Since its inception nearly a decade ago in Silicon Valley, Rocketship has been among the most nationally applauded charter networks, hailed as an innovative model of blended learning.
Founder John Danner, who made a fortune in Internet advertising, originally envisioned enrolling 1 million students by 2020, relying on the strength of three pillars — "personalized learning" with software, excellent teachers and parent involvement — to raise the achievement of underserved students.
Today there are 13 Rocketship schools, with 6,000 students, in the San Francisco Bay Area, Nashville, Tenn., and Milwaukee, with one scheduled to open in Washington, D.C., this fall. The students, largely low-income and Hispanic, outperform their peers on state tests.
The school has impressed parents like Letty Gomez, who grew up in East San Jose and whose first-grader attends Rocketship Fuerza Community Prep there.
She says from her very first visit, what she saw was, "Every single teacher and administrator ... motivated the students. They were encouraging the students. I have never seen that on any other campus [where] I myself went to school or that my children had attended." The company says that 91 percent of families return each year.
Yet despite its successes, as Rocketship has pushed to expand, some parents, teachers and community members have objected in public meetings, raising concerns about the school's tech-heavy instruction model, student-teacher ratio, and student health and safety.
In interviews over the past two months, current and former employees at Rocketship Schools emphasized the pressures on employees and students. They recounted instances of inadequate supervision, bathroom accidents and even infections due to denial of restroom visits.
And they voiced concerns about a disciplinary measure the company calls Zone Zero. Several current and former staffers said this practice, in effect, amounted to hours of enforced silence.
A handful of the employees also reported, and internal emails corroborated, a practice of having students retake standardized tests to increase scores. The current and former educators linked that practice to the company's policy of tying 50 percent of teachers' pay to growth in student test scores.
"It's a really competitive environment," says Wesley Borja, who worked from 2013 to 2015 at Rocketship Alma Academy in San Jose. "Everyone wants to get higher and higher percentages, and fudge the data, more or less."
The common thread, the employees said, is a culture of producing test scores at all costs. As more and more public schools are now turning to laptop programs and data-driven policies, the allegations against Rocketship pose the question: At what cost innovation?
In the Learning Lab
The heart of the Rocketship model is the daily rotation of students between classrooms and laptop work in what the company calls Learning Labs.
To achieve his goal of scaling quickly, Danner couldn't rely on philanthropic money to supplement school budgets, as other charter schools do. According to Richard Whitmire, the author of the generally positive 2013 book On the Rocketship: How Top Charter Schools Are Pushing the Envelope, a major cost-saving solution was for students to spend significant time working on laptops in large groups supervised by noncertified, lower-paid "instructional lab specialists."
"Students rotating into Learning Labs meant employing fewer teachers," Whitmire writes. "Thus a school such as Rocketship Mosaic could successfully serve 630 students with only 6 teachers plus aides."
According to Preston Smith, Rocketship's CEO since 2013, Learning Lab time is currently about a fourth of the extended school day, or 80 to 100 minutes daily on several different reading and math software programs.
He says the point is to take some of the instructional burden off teachers for repetitive tasks, so that, for example, "kindergarten teachers are spending less time making letter sounds." Smith says the model "has helped us figure out how to give the right content to the right kids at the right time, allowing kids to specialize and become proficient and to personalize learning."
The test results are undoubtedly impressive. For the past three years, Rocketship schools have performed in the top 5 percent of districts serving low-income students in California. On the most recent state assessments, twice as many of their students met Common Core standards in math as in surrounding district schools — 46 percent vs. 23 percent. In English, their advantage was smaller: 33 percent vs. 29 percent. Independent research commissioned by Rocketship also shows students' test score gains persisting after leaving the schools, into middle school.
Yet several of the staffers we spoke with raised concerns about learning effectiveness, student health and safety in the Learning Labs.
"Learning Labs often had 50, 60 or 70 students with a couple of people who didn't have full teacher training," says Drew Sarratore, a former principal at Rocketship Los Suenos Academy in San Jose, who currently leads a different charter school. "It's hard with that amount of supervision to get everybody engaged."
Rocketship Alma Academy, where Borja was a Learning Lab supervisor, is one of the highest-performing schools in the network. Borja was promoted in his second year to a role that also had him visiting and coaching at other Rocketship schools. He currently works at a private school.
He says that on his very first day at Rocketship, he was left in charge of a lab with 90 students.
"I didn't know any of their names," he recalled. "And it dawns on me later that it wasn't necessarily responsible to leave me like that."
