Rocketship charter schools revamping signature ‘Learning Lab’

Young Sarah Baker uses a computer in Discovery Prep's Learning Lab in this 2012 photo. (by Randi Lynn Beach / For The Washington Post)
Young Sarah Baker uses a computer in Rocketship Discovery Prep’s Learning Lab in this 2012 photo. (by Randi Lynn Beach / for the Washington Post)

The Rocketship network of charter schools has made a name for itself in the world of school choice — and attracted $2 million from the Obama administration to help it grow — with its “blended learning” model that incorporates traditional classroom settings with a computer “Learning Lab” for students.

The idea behind the lab was that students could learn basic lessons in math and reading while teachers could work with students on more complicated material. Part of the attraction, too, was that the computers would cost less than hiring more teachers. Well, it turns out that the vaunted “Learning Lab” isn’t working so well. In fact, it has turned out to be so much less than expected that Rocketship is revamping it.

Here’s what my colleague Lyndsey Layton wrote about the Learning Lab  in this 2012 story about Rocketship and its co-founder and chief executive officer, John Danner:

In each Rocketship school, children file into a “Learning Lab” every day, where they sit at computer carrels that line the perimeter of the room.

 

In the center of the room, tutors work in small groups with children in need of more intense help. In a traditional public school, students would be pulled out of class for that kind of extra help, losing valuable classroom time that can often push them even further behind.

 

At the computers, each child logs onto a program that continually adapts, spending more time on tasks that the student finds difficult, advancing when the student demonstrates mastery.

 

One morning this [past] spring at Discovery Prep [in San Jose, Calif.], Ebony-Princess Cutts thumbed through a stack of printouts as first-graders clicked away at their computer stations. Cutts, a Learning Lab aide who is not a certified teacher, earns about $14 an hour with benefits.

 

“This tells me that he’s struggling,” she said, referring to a chubby boy sitting at the end of a row of computers, his small ears swallowed by big blue headphones. “I wouldn’t ordinarily notice that because he’s quiet and he looks like he’s engaged.”

 

Later, kindergarteners filed into the Learning Lab and slid into their seats. Of nine students, three faced their computers while the others played with their headphones, poked each other and glanced everywhere but the monitors.

 

Danner acknowledges that the youngest students have trouble concentrating, although he said internal data show the kindergartners and first-graders complete as many computer lessons as older children.

 

As the quality of software improves, Danner thinks “Rocketeers” could spend as much as 50 percent of the school day with computers.

Not anytime soon, as it turns out. Hearing that the Learning Lab was increasingly being criticized by teachers, including in this PBS NewsHour piece, I asked Rocketship if they were changing the Learning Lab. The answer was “yes.” This was in an email from Kristoffer Haines, vice president of national development for Rocketship Education:

Over the past few years, we have seen many benefits of both the Learning Lab and traditional classrooms, but at the same time recognized a disconnect in the flow of data and information between the two.  Therefore, we have decided to move forward on integrating key components of the Learning Lab — technology and tutors — into the classrooms, and are currently piloting different methods to best accomplish this transition.

 

When teachers have greater access to data, they can better diagnose student needs and create flexible learning plans (small groups, time with tutors, online, etc.) to ensure each student is getting the right lesson at the right time.  So while Learning Lab will look much different in the future, it will remain an integral part of our model and will ultimately allow better use of time and talent and improved individualization for all students. We’ll keep you posted on our progress as we continue to refine our model and our approach to Learning Lab.

 

We’ll have more to share with you as we continue integrating the two and we will be sure to share with you our progress.

 

The people behind the Rocketship public charter schools — all of them urban, college-preparatory K-5 campuses  – have made some pretty big claims for a school network of eight schools (as listed here.)  The  organization’s website already says it is “the leading public school system for low-income elementary students,” and, that its mission is “to eliminate the achievement gap within our lifetimes.” Danner has said he wants to expand to have enough schools to at some point educate some 1 million students.

The website also says:

Closing the achievement gap at a national level depends on building, executing, and scaling a revolutionary school model that encompasses the following initiatives:

  • Innovate: Leverage Learning Lab to deliver exceptional and enduring academic results for students to emerge with the skills and characteristics necessary for success in college and life.

  • Empower: Foster deep parental engagement and ongoing advocacy for their children and to expand educational opportunities for all students.

  • Lead: Elevate the professions of teaching and school leadership by enabling high-level work with students and families in a sustainable, highly rewarding manner with commensurate compensation.

  • Impact: Use financial resources efficiently so that we can scale effectively in high-need areas across the country, opening clusters of schools that offer a holistic education and serve all students without necessitating philanthropy.

Given that the first initiative hasn’t worked as expected, Rocketship might want to be a little more careful about the claims it makes.

There are no silver bullets in education. There is no one model that will work across the board. Pretending doesn’t make it so.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss | January 24, 2013