Saturday, January 5, 2013

A Rocketship to Disappointment

John Merrow came out recently with a segment about Rocketship charter schools, touting high test scores among their low-income students. Merrow looks at Rocketship through the lens of a provocative metaphor: Is Rocketship doing what Ford did with the Model T, i.e, mass producing quality education?

First of all: Yuck. Though some certainly see education this way, education is not a product, or shouldn't be. It's not a car. It's not an item that can or should be mass produced. Even adorned with colorful cubicles, what a bleak and depressing way to envision to education.

Second of all: Innovative? Rocketship makes no secret that their mission is to raise reading and math standardized test scores. As I said in this post, where I referred to Rocketship education, I fail to see what's so innovative about that. Furthermore, using computer programs to differentiate instruction is hardly new or innovative. The school district where we live chose several years ago not to outfit schools heavily with technology, bucking the tech-innovation trend. Instead, the district invested in a solid technical and vocational program. There are computer labs in each school but each classroom has only about five computers. What do they use the computers for? Among other things, to differentiate instruction, or rather differentiate practice. Students can practice their math facts or other basics at their level. As long as such basics are developmentally appropriate and worth practicing, this is a fine use of computers, but the difference is the students in my district's schools only use them for small chunks of time and only for specific purposes. But such practice is hardly innovative. If anything, it's practical.

If I parked my kid in front of a screen for two hours a day, it might be called bad parenting. In a school, it looks, well, lazy. You better believe that if my kids' school did that, they'd be hearing from me. So not only is not new, it's inappropriate and possibly harmful. Yet, Rocketship does it and is praised for its "innovation" and invited to "scale up."

There is no art and music, so it seems that the majority most of the time is spent on tested subjects. When you see art and music as something that can be relegated to "afterschool," it shows that you don't respect them as the vital disciplines they are.

The report gives a big nod to parental involvement at Rocketship schools, but from what I can tell the parental involvement seems to involve watching and singing along as their children do their Launch (and an opening meeting and song is also not innovative--lots of schools and summer camps do that every day and have been for years) and agreeing that prep for standardized test scores is a priority. Otherwise, there's no exploration in the segment of how "parent involvement" translates at Rocketship Schools. How are parents meaningfully involved at Rocketship? What do they do? What "critical parts" do they play? How much decision-making power and input do they have? (And why doesn't John Merrow ask these questions?)

And don't get me started on the references to unions. Rocketship CEO John Danner starts off by claiming Rocketship is a "start up" and hence can't accommodate a unionized staff. So when it comes to unions, Rocketship is a start up but when it comes to equal public funding, Rocketship is a school. Which is it? And where is this 450-page document that Danner refers to "that literally says minute by minute what teachers are supposed to do"? (And why doesn't John Merrow ask about the existence of such a document?) The real answer: It doesn't exist; it's a boogeyman. The scripted, minute-by-minute aspect of public school days comes not from union contracts, but from management, like, say, um, someone in Danner's position who feels immense pressure to, um, yeah, raise test scores.

Lastly, while Merrow's segment states directly that the computer time may not be "working," it doesn't ask what is it meant to work towards. And it certainly doesn't ask what the heck the kids are actually doing on the computers. What are the programs? What are the games? What are their purpose? What are their efficacy? Are they good programs? (And, yes, again: Why isn't Merrow asking these basic but vital questions? Yes, yes, I get it: Learning matters. But learning what? And how?)

I'm dubious that this quixotic quest for innovation is the lever to improve education and I'm certain that the mass production door is the wrong one to be knocking on. Either way, though, if it's "quality" (another word in education reform discussions I've come to loathe) we're after, the prize ain't higher test scores. High scores are a side effect of good education, not an end. Unfortunately, higher test scores are precisely the prize Merrow exalts and Danner seeks. But not for their children. As this article on another blended learning model in Newark, New Jersey, shows, this is increasingly the prize for low-income kids in schools like Rocketship's because that's what "those" kids need:
Even some technology advocates like Doug Levin of the State Educational Technology Directors Association doubt that this model will ever appeal to middle- and upper-income families whose children are not struggling below grade level. Levin says that’s because those children don’t need as much extra drilling and can use more of the school day for analysis and inquiry.“I think this approach works much better for elementary school aged children who are really struggling to build their vocabulary, to understand basic math facts and operations,” says Levin. “I think as kids get into middle and high school, what the computer can offer in that regard is less.”Levin predicts the computer drilling will succeed in raising the test scores of the low-income sixth graders of Merit Prep.
There you have it.

Updated (1/6/2013): 
Fellow education writer/blogger Adam Bessie recently (and not so recently) pointed out a possible conflict of interest: Rocketship is funded by the Gates Foundation and so is PBS and Merrow's production company Learning Matters (though I can't say what the nature of the arrangement between PBS and Learning Matters is). This was not disclosed during the segment, nor was it disclosed that Rocketship CEO Danner is also on the board of Dreambox, the for-profit company that produces the math software used by Rocketship. I would think it would be journalistic protocol to disclose such relationships.

But what really disturbs me is that Merrow says he had "no idea" of the connection between Gates and Rocketship. I don't understand what kind of basic investigative journalism wouldn't have uncovered that, especially when it's not hidden from the public--it's on Rocketship's website. I'm not a professional journalist, but I would think that would be protocol, as well.

Updated II (1/6/2013): 
Also, see this post on Rocketship (in Milwaukee) by Barbara Miner.