Five former Learning Lab supervisors said chronic turnover, meetings and sick days often left them "double coaching" or "triple coaching" — watching 60 or 90 students alone.
They said these were not occasional but fairly regular occurrences — "every day" or "several times a week" for "half an hour to an hour."
"It was very unsafe. It was a big area and there were spots where I couldn't see," says one Learning Lab supervisor who asked that his name not be used because he still works at Rocketship; he now works with fewer students in a classroom instead of a Learning Lab.
Critics have brought up Rocketship's student-staff ratio repeatedly in public hearings as the network has sought to expand. Under California's education code, schools can be penalized for exceeding an average of 1 teacher per 32 students in elementary school.
Smith, the Rocketship CEO, explained the high staff-student ratios in part by pointing out that with the extended school day, the Learning Lab is better thought of as "a high-quality after-school program that's integrated during the day."
As a basis of comparison, for some publicly funded after-school programs, California requires a staff-student ratio of 20 to 1.
Networkwide, Rocketship schools track the amount of time that students spend on each of several learning software programs, down to the minute each week and the percentage of goals reached.
That drive to maximize instructional time and monitor data is a tenet of Rocketship culture, said the former principal, Sarratore. "We are trying to teach kids responsibility on how to use their time the most wisely."
Several former staffers, plus a parent and a doctor, said that this zeal extended to limiting bathroom breaks. At his school, Sarratore said, there was a policy of not allowing bathroom visits for 20 minutes after lunch or recess.
Others reported more severe limits at several different schools: that during Learning Lab, only eight students out of 60, or sometimes just one boy and one girl, were allowed to visit the restroom, a number that was tracked and at times even posted publicly along with other metrics that classes competed on.
Some teachers handed out behavior penalties for going to the restroom, according to a former Rocketship teacher who asked not to be named because she still works in San Jose. She taught and substituted between 2010 and 2015 at several different Rocketship campuses: Mateo Sheedy, Alma, Los Suenos, Si Se Puede and Mosaic.
She said bathroom problems followed directly from the amount of control placed on children's time. "Bathroom breaks are a problem because the kids go there to play, because they only have one 20-minute play period during the day."
As a result, "even third-graders were having bathroom accidents," says Borja. "They were getting urinary tract infections and they put it on the families — that they don't teach the kids to wipe properly."
The current Rocketship teacher recalls parents raising concerns about a week with four separate accidents. And the former teacher who still works in the district said, "I've never had second-graders pee their pants except for at Rocketship."
This concern is echoed in a public letter by Liliana Casillas, a former Rocketship parent at Si Se Puede Academy in San Jose. She wrote in June 2014 to Santa Clara County board members to express her opposition to the expansion of Rocketship schools in the county:
"Children are not allowed to use the bathroom during long class periods. My child developed a urinary tract infection (I can provide doctor's verification) and it could've been avoided. MANY CHILDREN are urinating on their pants because they're taught not to go during the duration of that class time. I ... many times saw children in the office waiting for their parent to show up due to the child urinating unable to hold it in any longer and other times parents were not notified until their child spoke up. This does not just happen in Kindergarten. It happens in the other grades too."
Casillas confirmed this account to NPR Ed.
A San Jose pediatrician who has treated around 20 Rocketship students over the years, who did not want to be named as a critic of Rocketship because her nonprofit works directly in schools, also told NPR Ed about a different patient with multiple UTIs. She wrote a public letter opposing the expansion of Rocketship into the Mount Diablo school district in Concord, Calif., in 2016.
"That's the first I've heard of it," said Smith of bathroom break limits.
Six of the former staffers we spoke with raised concerns about how long students were kept in enforced silence, known as "Zone Zero." They said that Zone Zero would be enforced in the Learning Labs, during transitions and even for part of lunch.
"You're trying to keep a bunch of kindergarten through fifth-graders in front of a computer without any talking, for anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour," recalled a former lab supervisor at Rocketship Alma, who is now a student teacher at a public school. "It's insane."
"For most of the day, we'd be in a Zone Zero," recalls another former lab supervisor at Alma, who now teaches at a different charter school. "That made it difficult for us and the kids because they're so antsy and they're so young."
"There is an expectation that kids are fairly quiet. That's absolutely true," says Farah Dilber, who worked for the network for four years in strategy and curriculum design.
Smith agreed. "I would say there may be times where that's necessary because we want to get their attention," he said when asked if kids in Rocketship schools have to be silent in the labs or at lunch.
Is Zone Zero overused? "Our teachers are all human, and our school leaders," Smith said. "So, are there moments where maybe they've overused something or done something we wouldn't necessarily want? Sure."
