Rocketship is blasting off in Silicon Valley, with great fanfare – and no, it’s not a new tech start up, propelled by the genius of another 22-year old wunderkind who has invented the latest, most innovative way to virally spread videos of silly cats playing pianos. Yet, looking at the applauding coverage of Rocketship, you’d be hard-pressed to not think you’re watching a business profile of a rising star: Rocketship’s facilities are freshly-designed, modernized, and color-coordinated, the team members enthusiastic (and color-coordinated), and team leaders (managers) use the words “innovation” and “leveraging” at least once per well-polished, color-coordinated sentence. That, and it has a stellar brand name – Rocketship – which sounds both innovative and familiar, reaching towards the future, while at the same time, harkening back to childhood fantasy, creating the sort of futuristic nostalgia that could only have been designed by a team of professional marketers, focus groups, and meetings, upon meetings, upon meetings – in which “innovation” and “leveraging” were the take away points.
Rocketship, however, is not a new viral cat video start-up, but rather a charter school born of the same Silicon Valley corporate culture that brought us those cat videos (at rocket-speeds). Rocketship – applauded for its high scores on standardized tests in impoverished Latino communities – was spotlighted as part of NBC’s Education Nation extravaganza for its “innovative” methods, which seem steeped in that same futuristic nostalgia implied in its brand name. The elementary school chain is hybrid, incorporating tutor-led computerized instruction– two hours a day – into the curriculum, which allows for the schools to hire fewer teachers, and thus, have less “overhead”. At the same time as Rocketship “innovates” for the digital future, the remaining human teachers can focus not only on critical thinking, but good old-fashioned discipline, as the children walk down the halls – on the yellow line, only – with their hands behind their backs, with their mouths closed, filing into the computer lab “one hundred at a time”, blasting off silently into their retro-rocket ship to the future.
Rocketship sounds like a “miracle school,” one perhaps able to “rocket its students to success,” as NBC’s San Francisco Bay Area affiliate suggested. “[See] these test scores: you’re going to be impressed,” gushed host Jessica Aguirre of the local NBC education program “Class Action”, as she points out that one of Rocketship’s schools outperforms the local school district on standardized tests – 925 to 920 points. (The “Chief Achievement Officer” attributes their success to, in part, “leveraging.”) With Rocketship’s success, it’s now going viral, much like its Silicon Valley sister-start-ups. The chain has plans for 20 more schools in the area, with three more already approved by the Santa Clara County School Board, and is planning to spread nationwide, in “50 cities across the US.”
Rocketship’s success, like the charter school movement in general, might also be better characterized as a triumph of branding, cross-promotion, synergy, and – of course –leveraging. More specifically, the Rocketship chain is at the center of a nexus of power, incredible financial resources and political influence leveraged to highlight its strengths, and downplay potential drawbacks or limitations, making it appear a “miracle.”
Rocketship is another important experiment in billionaire Bill Gates’ quest to update what he considers to be an outdated Public School Operating System, so that it better interfaces with the needs of 21st century global corporatism. Rocketship’s “National Strategy Board,” includes a representative of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; advisors and directors of the school include other Silicon Valley tech business leaders also associated with Gates’ Microsoft: NetFlix’s CEO (who sat on Microsoft’s board of directors); Skype’s Chief Financial Officer (Skype was recently purchased by Microsoft); and the Managing Director of Menlo Ventures (who invested in Microsoft’s popular Hotmail program). Also, Gates has donated money to nearly all of the education organizations which have representatives on the board: Bellwether Education Partners; Charter School Growth Fund; New Schools Venture Fund; KIPP schools; Teach for America. And if that’s not enough, a star-studded opening of a Microsoft store in Santa Clara – with Joe Montana, one of the Jonas Brothers, and special performance by rock band the Black Keys – raised money, which went in part to Rocketship.
Now, that’s what I call leveraging.
Gates has also been very successful in leveraging the corporate media to favorably cover his philanthropic investments, like Rocketship. Gates – who has invested nearly 80 million in favorable PR for his reforms –was a major sponsor and star of NBC’s Education Nation series, cross-promoted on the major NBC franchises and properties (Meet The Press, Nightly News), and affiliates, like NBC 11, in the San Francisco Bay Area.  “NBC is looking at what’s working in our schools, and sadly, what isn’t,” Aguirre said during the Education Nation synergistic extravaganza, holding Rocketship aloft as an example of “what’s working”. The report, unsurprisingly, acts as a PR piece for Rocketship: the reporter questions none of the claims made by the representatives of the school, nor does she explore or allude to legitimate questions about charter schools, nor does she air any dissenting opinions or perspectives whatsoever.
