From Education Week by Benjamin Herold:
One classroom, 109 children.

For the next 40 minutes, half the 4th graders here at Rocketship Sí Se Puede Academy, a charter elementary school in a low-slung building nestled below Highway 680, will be split between the language arts and mathematics sections of the large room, working with two-dozen similarly skilled classmates and a credentialed teacher. A few will sit at a small table with the class’ lead teacher, receiving in-depth reading instruction targeted to their individual strengths and weaknesses. And roughly half the children will settle in front of a laptop, practicing math problems with help from an animated penguin named Jiji.

Welcome to the new “flexible classroom” from blended learning pioneer Rocketship Education—one of the country’s fastest-growing charter school operators, with plans to open as many as 51 more schools in nine regions over the next five years.

Many look at Rocketship’s new approach, which represents a significant departure from the blended learning model that helped launch the Bay Area nonprofit to national prominence, and see the future.

But the story behind the organization’s flexible classrooms is also a cautionary tale about the belief that technological innovation can fuel rapid school expansion without compromising quality. Although test scores have steadily declined as the network has added schools and students, Rocketship has maintained its voracious appetite for growth. Rather than resolve that tension, the new flexible classrooms have, by Rocketship’s own admission, further strained the organization and exposed underlying problems glossed over during the group’s ascent.

Some Rocketship leaders, for example, now acknowledge that their original blended learning model—which powered the organization’s initial growth, to nine schools and 5,200 students, before its impact could be rigorously studied—may be more effective at teaching students to follow directions than to think for themselves.

Red flags also have come up around finances: Documents and interviews make clear that the new, flexible classrooms were originally devised as part of an audacious plan to cut staff, save $200,000 annually per school, and redirect the funds to help start up new Rocketship schools—a strategy that proved too aggressive, even for Rocketship, and has since been dialed back.

And the on-the-ground reality has been messy, too. A sweeping experiment with flexible classrooms during the 2012-13 school year resulted in sharp networkwide test-score drops and dissension among the organization’s rank and file.

Rocketship CEO and co-founder Preston Smith staunchly defends the organization against critics who accuse it of pushing too hard to expand blended learning’s boundaries.

But even Mr. Smith concedes the network is at an “inflection point.”

“We need to figure out the flex model and get much more grounded on how we can consistently realize the levels of achievement we expect,” he said. “It puts us in this conundrum of do you continue to focus on innovation, and try to get it right, or do you actually start to push toward scale?”

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