But, he added, "I'd say as a whole I'm really proud of our schools. I think we try to be really purposeful with Zone Zero."
Another concern raised by six current and former Rocketship staffers was the use of computer games to pacify students who had serious behavior problems.
They described instances where students who were acting out were brought into the Learning Lab and placed in front of entertainment-based video games, such as PBS Kids, rather than disciplined.
This was counterproductive, they said, when students saw others being apparently rewarded for bad behavior.
"It's not about rewarding bad behavior," Smith responded. "Kids who do have special needs or behavioral challenges sometimes may need to take a break," he explained, and that might include computer time. He denied the use of entertainment games.
He added that the schools use a discipline approach called Positive Behavior Interventions & Supports, which emphasizes reinforcing positive behavior rather than punishments.
Both supporters and critics agree that Rocketship is a place with high standards, long hours and intense focus on numbers for both teachers and students.
Classroom teachers at Rocketship receive higher pay compared with their counterparts at other local schools. This includes up to 50 percent of their compensation as merit bonuses. That's an exceptionally high ratio even among charter schools.
"We believe in meritocracy, meaning that great teachers should be compensated for their excellence," says Smith.
The bonuses are based largely on student growth on the NWEA standardized test, which is given three times a year.
Recent NWEA results showed students across the network making big gains: 1.7 years in math and 1.5 years in English in just one school year.
However, several of the current and former staffers said, and one provided internal emails indicating, that teachers habitually had students retake portions of standardized tests — especially the NWEA tests. Borja and other staffers suggested this was done in an attempt to raise scores tied to teacher bonuses.
Retaking can inflate scores on certain tests "a massive amount," says Andrew Ho, a student measurement expert at Harvard's Graduate School of Education. Of course, there are computer glitches and other mitigating circumstances where a do-over is fair game. But in general, he added, "it should be painfully obvious that whenever there is an incentive for teachers and administrators to increase scores ... retests should be recorded, monitored and tracked."
When Borja proctored tests in the Learning Lab at Rocketship Alma, teachers often brought in students to retake tests, he said. "They would have me retest students even though higher-ups would say don't." He said that his superiors found retesting to be so rampant that they disabled the refresh button the following year.
Borja provided NPR with four emails sent from Rocketship Alma teachers referring to or requesting NWEA retakes for their students in 2014.
"They did not spend enough time on the test or I believe there was a lack of effort," wrote a teacher who requested retakes for three students. "I heard we were offering more retakes this year," wrote a second teacher, referring to a student who scored "below her ability."
The retesting "was alarming to me," says the current Rocketship teacher. "They would come up with random excuses: This wasn't the proper environment; they lacked sleep; didn't eat breakfast well; they weren't focused; I know they can do better." When he raised concerns, he said he was told, "Your salary is based on this" — which wasn't true, as Learning Lab supervisors didn't get merit pay.
This teacher also said he saw third-grade students brought into his lab to retake California's state-mandated test.
A spokeswoman for NWEA says that whenever a test is restarted or retaken, the reason should be documented in writing to preserve the validity of the test. A spokesman for the California Department of Education says, "An appeal to disregard or retake the test would have to be filed with the state and the state would consider it on a case-by-case basis," and that students being distracted, or not getting a good breakfast, would be considered "weak" rationales.
Asked whether Rocketship students commonly retake tests, Smith said, "This is something we pay a lot of attention to. We don't want it happening." Smith stated that out of 7,000 NWEA tests given in the fall semester of 2015, only two retakes occurred.
Too much screen time?
Rocketship Schools' daily use of software, which was cutting-edge nine years ago when they began, is becoming the norm in tens of thousands of public schools nationwide.
"Personalized learning," using software to deliver instruction at the right pace for each student, is a buzzword that has entered the mainstream. That's why these schools' practices, as well as their outcomes, are worth scrutinizing.
The sheer amount of time Rocketship students are spending in computer labs, without assistance from certified teachers, on work that ties closely to testing, gives even some ed-tech cheerleaders pause.
"I think Rocketship deserves huge credit for being at the forefront of this movement before it was so popular. It takes such bravery to go first," says Brian Greenberg. His foundation, Silicon Schools Fund, has donated money to Rocketship and other charter schools with heavy emphasis on blended learning, including Summit Schools, the Khan Academy lab school and Alpha Schools.
But Rocketship "in the past may have been a bit locked into a lab rotation model," Greenberg says. "We've seen success with models that get online learning into classrooms where the best teachers are."
