Alexander Russo Interviews John Danner
Rocketship Education Takes Off.
Rocketship Education CEO John Danner, 44, is doing okay for himself. He recently won the 2010 John P. McNulty Prize by the Aspen Institute of Colorado and his organization just received a grant from the Broad Foundation to expand. Built around a mix of traditional teaching, technology, and (low-cost) tutoring, the charter network currently runs three K-5 schools in high-poverty parts of San Jose, California, with plans to open 30 more by 2015. Rocketship schools have an expanded school day, principal training, academic deans for teacher development, and higher pay for teachers. What's more, Rocketship students score as high as kids in nearby wealthy Palo Alto, and its first school ranks fifth out of more than 3,000 low-income elementary schools in the state. Perhaps most amazingly, the hybrid instructional model saves schools roughly $500,000 a year.
Q What's it like being everyone's favorite education entrepreneur?
A It feels like we have a lot of work to do.
Q What sets Rocketship Education apart from other charter networks?
A We're pretty optimistic about the education technology space, which has really grown into its own after thirty years. And we believe that we can take charters
Q What's the big difference between how your schools are staffed and how a traditional school is staffed?
A Each day, our kids work on mastering basic skills in Learning Lab for 100 minutes, where they have 1:1 time on computers. Learning Lab is staffed by paraprofessionals. For kids who need it, we also offer additional tutoring in a separate block of time.
Q How much does the "Learning Lab" model rely on computerized instruction?
A Technology gets the headlines but there is a lot more going on. The 100-minute Learning Lab session might have 40 minutes of computer time but it's also got a lot of tutoring time and individual reading time.
Q How has the model changed since you started five years ago?
A In the last year and a half, we've seen the quality on the tech side go up pretty significantly. We thought tech would be used mainly just for "drill and kill," and what we're realizing is that it's actually exceptionally good at remediation for students.
Q It sounds like you think you can teach kids without teachers-is that right?
A Not at all. Our teachers are awesome. It's not either/or. We just think that individualized instruction is better for basic skills. Do you really want teachers spending time on rote learning instead of critical thinking?
Q What has the first generation of charter schools taught us?
A They proved that we can eliminate the achievement gap, that there's no reason students in low-income schools can't succeed, as long as you're willing to make it happen at any cost. They were created to prove that point. But that's awfully difficult to scale.
Q Most charter operators are only interested in starting and expanding their own schools. What about you?
A If there was a district willing to enter into a charter agreement to create a Rocketship school, then we'd consider it.
Q Is your model dependent on a particular piece of software?
A We're pretty agnostic about that. Whoever comes up with the best lessons for each subject, we really don't care.
Q How's the education software market going to operate in the future, then?
A I think teachers will want to access a variety of instructional options at distribution hubs. No one has built this yet, so Rocketship has begun developing something called Teacher Dashboard, and it will figure out where a kid should go, instructionally, and send them there.
Q Are other charter schools following suit?
A A KIPP school in Los Angeles has converted to the hybrid education model this year, as has the ICEF network of charters [also in Los Angeles]. There are folks in Texas, New York, and a few other parts of the country looking at this, too.
Q What about traditional school systems?
A Chicago public schools are bound and determined to do 100 schools with the Learning Lab model, and already have ten or so afterschool programs up. But that's not the business we want to be in. I personally don't believe that you can take a failing school, add a Learning Lab, and fix all of its problems.
Note: Rocketship is currently exploring potential partnerships with city school districts including Denver, Houston, Chicago, and Phoenix, to open 30 new schools by 2015.