Rocketship Education Media Critique Opens Door to Discussion for All Schools

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Last year, an NPR blog article about Rocketship Education’s schools spurred a wake of responses from Rocketship and its students’ parents, who believed the report’s critiques lacked proper context and comparison.

It even elicited an official response from Rocketship Education itself, in the form of a T74 guest opinion from Rocketship’s CEO in June of last year, shortly after NPR published the piece written by Anya Kamenetz.

Now that the wave of circumspect over the article’s journalistic integrity has turned to ripples over the course of time, this may be an ideal moment for educators and parents alike to launch a broader discussion about some of the teaching methodologies that NPR chose to place beneath its microscope.

The Issue is Bigger than Rocketship vs. NPR

As stated by an EdSurge reporter and former teacher who has also covered Rocketship, the questions raised in NPR’s report are those that “many schools across the country, both public and charter, struggle with.”

In general, the Kamenetz blog chose to focus on Rocketship’s classroom management (right down to potty breaks), use of technology (including how much time is spent online), and intervention (dealing with qualifications of teachers given this task). The headline to the blog conveyed the scope of the article: “High Test Scores at a Nationally Lauded Charter Network, But at What Cost?”

As the EdSurge reporter, Christina Quattrocchi opines, these areas of classroom management as presented by Kamenetz raise “powerful questions” for the entire community of education, especially “educators designing new school models and fresh approaches to teaching and learning.”

To keep the discussion at a ripple level, Quattrocchi, EdSurge’s director of research, warns all involved to not polarize the issues by simplifying these questions to a Rocketship vs. NPR discourse. “It’s our obligation to thrust the questions raised under the examining light and consider their complexity,” she writes.

In this vein, let us examine the general issues raised and attributed—fairly or not—to Rocketship’s practices in the classroom.

Classroom Management

To first put everything about Kamanetz’s article into context, she writes that test results for Rocketship students “are undoubtedly impressive.” She goes on to write:

“For the past three years, Rocketship schools have performed in the top 5 percent of districts serving low-income students in California. On the most recent state assessments, twice as many of their students met Common Core standards in math as in surrounding district schools—46 percent vs. 23 percent. In English, their advantage was smaller: 33 percent vs. 29 percent. Independent research commissioned by Rocketship also shows students’ test score gains persisting after leaving the schools, into middle school.”

However, time spent on laptops—dubbed learning labs by Rocketship—piqued the NPR blogger’s attention. She quoted a former principal at a Los Angeles Rocketship school as saying that learning labs often consisted of 50, 60 or 70 students under the supervision of people without full teacher training.

However, educators from throughout the nation point to reduced funding as a special challenge that taxes districts to devise creative ways to overcome the reduced teacher-to-student ratio. Many districts use rotations on computers as one way to address the issue.

The NPR article also pointed to rigid practices when it came to bathroom breaks and an enforced “silent time.”

Quattrocchi points out, however, that “every educator knows that setting clear classroom rules and school-wide policies for practices such as bathroom breaks is standard . . . and every school has a different approach to school culture, student discipline, routines, boundaries, and rewards.”

Technology

Quattrocchi also cautions that whether 80 minutes a day online during class time is appropriate or not—as framed in the NPR report—should not be the question we ask.

The more important questions, she avers, are: What kind of technology use is best for which kids? And, what is harmful?

“Most critical is to explore what students do during that time, what teachers do with the results, and how the technology impacts a student’s learning experience,” writes Quattrocchi.

She and other educators cite technology’s role as a vital component to instruction. It can lend a better window in a more efficient time space for assessing the neediest of students, which leads to a more customized appropriation of time on the teacher’s part. “That’s all good,” Quattrocchi says in her article.

She explains that Rocketship uses a “lab rotation model” to achieve this end. A group of students spends computer lab time on software related to the curriculum. Meanwhile, some of them are pulled for intervention or individual coaching.

“Many schools start with this model to get students and teachers comfortable with technology in a controlled environment,” Quattrocchi notes. Eventually, she says, teachers get a handle on which technology deserves student time and how to integrate that time into the core instruction.

