Before We Get Carried Away By Techno-Enthusiasm, Find Out What Works

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Very interesting PBS NewsHour report on Rocketship Education, a group of charter schools. They’re doing some things very well, but not without some significant missteps along the way, as John Merrow, the NewsHour education correspondent, reports:

JOHN MERROW: The Model T was the first, the first innovative and affordable car available to the masses. Others had built good cars, but Henry Ford figured out how to build a lot of them. He and his moving assembly line proved that quality can be mass-produced.

Mass production is a problem the auto industry solved over 100 years ago, but it’s an issue our education system has yet to figure out. America has lots of terrific schools. People open great schools every year, but typically open just one. Nobody has figured out how to mass-produce high-quality, cost-effective schools.

John Danner is the latest to give it a shot. He created an innovative charter school model with replication in mind. Charter schools receive public funding, but are privately managed and operate outside of the traditional public system.

JOHN DANNER, Rocketship Education: Our public education system’s not really set up for change.

MERROW: Before going into education, Danner founded and ran a successful Silicon Valley startup. He designed his new education model after teaching for three years in a traditional public school.

DANNER: Causing change within that system’s really, really difficult. And I think that’s actually what charter schools were created to do, was to shake things up, do things differently.

Merrow goes one to note that one thing Rocketship is doing differently is employing un-unionized teachers:

MERROW: With no union contract, Rocketship can decide what to pay teachers.Andrew Elliott-Chandler is the principal of Rocketship Si Se Puede Elementary.

ANDREW ELLIOTT-CHANDLER, Rocketship Si Se Puede Elementary: I was excited to offer some of our third-year teachers doing well almost $70,000 this year.

MERROW: That’s almost 30 percent higher than a third year teacher earns in a neighboring district. Rocketship teachers typically make at least 15 percent more, thanks to this part of the model. It’s the linchpin that makes Danner’s financial model tick: the learning lab.

Every school has a room like this, lots of computers and kids, but no classroom teachers. Learning labs are staffed with hourly employees called individualized learning specialists, who lack teaching credentials.

MELANIE HANG, individualized learning specialist, Rocketship Mosaic Elementary: Yes, I have five classes that I coach. So that’s probably about 150 students.

MERROW: For about one hour every day, students practice math and literacy skills. They work independently at their own pace. The computer is able to track and guide the progress of each student.

It’s something educators call differentiated learning. Some students work on basic skills, while others advance to more challenging lessons.

The learning lab allows a school to hire six fewer teachers, which Rocketship says results in savings of up to half a million dollars. That money is used to pay teachers higher salaries, fund academic deans who help teachers get better, and train principals for future Rocketship schools.

The learning lab saves schools a lot of money, but there’s just one problem: They’re not really working.

JUDY LAVI, teacher, Rocketship Mosaic Elementary: There’s definitely an aspect of us kind of not knowing enough about what’s going on in learning lab to be able to use that in our classrooms.

ELLIOTT-CHANDLER: We don’t yet get data that says, OK, teach this differently tomorrow because of what happened here [in the learning lab]. And that is—that is a frustration point.

MERROW: A problem we saw is that some students in the lab do not appear to be engaged. They sit at their computers for long periods of time, seemingly just guessing.
LAVI: That’s definitely not the ideal situation. The ideal situation would be that they’d get help from somebody in the learning lab who would explain the concept to them. Then they would go back and practice it.

MERROW: Rocketship says it’s about to make a big change to its model.

ADAM NADEAU, principal, Rocketship Mosaic Elementary: If I had to guess, I would say you come back in a year, you won’t see a learning lab.

ELLIOTT-CHANDLER: Next year, we’re—we’re thinking of bringing the computers back to the classrooms and the kids back to the classrooms.” (Read more here.)

So, the much-vaunted idea of kids learning at computers at their own pace, without much guidance from actual teachers, doesn’t work so well in practice.

I don’t point this out in order to dismiss the important work of innovation and experimentation that is going on in many schools today, but to point out that we shouldn’t get carried away by techno-enthusiasm before we know what proves effective in real life with real students.

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One Response to “Before We Get Carried Away By Techno-Enthusiasm, Find Out What Works”

  1. Dustin says:

    I think Finland, Thailand, Ontario, Japan, China and America circa the earlier majority of the last century might have something to say about John merrow’s assertion that no one has found a cost effective way to mass produce quality education.

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