Hetchinger Report: Rocketship Education is growing, some say too fast
Award winning New York Times journalist Kyle Spencer wrote the following article for the Hetchinger Report, an in depth national education reporting outlet. Below are excerpts from the story, you can read the whole story on the Hetchinger Report.
Kate Mehr, a former Rocketship Education executive who now runs the Baltimore outpost of another charter network, says Rocketship’s “stripped-down efficiency model” has much to recommend it. But, she says, “The question is, how efficient should you be when you’re dealing with little human beings?”
Rocketship is perhaps the nation’s most celebrated pioneer of online learning, having received millions of dollars from outside funders, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Obama administration, as well as financing from former tennis star Andre Agassi’s real estate fund. The attraction is its innovative approach, which promises that intensive online work and a rigorous curriculum will help disadvantaged children make up ground quickly, and gain parity with their better-off peers. (Close to 88 percent of the schools’ students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch and 60.5 percent are English-language learners.)
But as the network has grown, it has encountered challenges, losing key staff members and struggling with its reading program. In math, a relatively high percentage of its students routinely score well on state exams. But in 2013 — the last year that California published reading and math scores — four of Rocketship’s elementary schools showed significant dips in state reading scores.
People familiar with the schools say classrooms rarely include anything but instructional material, leaving little room for “choice time,” a hallmark of many elementary schools. While time for dance and music is offered, current and former parents say the schools skimp on social studies, science, the visual arts and the kind of creative, sensory activities that fill the days at high-performing schools in wealthier neighborhoods.
Administrators acknowledge the model has its challenges. Some former teachers say the focus on scores has turned the schools into “drill and kill” factories, rewarding students for reaching reading and math levels quickly, but not for critical thinking and intellectual independence.
“For me, it was a learning lesson on what not to do,” said Alicia Albo, a former first grade teacher, who left the network after she became disillusioned with what she called its increasingly “corporate” mentality. “It was reading, writing and math. That’s all you get in a Rocketship school.”
Brett Bymaster, the founder of a San Jose-based advocacy group called Stop Rocketship, calls the efforts “intrinsically divisive.” He and the San Jose Unified School District Board of Education sued the board of education in Santa Clara County (where San Jose sits) to stop the development of the chain’s eighth area school. He won the case against that proposed school, last year. But Rocketship still managed to launch two other schools, elsewhere in the city, including Fuerza Community Prep, which arrived last August.