Education World, a site that connects educators to proven methodologies of teaching, conducted a survey of its teacher and educator members on whether elementary students should spend a measured amount of time on computers. It reported a “resounding yes.”

The Views of Computer Time in General

So, while some educators insist that computer time can encroach on more valuable teacher-to-student time, educators in the Education World survey expressed a different view.

Lori Sanborn, technology specialist at Rancho Las Positas Elementary School, in Livermore, California represented the general sentiment among respondents. “A computer is a tool—just as a ruler, calculator, or pencil is—and students need to learn to use today’s tools.”

She continued, “Time and money are precious commodities in education, and computers and software are costly. If used correctly, however, they can support and empower students, provide excitement in learning, enhance the desire to discover, and open the minds of our students to all kinds of possibilities.”

Another teacher opined that it is not just about the curriculum, but about learning to use computers as the students get older and are called upon to reap more data and analysis than when they attended elementary school.

A Kansas City, Missouri teacher, Libby Adams noted the element of student empowerment when responding to Education World’s survey.

According to Adams, teaching in urban schools (such as those were Rocketship schools are often located) “can be very challenging.” She says, “The use of computers levels the playing field for all students. (They) gain confidence because they feel they are in charge of their learning when they work on their computers.”

She indicates that they gain the notion that they are playing a personal role in getting smarter, rather than solely depending on a teacher to fill their brains.

Mary Kreul, a second-grade teacher at Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin, addressed the prerequisites to proper use of a computer in grades K-3 while endorsing a robust usage of computers in the early grades.

“K-3 students can use technology very successfully if their teachers make appropriate choices as to how and when the technology is used,” she said in the Education World report. She added that teachers should ask themselves whether the technology is being used for:

1) a learning activity in a new and creative way or to do a learning activity that is possible only with the help of technology.

2) as a tool for learning and not as technology for technology’s sake.

3) in a way that allows all students to complete the task successfully, independently, and in the time allotted.

4) in a way that accommodates students’ varied developmental levels and needs for a task that is curriculum-based and meets educational standards.

Most educators agree that there will be disagreement over time management when it comes to students and computers, according to the survey. However, time allotted to computer labs proves beneficial for future scholastic endeavors when such rules as those extolled by the the Whitefish Bay teacher are put in place.

For this reason, Rocketship CEO Preston Smith states in his rebuttal to the NPR report that Rocketship has “taken a lot of heat for our use of technology over the years,” despite its pioneering approach to personalized learning nearly a decade ago. “But today,” he adds, “technology is pervasive in public schools and homes across the country. We need to get beyond just thinking about ‘screen time.’ We need to engage in a more thoughtful discussion on technology for learning.”

Intervention

The role of intervention will remain a constant point of discussion among full-time educators and teachers. As Quattrocchi points out, contention will revolve around a couple of questions: How are we staffing our schools? And, how qualified do the adults in the room need to be to support students with different tasks?

The NPR report critiqued Rocketship on the number of students sometimes left under the stead of one teacher, sometimes one that was not a fully qualified teacher.

However, Quattrocchi maintains that the question should be reframed.

She writes, “Should non-certified teachers be responsible for managing large groups of students? After-school programs often rely on a small group of non-certified staff members to manage hundreds of students. Should schools meet a higher bar? Aren’t teachers specially trained to motivate students and keep them engaged in learning activities over a long period of time?”

The answer to these questions, she says, depends on what one thinks the role of the teacher is and what that teacher’s unique talents comprise?

Often, however, the gravity of tight budgets requires schools to be creative when determining how to carve out one-on-one time with teachers or small group instruction and how long it should last, she notes.

Still, most educational institutions consider intervention teachers to maintain a base level of teaching credentials, according to Kelly S. Meier, a professor and administrator in Minnesota who gained her doctorate at Minnesota State University, Mankato. She has authored more than 15 books on education, group development, and diversity.

Because an intervention teacher provides expertise and intentional support to students who demonstrate behavioral, social, and educational challenges, he or she must possess strong communication skills and the ability to relate to a diverse student base, according to Meier.

Meier also states, “Working with parents and classroom teachers, intervention teachers attend to the social, personal, and academic needs of students who have been identified as at-risk of failing.”

