Rocketship Education's next phase: technology in a blended classroom

April 30, 2013

Palo Alto-based Rocketship Education has attracted national attention in the past few years for its innovative use of technology and impressive test scores for its largely low-income, Hispanic students.

Now, as other districts and charter schools are starting to emulate the Rocketship model, which relies on computer-guided instruction as a key component, the K-5 charter school organization is considering leaving it behind, like a first-stage booster, and moving toward a different a 21st century classroom. Instead of rotating students into a “learning lab” – a large computer room – for about quarter of the day as it does now, several of Rocketship’s seven San Jose schools are experimenting with turning their learning lab into one large, all-day classroom incorporating both technology and three teachers and non-credentialed teaching assistants. Over the course of the day, between 100 and 120 students move from individual computer-based instruction to small-group lessons to a large-group setting, moving on cue with amoeba-like fluidity from one activity to another – at least when it’s working smoothly.

Rocketship Mosaic English teacher Judy Lavi discusses a reading passage with several dozen students in the front of the former learning lab. Photo by John Fensterwald.

On an afternoon earlier this month at Rocketship Mosaic, a two-year-old, two-story school on a postage stamp lot a block off the main drag of San Jose’s Little Saigon, the 4th and 5th graders in their new flexible classroom were doing independent and group work. At a whiteboard in one end, with about 40 students sitting on a rug before her, sixth-year English teacher Judy Lavi led a writing exercise, analyzing a passage for Greek and Latin roots, grammar and sentence fluency. Casey Rowe, a fifth-year teacher in his second year at Rocketship, had switched off after guiding the full group through an exercise preparing for the impending state standardized testing. He was now checking the progress of students working on math or English problems, at their own pace, on inexpensive laptops. At a whiteboard at the opposite end from Lavi, first-year math teacher Devynn Patterson was working with nine or 10 students on simple equations, such as x-8=4.

Shifting from a static rotational schedule of a computer lab to an open classroom marks the next horizon in blended learning, the integration of computer-based and teacher-based instruction. This year, Summit Public Schools is pioneering this model in math a quick crow’s flight away from Rocketship Mosaic at its two high schools in San Jose. It tore down walls in a wing of its campus and has brought ninth and tenth graders together in a two-hour block, combining algebra, geometry and, for fast-advancing students, Algebra II and beyond.

Fifth-year teacher Casey Rowe checks in with students who are doing math exercises online. Rocketship uses three software programs that assign lessons based on students’ progress.

But elementary school students, with shorter attention spans  and less focus, pose distinct challenges in an open classroom, which is why Rocketship is cautious about trying the model in earlier grades.

Building on, not rejecting, a computer lab

Rocketship CEO Preston Smith and Charlie Bufalino, national development strategiest for Rocketship, said the pilot is not a rejection of the learning lab concept but a recognition of its limitations. The 100 minutes that students have spent in the learning lab daily have been an essential element of Rocketship’s strategy. With various degrees of accuracy, the half-dozen math and reading programs tailor lessons to students’ strengths and weaknesses and track individual students’ progress. They particularly help fill in gaps in learning in areas where repetitive exercises reinforce basic skills and allow other students to advance at a faster pace.

The learning lab also was a financially shrewd model for cash-strapped California schools, which have seen their basic funding cut by nearly a quarter over the past five years. Rotating students from four classes per grade into the lab, operated by lower paid, non-credentialed tutors and staff, eliminated the expense of one teacher per grade or about $500,000 per school, which Rocketship has used to increase teachers’ pay, underwrite construction of additional schools and – this is key – to hire an assistant principal charged with teacher training at every school. At a time when most districts were cutting back mentor teaching positions and administrators, Rocketship offered extensive guidance to first- and second-year teachers from Teach for America, who comprise  about half of the teaching staff.

Rocketship CEO Preston Smith and Lynn Liao, who is overseeing the flexible classroom project, share a story at Rocketship Mosaic, one of the pilot schools. Photo by John Fensterwald.

But there remained a disconnect between what students did in the lab and what teachers taught in the classroom. Despite Rocketship’s effort to build a sophisticated data system to feed data to guide instruction, it initially was “a black box to me,” said Adam Nadeau, principal of Rocketship Mosaic. “There was no context around what students were getting at the lab.”

“The technical infrastructure was good but not perfect,” Bufalino acknowledged. “The system was not as good as we thought.”

Rocketship’s scores on the California Standards Tests have been among the highest in the state for its demographics of English learners and low-income students, but, Smith said, “We weren’t satisfied where they were at. We weren’t delivering on writing and the feedback from middle school is that kids were good in class but less likely to work independently.”

At Rocketship, teachers in each grade are specialists, so students rotated not only to the learning lab but also to math and English language arts teachers. This model didn’t allow flexible time for project-based learning, necessary, Smith said, to develop deeper learning skills.

New challenges for teachers

Computer-based learning will continue as a key element in the flexible classroom, although the time each student spends each day may vary, based on their needs. And Smith says the new model will be cost-neutral. But the new flexibility provides opportunities to personalize learning. Nadeau estimates that no longer having to repeat the same lesson to separate classes four times each day will free up a third of each teacher’s instructional day. First-year teaching can be isolating, he said. The advantage here is that new teachers will get to see teaching modeled.

First-year math teacher Devynn Patterson leads a small group in another corner of the room. Photo by John Fensterwald.

“The new structure will allow master teachers to do most at first and hand off responsibility gradually to a new teacher,” said Lavi, who taught in Oakland before Rocketship. “It will be like bowling with bumpers.”

“The freedom to design a schedule to fit needs of kids is great experience for me as a professional,” she said. Students are getting “a ton more small group attention than previously,” because, working as a team, the three teachers and a full-time teaching assistant can maximize the larger groups and target the smaller clusters of students for a literature discussion or tutorial on fractions.

The larger setting adds complexities. Co-planning daily lessons during 50 minutes of prep time is important; data analysis, now the teachers’ responsibility, remains critical. Classroom management, keeping students on task with a lot happening around them, can be daunting for an inexperienced teacher. Rocketship is recruiting fewer first-year teachers for next fall, but it will remain a young staff.

Lynn Liao, Rocketship’s chief talent officer, who is leading the flexible classroom project, said that there was initially a dip in test results because of difficulties with implementation – “until we got our feet underneath it and set expectations with kids.” But schools didn’t see behavior issues that parents and teachers had anticipated, she said, and now Rocketship expects to see benefits of the model.

“One of our hypotheses is that there would be greater teacher collaboration, and that has been a pleasant surprise,” she said.

Michael Horn, executive director of Innosight Institute, a San Mateo-based research outfit and an authority on blended learning, commended Rocketship for “taking a huge step forward” from the stationary lab model whose benefits provide “the low hanging fruit.” Districts have been doing flexible learning for credit recovery and dropout prevention programs in high school, but most districts have found it uncomfortable to go beyond those programs, he said. Rocketship will show if there are key differences in the flexible model at an elementary school level.

Horn said teachers playing off each others’ strengths “could lead to an unbundling of roles,” with some teachers doing data work and others leading small group instruction or taking charge of  lesson planning. “I actually think it could make teachers’ jobs easier, but that remains to be seen.”

“Change is hard and we must be purposeful about it,” Smith said. Technology will be a great tool but not a silver bullet. In the end, “it will be about how we do professional development and support our staff.”

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