Can the start-up culture of Silicon Valley — innovation, risk-taking and course corrections that turn on a dime — be applied to the most stubborn and profound challenge of public education? Can the start-up guys finally close the achievement gap between poor and affluent children that has persisted for decades?

Richard Whitmire seems to think so. In “On the Rocketship,” he chronicles the birth and growing pains of Rocketship, a San Jose-based chain of public charter elementary schools whose founders believe they have a model to close the gap and have ambitious plans to spread it across the country, including to the District in 2015.

Whitmire, a former reporter and editorial writer at USA Today — and the author of “The Bee Eater,” a laudatory biography of Michelle Rhee, the controversial former D.C. schools chancellor — seems equally as admiring of the Rocketship schools and their co-founders, John Danner and Preston Smith. “Some people speak in phrases or maybe even complete sentences,” Whitmire writes. “The really good speakers manage to utter seamless paragraphs. In answering questions about either technology or schools, Danner answers in measured tapestries, starting with the fundamental, underlying philosophy and then narrowing the bandwidth until arriving at the precise point that was raised.”

Whitmire acts as a translator, explaining how Silicon Valley sensibilities were infused into Rocketship. There’s a lot of business-school talk about disruption. “That’s just how business is done in the valley — quick bursts of adaptations as business models get revamped to fit the needs of consumers,” he writes, comparing traditional public schools to “smokestack industries” from the Industrial Age.

Danner, a tech entrepreneur and onetime public school teacher, and Smith, a Teach for America alumnus and founder of an experimental public school in San Jose, opened the first of nine Rocketship schools in a poor, Latino neighborhood in 2007. What originally set Rocketship apart from other successful charters — and made it a darling of the charter school movement — is a business and educational model that relies on computers to shave labor costs while pushing up student achievement, as measured by standardized tests.

For about two hours a day, Rocketship students are taught in “learning labs” by computers using adaptive software. These are staffed by lower-paid aides instead of classroom teachers. The technology is designed to meet children at their individual levels and drill them in rote skills such as addition and subtraction. Students spend the rest of the day in more typical classroom settings with a teacher, tackling more complex work.

Computers reduce Rocketship’s labor costs by 25 percent; while a Rocketship school employs 16 teachers, a similarly sized traditional elementary school would have 21. That translates into annual savings of about $400,000 per school — money that Rocketship plows back into operations to pay higher salaries to its non-union teachers, to build school buildings and to fuel its national expansion plans, among other things.

It also means Rocketship schools can survive on the per-student payments they receive from the government without continual infusions of cash from foundations and other outside sources. The government money going to Rocketship would have gone to a traditional public school had the student enrolled there.

In the first five years of operation, Rocketship students posted impressive scores on California’s assessments, in some cases scoring as high as their more-affluent peers in school districts like Palo Alto. But things got rocky as ambition outpaced capacity. Danner wanted to expand the schools to reach 1 million students across the country by 2030. He pushed to maximize the use of technology, so that 50 percent of the school day would be taught by computers. He and Smith decided to change the model, knock down classroom walls to combine grades and further reduce labor costs, envisioning a room of 120 students with three teachers. Danner wanted the change made at all grade levels in all schools by the start of the 2013-14 school year, the kind of aggressive, nimble move that may be common in the tech industry but that provoked a backlash among school leaders and top managers, several of whom resigned in frustration, according to Whitmire.

This fast pace caused a rift between Danner and Smith, Whitmire writes, and Danner announced in January 2013 that he was leaving Rocketship to found an education technology start-up, Zeal. Smith dialed back the changes, combining just fourth and fifth grades and maintaining the level of computer instruction at 25 percent.

The chaos in management took its toll; state test scores dropped at every Rocketship school in 2013, according to Whitmire. The drop was humiliating for Smith, who is recalibrating and focused anew on instruction and curriculum. Rocketship also slowed the pace of expansion, with a still-lofty but perhaps more achievable goal of reaching 25,000 students across the country by 2017.

In addition to eight schools in the San Jose area, Rocketship opened its first school outside California this year, in Milwaukee, but it was about 200 students short of its enrollment goal. It plans to open another school in Nashville next month, followed by one in the District next year.

Whitmire spends a lot of time discussing the political obstacles Rocketship encounters from traditional school districts, elected school boards and teacher unions that try to thwart the shiny new competitor. But he glides over some of the real concerns associated with Rocketship. The chain heavily relies on Teach for America recruits or alumni with just a few years of teaching experience, and promotes them quickly into management, so that nearly the entire staff of a school can be under 30 years old. Teachers and principals work heroic hours, with several questioning whether they can sustain the commitment. Teachers who begin their careers at Rocketship stay an average of 2.9 years; at traditional schools, the average is 14 years, according to Whitmire. But he doesn’t explore what that “churn” means for students or the stability of the schools.

Some question the heavy use of computers, including one fifth-grader who tells Whitmire the computer lab is sometimes boring. Whitmire describes the learning labs as “unimpressive,” with a “lot of milling around, asking for bathroom passes, and aimless perusing of computer software.” That’s similar to my impressions when I visited a Rocketship school in 2012. Still, Whitmire doesn’t spend much time examining this central element of Rocketship’s design.

Will Rocketship soar, or will it end up mangled on the side of U.S. 101, the highway that cuts through Silicon Valley? Whitmire firmly believes that it can succeed, and on a scale that can make a real dent in the nation’s achievement gap. But his book touches on just enough issues — however lightly — to raise serious doubts.

Lyndsey Layton covers national education issues for The Washington Post


How Top Charter Schools Are
Pushing the Envelope

By Richard Whitmire

Jossey-Bass. 334 pp. $26.95

In the first five years of operation, Rocketship students posted impressive scores on California’s assessments, in some cases scoring as high as their more-affluent peers in school districts like Palo Alto. But things got rocky as ambition outpaced capacity.