Thursday, September 16, 2010

Lessons Learned from Rocketship Education

Last week, I visited Rocketship Mateo Sheedy Elementary in San Jose, CA.  Mateo Sheedy is one of the campuses of Rocketship Education, the innovative organization that's pioneering a hybrid learning model that's unlike most elementary schools out there

Students spend time in a computer lab every day, practicing basic skills in every subject using engaging, adaptive educational software.  Their teachers are specialized, focusing only on math or literacy (and incorporating social studies and science into each).  They employ less teachers, allowing them to pay the teachers they do have above-average salaries, invest more in professional development and support, and provide clear paths to leadership.  Rocketship is poised to replicate their model rapidly across the country in the next few years, and I'm convinced that's definitely a good thing.  [Watch CEO John Danner explain all about Rocketship schools.]

There are some clear lessons for every school that can be learned from what I saw at Sheedy:

Kids can learn a lot on their own, if you just give them the right tools.  This is by no means a secret, yet we are so quick to forget.  It was a good reminder of how it's more important for teachers to be facilitators than anything else.

Using technology to start closing gaps is simpler than you think.  To repurpose a classic Bill Clinton line: It's the software, stupid.  We worry too much about the hardware--smartboards, laptops, iThings--and not enough about what we're doing with it.

You could build a "Learning Lab" in almost any school fairly easily (and affordably).  While Rocketship's own description of their system makes it sound like kids are sitting in front of a computer all day, in truth, they spend less than an hour a day in the lab.  The labs have 60 computers, which hopefully would already exist in two classrooms at any given elementary school in the country.  They put these computers in a large multipurpose room in order to have one proctor monitoring all the kids at once.  If you already have the computers, all you need is the software.  Here's the worst kept secret of Rocketship's success: they use widely available off-the-shelf software, almost all of which are sporadically used in various schools already:
  • Accelerated Reader - Leveled library quizzes are used across grade levels.
  • DreamBox - K-3 math
  • Reasoning Mind - 2-5 math
  • Headsprout - K-1 phonics, 2-5 reading
  • Rosetta Stone - All ELL students
While Rocketship doesn't have the research to prove that these programs are driving their success, it's hard to believe they don't have a lot to do with it: they're already the #1 school for low-income students in the county, and #3 in the state.  They have commissioned a study this year to figure out the efficacy of students' time, so we'll see whether the research backs up the results.  More importantly, Rocketship isn't content to wait for the results: they're already exploring better, more adaptable apps that will make it even easier for teachers to focus Lab time on what kids need.

Using a Learning Lab for interventions will help teachers be more effective.  Students spend their lab time practicing basic skills, getting more help when they need it and pushing them forward when they're ready.  This means the classroom teachers spend more time teaching new concepts, exploring higher order thinking and problem solving in a project-based environment.  It means less frustration for teachers who don't have to push back new concepts in order to review and reteach constantly.  Most importantly, reports from the programs tell them how their kids are doing on specific skills and objectives, allowing them to better tailor their in-class work.

You might argue that since so little time is spent in these labs that it's probably just good teaching that's resulting in their fantastic results, and I won't discount the ability of their great staff.  Let's not downplay, however that because the lab time is used so efficiently, it allows these good teachers to push their students much farther than they would otherwise.

There's still a long way to go in the area of individualized, adaptive education software.  While the programs used at Rocketship schools are adaptive--meaning they provide extra help when kids are struggling or move forward as rapidly as they need--the scope and sequence of the work often isn't under the control of the teacher.  In other words, they don't and can't align perfectly with a teacher's curriculum just yet.

I also have to go back to an argument I've made before: universities, governments and non-profits need to step up and develop highly customizable, data rich, comprehensive standard-based software that's either low cost or free.  I'd love to see Secretary of Education Arne Duncan devise a "Race to the Top" for the next generation of adaptive educational software.