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Lessons from Rocketship: Thinking like a Start-up

• Sara Clements

08-01-2014 On the RocketshipIf you’re in need of an enjoyable, yet thought-provoking book to read on your summer vacation, I highly recommend On the Rocketship. Richard Whitmire’s latest book details how Rocketship, one of the celebrated “No Excuses”-brand charter networks got its start and, in doing so, shares a valuable lesson that everyone in the education field can learn from.

We know Rocketship schools are impressive—taking the most disadvantaged students, typically the lowest performers, and turning them into rock star students worthy of any suburban school’s honor roll. But there are a number of other charter networks around the country—KIPP, Success Academy, Uncommon Schools, Match, just to name a few—that have done the same thing. Fine, these schools aren’t just impressive; they’re out of out this world. But student performance results are not what make the book so intriguing… it’s how Rocketship got there.

Rocketship’s story is about applying the Silicon Valley start-up mindset to designing, launching and scaling a new school model.

John Danner, founder of Rocketship, was a start-up guy himself, so when making the move to education it was only natural to think about his new schools the way he thought about any other new venture in the tech world. First things first: Get the right people on your team. So he partnered with Preston Smith, a successful young principal and Teach for America alumnus, and received the support of Silicon Valley entrepreneur Reed Hastings.

Danner certainly wasn’t the first guy to say he wanted to eliminate the achievement gap. But unlike many before him, he actually had a plan to do it. By his calculations, all he had to do to accomplish this goal was to open 2,500 Rocketship schools nationwide, educating one million kids, in just 30 years… piece of cake, right? But Danner wasn’t naïve. A big problem calls for a big solution, and he knew that doing things the way they had always been done would produce the same results that have always been produced. He couldn’t just fix the current school model; he had to build a new one from the ground up.

Rocketship’s approach has been to reimagine every aspect of the school model, from hiring practices to the school schedule, to its respected and always evolving blended learning model.

The most concrete example of this re-imagination plays out in the book when Danner sits down to design his few first Rocketship schools. Architects, expecting to rework the layout here and there and add some architectural features along the way, are dumbfounded when Danner turns the American school model on its head. Why do we need athletic fields when there’s a public park down the road? Why can’t we park underground? Why do we need separate faculty bathrooms? Why can’t we put the playground on the roof? To Danner, every square inch of space saved meant more money to spend inside the classroom, on the things that actually improve student outcomes.

Scaling the Rocketship model has been challenging. But as Whitmire pointed out in a recent interview with EdNext, Rocketship has a unique ability to fix problems on the fly: “when they hit a wall, they reinvent themselves”.

Rocketship does not own the patent on innovation or efficiency (Work Hard, Be Nice tells a similar story from KIPP’s early years and other high-performing charters likely share these traits), but at the moment it may be one of the best examples out there. Whether you care about charter schools, teacher preparation, digital learning or the next big reform, we can all learn a lesson from the guys with the start-up mindset.

About the author

Sara Clements

Sara is the Florida Regional Advocacy Director for the Foundation for Excellence in Education. Prior to joining ExcelinEd, Sara worked in the Florida public school system as an English/Language Arts and reading teacher, at a Title I middle school and later at a K-12 charter school. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Secondary English Education from the University of North Florida and a master’s degree in Education Policy from the Florida State University.