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Can Data-Driven Education Close the Achievement Gap?

A Silicon Valley nonprofit wants to take its ideas into thousands of classrooms. It's an experiment worth watching.

In public education, closing poverty- and race-based achievement gaps has become the holy grail. Organizations such as KIPP and Uncommon Schools have developed networks of successful schools, but the question always has been whether such successes could be scaled across an entire urban school district.

Maybe that's the wrong question; perhaps asking any one model to work at scale is unrealistic. But if John Danner has his way, we may get a chance to find out if his model could work for hundreds or even thousands of schools.

Danner, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who made his fortune with Internet advertising pioneer NetGravity, started Rocketship Education, a charter-school nonprofit, in 2006. In the seven schools that Rocketship operates in San Jose, Calif., the number of students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches is as high as 92 percent, and up to 80 percent are English-language learners.

Rocketship may be small now, but the company is thinking big. Its goal is to serve more than 25,000 low-income students by 2017. It already has won approval to open schools in Indianapolis, Memphis, Milwaukee, Nashville, New Orleans and Washington, D.C.

Rocketship takes a decidedly data-driven approach. It tests students eight times a year, and its schools close for one day every six weeks to analyze the results. Those results are used to create the equivalent of individualized skill plans that students access via computer and that continually adapt to a student's level.

Students spend time each day on computers in what are called Learning Labs supervised by the equivalent of teaching assistants. The idea is to use technology to help students improve basic skills so teachers can focus on big ideas. As one Rocketship teacher told USA Today, "I don't have to spend my time teaching homophones. If a computer can do that, I can talk about themes in books."

The hours spent in Learning Lab also save money because three teachers can rotate between four classes. In schools that average 500 students, savings are about $500,000 a year, which is used to raise teacher salaries, to extend the school day and to allow Rocketship to build its own facilities--quite a luxury in the charter-school world.

Rocketship's teachers are generally young and comparatively well paid. They earn about 10 percent more than their counterparts in surrounding districts and can earn additional 10 percent bonuses if their students meet academic goals. About three-quarters of the teachers are either part of or recent alums of Teach for America, which places graduates of Ivy League and other top colleges in high-need schools.

So far, the results are encouraging. For the 2011-12 school year, the performance of San Jose's "Rocketeers," as Rocketship refers to its students, on state math tests wasn't that dissimilar to that of students in California's high-income districts. But things aren't perfect. Rocketship is reworking its signature Learning Labs to address a disconnect in the flow of data between the labs and traditional classrooms.

Effective ways to close achievement gaps increasingly are coming from outside the traditional system. Much of what Rocketship does--such as teacher bonuses and using technology to change pedagogy--would either be extremely difficult or impossible to implement within traditional schools.

Which only serves to remind us of that issue of scale. As San Jose teachers' union President Stephen McMahon put it to the Washington Post, Rocketship will "never be big enough to solve the problem, and the minute they do get big enough, they'll be the problem."

It'll be a while before we know whether McMahon is right. Meanwhile, rather than searching for a silver bullet, perhaps approaches like Rocketship's can be part of a menu of options that together can address the needs of families whose children are trapped in failing schools.

This version incorporates several corrections of details involving Rocketship Education.

Principal of Chieppo Strategies and former policy director for Massachusetts’s Executive Office for Administration and Finance
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