- Hardcover: 352 pages
- Publisher: Jossey-Bass; 1 edition (June 9, 2014)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1118607643
- ISBN-13: 978-1118607640
- Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.2 x 9.3 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
- Average Customer Review: 26 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,044,652 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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On the Rocketship: How Top Charter Schools Are Pushing the Envelope Hardcover – June 9, 2014
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"It is the best account yet of what is happening with charters. Both those who hate the independent public schools and those who love them should read it "-- Jay Mathews. Washington Post.
"The eclectic, almost lyrical descriptions of each personality in the Rocketship saga provide the book with a vital human element. " Center for Education Reform.
The compelling narrative focuses on John Danner, Rocketship's flamboyant founder; Preston Smith, Danner's measured lieutenant and heir to an empire, and the the community groups, districts, tech interests and teachers who play a part. -- Scholastic Administrator
From the Inside Flap
ON THE ROCKETSHIP
ON THE ROCKETSHIP examines the rise and expansion of leading charter school network Rocketship, revealing the “secret sauce” that makes a successful program. A strong narrative with a timely message, the book explores how Rocketship started and the difficulties encountered as it expands. Designing schools for children who have been failed by traditional schools is extremely challenging work. Setbacks are inevitable. As the story progresses, the narrative shifts to the national picture, exploring how high performing charter schools are changing the education landscape in cities such as Denver, Memphis, and Houston. The book emerges just as charter schools are running into stiff political opposition in New York City and elsewhere. Even in San Jose, California, Rocketship’s home base, the pushback against charter schools is gaining speed.
On the Rocketship becomes a valuable resource for explaining what’s at stake in this battle. Lose these schools, in New York, San Jose and other cities, and low-income and minority students lose their best shot at a quality education.
Written by a veteran journalist who followed Rocketship through a school year, the book explores some of the factors that make Rocketship and other charters successful, including the blended learning that was pioneered at charter schools.
Many schools around the country look to Rocketship as a model for implementing blended learning. Blended learning, itself a controversial topic, ultimately offers students a more active role in guiding their own education. At these schools, blended learning is leading to richer learning. The interplay between charter schools and blended learning is setting a change in motion, and the American education system is ready to evolve. On the Rocketship details this phenomenon, providing insights for educators across the nation.
On the Rocketship is written for school administrators, classroom teachers, parents, and anyone interested in transforming our schools into places where students discover their true potential.
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The author is thoroughly engaging as he cuts through misconceptions (mine, at least) and follows the challenges and triumphs of one of the most interesting charter school programs in real life. It's an important book in the debate not just over charter schools but, more broadly, over schools and education in America. All educators and parents can take away lessons from it. I took away plenty. And enjoyed the readable journalistic style and approach.
On the Rocketship is two books in one. It's a history of Rocketship Charter Schools, which started in San Jose and are notable so far mostly for their founder's crazed ambition to expand faster than any other charter group. The group hasn't been a complete success so far--there's been a lot of success, then some predictable political setbacks, then a bad year of test scores, followed by a recovery. Rocketship is controversial even among charter school advocates and you'll see why.
But side-by-side with the Rocketship story is some excellent reporting by Whitmire on charter school progress all over the United States--not just among the KIPP's, Aspires, and Uncommon Schools (though these are covered too) but among schools I never heard of in cities I never heard of (Spring Branch, TX?).
Whitmire's conclusion is that superintendents in unexpected places are impressed enough with charters and charter operators that they are doing the obvious and bringing charter people and charter techniques into traditional public schools (viewed in this light, Bill de Blasio is an outlier). It sounds as if the "war" may be over in a lot of places.
I think this is the best education book since Jay Mathews' Work Hard, Be Nice. And I attach what Mathews himself has to say about On the Rocketship.
I highly recommend this book to anyone who cares about educating our "left behind" children.
GREAT READ: Richard Whitmire reports and writes very well. The book is hard to put down and you really get a sense for the characters and circumstances he is describing. For example, he writes of the first visit that the Rocketship charter school's Silicon Valley based team paid to a gritty site in Milwaukee where they would be locating their first out-of-state school. After a hilarious description of the environment and a woman who flagged them down to talk to them, he concludes, "An omen about rough times ahead in Milwaukee? At the moment, the deer carcass lecture from the cat-hunting lady in the motorcycle jacket was nothing more than a great story for entertaining others. But, in fact, trying times were ahead in Milwaukee. Maybe the wild cat lady knew something." I gulped this book down in part because it was just a fun read.
IMPORTANT READ, Part 1: Whitmire takes us into two of the most important cutting edge aspects of this moment in education reform. After about twenty years of charter schools and other reform work, it has become clear that a number of non-profit charter networks are able to produce schools where high poverty students dramatically outperform expectations and past trajectories. These Charter Management Organizations (CMOs) include KIPP, Uncommon Schools, YES Prep, Aspire, Achievement First, IDEA and a number of others. Their practices vary to some degree but there are some very clear commonalities: the freedom and skill to recruit committed, intense, excellent teachers; longer school days and years; personalized learning through data-driven tactics; cultures of No Excuses for both teachers and students; and continuous improvement approaches everywhere but most importantly in providing lots of constructive feedback to students and to teachers.
