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Change Agent

John Danner shoots for the stars with Rocketship charter schools

Rocketship schools employ computers and coaches to help teach low-income kids, and see student performance rise dramatically.

By Jina MooreCorrespondent / September 1, 2011

Sixth graders work with their iPads on an assignment in their English class at John Muir Middle School in Corcoran, Calif., this spring. Rocketship, a group of northern California charter schools, also employes computers – as well as human coaches – to teach some basic subjects, freeing teachers to concentrate on more complex topics.

ZUMA Press/Newscom

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Fifteen years ago, John Danner started the internet company that eventually made him rich. At 31, he retired. But a nagging question kicked in: “Now what?”

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With a nudge from the Jesuits, whose schools he’d attended as a child, and after earning his stripes as a classroom teacher, Mr. Danner co-founded the charter school network Rocketship. Rocketship has 2,500 students in five elementary schools in San Jose, Calif. Roughly 90 percent of Rocketship’s students are from low-income households, and 70 percent or more don’t speak English at home.

And they’re outperforming everyone’s expectations.

In the interview below, which has been condensed and edited, Danner shares some of his team’s best ideas.

Charter schools aren’t the oddity they once were in American education, but Rocketship has been lauded for its unusual approach to education. What’s your innovation?
Danner: The key idea with Rocketship is that there is a place for classroom instruction and for individualized instruction exactly at the developmental level of a child. We created a school model that incorporates both – we have six hours of classroom time and two hours of Learning Lab time, which is where we do our individualized instruction, with tutoring and computers.

Learning Lab is not staffed by teachers; it’s staffed by instructional coaches, who generally have high school or college degrees but are not certified teachers. Theywork at an hourly wage, of around $14 an hour, as opposed to much more highly paid teachers. We hand them a scripted curriculum; they oversee the work children are doing on computers, and they’re perfectly capable of providing instruction as long as we know exactly what each child needs to learn.

The net effect is that we save, with schools of about 500 kids, about half a million dollars a year, and we reinvest that then into the things we matter most for the school – training our teachers very, very well; empowering our parents; developing our leaders; paying our teachers a 20 percent higher salary than surrounding school districts. We always say if you are an educator and somebody wrote you a half-million dollar check every year and said do better things with your school, you could probably figure out how to do that.

What we’re really doing is changing the way that schools work economically. The model has been that however many kids you have at a school, you need a number of teachers equivalent to teach every one of those children.

What results are you seeing in terms of children’s learning?
It catches kids up. About 90 percent of our lowest-performing children move up, from the bottom quartile [or 25 percent in test results] up to the top or to the second quartile.
The key is, you have enormous potential to increase the amount a child can learn at a time. We get a 100 percent increase – and we’re not very good at it yet. We think we can get better.

Are there things a computer teaches better than a teacher – or things it can’t teach at all?
There are some very difficult things for computers to teach. Anything in the areas of critical thinking or social-emotional learning or written expression, those are really difficult, and at Rocketship we don’t spend a lot of time trying to get them to do that. What we think is that they’re generally almost always better at the core basic skills, like addition.

The reason that they’re better is a nonintuitive thing. When a child is on a program [practicing] two-digit addition, a program can do something a teacher doesn’t have time to do: It can say, “Hmm, you’ve done these three addition problems wrong, so I’m not going to have you keep doing that. That’s a waste of your time. I’m going to move to a test that tests you on the pre-skills for this addition – do you know how to add single digits? Do you know how to carry? Once you’re good at that, I’ll take you to two-digit addition.”

The level of attention that precision would take from a teacher managing a classroom of 32 – you can’t do it.

So it’s not possible that computers would one day replace teachers?
No. Actually, we say teachers really didn’t become teachers to teach these basic skill. Kindergarten teachers didn’t sign up to be kindergarten teachers because they wanted to teach short “a” and long “a” sounds for 80 hours. They signed up because they like working with children. They like to teach social emotional skills, to stretch their thinking.

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