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.