OK. So we know how to succeed but these schools only serve a few tens of thousands of students across a nation that needs a breakout for tens of millions of disadvantaged students. So how is this going to scale?
On The Rocketship looks at two key answers to this. Most of the book focuses on the Rocketship CMO. It too has impressive results in its early schools but it is somewhat different than most CMOs. Founded by an already hugely successful Silicon Valley internet entrepreneur, John Danner (who to his credit first went and taught for a couple of years in Nashville), Rocketship brings two features that really distinguish it from most other CMOs. Danner and co-founder Preston Smith went all-in on the emerging trend of using adaptive software as part of every day learning for every student as a complement to traditional classroom teaching. This so-called "blended learning" approach - part traditional teacher, part software-driven instruction - is widely believed to be sure to dominate in the future but is also yet to be realized in much scale and with much effectiveness anywhere. Rocketship has gone right at it from the beginning with fewer teachers and more computer time than traditional schools or other CMOs.
Whitmire correctly highlights that the bigger difference with Rocketship is that it is a true product of Silicon Valley startup culture and beliefs. Two of those essential beliefs are that scale can and should happen and be audacious and that the best entities are always reinventing themselves (think Netflix segue to streaming over mailing) at the cutting edge.
The core of the book looks at these two aspects of Rocketship's trajectory over the past few years and especially over the past two. While most CMOs grow cautiously at the rate of one or a few new schools per year, Rocketship put out big goals starting with serving 1 million students by 2030. During the course of the book, the goal gets ratcheted down dramatically and one learns about the ins and outs of the political, logistical and human constraints on growth for Rocketship both in its home area of San Jose and as it accepts invitations from elsewhere starting in Milwaukee. By the end of the book, one sense Rocketship has matured and learned through enduring stress and challenges and is therefore better poised than ever to grow at whatever rate proves maximal but survivable.
The reporting and writing on the many challenges faced here is really well done and informative - from growing political opposition as Rocketship expands in San Jose to legitimate doubts from parents and community activists at a neighborhood school in San Jose - Washington Elementary - where folks care more about keeping their neighborhood knit together and about bilingual education than they do about Rocketship's clearly better results. In Milwaukee, Rocketship learns about the differences in entering a new market with a different ethnic landscape and with a different schooling history.
Even as Rocketship faces these growth challenges, they add on a self-imposed challenge that strains the organization nearly to the point of breaking. Choosing to aggressively pursue a deep shift in their core model that moves the software-based learning from a separate physical lab with classes rotating through throughout the day, Rocketship decides to embed the computers and the software-driven learning time right into classrooms and double the size of those classrooms with new roles for teachers. It's an exciting and bold vision and represents the best of what charters should be about - innovation at the cutting, even bleeding, edge. But it is also a heckuva challenge for an organization to absorb while also growing fast.
This aspect of the book is really interesting but leaves readers somewhat unsure what to think. Is it Silicon Valley madness to try such bold change? Or is it finally an example of people bringing the culture of continuous innovation to a field - education - that is shamefully inertia-bound to the obvious detriment of children and our nation's future? How much of the struggle is because John Danner was too headstrong? Is the change, modified during the course of the book as part of an internal revolt at Rocketship, effective? Will it be the model for Rocketship's future and a guidepost to the many other education organizations watching closely? Whitmire certainly gives us lots to think about but some of these conclusions are beyond the timeline or realistic scope of the book but represent some of the most important questions about the pace of change needed or possible in American education.
IMPORTANT READ, Part 2: The bulk of On The Rocketship focuses on a single CMO and the dilemmas of scaling and evolving. These are clearly the boundary issues for how fast the high-performing charter sector can expand. The last section of the book addresses the other half of the future equation of change in American education - what are districts and states doing in the face of overwhelming evidence that there are better ways than what they are pursuing currently?
This is really important reporting on a little-discussed phenomenon that I think will be the main story in US education reform in the years ahead. Whereas the vast majority of urban school districts remain hidebound in their silos and wishing the pesky charters and their better results would just go away, a growing number of elected and appointed leaders are asking the better question - how do we incorporate this into our work both by inviting high fliers like Rocketship and Aspire into our communities and by integrating their lessons and skills into the rest of our schools.
In this section of the book, Whitmire provides exciting vignettes about the extraordinary work going on in Tennessee's Achievement School District (ASD) where charter wunderkind Chris Barbic (founder of YES Prep in Houston) now works for The Man taking over Tennessee's worst performing school and convincing top national and local charter operators to take the building and the students but throw out the bureaucratic and union contract rules that have so limited autonomy in the past. Whitmire takes us to the Spring Branch ISD (a part of Houston) where Superintendent Duncan Klussmann has the vision and leadership skill to integrate two of the top performing charter players in the country that happen to be based in Houston - KIPP and YES Prep - right into his schools. Under this so-called SKY partnership, the CMOs not only operate new schools better serving Klussmann's students but also work hand in hand with district principals eager to learn what works. And the KIPP and YES Prep students gain access to the richer extracurricular and sports offerings that Spring Branch has to offer. The possibility of cooperation for the benefit of the students and for improvement for everyone is held out! The adults actually could put the kids first!
BOTTOM LINE - If you are involved in education, this is a MUST READ. If you are interested in education, this is a GREAT READ.