Meier says that because of their task, intervention teachers need to at least possess an undergraduate degree in special education and licensure as an intervention specialist. The four-year program usually focuses on developmental reading, exceptional learners, technology applications in education and learning, and human development.

According to Meier, experience makes a difference for intervention teachers who are assigned students with severe limitations.

As a result, the concern about qualifications for intervention teachers is justified, according to most educators. However, as in the case with Rocketship or any other school network and district, qualifications must be assessed in accordance to the task.

This is why the topic of intervention and how it is carried out by one school or another can be somewhat amorphous when determining who is qualified and who is not in a given school or situation.

As with the other topics raised in the NPR report as they pertain to Rocketship, the issue of intervention deserves a more robust and less discriminative discussion than that afforded by the NPR report, according to Rocketship leaders.

In this vein, to review, Quattrocchi proffers these basic questions that such a discussion should entertain:

—Should non-certified teachers be responsible for managing large groups of students?  (After-school programs across the country often rely on a small group of non-certified staff members to manage hundreds of students.)

—Should schools meet a higher bar?

—Aren’t teachers specially trained to motivate students and keep them engaged in learning activities over a long period of time?

Quattrocchi says that depending on what one thinks the role of the teacher is and their unique talents, one will answer the questions differently. Each will likely take a different approach to staffing, she notes.

In her EdSurge piece, Quattrocchi concludes that exactly how students and teachers spend their time in school is at the core of our schools.

“We must ask these questions not just of Rocketship, but of every school we encounter,” she insists.

What We Shouldn’t Do

“If we respond to this article about Rocketship by villainizing the organization, we fail to learn. If we walk away from this NPR article, villainizing its writer and editors, we fail to learn.”

“This story isn’t just about Rocketship. This is about the great responsibility we all have when we step into a building and work with kids. It’s about how deeply personal that work is.”

She adds, “If we aren’t asking ourselves deeply meaningful questions everyday, as we do this work, as we report on this work, and as we support schools to do this work, we have all failed.”

Alexander Russo of the Washington Monthly augments Quattrocchi’s perspective about these concerns belonging to a larger community than just Rocketship.

In a piece he also wrote shortly after the NPR blog appeared, Russo says, “The long hours, high pressure, tight discipline, and ritualistic classroom protocols (at Rocketship) aren’t out of line with those seen at other charter school networks, like KIPP and Success Academy, that also have high test scores and draw communities of fiercely loyal parents.”

However, charter schools across the country are being put beneath a microscope in a different manner than public schools. Partly because charter schools challenge an established system and partly because of the nature of private enterprise and public service.

What most educators are saying in response to the increased scrutiny echoes what Rocketship’s founder and CEO said in his rebuttal to NPR’s report: We need a more thoughtful discussion, and it needs to be about education in general.

More About Rocketship Schools

Rocketship considers itself a pioneer in the personalizing of education. What Rocketship means by personalizing is the tailoring of instruction, content, learning experience, and pace to prepare students to achieve their individual goals or resolutions and full potentials.

Rocketship, operating nearly 20 schools from California to Washington, D.C., hires content experts as teachers. These educators excel in areas vital to a student’s development and success in society—subject matter otherwise known as STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), as well as a full dose of humanities.

On its website, Rocketship says that personalizing also means the incorporation of hands-on, team-oriented studies with creative and teacher-induced visual aids, all lending to the fun of learning. It cites studies showing that when fun is integrated into a young student’s curriculum, retention of class studies improves.

Rocketship’s foundation for learning rests on a team approach to learning— “investing in the growth of every team member to unleash their full potential in the classroom and beyond,” as the Rocketship website states.

Teachers are constantly referred to training sessions and conferences in this regard while students are referred to as “Rocketeers” who carry out their “Rocketeer Creed” of serving at home, in school, and in their community.

This is the sense of community that Rocketship tries to instill in its students, so they can fulfill their roles and potentials as a contributing community member for as long as they live.

Last but not least, Rocketship taps the energy and resources of parents to help champion their children’s education. In this paradigm, leaders are held accountable, whether principal, teacher, or parent. The Rocketship empire is a family, customizing their ways and teaching approach to meet the needs of each individual student.

 

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