Innovate, learn, innovate: Rocketship’s approach to building a better blended learning model

In 2007, we opened our first Rocketship school and began to pursue blended learning using a rotational model.  At that time, it was incredibly innovative to have elementary students rotate to different spaces with different teachers while having some learning occur online.

Pursuing this instructional model in the first year was challenging. I recall many days standing in the middle of a hot church with cramped quarters, digging deep to figure it all out. With persistence, we were able to execute this rotational model in a manner that delivered for our Rocketeers — both academically and socially. Our early academic results in math exceeded state targets, especially among English language learners and students from low-income families. This was a great triumph.

However, in working to maximize our impact for all of our incredible kids and families, we will never be satisfied.

Rocketship’s DNA: Innovating for greater personalization

Our organization was founded on the principle that continuous innovation and improvement is the only way to make a difference for all children. Our entire team approaches our work by asking, “How can we make this even better?” We constantly ask if our schools are up to the task of optimizing every moment of every day for each one of our students. Are we truly personalizing education for our Rocketeers?

This dedication to transforming the lives of students – and to eliminating the achievement gap – means that we must constantly assess ourselves, our work and, frankly, our pedagogical approach.

Thus, in the two years after SRI conducted its recently released research, we engaged deeply in further innovating on our instructional model. We wanted to see if we could realize even greater results and opportunities for our Rocketeers, in particular, helping our older students grow into stronger independent learners.

To this end, we piloted a flexible model, which we implemented in an open-space classroom, with teachers in direct control of technology, tutoring and blended learning. During the pilot, we pored over the data, engaged our teachers, and surveyed students and families. Here’s what we saw:

  • Staff appreciated the opportunities for collaboration and integration of technology in the flexible model, and saw benefits from students becoming more self-directed.
  • Teachers told us that a significant effort was required to implement the flexible model—effort that was not necessarily commensurate with results.
  • Academically, the results of the pilots were mixed.  In some flex classrooms, students outperformed the current rotational model and in others, students performed below the average.

Where did these findings lead us?

As we drive towards a more personalized instructional model, we have a responsibility to continually ensure that every student working within that model thrives.

Responsibility is innovation’s peer

We believe in rethinking elementary school from the ground up, but we also believe that we have a responsibility to look at the data, and to take a holistic look at students and their overall educational experience. As we drive towards a more personalized instructional model, we have a responsibility to continually ensure that every student working within that model thrives.

Based on mixed results of the flex model pilot, we’re no longer pursuing the flex model in our schools. But the process taught us an enormous amount about how we can personalize learning for our students going forward. As we enter the 2014-15 school year, we are adapting best practices from the model by:

  • Adding a “flexible block” to our rotational model in order to give Rocketeers time to have richer, more personalized learning experiences every day
  • Ramping up support for teachers to integrate technology into the classroom
  • Digging in further to determine how a strategic combination of technology, tutoring, instruction, independent work, and more can help teachers and Rocketeers optimize their time to ensure mastery of standards

Rocketship is often credited with kicking off the blended learning movement. I’m proud that we’ve been a leader in a field that seeks to ensure every kid has access to an excellent school. On that first hot and muggy day at Rocketship, we struggled through sweat and tears to figure out how to make the rotational model work — and as long as we exist, we will continue to innovate. We will push towards even greater schools, and fearlessly be willing to rethink elementary schools and instruction so that we can truly personalize learning for each of our Rocketeers. Why? We believe it’s the only way to maximize our impact for all of our incredible kids and families…and we believe that’s what each one of our Rocketeers and families deserve.

Preston Smith co-founded Rocketship Education in San Jose with John Danner in 2006, and is now CEO and president of the organization. Before becoming CEO of Rocketship, Preston had numerous roles including teacher, principal, director of schools, VP Bay Area and chief achievement officer. He has led Rocketship’s professional development, leadership development, integrated special education, and student and teacher recruitment work. 

Rocketship Education, one of five participants in the May 2014 blended learning report released by SRI International and the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, is widely recognized for operating a chain of schools that are among the top-performing low-income schools in California. Rocketship also participated in a series of foundation-funded case studies on blended learning, conducted by FSG and released in 2012.