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Five Questions for 'On the Rocketship' Author Richard Whitmire

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Although claiming academic successes, many high-performing charter schools are not expanding rapidly enough, argues Richard Whitmire, the author On the Rocketship: How Top Charter Schools are Pushing the Envelope.

In his new book, released this week, Whitmire highlights schools in Denver, Houston. and Memphis that he considers prototypes for changing how charters can interact with and benefit school districts and, eventually, expand.

But at the heart of the book is the fast-growing charter school group founded by a Silicon Valley entrepreneur in California, Rocketship, which serves mostly low-income students. Whitmire explores the setbacks and strengths of Rocketship, an organization with such an ambitious plan for growth that Whitmire opens his book by describing the Fibonacci sequence—where each number on a list grows exponentially because it is the sum of the two before it.

Education Week spoke to Whitmire about what he learned from writing his latest book. 

Q: You start out your book talking about Rocketship's goals for fast expansion—expansion on a Fibonacci-esque scale—2,500 schools by 2030. Despite early academic success, as the group has expanded, at least in California, students' test scores have gone down. Is Rocketship's growth plan too ambitious?

A: It was from the beginning. There was no way they could keep that kind of pace. They had a lot to learn about building a charter school network. Rocketship went through a period that a lot of charter school groups go through: You start off killing it on test scores, you conclude you've pretty much got this figured out, and then you reach a certain number of schools (10 or so) and it catches up with you. That catching up could be any number of things. It could be availability of top-notch principals. In Rocketship's case I think it had to a lot with a lack of standardized curriculum in math and reading which they now have. And of course, in the book I talked about the other big thing was the model change that they tried to push through in a single year.

The combination of those two things set their scores back for one year. Now, we already know from internal testing that they've bounced back.

Q: What was that new model?

A: Another dip in funding there in California caused them to try do this model change in one year, which would have combined all grades in a single classroom which they did both for cost reasons and also they thought they could do the differentiated learning [tailoring instruction to each student]. So, they thought they could save a small amount of money and push test scores up all in one move. It's not a bad idea, a lot of schools are doing this, they just didn't have the professional development in place or the teacher training. They didn't have everything in place they needed to push it that fast. 

I realize everyone is making a big deal of this ... like, oh God, Rocketship all the sudden had this big setback. Well, think of Newark, think of Camden, think of L.A., these big urban schools never reinvent themselves ... You could consider this a setback for Rocketship but it has to be put into perspective of how often school districts try to reinvent themselves.

Q: In your book, you point to a series of charter organizations—KIPP, Aspire, Uncommon, IDEA—as examples of high-performing charter groups that are expanding too slowly. What's your concern with that? 

A: I see these charters represent the best shot for these kids [in low-income, urban areas]. Therefore, for me, there is an urgency to figuring out ways for them to get access to more kids. What I'm saying is: The top 20 percent of charters have a real opportunity to expand greatly. 

I think they can do it faster. I think they're too conservative. I understand why they have this attitude of plodding along, if you will. A lot of the plodding is a lack of facilities. The charters don't have the same luxuries that traditional public districts have—taxpayers building their facilities. So it's hard to expand fast, but that's why I spent several chapters looking at cities who had figured that out. 

My favorite one was Spring Branch [in Houston, Texas] where the schools superintendent decided to bring two high-performing charters into his district, give them facilities, have them share buildings but also share professional development and, in other words, get some real synergy going ... This couldn't be more different then the co-locations in New York where they don't even talk to one another. Here they're like best buddies. Here, they do talk to one another and it appears to be having a real impact on the traditional school. Now, the final analysis is not done there. We'll have to look at the test scores. 

It seems like an ideal circumstance for a school district to use charters to reinvent itself; to reset the goals for the entire district and using charters to get there. 

Q: How can charter groups expand faster? What are they not doing?

A: It kind of makes it sound like they're having a board meeting, and saying, 'let's not expand.'

My message is: There are opportunities there for partners that can be found—like a Denver, like a Spring Branch, like a Lawrence, Mass.—urban districts that have been struggling and have a lot of interest in bringing in charters. These things need to be pushed at the highest level [because] you've got a lot of states like Massachusetts where the legislature won't allow any expansion let alone looking at these kinds of compacts.

Q: Rocketship seems to get a lot of positive attention initially which helped them draw a lot of interest to replicate their model—but is this really a model that should be replicated? What should be the standard for replicating charter schools around the country?

A: I think they're back on track, they've changed their model in a way. They were innovators in blended learning and the funny thing is that a lot of public school districts have imitated what they did, and now they've gone on to do something else. They're on like 2.0. I think a lot of districts should watch what they're doing on blended learning. That was part of the model change—bringing blended learning into the classroom, rather than a computer lab. 

You know what the authorization system is, it's different per state. But I think they all have roughly the same goal which is a proven model.

In some cases that can be, like in D.C. where there are a lot of what I would call mom and pop [charters] that are quite good. My idea going into this book was that mom and pops were bad and the KIPPs of the world were good. But that's not what I found. I would hate to have a standard that would somehow elevate a Yes Prep or a KIPP over an Achievement Prep [a smaller D.C.-based charter school organization].

Any school or any group or CMO [charter management organization] that's got a proven record should be on a fast track. They should be on a separate track than somebody new coming along with no record. The vetting would be automatic then.

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