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A Cautionary Tale

Rocketship’s learning model works out some major kinks.

Hidden toward the end of a recent PBS NewsHour segment on blended learning was a surprising tidbit about impending changes for the much-admired Rocketship charter school network and its Learning Lab model.  

The model—students spending 100 minutes a day in a computer room staffed by non-teachers—was “not really working,” reported PBS. The stand-alone labs would be gone within a year, and with them, presumably, the $500,000 in savings generated for each Rocketship school.

This wasn’t the only change. Rocketship’s relationship with the software company it had relied on had ended. Not long after, Rocketship announced the departure of its founder and one-man publicity magnet, John Danner.

What’s been going on with Rocketship? And what can administrators, reformers, and others learn from its experience with blended learning models and ambitious expansion plans?

Coordination between the labs and classrooms was always a concern. A feature we ran in our Spring 2012 issue [“Learning Labs101”] touched on this, noting how large the labs were and questioning whether the 60-minute computer sessions (supplemented with small-group tutoring) were too lengthy.

And yet, for the past couple of years, the seven-school Rocketship network has been one of the “it” education efforts in the nation—known for its embrace of blended instruction; low-cost, fast-growth expansion; and the ability to raise student test scores. Longtime education writer Richard Whitmire, author of the Michelle Rhee biography, The Bee Eater, was already working on a book about Rocketship. With its affordable, high-impact model, it was thought that Rocketship might be able to expand much faster than earlier charter-school networks.

Back in 2011, Danner sounded extremely confident about the model he’d developed. In an interview with The Christian Science Monitor, he boasted, “If you perfect things, like the way we develop teachers and individualized learning, [this model] should be pretty applicable in a lot of places.”

But, as is now obvious, not everything in the Rocketship model was working.

Of course, there’s no reason  Rocketship shouldn’t change or improve its model—or any clear indications that the charter chain won’t continue to grow and succeed. Danner’s departure was long in the planning, according to Whitmire, and his new learning software company could help Rocketship thrive.

However, the company probably shouldn’t have touted the model—and begun shipping it out to districts around the country—before it was sure it had perfected it.

That’s the real lesson here:  a warning against delivering, or accepting, premature claims of having figured something out. Vendors doing what Rocketship did run serious risks of disappointing schools they’re selling themselves to. Educators who don’t remember to scrutinize vendors’ claims closely enough need to remember they risk professional embarrassment, and school funds.

Since it’s clear that Rocketship is in transition, what might its 2.0 blended-learning model look like in the future? According to Rocketship’s marketing and communications manager Kevin Bechtel: “We envision a large learning space, shared by an entire grade level of students, with two teachers and Learning Lab aides.”

That sounds pretty good, though less dramatically different than other schools’ tech setups and perhaps not as inexpensive as the original model. Rocketship may very well recover and thrive. But hopefully with the next iteration, perfecting the model will take precedence over expansion.

—Spring 2013—

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