Editorial: Rocketship’s high stakes testing pressure hurts kids, helps their business model

During the last California high stakes testing cycle in 2013, Rocketship’s Mateo Sheedy gave each student  a yellow T-Shirt.  The shirt read “Rocketeers will CRUSH the CST!”  On the side of the shirt was the school’s test score goal — an API of 940.  California’s API (Academic Performance Index) is a complex composite test score that includes each students’ Math and English proficiency, punitively weighting the under-performing students.   The school had scored an impressive 924 API in 2012, and hoped to grow beyond that in 2013.  Their result?  A substantial drop down to 851.  The picture of the shirt below was taken in 2015; in this low income neighborhood T-Shirts tend to have a long lifetime.


Two Questions

This shirt begs two questions.  First, is school wide pressure on elementary students to perform on standardized tests healthy?  Remember that third through fifth graders were wearing these shirts.  Second, who’s interest is the test score pressure serving?  Is it serving the students or is it serving the Rocketship corporation?

High Stakes Testing Pressure isn’t healthy

In the Washington Community, we often see Rocketship students suffering from migraine headaches and stomach issues as a result of the high stakes testing stress at Rocketship.  Students are expected to attend school from 8-4pm, and then are given 4+ hours of homework a night, in the form of a giant packet.  If students don’t complete their homework, the school requires the parents and students both to come to Saturday school — we don’t know of any other elementary schools that use Saturday school as homework punishment.  You can imagine how sad it is to see a little elementary school student describing a stress migraine as they stay up late trying to finish their 4 hour homework packet.   One parent recently told us that Rocketship required her student to do holiday break homework packets on Thanksgiving day and Christmas day!  She was outraged, wondering why her 3rd grader couldn’t get a one day break for Christmas.

In our opinion, the high stakes testing environment is not healthy for younger students.  Putting pressure on high school upperclassman or college students might be acceptable (although even that is debatable), but should a third grader experience that kind of pressure?

High Stakes Testing Pressure benefits Rocketship’s corporate model, not the kids

Rocketship often argues that they are public school, not a corporate entity.  However, their roots and their board belie that position.  Rocketship was founded by John Danner, a multimillionaire who made a killing by selling off a dot com boom software company called NetGravity.  After spending just 2 years teaching in Nashville Public schools after the dot com bust, Danner had apparently diagnosed all the problems with public education and founded Rocketship to solve those problems.  He spent 7 years at Rocketship before leaving to found another for-profit software company, Zeal, that is well positioned to sell back to Rocketship for substantial profits.  Danner sits on Rocketship’s national strategy board, giving him a favored sales position in the organization.

Rocketship’s migraine inducing test pressure is not in the best interest of children.  Educational researchers have shown that massive homework packets are not effective educational tools.  Researchers have also shown that one time tests (like California’s CSTs) are not effective measures of long term student outcomes.  If that’s the case, why does Rocketship put so much emphasis on homework and test scores, neither of which are research based?

Rocketship’s primary goal is growth.  It is a business model.  They want to replicate and grow.  The stomach aches that our community’s students of color experience when they receive a 4 hour homework packet doesn’t benefit them.  It benefits Rocketship’s corporate growth, and Rocketship’s for-profit business partners.  Rocketship needs a high California API to grow their schools, for recruiting students, and to woe education boards across the nation to approve more Rocketship schools.

If you think that’s hard to believe, just take a look at Rocketship’s privately appointed corporate board of directors.  According to linked in profiles of the 11 board members, you will find only one board member with a teaching credential (Alex Hernandez, with a credential in high school math, but no classroom experience), and no board members with teaching experience.  However, what you find instead is investment bankers, financial analysts, marketing executives, retail and restaurant executives, for-profit education product executives, charter school investment fund managers, and a vineyard owner.  This is not an education team, it’s a business team.  It’s a corporate revenue team, covering every aspect of running a business, lacking nothing except education experience.

Rocketship’s Board of Directors — A corporate revenue team with no classroom experience

Background experience
Alan CritesFormer CEO of Vendavo Inc.ProfileHarvard Business School
Master of Business Administration (MBA)
GE Medical Products
Alex HernandezPartner, Charter School Growth FundProfileWestern Governors University
Teacher Credential Program, Single Subject Mathematic
JP Morgan Investment banker
Alex TermanInterim CFO, Leadership Public SchoolsProfileStanford University
MBA, Business, Nonprofit Management
Bain Corporation (Mitt Romney's company)
Arra YerganianCMO, One Medical GroupProfileHarvard Business School Executive Education
Executive Education - Strategic Marketing Management
Deborah McGriffManaging Director, New Schools Venture FundProfileFordham University
Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.), Administration, Policy and Urban Education
Edison Learning Corporation (Educaitonal Products)
Dr. Fred FerrerCEO, The Health TrustProfileSan Jose State University
MS, Psychology
Nonprofit CEO
Greg StangerTrustee, Yosemite ConservancyProfileUniversity of California, Berkeley, Haas School of Business
Financial Analysit & CFO
June NwabaraRegional Director of Operations, StarbucksProfileMichigan State University
Bachelor's degree, Journalism
Restaraunts, Director at Starbucks
Louis JordanCo-Owner, Tympany VineyardsProfileMBA Indiana UniversityVP of Starbucks
Mary C. HeraldExecutive Vice President of Human Resources and Education, SephoraProfileThe College of William and Mary
Bachelor of Arts (B.A.), Philosophy
Retail store V.P.
Timothy SheehyPresident, Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of CommerceProfileUniversity of Wisconsin, political scienceChamber of Commerce