Twenty-four children fill chairs organized in six rows, with an aisle separating them down the middle. Half the students located in the back row squint their eyes to see the math problem the teacher has written on the projector screen, the other half pinch their cheeks to keep their eyelids from closing. If these students are in the inner city, slightly over half of them will make it through the 12th grade. Welcome to America’s 21st-century classroom.
In the so-called Internet Age, the average public school classroom — and often the students too — seem out of place. Substitute the projector for a chalkboard, and you have a brick and mortar 1950s-style classroom.
Why has the American public school model remained constant while disruptive technology has dramatically impacted and improved every other aspect of Americans’ lives? Digital technology in particular has reshaped the way we pursue our daily tasks. Imagine shopping without Amazon.com or getting from point A to point B without Google Maps. These innovations, among countless others, have created more choice, enhanced efficiency, and bettered our lives overall. However, entrepreneurs’ creativity has largely been blocked from penetrating state-controlled schools.
Influenced by teachers’ unions and other political considerations, lawmakers have built these concrete red-tape barriers. Among a list of other laws, antiquated state rules require students to have a certain amount of ‘seat time’ every day, where they must remain at their desks and look up at the teacher. States also mandate particular teacher-to-student ratios, believing that smaller classrooms lead to better results.
In some instances where states have begun to peel back restrictive red tape, often allowing charter schools to break ground, unions have pushed back. Since charter schools cannot serve every student at their current capacity, teachers’ unions argue that they offer an unfair advantage to some students. They take issue with the new tech-focused instructive models that some charters experiment with, especially because blended learning programs could lead to a lower demand for teachers. Some labor groups have even attempted to prevent charter expansion by suing bodies that support school choice.
Despite the regulatory burdens and political duels, a few blended learning charters have been granted the opportunity to test their teaching methods. Rocketship Education is one of the leaders of the very small, but growing blended learning coalition. Its modernized school model incorporates teacher instructional time while harnessing today’s technology to give students a highly individualized education that caters to their strengths and weaknesses.
During their computer-based and online learning time, students may play an educational game or work with a digital avatar that adapts lessons to meet their needs in real-time. Students can also listen to lessons given by world-renown teachers, while being quizzed to ensure that they are ready to cover new material. And all the while the computers act as a medium, automatically aggregating the students’ work into one central database, allowing teachers to easily track students’ progress.
Rocketship’s results have blown holes in the lofty arguments brought by union leaders and other school choice adversaries. The charter school, which serves primarily low-income students, is performing competitively against schools with better funding and more affluent children. In the 2012-2013 school year, Rocketship outperformed neighboring districts and California as a whole in the California Standards Test. It finished only nine percentage points behind the state’s wealthiest districts. And even more impressively, the charter achieved these results in a matter of a few years. Other districts have been trying and failing for decades.
It does not take a rocket scientist to recognize that whatever is happening in Rocketship classrooms is working. However, even when the truth is supported by clear data, it can be easily eclipsed by interest groups with a disproportional impact on the political process.