At a High-Tech School, Supportive Adults Are the Real Key to Success

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Silicon Valley's Discovery Prep has state-of-the-art technology. It also has unusually engaged teachers and parents. 

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At Rocketship Schools, daily awards ceremonies are as central to the routine as the much-touted computer labs. (Photos courtesy of the Discovery Prep website)

Rocketship Discovery Prep is a boxy, two-story elementary school wedged between a building materials company and a storm-water spillway in a run-down Latino neighborhood off Highway 101 in San Jose, California. It's one of seven schools run by Rocketship Education, a non-profit, Palo Alto-based charter school network founded by John Danner, a Silicon Valley technology entrepreneur, and Preston Smith, a Teacher for America veteran who previously opened his own successful San Jose elementary school. The Rocketship network now serves 3,700 San Jose students who are nearly all poor and who mostly don't speak English.

Despite their tough zip codes and challenging students, the schools have turned in strong results--outperforming nearly all of their impoverished California peers and even many of the state's more privileged school districts on standardized tests--using "blended learning," a combination of traditional teaching and computer-based instruction that has led many school reformers to herald Rocketship as the technology-driven future of education.

And many advocates of digital learning would go beyond Rocketship's blended strategy. They talk about completely replacing school-based learning with digital experiences that allow students to "go to school" where and when they want, assembling their own education with the help of the Internet and new digital tools like "recommendation engines" and customized "play lists."

The Internet certainly holds the prospect of tapping into the vast store of knowledge and teaching talent that resides beyond the schoolhouse door, addressing students' varying interests and needs more fully and efficiently. But while Rocketship attracts a steady flow of visitors hoping to glimpse education's high-tech future, I came away from my own pilgrimage to Discovery Prep believing that the school's success proves the opposite point: the younger and more disadvantaged students are, the more they need adults supporting them in many different ways day in and day out--the more they need school to be a place rather than merely a process.

Each morning at Discovery Prep and the rest of the Rocketship network, everyone gathers on the playground for announcements and a sing-a-long. Students receive recognition and rewards for outstanding behavior and achievement and teachers and students (the oldest are 5th graders) sing and dance to songs by Michael Jackson and other pop stars, surrounded by parent-volunteers. In the same spirit, teachers greet every student by name as they enter their classrooms, a routine that Rocketship calls a "threshold invite." Personal connections between adults and students are paramount.

Parents are everywhere in the life of 640-student Discovery Prep. The schools organize meetings on curriculum, instructional strategies, and student behavior to enlist parents as educational partners. They take students and parents on bus trips to Stanford, Berkeley, and other local colleges and universities to get them invested in higher education. And they ask parents to spend 30 hours a year in their children's schools and most do. As a result, students have the sense that there are always adults ready to help, that their parents care about them, and that education is important. When I visited Discovery Prep, parents were reviewing young students' rudimentary homework assignments, freeing teachers to spend more time on instruction. (Rocketship's parents have also been active in the local community, forming a political action committee to elect reform-minded San Jose school board members.)

Nearly every aspect of Rocketship's model, it seems, contributes to a high-touch culture. At nine and a half hours, the standard Rocketship teacher workday is about 25 percent longer than the norm in public education. Rocketship's classrooms are well-appointed, warm, and welcoming (75 percent of the organization's teachers are current or former Teach for America recruits). And a uniform and a deeply engrained behavior-management system creates clear expectations for students along with lots of positive reinforcement.

Even Rocketship's much-touted computer-based educational platform promotes stronger, rather than weaker, ties between teachers and students. Every day, students spend two hours in headphones in one of a hundred brightly colored cubicles in a big, open "learning lab," doing a wide range of exercises in reading and math through programs with lots of audio and animation. They also routinely take "adaptive" quizzes that adjust the difficulty of questions to the accuracy of students' answers.

Because students spend about a quarter of the school day in the learning lab supervised by hourly aides, Rocketship schools employ one fewer teacher per grade than most do. Education critics have seized on such technology-based educational strategies as a way to cut costs--and reduce the influence of teacher unions by shrinking the teacher workforce. "[Online learning] means far fewer teachers (and union members) per student," wrote conservative commentator Terry Moe of Stanford's Hoover Institution last year in a Wall Street Journal essay entitled "The Internet Will Reduce Teachers Union Power."

But the role of computers at Discovery Prep is to supplement rather than supplant traditional teaching. Students who struggle with the reading and math exercises in the lab are targeted for one-on-one or small-group tutoring during the sessions. With basic skills monitored in this way, Rocketship teachers have more time to focus on advanced skills. During my visit to Discovery Prep, a first-grade teacher was working with her students on "thinking like a scientist," having them sit in a darkened room and develop hypotheses about what would happen when she shined a flashlight at aluminum foil, plastic wrap, and other materials.

What separates Rocketship's strategy from old-style computer learning is the purposeful way it links its labs to classroom instruction. Students' lab results are fed into a central data system that generates color-coded charts and graphs on laptops and tablets, showing their progress against state and national standards and providing teachers with real-time "data dashboards" that they can use to shape their lessons.

Indeed, Rocketship pours the several hundred thousand dollars it saves annually through its computer labs into higher salaries, classroom-coaching, and other teacher-centric program improvements (teachers specialize in either literacy or math at Rocketship schools, which is rare for elementary schools). When I visited Discovery Prep, the school's academic dean was giving a teacher real-time verbal feedback on teaching techniques from the back of a classroom via wireless communication.

Students are the center of the education experience at Discovery Prep. But they're hardly flying solo. Discovery Prep's most striking feature isn't its learning lab but its extraordinarily nurturing environment, in which technology plays a part. It's this human element that makes all the difference for students from disadvantaged backgrounds who, in many public schools, need far more adult support than they typically get -- and certainly more than they'd get online in the digital future that many are predicting for public education.

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Thomas Toch directs the Washington office of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, an independent research organization.

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