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Education

Taking a Charter Flight

In one prominent effort to reinvent public schools, promise and performance don't necessarily match up.

On the Rocketship: How Top Charter Schools Are Pushing the Envelope

Richard Whitmire

334 pages, Jossey-Bass, 2014

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The third paragraph of On the Rocketship, by Richard Whitmire, starts with a telling phrase: “Few startup guys (and I use ‘guy’ throughout the book as a mind-set, not a gender designation).” Indeed, this book is primarily about guys—most of them white, most of them wealthy, all of them entrepreneurs—who seek to improve public education for poor, minority students. Whitmire focuses in particular on John Danner, cofounder and CEO emeritus of Rocketship Education, a network of charter schools that aims to become the “disruptive innovation” that will “[topple] outdated school models.” Reed Hastings, founder of Netflix, and Don Shalvey, founder of Aspire Public Schools, also appear as important players in the story. If you are a Silicon Valley entrepreneur turned educator, this book will fascinate you. If you are a prospective charter school founder, the examples in the book will give you some guidance. If you are an experienced educator, the hubris of the book and of the people in it will frustrate you.

Whitmire begins by recounting Danner’s evolution from being the CEO of an early Internet company called NetGravity to serving as a Teach for America teacher to launching Rocketship in 2006. Danner, drawing on his experiences in Silicon Valley, arrived at a vision that embraces blended learning—a model that combines the use of personalized software with standard classroom instruction. At Rocketship Mosaic, an elementary school in San Jose, Calif., 16 teachers can accommodate 630 students; a traditional elementary school would require 21 teachers to serve that population. Finding the right technology to support Danner’s vision was a challenge in the early days of Rocketship, but the company now works closely with DreamBox Learning, an online software vendor that focuses on math instruction. (Danner sits on the board of DreamBox.)

Ethnographic in nature, On the Rocketship features vivid accounts of the journey undertaken by Danner and other Rocketship stakeholders, and it offers memorable cautionary tales that show how and how not to build a charter school network. Whitmore describes in great detail Danner’s efforts to secure funding and support from fellow Silicon Valley millionaires, his and his colleagues’ fights with local school boards over the location of charter schools, and the community organizing necessary to recruit parents who will send their children to a Rocketship school. Other charter entrepreneurs will derive valuable lessons from the book.

At the level of style, though, the book will disorient readers. Whitmire interrupts his in-depth narrative chapters with italicized, half-page-long updates about the charter school movement in general. He would do better to place these vignettes in a separate chapter or to display them visually as part of a timeline about the movement.

More important, Whitmire makes a bold, large-scale policy argument without offering the large-scale data to back it up. In the current political climate, the difference in achievement scores between charter schools and traditional public schools is hotly contested. Whitmire, however, bases his analysis on a narrow selection of achievement data—in effect, on a sample size of one. The subtitle of the book should be in the singular: “How One Charter School Organization Is Pushing the Envelope.”

Even within his narrow data set, moreover, Whitmire skews his presentation of achievement scores. Take his comparison of achievement levels of two elementary schools in San Jose. “At Rocketship Mateo Sheedy, 76 percent of students test at proficient in and above in reading, 93 percent in math,” he writes. “That compares to 54 percent of Washington [Elementary School] students scoring proficient in reading, 56 percent in math.” Those figures are from 2012, and Whitmire uses them to argue for opening additional Rocketship schools in the Washington Elementary catchment area. Yet he relegates the data for 2013 to an endnote. That year, as it turns out, scores at Mateo Sheedy dropped significantly (to 57 percent for reading and 82 percent for math). These results, to be sure, are still better than the scores of students at Washington (52 percent for reading and 60 percent for math), but they raise the question of whether Rocketship’s early success is sustainable. (In fact, according to a recent Economic Policy Institute study, test scores at all Rocketship schools have fallen over the past four years.)

Whitmire’s unlimited access to the principal figures in the charter school movement, coupled with his less than forthright use of endnotes, piqued my curiosity. I flipped to the acknowledgments section, where I learned that the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation and the Doris & Donald Fisher Fund—two leading charter school champions—contributed funding to Whitmire’s book project. I also learned that Joe Williams, a prominent charter advocate, advised Whitmire on developing the book. So On the Rocketship has a clear agenda: to further the charter school movement. The influence of these vested interests calls into question Whitmire’s journalistic objectivity, and it makes his book a work of advocacy rather than one that fully informs the public.

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