Rocketship's Growth and Pain: A Test for Edtech

Rocketship's Growth and Pain: A Test for Edtech

Rocketship growth goes beyond traditional charter school v public school debates

By Christina Quattrocchi     Nov 12, 2013

Rocketship's Growth and Pain: A Test for Edtech

Rocketship Education is a charter school network in hot demand, courted by urban school districts across the nation. Both Kaya Henderson, Superintendent of DC Public Schools and New York City’s outgoing mayor Michael Bloomberg have publicly said they’d welcome Rocketship schools in their districts. “Out of every large urban city, someone has come to ask us to build schools in their city,” says Charlie Bufalino, Rocketship’s manager of growth and policy.

That enthusiastic embrace isn’t hard to understand. The San Jose-based elementary school network has been at the forefront of innovative school models. Through its use of tech, Rocketship has broken down the traditional factory school model, rethinking things like the bell-schedule, the role of teachers, the way kids are grouped, and even the physical space itself. And according to Rocketship managers, the CMO isn’t yet done; innovation, they say, is in Rocketship’s DNA. These experiments have been paying off in climbing test scores. Over the past eight years, the school has consistently outscored both district and state tests for low-income population schools.

But now, as Rocketship expands nationally with plans to open more than 40 new schools in six additional cities, the edtech darling will face its toughest challenge ever; land-battles, anti-charter groups, diminished test scores and consequently questions about the use of tech in its schools.

While many people see Rocketship at the forefront of blended learning, its growth and pain will be seen as a test for education technology community--and for the potential to introduce radically different ways of schooling students.

Growing Fast

The charter network has been anything but shy about its intentions to grow. “Some 14 million students are suffering from the achievement gap,” says Bufalino. “There is a tremendous need to close that gap and we want to be part of that solution.”

Currently, the network has nine elementary schools serving over 5,000 elementary students in both San Jose and Milwaukee. Explosive growth is coming: Rocketship plans to add 40 new schools in five new cities and an additional 20 new schools in the San Jose region by 2020, thereby becoming one of the fastest growing CMOs in the country, along with Success Academies based in New York and IDEA in Texas.

Just this year, the network opened a school in Milwaukee, WI, a process three years in the making. That school won’t be solo for long. Rocketship plans to open seven more in the city by 2018. It will be followed by Nashville (2014), Indianapolis and Washington DC (2015 pending approval by Rocketship board of directors), and New Orleans and Memphis soon after that.

Each district will get eight new Rocketship schools, rolled out over the course of five years. Eight seems to be the magic number; according to Bufalino, it’s what’s needed to generate enough parent support and momentum to sustain and support school growth. “This is really political stuff. You have to be willing to roll up your sleeves,” Bufalino says.

Growth comes at a price. Rocketship must raise $5.5 million for each regional rollout. In Milwaukee, for instance, Rocketship has pulled together funding from the Walton Family Foundation, the Bradley Family Foundation, and Baird Corporation among others.

Parents are a core part of the Rocketship model. Rocketship asks that they spend at least 30 hours a year supporting the school--from hands-on classroom help, attending parent teacher conferences, attending board meetings and helping to recruit other families and students.

This advocacy approach paid off last year in Rocketship’s home district when more than 900 parents showed up at a Santa Clara county school board meeting to support a proposal for 20 new elementary schools in the Santa Clara region by 2020.

But not everyone has been so happy to see Rocketship expand.

The Pain

Like many other charter networks, Rocketship has had a love-hate relationship with its local community.

On the one hand, shaken loose from some of the constricting rules of traditional schools--from seat time to union regulations--charters can try different approaches to educating both students and even families. For Rocketship, that’s meant rotating students out of its classroom for two hours each day to a learning lab filled with computers where they practice reading and math skills with adaptive software programs such as DreamBox and STMath.

A New Model

More recently, Rocketship has tried clustering fourth and fifth graders in groups of up to 100 students, supervised by three teachers and one learning coach. Groups change throughout the day and year, depending on students’ needs. Some students might spend part of the day working directly with teachers while others focus on projects or build their skills on the computers.

In this new model, the role of the teacher is much more collaborative and flexible than in traditional classrooms. Some teachers might specialize in whole group instruction while others guide projects. School leaders describe the model as dynamic, allowing teachers to constantly adjust classroom time and space to student needs.

As Rocketship CEO Preston Smith explained in an interview with EdSurge, “[This new model] pushes us much more instructionally to optimize instruction” to figure out the right lesson at the right time for the right kid. “This model changes the game.”

This approach has yielded some impressive results, specifically for low-income students and English language learners. In 2012, the network earned a combined average API score of 868, placing them in the top 10 of county schools serving low-income K-5 children.

