The Atlantic recently took a trip to San Jose, California to visit Rocketship Discovery Prep, one of seven schools run by Rocketship Education. Rocketship has been hailed as a model for future high-tech classrooms, and reformers have been impressed with their achievement outcomes with poor Latino youth. But is the secret to Rocketship’s success really in their blended learning model, or is it something entirely different? Read The Atlantic’s take:
[W]hile Rocketship attracts a steady flow of visitors hoping to glimpse education’s high-tech future, I came away from my own pilgrimage to Discovery Prep believing that the school’s success proves the opposite point: the younger and more disadvantaged students are, the more they need adults supporting them in many different ways day in and day out–the more they need school to be a place rather than merely a process.
Each morning at Discovery Prep and the rest of the Rocketship network, everyone gathers on the playground for announcements and a sing-a-long. Students receive recognition and rewards for outstanding behavior and achievement and teachers and students…sing and dance…surrounded by parent-volunteers. In the same spirit, teachers greet every student by name as they enter their classrooms, a routine that Rocketship calls a “threshold invite.” Personal connections between adults and students are paramount.
Parents are everywhere in the life of 640-student Discovery Prep. The schools organize meetings on curriculum, instructional strategies, and student behavior to enlist parents as educational partners. They take students and parents on bus trips to Stanford, Berkeley, and other local colleges and universities to get them invested in higher education. And they ask parents to spend 30 hours a year in their children’s schools and most do. As a result, students have the sense that there are always adults ready to help, that their parents care about them, and that education is important. When I visited Discovery Prep, parents were reviewing young students’ rudimentary homework assignments, freeing teachers to spend more time on instruction. (Rocketship’s parents have also been active in the local community, forming a political action committee to elect reform-minded San Jose school board members.)
Nearly every aspect of Rocketship’s model, it seems, contributes to a high-touch culture….Even Rocketship’s much-touted computer-based educational platform promotes stronger, rather than weaker, ties between teachers and students. Every day, students spend two hours in headphones in one of a hundred brightly colored cubicles in a big, open “learning lab,” doing a wide range of exercises in reading and math through programs with lots of audio and animation. They also routinely take “adaptive” quizzes that adjust the difficulty of questions to the accuracy of students’ answers….
[T]he role of computers at Discovery Prep is to supplement rather than supplant traditional teaching. Students who struggle with the reading and math exercises in the lab are targeted for one-on-one or small-group tutoring during the sessions. With basic skills monitored in this way, Rocketship teachers have more time to focus on advanced skills….
What separates Rocketship’s strategy from old-style computer learning is the purposeful way it links its labs to classroom instruction. Students’ lab results are fed into a central data system that generates color-coded charts and graphs on laptops and tablets, showing their progress against state and national standards and providing teachers with real-time “data dashboards” that they can use to shape their lessons….
Students are the center of the education experience at Discovery Prep. But they’re hardly flying solo. Discovery Prep’s most striking feature isn’t its learning lab but its extraordinarily nurturing environment, in which technology plays a part. It’s this human element that makes all the difference for students from disadvantaged backgrounds who, in many public schools, need far more adult support than they typically get — and certainly more than they’d get online in the digital future that many are predicting for public education.