On the Rocketship: How Top Charter Schools are Pushing the Envelope

The Rocketship charter network, founded in San Jose in 2006, has had a growth trajectory worthy of its name: it already operates nine schools, and its goal is to educate 25,000 students by 2017. Benefiting from  unrestricted access to its board and schools for a year, journalist Richard Whitmore presents us with an engaging read that provides a history of the Rocketship education project, set in the context of America’s growing charter-school sector. The story features two protagonists: John Danner, the Silicon Valley victor who now aims to reduce America’s achievement gap, and Preston Smith, a more traditional educator and supporter of Danner’s lofty goal. The pair pinpointed three factors necessary for success. First, talented educators: recruiting heavily from Teach for America, they retained these teachers in unusually high numbers by fast tracking their careers. Second, a blended learning model: they used adaptive software to deliver individualized instruction to all students while also reshaping traditional school staffing and budget arrangements. And third, reach the parents—mainly from low-income and minority backgrounds—and prod them to become education activists. The gains in Rocketship’s first school were unparalleled. However, the model proved challenging to replicate, and early expansion efforts faltered, forcing the founders to reassess their goals. But as Whitmire pointed out in a recent interview with EdNext, Rocketship has a unique ability to fix problems on the fly (“when they hit a wall, they reinvent themselves”). And having tweaked their learning model, school test scores—and replication—are back on track again. Throughout the book, Danner and Smith’s can-do mentality contrasts starkly with the customary attitudes and habits of the traditional school system. (Whitmire will present his book at a Fordham Institute event Thursday, June 26, at 4 p.m. ET. 

SOURCE: Richard Whitmire, On the Rocketship: How Top Charter Schools are Pushing the Envelope (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, June 2014).