But not everyone is as jazzed about Rocketship’s model nor about its expansion.


Local communities often worry that charters suck promising students and money from already struggling traditional schools. Some community members have critiqued Rocketship for polarizing the community as it has worked with parents to evangelize the program. They also cite concerns that Rocketship is using computers to replace teachers and keep student teacher ratios high.

However, Rocketship insists that it only goes to communities where public schools are underperforming and where there is high parent demand. They stress that the tech is used to give teachers tools to personalize the learning experience for each student, and not to replace them. Observes principal Adam Nadeau: “It’s about using technology when it provides the lift.”

Charters, especially in California, suffer from even tighter budgets than traditional public schools. While they receive similar per pupil funding, they are often on their own to find facilities and provide supports like special education services. This funding gap has driven many charters, including Rocketship, to embrace technology as a way to make good on the promise of “individualized learning.”

Land Battles

Then there are the expansion plans. Rocketship currently runs two elementary schools in the Tamien neighborhood of San Jose and has proposed adding a third elementary school in fall 2014. Community leaders, by contrast, contend that they need a middle school, not another elementary school, as they already have one public school and two Rocketship elementary schools within a ten-block radius.

Since the land Rocketship plans to build the new school on is not zoned for a school, they have had to get approval from the school district to build. The controversy has embroiled Rocketship in a lawsuit that involves a community group and the San Jose Unified School District. Rocketship counters that demand is high: 978 families in Tamien are on Rocketship’s waitlist, about 40% of the entire Rocketship waitlist for the San Jose region. A typical school can serve between 500 and 630 students. A decision on the proposed school is expected from the San Jose City Council on November 19.

Student Teacher Ratios

Adding complexity has been Rocketship’s most recent pedagogical approach: the lab rotation where 100 students are supported by three teachers.

Critics see this move as a cost saving measure that will help fuel Rocketship’s expansion. “The computer is more about facilitating the 40/50 to 1 teacher ratio and not really about doing long-term education,” says Tamien community member and parent, Brett Bymaster. Rocketship shrugs off the complaints, contending that its average ratio is closer to 27 to 1. That ratio may be irrelevant, however, as student groups are regularly changing.

“For us this is much less about expansion than about communities who have gotten to a place where they are wanting to do a different school model,” Bufalino says.

Declining Test Scores

That technology-enabled flexible groupings isn’t be the only thing under the microscope. Test scores are being closely watched as Rocketships impressive test scores have wilted. In 2013, the combined API scores dropped 46 points to an average of 822 across the network. That still tops San Jose’s 817 and California’s 783--but still worries some.

Just what contributed to the decline? Bufalino points to both Rocketship’s experiments with its new model and preparation for the Common Core.

New Versions

So what version of Rocketship will take root elsewhere?

Bufalino says new communities will get the same model Rocketship has piloted this past year in San Jose. As the network expands, Rocketship hopes to maintain national control over the core principles of the model - individualizing learning plans, providing flexible and rotational models - while leaving the details up to individual sites. “We don’t believe that fundamentals vary from community to community, but the strategy or implementation might change,” explains Bufalino.

Maintaining Quality

But research on charters suggests building a high quality network isn’t easy. Charter school researcher Margaret ‘Macke’ Raymond, from CREDO at Stanford University, has examined the data from 1,372 schools which are part of 167 CMOs in her January 2013 study, ‘Charter Growth and Replication.’ According to her research, the strongest indication of the effectiveness of charters as they expand is the quality of the flagship school.

“Proportionally, most charter management replication at best get you what you already have, and at worst get you a little worse,” Raymond said in an interview with EdSurge. Her research indicates that only 15 to 20 percent of the replications end up better than the flagship school. But with the model constantly in flux, it’s hard to tell if these statistics will end up ringing true for Rocketship.

Bringing Blended to the Masses

There’s another effect at work too--namely the effect that high performing charters have on their traditional cousins.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, Rocketship has had a significant influence on encouraging other schools to “blend” computer and traditional instruction. Milpitas, a neighboring school district in Santa Clara County, has begun to experiment with blended learning in its district schools. According to Bufalino, “in some places they are further ahead [in blended learning] than we are.”

That influence has already had national and international reach: Rocketship has hosted delegations of school leaders from all over the country and inspired a blended learning network in South Africa.

However, for Rocketship’s model to continue to spread and influence its public school cousins, support and space to innovate will be crucial.

As they prepare for the growth, and all the traditional battles that charters school face in that growth, the response to the tech enabled model will be watched closely by both pro and anti charter school communities. This will be a big moment as the blended learning pioneer steps outside the Silicon Valley and into the national spotlight.

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