California School Board Rejects Rocketship Charter School

Last Thursday, the Alum Rock school district, part of metropolitan San Jose, California, voted to reject a charter school application from the Rocketship chain of schools. As I detailed in a recent paper, Rocketship’s model, which relies on cheaper, inexperienced teachers and completely replacing teachers with computer applications for a significant part of the day, is being promoted for poor urban children, but is dismissed as inadequate by more privileged families.

Rocketship is based in the San Jose area, and thus the Alum Rock rejection represents a rebuff in the part of the country with the most first-hand experience of their methods.

The vote at Alum Rock followed a report by school district staff that identified many of the same problems described in our report. Specifically:

  • While Rocketship proposed to serve students from schools that had failed to make Adequate Yearly Progress under the federal No Child Left Behind Law, its application failed to mention that nearly all of Rocketship’s San Jose schools have themselves failed to make Adequate Yearly Progress for at least two years in a row.
  • Rocketship’s statement to investors proclaimed that “no assurance is given” that Rocketship schools will make Adequate Yearly Progress in future years.
  • Because Rocketship students spend a large portion of their day in computer labs with no licensed teacher, 4th and 5th graders will not receive the minimum instructional hours required by law.
  • Rocketship was “misleading” in not including Learning Lab students in its calculation of student-teacher ratio. When all students are counted, “the true student/teacher ratio is, in fact, 37 students to 1 teacher.”

  • While the Alum Rock district itself spends less than 6% of its budget on central overhead, Rocketship requires each school set aside 15% of its budget for the corporate headquarters. “Understanding the aggressive growth model for Rocketship as a national organization,” Alum Rock staff wondered how a local school would be supported.
  • Finally, Rocketship encourages low-income students to be passive rather than active users of technology. The Alum Rock district Rocketship’s model fails to provide “common core digital proficiencies,” including “understanding of the concepts underlying hardware, software, and connectivity” and “the ability to use technology for research, critical thinking, problem solving, decision making, communication, collaboration, creativity, and innovation.”

Ultimately, the school board decided that, in the words of its president, “If you’re a struggling model that’s having issues, why would we go ahead and say let’s go with these folks?”

In short, school district staff noted many of the same problems that EPI’s research identified, and arrived at similar concerns.

There are good and bad schools of every type, including charter schools. But all schools must be held accountable. Education policy must not be based on the assumption that there are different definitions of quality education for poor and privileged students, and should not promote a model for poor children that wealthier parents reject as substandard for their own families.


  • David

    But, interestingly, in several other Rocketship schools that use the same instructional model and staffing, these students achieve improved API scores compared to their alternatives in traditional schools.

    What’s different here is that this model uses fewer paid teachers than the union-controlled educational establishment favors. The parents of these kids would not be leaving them in Rocketship schools unless they felt they were getting better education.

    I don’t think the Rocketship model is right for all kids, but for those underserved groups not performing at Proficient levels on CST evaluations, Rocketship might be on to something. Before kids can learn nuances of education they need to master the basics. Getting the right foundation in K-5 is crucial. The current system even in affluent well funded districts like Los Altos School DIstrict is failing the socioeconomically disadvantaged subgroup where there API scores are in the 700′s at only 2 elementary schools with enough such students to report. Maybe they’d have a nicer playground at the LASD school, but maybe they would learn the 3 R’s better at Rocketship. Naybe this ability would encourage them and motivate future success in high school and college.