Whitmire tells a chronological narrative of the creation, implementation, and challenges John Danner faced in starting Rocketship, a CMO of K-5 charter schools in San Jose, California. Whitmire briefly explores how other CMOs are adapting to a politically charged landscape and what these other CMOs do effectively.
Whitmire followed Rocketship through a school year and compiled this book from his findings. The title itself suggests that he supports charter schools; though he does offer opposing viewpoints in response to the most politically charged issues Rocketship faced.
John Danner’s (Founder of Rocketship) success began in the Silicon Valley with the creation and sale of his company Netscape, an Internet advertising firm. Danner’s career in the Silicon Valley coupled with the focus on core operating principles in a start-up were central to Danner’s management of Rocketship. Professional educators traditionally emphasize incremental improvement while startup guys like Danner thinks this will fail in the marketplace.
Danner’s Path to Launch
Danner became interested in opening a charter school after he taught in Nashville for 3 years and discovered the path to school leadership would take about ten years. (Rocketship has a fast tracked Leadership program that allows teachers to become principals in 2-4 years). After teaching, Danner was accepted into a fellowship where he began planning Rocketship with three key principles: invent ways to retain talent, use technology in instruction, and involve parents in every part of learning. He especially wanted to find adaptive software that differentiated content for each student. Most software in 2009 was linear and aligned with textbooks; it simply reinforced the principle of one-size fits all learning. Danner had ambitious goals for Rocketship; he wanted to open a national chain of charter schools and designed the model to be replicated. Instead of focusing on quality first, like most charters do, he built the school focusing on scalability.
Funding is central to the success of the charter school and leads to relentless recruiting efforts for students and securing the backing of foundations and business leaders. Charters bankroll their operations themselves; until the school year starts, they don’t receive any state funding. This system necessitates reliance on foundations. The stress on finances makes recruitment the cornerstone of charters. To balance the budget and have enough money left over to build new schools, charters must keep their seats full
Rocketship hired traditional teachers for its opening year, which failed because the teachers weren’t used to a start-up environment. From then on, Rocketship relied on TFA as a headhunting firm and only hired from the pool of TFA candidates. In 2013, after realizing that TFA recruits were monopolizing most coaching time in schools, Rocketship cut back on TFA incoming Corps Members by half and built in their own recruiting arm.
Teachers at Rocketship are under constant pressure to grow their students by 1.5 years in 1 year. Teachers specialize by teaching only one subject area with the purpose of improving achievement outcomes. One teacher (unnamed by Whitmire) said she left after 5 years after the instructional model changed suddenly to co-teaching with small, flexible groups to respond to data. She also felt that a principal could not be an effective instructional coach with only two years of teaching experience.
Average Teacher Retention by CMO
|KIPP & Success||4 Years|
|YES Prep||2.5 Years|
|Achievement First||2.3 Years|
|Public Schools||14 Years|
Throughout their founding years, Rocketship faced stark opposition from many traditional public schools, unions, and Boards of Education. School districts have traditionally viewed charters as threats because they take both students and funding from schools; even more, the highest performing students are the most likely to leave traditional public schools for charters. Of the most powerful bodies in approving or denying charter schools, Boards of Education stand tall. Therefore, the strong contingent of pro-charter CMOs, business leaders (including Reed Hastings, a close ally of Danner), and community activists organized a pro-charter pact through the California Charter Association to assist in electing pro-charter candidates to the Board of Education.
Culture of Adaptability
In addition to criticism of siphoning off students, Whitmire addressed attacks on Rocketship operating as test prep factories. He didn’t provide much empirical evidence, but cited a Rocketship teacher stating the school isn’t a test prep factory because the standards taught are necessary for future success and multiple-choice questioning teaches critical thinking and reasoning skills.
In 2012, when results weren’t showing desired growth, Danner cited the need for change and flexibility in changing instruction across the network to flexible small groups with two teachers, twice as many students, and computers returned from Learning Labs to classrooms. In 2013, test scores dipped across the network by an average of fifteen points. Additionally, 7 adult leaders left Rocketship. Whitmire cited a “bad adult culture.”
Expanding to Wisconsin
When opposition ultimately led to rejections in Oakland and San Francisco, Danner solidified that he would only take Rocketship where it was wanted. When Danner was approached in 2011 by the Milwaukee, Wisconsin mayor and philanthropists to start a school there, he jumped on board.
Upon arrival in Milwaukee, Rocketship immediately struggled to recruit students, which is critically important to balance the budget and continue school expansion. In 2013, after the instructional model change was struggling to produce results and unpopular amongst teachers, Danner stepped down and put Preston Smith in charge. His first immediate move was firing the recruitment direction in Milwaukee, which was seen as a cutthroat move amongst Rocketship staff.