In other words: NBC is promoting a school sponsored by a sponsor of NBC programming.
Now, that’s what I call a conflict of interest.
This conflict of interest has hidden from the public some serious concerns about not just the Rocketship model, but charter schools in general. As Rocketship prepared to launch into Milwaukee, school board representative Larry Miller exposed that the chain – like many charter schools – has a problem with attrition, with a high rate of students leaving the schools. While Miller could not find attrition data from the Department of Education, he claims that:
“Rocketship Si Se Puede Academy, now in its third year of operation, had a 79% loss of students in the cohort moving from fourth to fifth grade in 2010-2011. Rocketship Mateo Sheedy Elementary had a 20% loss of students for the cohorts going into fifth grade for both the 2009-2010 and 2010-2011 school years… In San Jose districtwide, the loss of student population is less than 1%.”
Much more simply, what Miller found is that many more students were leaving these schools than the regular public schools, suggesting that the miraculous numbers are less a product of excellent instruction, and more a function of culling. Especially concerning, Rocketship schools – like many charter schools, as Diane Ravitch observed in “The Myth of Charter Schools” – serve a disproportionately small population of special needs students, which would, of course, drag down the scores.
In short: is the miracle really a mirage?
Rocketship says no, that the success is real, responding to Miller, claiming that this low number of special education students is not, in reality, out of line with the district in general, and further, that they are open to all students. More broadly, their “fact sheet” points out that there is no problem with attrition, that many of the students left Rocketship for the next step in their academic career, KIPP, a charter with a similar mission.
Yet, KIPP – the star of the charter movement, another recipient of Gates’ leveraging efforts, and no doubt a model for Rocketship – has also been leveled with the same criticism, that their success is more about culling the best students with the best chance to succeed, and leaving the rest behind. A March 2011 study of the KIPP program found that “KIPP schools have substantially higher levels of attrition than do their local school districts,” and, between grades 6 and 8, three of ten students leave the schools. “The dropout rate for African-American males is really shocking,” one author observed, pointing out that four of ten African-American boys leave the program in grades 6 through 8. Further, the study chastised the schools for not serving more students with disabilities, and those learning English. And, finally, KIPP schools are “considerably better funded than their surrounding school districts,” which are required to work with all students, not just those who are chosen, and willing/able to submit to the rigorous KIPP method. And while the authors acknowledge that the KIPP model is wonderful for some students, KIPP is only able to serve a “limited range of students,” the rest, left to return to their poorly-funded public schools.
The KIPP study found what all teachers already know – that with a motivated population of engaged and capable mainstream students, with parents that are equally motivated and engaged in that child’s education, and with healthy funding that provides students a clean, safe school with up-to-date facilities, that test scores will rocket, and that students, far more importantly, learn.
This is not an innovation, but common sense.
After over a decade of failed free-market reforms, the real innovation in education reform will be in returning back to our common sense, recognizing that all students – not just the chosen few, who have motivated, capable parents and luck on their side – deserve access to clean, safe and vibrant public schools, and as importantly, critical public services, which address the struggles students face outside of the classroom. Unfortunately, as Rocketship takes off – fueled by Gates, and other corporate elites – public education is being buried alive, with schools closed, teachers laid off, essential support services diluted and discontinued, cut in order to balance budgets destroyed by the very same corporate, free-market ethos on which these very same elites profited.
 Rocketship, and the charter school movement in general, is not Gates first experiment in education; first, he focused on the small schools movement, which failed to work, even by his own account. Yet, while Gates pressed on (not held accountable for his poor performance), the students Manual High School in Colorado were left with a broken school: “From the perspective of the kids, things ended up getting worse,” admitted Concedes Van Schoales, who runs a non-profit that administers Gates money, in 2006. (Diane Ravitch covers this failed experiment at length in her book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System (2010)). The next year (2007), as Manual High School limped out of the Gates experiment, Rocketship – his next experiment – is opened.
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 For a thorough discussion and extensive sources on the Gates Foundations’ efforts manage the education reform debate, see: Huff, M. and Bessie, A. et al. (2011) “Framing the Messengers: Junk Food News and News Abuse for Dummies,” pp. 183-228. Chapter 3 in Mickey Huff, Censored 2012: Sourcebook for the Media Revolution. New York: Seven Stories Press.