profile of Rocketship Schools by NPR blogger Anya Kamenetz (here)--and the detailed response by Rocketship CEO Preston Smith (here)--raises three powerful questions, particularly for educators and people who are designing new school models and fresh approaches to teaching and learning.
Schools are deeply personal. We’re all outraged when a student is mistreated. As educators, parents and members of the community we never want to settle for “good enough,” and especially not “good enough for some.” School leaders are entrusted with great responsibility--the lives of students--and almost every educator I’ve ever met holds that responsibility dear.
And while NPR’s article points to important issues and questions regarding how classrooms are managed, how students use technology and how staff is allocated, these issues are not unique to Rocketship. They are questions that many schools across the country, both public and charter, struggle with.
Before we polarize the issues, it’s our obligation to thrust the questions raised under the examining light and consider their complexity.
One: Classroom Management
The NPR piece painted a harsh picture of Rocketship’s classroom management when it comes to allowing students to have bathroom breaks and enforcing “silent time.” Every educator knows that setting clear classroom rules and school wide policies for practices such as bathroom breaks is standard. And every school has a different approach to school culture, student discipline, routines, boundaries and rewards. Without strong classroom and school culture, schools can easily devolve into chaos.
But how far is too far when it comes to classroom management?
Schools known for having a “high expectations” culture or those with a high rate of teacher turnover often take the strictest approach to classroom management. They try to keep students laser focused on achievement; often times this approach has been coupled with strict rules and rigid routines.
Many of the rules and routines employed at Rocketship can be seen in charter and districts schools across the country. Many have their roots in highly structured teacher training programs that aim to help teachers control a classroom within the first or second year of teaching.
There are times when these practices cross the line. When classroom management becomes overly militant, especially in communities that are already marginalized, we can send harmful, subconscious messages to our students. Even the Secretary of Education at the United States Department of Education, has shared his own struggles with finding the right balance around classroom management.
In prepared remarks at this week at the National Charter School Association conference, Secretary John B. King Jr. spoke of his time as managing director of Uncommon Schools, a charter management network in New York, “What I know from these experiences, and what I’ve learned since, is that discipline is a nuanced and complicated issue… Yet the public discussions of these issues are often binary - pitting one extreme against another.” And so it is on us to understand the nuances and complexity behind creating healthy school culture, and prioritize a conversation around these practices.
Creating a healthy sense of discipline is also a part of preparing teachers to hold respectful boundaries with students in a humanizing way and school leaders to craft culture, rather than just policies. These are hard problems and hard questions to ask, because they often require that we look at our own biases and become better people, especially when we work with children.
Question Number Two: Technology Use
The NPR piece raised questions about how much time students spend on technology, reporting that students spend up to 80 minutes a day on computers--and at times as much as 80 minutes on a single program. Smith from Rocketship has clarified that students spread that time across five different programs such as Lexia, myOn, ST Math and Dreambox.
But here are the keystone questions: What kind of technology use is best for which kids? What’s harmful?
It’s not just an issue of how many minutes students spend on technology. Most critical is to explore what students do during that time, what teachers do with the results and how the technology impacts a student’s learning experience. For instance, in school models that use technology as a core component of instruction, teachers frequently use the data to convene small groups, to customize their teaching and to leverage time so they can help the neediest of students. That’s all good.
Rocketship currently uses what’s called a “lab rotation model”--namely where a group of students spends computer lab time to work on curriculum software, while small groups of students are pulled for intervention. Many schools start with this model to get student and teachers comfortable with technology in a controlled environment. They later transition to less structured models, where teachers have more control over what technology gets used and how it integrates into their core instruction.
We could debate the merits of the lab rotation model; there are many sides to it. Some educators think it’s a systematic way to help students strengthen or acquire specific skills; others see it as a way to free up teacher time (so they can focus on specific students). Still others worry that introducing any kind of device minimizes the role of the teacher and disconnects the learning experience from the lab to the class.
Again this is not a Rocketship problem. All schools in the 21st century will wrestle with the balance of tech and teacher time as they integrate new technologies into teaching and learning practices.
The NPR story also pointed out that too often the least qualified staff members in the building were given the most difficult challenge, namely managing a group of over 80 students as they worked through online programs.
This raises another set of important questions: How are we staffing our schools? How qualified do the adults in the room need to be to support students with different tasks?
Is a non-certified teacher ever qualified to help a student struggling with a subject? Tutoring programs across the country hire non-certified tutors to support and coach students through their problems. As there are always more students than teachers, how should a teacher spend their time? Should they be spending more time with the neediest students in a class? When does software have a role?
And here’s a variation on the question: Should non-certified teachers be responsible for managing large groups of students? After-school programs often rely on a small group of non-certified staff members to manage hundreds of students. Should schools meet a higher bar? Aren’t teachers specially trained to motivate students and keep them engaged in learning activities over a long period of time?
Depending on what you think the role of the teacher is and their unique talents, you’ll answer these questions differently, and likely take a different approach to staffing. The tighter the budget, the more creative schools get around how to carve out one-on-one time with teachers or small group instruction.
Exactly how students and teachers spend their time in school is at the core of our schools. We must ask these questions--not just of Rocketship but of every school we encounter. If we respond to this article about Rocketship by villainizing the organization, we fail to learn. If we walk away from this NPR article, villainizing its writer and editors, we fail to learn.
This story isn’t just about Rocketship. This is about the great responsibility we all have when we step into a building and work with kids. It’s about how deeply personal that work is. And if we aren’t asking ourselves deeply meaningful questions everyday, as we do this work, as we report on this work, and as we support schools to do this work, we have all failed.
Christina Quattrocchi is EdSurge’s Director of Research. Christina has reported on school models, including Rocketship. You can see her past pieces on Rocketship here, here and here. She was formerly a teacher.