Charter School Formula for Financial Success but Educational Failure

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Creative Commons Bathroom, Cosmos Cafe by Allan Ferguson is Licensed under CC By 2.0.
Creative Commons Bathroom, Cosmos Cafe by Allan Ferguson is Licensed under CC By 2.0.

There are some charter schools that are successful. They tend to exist on their own in districts scattered around the country.

There are however, hundreds of charter schools that are not successful. They tend to exist in clusters in some of the nation’s largest cities.

Rocketship Education is a charter organization that has schools in California, and, Wisconsin, and in 2014 in Washington D.C., and Nashville. Rocketship schools are a poster child for what is wrong with the corporate intervention of the American public school system.

Rocketship Education schools may be financial successes (they are profitable), but they are failing the students that enter their schools. In this post, I will explore Rocketship Education, based on recent report by Economic Policy Institute author, Gordon Lafer. The report, Do Poor Kids Deserve Lower-Quality Education Than Rich Kids? Evaluating School Privatization Proposals in Milwaukee, Wisconsin (April 24, 2014).

Dr. Lafer, in his research report, questions why an educational model deemed substandard for more privileged suburban children is being so vigorously promoted—perhaps even forced—on poor children in Milwaukee.

Rocketship Education Formula

A PBS report by John Merrow who interviewed two Rocketship teachers from California describes these charters as a model for mass production of charter schools.  One of the teachers said that yes, it would be nice if we offered art and music, but if you want your kid to have it in their life, deal with it after school.  Now, there’s a curriculum plan.

John Danner, the founder of Rocketship, has plans for his charter schools in fifty cities reaching a million students.  He claims his model works, but the EPI report suggests that it does not.

According to Lafer’s report, and information from the Rocketship Education online website, there are four principles that characterize a Rocketship school. They include the following:

  • Replacement of teachers with computers for online learning–Digital learning is a way to make the school more economical, and using the schools “Learning Lab” large numbers of students can be accommodated with less staff.
  • Reliance on a young and inexperienced teachers largely recruited from Teach for America–according to Lafer’s report, Rocketship has a contract with Teach for America to give a pipeline of new recruits.  Rocketship teachers are paid based on how their students score on math and reading tests.  The model embraces a young staff and one that has a high-turnover rate.  As you will see ahead, Rocketship schools are staffed with teachers who have between 0-5 years experience, where successful comparable public schools have staffs with 10 – 30 years of experience.  Teaching staffs that are more experienced are by far more successful with students and their learning. The replacement or turnover rate for the Rocketship schools averages 29% each year.
  • A narrow curriculum of math and reading–Rocketship Education describes its approach to curriculum as blended learning.  Blending digital learning with face to face.  However, its curriculum only includes math and reading literacy.  You will not find a full curriculum at these schools.
  • A relentless focus on preparing students for standardized tests—Rocketship teaches to the test–students are involved as full-time test takers at school and home.  Students take the test Measuring Academic Progress (MAP) three times per year.  This is the same test that teachers in Seattle boycotted.  But instruction is totally centered around tests that are aligned to the state standards (the Common Core Standards next year).

According to Lafer’s API report, all the California Rocketship schools’ academic progress has decreased over the past two years based on the California Academic Performance Index.  And none of the schools achieved Adequate Yearly Progress, a requirement of the No Child Left Behind Act. Figure 1 from the EPI report compares the academic performance at the California Rocketship schools.

Figure 1. Academic Performance of Rocketship Schools in California Source: Economic Policy Institute

Figure 2 compares the Rocketship Schools’ achievement of Adequate Yearly Progress, 2010 – 2013.  None of the schools met the requirement in 2012-2013, and four of these schools did not reach Adequate Yearly Progress in 2011-2012 meaning that these schools will be subject to regulatory interventions by the state.

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Figure 2. Rocketship Schools’ Achievement of Adequate Yearly Progress, 2010-2013 Source: Economic Policy Institute

Going Forward

Even with these dismal results, the business plan for Rocketship Education is moving forward. It is implementing a new design plan in its schools. It is also moving forward to open more schools in other cities and states. As shown in Figure 3, Rocketship intends to increase its enrollment from less than 5,000 in 2013 to more than 30,000 in 2018.


Figure 3. Rocketship Business Plan. Source: Economic Policy Institute

In the next post, we’ll continue this discussion of charter schools, but we’ll look at the research and what it says about good schools, and why they work so well for all students.

In the meantime, what do you think of the Rocketship Education Model?