversight teamed with the low integrity and lower courage of the leaders in its data division. At least a district would have incentive to replicate success and the legal means as the authorizer to dig deeply into real data to benefit all children, not politically or financially-minded adults. Charter schools are paid for with tax money and we should reap the rewards of the public investment for public benefit, not unfettered win-lose competition.

    Chris Stampolis
    Trustee, Santa Clara Unified School District

  9. Suz on Feb 1, 2013 at 8:06 am02/1/2013 8:06 am

    • 000

    It will be interesting to see how this new company positions itself relative to Dreambox, the adaptive learning tools company closely affiliated with Rocketship (Danner, Hastings, etc are on the Dreambox board). Dreambox does limit itself to math, but companies expand and change their missions all the time.

    This sure sounds a lot like Danner’s new venture:

    “DreamBox adaptive learning platform is the only product that has the power to deliver millions of different learning paths, each one tailored to a student’s specific learning needs and level of comprehension. The result is an effective, engaging, and highly individualized learning environment for every student.”

    I’m surprised that none of the stories about this move clarify the relationships between Dreambox, Rocketship and Danner. John?


    • John Fensterwald on Feb 1, 2013 at 9:19 am02/1/2013 9:19 am

      • 000

      Suz: I wrote about this relationship when it was first announced, in 2010:
      Danner said he would be discussing the new venture in a couple of months. We’ll know soon enough if there is any relationship with DreamBox.
      Chris: One of the advantages of charters, as you know, is that they can refine or alter their model much more quickly than districts can, for many reasons. In this case, Rocketship appears to be adapting to new developments in the fast-changing areas of online learning and ed technology. We’ll see where the results lead; I plan to follow up. It’s interesting how quick some folks conclude that change implies failure

      • Suz on Feb 1, 2013 at 11:10 am02/1/2013 11:10 am

        • 000

        John, you and I remember that nearly 3 year old story, but Rocketship is newly on the radar for a lot of people. It seems to me that stories about Danner’s latest announcement should at minimum reference Dreambox and ideally, query him about the relationship.

  10. CarolineSF on Jan 31, 2013 at 1:52 pm01/31/2013 1:52 pm

    • 000

    I am not seeing clear answers about why Rocketship, so widely hailed, is going through these upheavals — the basis of their innovative model scrapped, their founder leaving. May I suggest tougher questions?


    • Paul Muench on Jan 31, 2013 at 7:06 pm01/31/2013 7:06 pm

      • 000


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