"We're still very committed to that rotational model," Smith affirms. At the same time, he says, Rocketship is starting to bring computers and tablets into the regular classrooms as well. This, of course, adds even more software to the school day.
Rocketship students often use adaptive math software from a company called Dreambox Learning. The company was struggling when Reed Hastings, the Netflix founder turned education philanthropist and investor, observed it in action at a Rocketship school several years ago. His investment allowed Dreambox to become one of the leading providers of math software in North America, currently used by about 2 million students.
But Rocketship students today spend far more time on software like Dreambox than the company recommends.
Jessie Woolley-Wilson, the Dreambox CEO, says the recommendation is that students spend 30 to 45 minutes per week. "With as little as 15 minutes a week you can show good student progression," she says.
Rocketship students, as Smith told us, spend 80-100 minutes with both math and reading software every day.
Is that too much?
Liliana Casillas said her son felt dizzy and got headaches from spending 100 minutes at a time on the computer when he attended Rocketship Si Se Puede in San Jose in 2012 through 2014 as a second- and third-grader. "My child would say, 'I wish there was a teacher instead of looking directly at the computer,' " she recalls. She pulled her son out of the school.
Sarratore, the former Rocketship principal, says finding the right balance is key. "The school I'm running now, we do less time in front of computers. I think, for the kindergartners at Rocketship, it got a little hard. But the upper grades, it was about the right amount."
Nevertheless, he added, "still nothing substitutes for teachers and small-group instruction."
While some staffers were critical, others say it works well for them and for their students.
Jordan Wise, a third-grade literature and humanities teacher at Rocketship Fuerza Community Prep in San Jose, says the Learning Labs give her more freedom.
"The reason why I came here originally," she says, "was there are more opportunities to innovate and really be able to put my own knowledge and skills to customize what I'm actually teaching my students."
"We are really sensitive" to concerns about screen time "and really try to be purposeful," Smith says. He argues that minutes per day don't matter as much as goals reached. "We're trying to get high-quality content in front of our kids."
Growth targets cut
Does Rocketship still represent the future of education, or has its model of innovation become outmoded at the speed of the Internet?
On one hand, as long as schools are held accountable for reading and math scores on standardized tests, and as long as large achievement gaps on those tests bedevil traditional public schools, schools that produce high scores for disadvantaged populations will remain, by definition, successful.
The long hours, high pressure, tight discipline and ritualistic classroom protocols aren't out of line with those seen at other charter school networks, like KIPP and Success Academy, that also have high test scores and draw communities of fiercely loyal parents like Letty Gomez.
But these practices, at charter schools across the country, have also come under increasing scrutiny.
Rocketship itself, meanwhile, has faced severe headwinds.
In 2011, Rocketship received a $1.9 million federal grant to open 56 schools in Oakland, Calif.; Chicago, New Orleans and Milwaukee. In 2013, founder Danner moved on, leaving the network in control of Smith, a Teach for America alumnus, who revised Danner's goal of 1 million students by 2020 down to 25,000 students by 2017.
Today, there are just 13 schools. The opening of the latest, in Washington, D.C., was delayed by a year, in part because of local opposition.
In 2014, four districts filed a lawsuit against the Santa Clara County Board of Education arguing that Rocketship had gone over their heads to pursue countywide expansion. In a settlement, Rocketship agreed not to open 14 of 20 schools it sought in the region.
Rocketship's petition to open a school in Concord, Calif., this fall was rejected at the district and county levels, only to be approved by the state's board of education in March.
Smith paints the slower expansion as a deliberate refocusing.
"It's not just about opening multiple schools, but really how do you create this transformational movement within a community? We're working to catalyze this parent-led movement for educational equity, and we've seen that happen in San Jose," he says. He points to other charter networks like KIPP and Aspire that are opening middle and high schools in the area, in part to serve Rocketship families.
"We were aggressively pulled into that community," says Smith of the Concord school, noting that they collected 1,100 signatures from interested parents. The opposition, he says, stemmed from unhappiness from district employees: "No one wants to hear that 95 out of 100 kids are failing."
Not surprisingly, Guy Moore, the president of that district's teachers union, tells a different story. He says yes, his district's schools have low test scores, but they're improving. They offer Spanish-language instruction, while Rocketship is exclusively in English. Kids feel welcomed. And parents are happy.
At Rocketship? "They put kindergartners in front of computers for an hour and a half a day, with an aide who is not credentialed, and offer 'personalized instruction' to 100 kids which is a joke," he argues. "They do all this homework, drill and kill, reading and math and then they say, our scores are higher, therefore we're superior."