On the Rocketship – Excerpt


About the Book  |  Praise for On the Rocketship



The “Fibonacci sequence” certainly sounds intriguing, possibly because of the mystery-cracking role it played in The Da Vinci Code. In truth, it is more math trick than mystery. Named after an Italian mathematician who wrote about it in a book published in 1202, the Fibonacci sequence presents young students with a fun exercise. You start with 0, then 1, and then add up the two numbers before it. Here’s how it plays out: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144, 233, 377, 610 (and so on). Watching the numbers soar is what surprises students.

john_danner_smallerJohn Danner, forty-six,1 a Stanford-educated electrical engineer who cofounded NetGravity, an early pioneer in Internet advertising, raised the Fibonacci sequence in our first meeting as a way of explaining the exponential growth he planned for his Rocketship charter elementary schools. A steady launch cycle of adding new cities every year, with each city sprouting at least eight Rocketship schools, meant that within thirty years it should be possible to launch 2,500 Rocketship schools around the country. Why 2,500? Because by Danner’s math (he calculates there are roughly thirteen thousand schools that fall in the “failing” category), it would take that many Rocketship schools educating a million students to make a dent in reducing the nation’s steep achievement gaps between have and have-not students.

Few startup guys (and I use “guy” throughout the book as a mind-set, not a gender designation) have failed to read the gospel-like The Innovator’s Dilemma.2 Author Clayton Christianson lays out the harsh rules of “disruptive innovation” that led to the shockingly fast decline of once-dominant computer maker Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC). Similar tales unfold about Sears, Xerox, and Bucyrus Erie, maker of cable-driven earth excavators that got buried by hydraulic excavators. These companies were overwhelmed by disruptive innovations that wiped out their once-profitable business lines. An updated list would include Kodak and Myspace.

When startup guys such as Danner look at public schools they see an enterprise far less nimble and well run than Bucyrus Erie or DEC. It’s hard to argue with their logic, especially considering that most schools appear to be frozen in time, using the same school hours, classroom design, and instructional methods they have for decades. Most school curriculum is still built around the instructional units prescribed in 1906 by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. It’s not as though schools are doing well despite their endearingly familiar but antiquated structure: about a third of the 2013 high school graduates who took the ACT tests, nearly all of them students planning to go to college, were not prepared for college-level writing, biology, algebra, or social studies, reported the testing company. The College Board reported even more dismal findings from the SAT: 57 percent were not prepared for college. Many white suburban parents appear to believe that the problem lies with only poor and minority students in the cities, but international test comparisons say that’s false: the PISA3 tests released in December 2013 showed that since 2009 teenagers in the United States fell from twenty-fifth to thirty-first in math, from twentieth to twenty-fourth in science, and from eleventh to twenty-first in reading. In that comparison, our wealthy students from families in the top quartile fell behind similarly well-off students in other countries. You might as well list public schools as the first entry in Wikipedia to define “smokestack” industry: one ripe for disruption. And yet, that has not happened. By comparison with public schools, Bucyrus Erie’s cable-driven excavators look like Ferraris.

Where, the startup guys ask, are the disruptive innovations that should have toppled outdated school models long ago? The smart money in Silicon Valley bets on charter schools, which are publicly funded and independently run, as that disruptive innovation. But if the 6,500 charters now educating 2.5 million children are to be that disruption they are off to a sloppy start. Careless charter authorizers gave green lights to hundreds of charters that never had a chance to succeed. Lack of financing, poor academic vision, financial scandals—it’s a long list. And then, those same authorizers balked at shutting down many of their own struggling creations. Okay, I agree, those are the bottom-feeder charter schools. But even the high-performing charters, the proven disruptors, the stars you read about posting great academic records in the worst neighborhoods (let’s say the top 15 percent, the charters I will write about in this book) have until recently posted snail-like expansion track records, hobbled by the overwhelming need to raise fresh funding, an underwhelming supply of superbly talented school leaders, and a dearth of facilities to use. (Did you really expect struggling urban school districts to willingly turn over unused school buildings to charter schools that might eat their lunch?) Not exactly the stuff of which disruptive innovations are made.

Rocketship_logo_newInto this debate steps Danner with his vow to shrink achievement gaps by providing one million high-quality school seats. It is hard to know which of those goals was more over-the-top—launching 2,500 charter schools for those one million students or believing he could reduce the nation’s achievement gaps. There are only a couple dozen elite charter group operators in the country, most of them bigger than Rocketship, and you don’t hear their leaders making Dannerlike claims. As for leveling the nation’s achievement gaps, that’s a goal that has eluded government solutions ranging from the massive Head Start program to Title 1, programs that have pumped billions of extra federal dollars into schools serving poor kids. Why would Danner succeed when far bigger players with far deeper pockets have failed?

preston_smith_smallIn this book I will tell the story of Rocketship, one high-performing charter group launched in San Jose and styled as a Silicon Valley startup, trying to do it all. Spoiler alert: they run into major turbulence and probably can’t do it alone. Second spoiler alert: despite Rocketship’s considerable headwinds, it is clear that Rocketship, when joined with the other high-performing charters—especially the blended learning charters that personalize learning by combining online learning with regular teacher-led instruction—have a decent shot at making Danner’s dream come true. It may not play out quite the way Danner planned but in some cities it’s beginning to happen. Later in the book I will visit a few of the places where these high-performing charter networks are being given opportunities to become Fibonacci schools, a term I will use for quick-growing, high-performing charter schools. As I tell the Rocketship story I’ll drop in short, datelined inserts (in italics) that trace the key events in the growth of these special charter school networks, the schools that have proven they can slice deeply into the nation’s education achievement gaps.4 This phenomenon, giving the Fibonacci schools access to far more students, may be our best chance to save tens of thousands of inner city students from academic privation. And that’s what the book is really about.