In San Jose, Danner built community allies who assisted in the recruitment effort and became critical advocates for the CMO in the face of political opposition. In aiming to increase enrollment in Wisconsin, Rocketship violated all rules of recruiting by going to low performing schools pointing to test score differences and badmouthing other schools. Whitmire planted the seeds for readers to question whether public schools, a social good that exists as a result of the Common School movement, should be recruiting students.
Charter Management Organizations (CMO) Nationally
Across the country, CMOs are growing at an unprecedented pace. In 2011, Chris Barbic was appointed in Tennessee to run the Achievement School District, which aimed to turn the bottom 5% of school into the top 25% in only five years. 68 of the 85 schools in the ASD are located in Memphis, which has made the city a hub for myriad charter schools. Barbic’s weapon of choice for achievement gap closure was allowing a CMO to takeover a failing school. An influx of charters from other states is flocking to Memphis.
The charter movement is also making headway in San Antonio in response to wealthy breeds of part business— part foundation aficionados advocating for charter schools. Mayors nationally, including San Antonio, have issues charges to close all achievement gaps in a startlingly small amount of time. These decrees are reinforcing the charter-school change model in education.
Spring Branch Schools in Texas are offering a wholly new educational paradigm that with the coalescing of a traditional public school and charter school (KIPP). The two schools work together collaboratively, which has broken down preconceptions for both parties about the other side.
Whitmire outlines 5 key reasons why he believes CMOs like Rocketship will succeed:
- Pioneering Blended Learning: These are programs that deliver personalized online instruction that is differentiated based on student strengths and deficits.
- Positive Change Generates Positive Change
- Disruptive Innovation Comes from Charters: Teach Like a Champion taxonomy by Doug Lemov at Uncommon School is one example.
- Top CMOS are Picking up Replication Speed
- Powerful Forces Propel Growth: For a long time, traditional public schools have disliked charters, but more and more traditional schools have been inviting charters in.
Whitmire argues the best charters tend to have the same types of guiding principles; what makes the great ones different is the execution of those principles. Whitmire says Rocketship shoots big and embraces disruption. The opportunity for parents to shop around for the best school for their child is crucial, and it wouldn’t happen if the schools students attended met their needs. However, Whitmire cautioned that school choice should also be combined with clear standards and accurate outcome data.
Further Questions for Exploration:
- Unlike most charters, Rocketship opens all grades at once. How do they establish/ maintain culture across all grades?
- Whitmire posits that CMOs need to operate like start-ups to be disruptive and adaptive. Danner argues that Rocketship is quickly adapting to meet the consumer (student needs). This is a rationale for no unions, longer hours, tougher working conditions, and changes to instruction. Is this an acceptable mentality for a compulsory social good? Should students constantly face change in instruction, teachers, and schools?
- Business leaders like Reed Hastings often have big picture opinions about education or fields they don’t have experience in. He says that teachers and administrators are trapped in an impossible system that is prohibitive to change, but charters can circumvent this altogether. People like Hastings are linchpins in the charter movement because they have the capital and connections to continue bankrolling operations. While his overall purpose has merit, I wonder what types of changes he envisions. In my experience teaching, the biggest impediment I face is standardized testing. This directs and controls my teaching. So what is it that charters are circumventing?
- The conflict between CMO founders and district leadership (superintendents) is inevitable due to the structural conflict inherent in a school system that includes charters. When Danner first met the superintendent of San Jose schools, he described students as data points. The superintendent interpreted charters as niche markets with egotistical leaders who had zero experience but were creating a competing product to serve a social good that would suck money from the district. The competition between the products— a new school with well connected zealots with little experience in education versus an established community-based system with career educators deemed failing based on standardized test scores. Market forces colliding for a social good will produce conflict.
- Charter schools and Teach For America would not exist without each other. Danner mentioned that TFA serves as a headhunting firm. What would happen if TFA didn’t exist; where would the employees come from?
- Danner frequently mentioned risk aversion for foundations to fund charters because there is no room for error in granting money. Danner likened the system of funding to a start-up, where venture capitalists know their investments will fail more often than not. Danner says this is one reason why charters are afraid to take risks. Yet, this very principle undercuts the intended purpose of charter schools, which is to be experimental laboratories to gain data about what works and what doesn’t. Instead, this system has led to the propagation of no-excuse charter schools like Rocketship that are very similar in recruitment, disciple, and instruction. The system has defeated its intended purpose. At the end of the day, we want to improve outcomes for low-income children. In the short term, it appears some charter schools are able to achieve that aim. My question is what the long-term plan looks like. What happens if and when education is privatized and monetized like the prison system? What happens when the people running the schools haven’t taught and have never before had experience in schools?