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.

ZUMA Press/Newscom
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.

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?”

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.

The things that adults like to do to help children is different than the things we seem to do all day long in low-income schools. I think that’s an overlooked part of burnout with teachers. If you can take those rote skills and automate them, you can free up classroom time for teachers to focus on the things they can uniquely do.

Parental engagement is an oft-cited challenge in low-income schools. But at one point, Rocketship parents started a political action committee. How did that happen?
My co-founder Preston Smith really was a strong believer from his previous experience as a principal that getting parents involved in a school had really good characteristics. Once I saw it working, we started to think [that] if we have parents who are so engaged and so fervently believe we are doing the right thing for their children, why don’t we start to educate them about what’s going on outside Rocketship that affects them?

[After a local school funding debate], we created parent leaders, 20 at each school, who became involved in educating other parents about the political and systemic issues that they face.

What changes when you engage parents at that level?
A few things. One is that our parents start to act like upper-middle-class parents when they leave Rocketship and go to secondary schools. By and large, low-income Latino parents in San Jose are not very well served. They’ll go [to high school] and say, “I know what it looks like for my child to go to college; he needs this, this and this.”

If they continue to be ignored, they go to superintendent. If the superintendent ignores them, there’s several hundred parents at a school board meeting [talking] about the how district needs to change to serve their children. They’ve done that several times now, and they are kind of terrifying when they do that.

Tell me about the political action committee (PAC).
They formed a PAC called Parents for Great Schools. It grew to 100 parents, and they interviewed about a dozen candidates for school board races and picked four they thought really represented their views. They did about 1000 hours of campaign work for those four candidates and ended up getting 3 out of 4 folks elected.

Is this level of political engagement controversial?
I don’t know what people think privately. What we hear publicly is that generally it’s got to be a good thing for parents to be more knowledgeable about the system and have more voice. What’s fascinating is that as we get better and better at [parental] engagement we tend to annoy people more.

You take a group that largely has been overlooked and now when they walk in a room everybody knows they were the people able to mobilize do a huge amount of work and get people elected. That completely changes the calculus for most elected officials.

Is Rocketship replicable in other communities?
There is important local context every time you go to new district or city, but if you perfect things, like way we develop teachers and individualized learning, that should be pretty applicable in a lot of places. Next year, we’ll have eight schools in San Jose, and we’re moving up to San Francisco, Oakland, and East Palo Alto as well.

We hope to greenlight our first out-of-California school in February 2012. We feel a kind of moral obligation to go to places that aren’t happy about being disrupted and say, we’re getting these results, they’re very, very good, and it would be to the children’s benefit to give this a try.

• John Danner is the co-founder and CEO of Rocketship, a Henry Crown Fellow of the Aspen Institute, and winner of the Aspen Global Leadership Network (AGLN) 2010 John P. McNulty Prize. Jina Moore met Danner at ACT II, a conference of AGLN alumni, on a trip to Aspen whose airfare and accommodations were financed by the AGLN.

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