Rocketship Education: Learning and Growing From Past Criticism


Working to overcome the achievement gap across the nation, Rocketship Public Schools (previously referred to as Rocketship Education) strives to educate and engage children with its contemporary teaching methods that balance teacher-led activities and technology use. Rocketship Education is a charter school system that serves underprivileged children across the nation. Rocketship has locations in the San Jose Bay Area, Milwaukee, WI, Nashville, TN, and Washington D.C. With several elementary schools across the country, Rocketship Education aims to eliminate the achievement gap and help students grow in academics and character.


The Role of the Charter School System 

Charter schools or networks are schools that are typically started by parents, teachers, community members, school districts, or even entrepreneurs. Often, charter schools are managed by CMO’s or charter management organizations. Charter schools are publicly funded independent schools given money based upon their number of enrolled students, however, CMO’s may also seek private funding.

The basis of their existence, “the charter,” is, in essence, a number of promises and core values that ensures success in educating children along with achieving or surpassing national testing standards. Charter schools are typically known for their ability to prepare students for the next level and produce higher standardized test scores than many public schools.

As independent organizations, charter schools are able to develop their own teaching methods, policies, and core values that they believe will benefit their students and support student growth through education. Since 2006, Rocketship Education works alongside parents to create an educational community with one common goal: teaching and engaging children in ways that allow them to grow and succeed.

Within this community, parents and Rocketship’s leaders and teachers work together, holding each other accountable for their roles in educating their children. In doing so, Rocketship is able to create a learning environment that fully encompasses learning that takes place at school, but starts and ends at home every day.


Growing Through the Critique 

Rocketship Education, similar to other charter school networks, has received its fair share of critique in the past. In both whole grade group learning and differentiated instruction, Rocketship seeks to tailor education to each individual.

Doing so requires the use of technology as an educational tool, working in small groups, and working one-on-one with children. Each way of instruction creates different learning opportunities for children and allows them to grow in different areas. Rocketship analyzes data streams to ensure that each educational practice is optimized to create the most learning and growth in every student.

Through innovative teaching methods, the creation of community within its school districts, and the tenacity at which they strive for better education, Rocketship Education constantly pushes to create a high achieving environment in underserved communities in hopes of eliminating the achievement gap. It’s every child’s right to be imaginative, to make discoveries, and to learn about and explore the world around them; Rocketship Education seeks to help students explore those rights.


Eliminating the Achievement Gap

Since 2006, Rocketship Education, based in the San Jose Bay Area but serving students nationally, works to eliminate the achievement gap for low-income students. Rocketship Education is a non-profit charter network that has educated more than 18,000 children in four cities spread across the nation. Its use of innovative teaching methods is at the core of their mission to aid its students.

Eliminating the achievement gap is the main vision of the charter network, and to do so, innovation in education isn’t optional, it’s necessary. However, innovation can often come with drawbacks and has recently caused some educational angst within some groups. Rocketship strives for excellence but understands that sometimes they may fall short Yet, it is important to realize that there are things to be learned from those shortcomings and that the best form of education is an ongoing and complex conversation.


Innovation can lead to criticism, but allows for growth:

In 2016, Rocketship Education faced scrutiny in an NPR article that painted the U.S. charter network out to be a technology-focused, test-score-fixated educational system with strict disciplinary guidelines that were perhaps stunting student development. However, the Rocketship Education community responded, largely, with support for its schools and an outcry that their comments pertaining to the school network were misused or misinterpreted.

The NPR article did not give a fair representation of Rocketship, nor its ideals or the reasoning behind some of its policies. The NPR article noted a few potential issues with Rocketship, including technology use and teacher time, silent time, and retesting.


A Balancing Act
Rocketship Education
Preston Smith, CEO OF Rocketship Education

The article first tries to express that Rocketship is allowing its students too much screen time and not enough time with teachers. The use of technology in schools and its overall usefulness to a child’s development is a very large topic in education today. However, rather than taking a mindful approach to the issue, using Rocketship as an example of how technology might be used in the classroom, the NPR writer exaggerates the usage of screen time and vilifies Rocketship’s innovative platform that tries to balance screen time with teacher-led instruction. Rocketship Education CEO, Preston Smith, explains in his response to the NPR article that the use of technology in the classroom is still an important matter of discussion that needs to be dealt with. You can read the full response here:

Response: What NPR’s ‘Hit Piece’ Got Wrong in Attacking Rocketship’s ‘Impressive Results’

However, simply ignoring that question and not using technology to teach children brings its own concerns in educating children in the 21st century. Not educating children using some amount of screen time may hinder their advancement among peers in a society that is ceaselessly expanding when it comes to technology and the digital world. In addition, computer literacy is a critical skill that needs to be taught and allowing room for screen time can further build this skill set. Smith also points out that all screen time is not created equal.

The programs being used in the Rocketship charter network are not the same as the ones being played on gaming platforms; their educational value, rather than entertainment value, comes first and foremost. The balance of using teachers and technology in the classroom is an ongoing educational process that still needs to be mastered, but one that helps Rocketship tailor their students’ education in the present and for the future.


Silence in Schools 

The topic of silent time, or “Zone Zero,” as it’s called at Rocketship, was another that the NPR writer used to further vilify Rocketship. She uses the term “enforce” on a number of occasions to project a sense of strictness and coldness onto Rocketship’s silent time policy. As most parents and educators know, there are times where peace and quiet are beneficial to children’s learning. Reading, test-taking, giving instruction—these are all moments in education where silence is preferred and often necessary. The article uses one source, Farah Dilber, in its criticism of Zone Zero. However, the article poses Dilber as someone criticizing silent time, when her comment was intended to back it.

Dilber stated that silent time is a necessary part of every school day in the same way that being noisy and exuberant is. And that’s where Launch comes into play. A launch is an activity that begins each and every day at Rocketship Education. At Launch, students recite core values and get to sing, dance, and get ready for their day. There is a balance to work and fun at Rocketship, and this balance is completely left out of the NPR article. When Rocketship hosted NPR at one of their schools, they watched Launch in the morning and never mentioned or asked questions about Zone Zero throughout their day there. Furthermore, the blogger who wrote the article never came to visit a Rocketship school and chose to focus on silent time rather than launch, using a comment out of its intended meaning to criticize it.


Put to the Test

Retesting was another key issue that was criticized in the NPR article, expressing that teachers in the Rocketship network have a financial motive to have students retake tests and receive higher scores. Which, isn’t entirely false. Teachers at Rocketship Education are, in fact, compensated for their teaching excellence. Smith states in his response article that there is “a retake rate of less than one-tenth of one percent” across the entire Rocketship network. It’s also important to note that it is Rocketship’s policy to not administer retakes on the basis of score.

The NPR article also references internal emails pertaining to retesting. Smith clears this up in his article as well, explaining that these emails were for requests to retest rather than approvals. The continued success of Rocketship students as they continue their education in middle school and above is a prime example of the success of the students’ education at Rocketship, not their ability to retake tests.

Rocketship Education
Rocketship Charter School Students focused on their class


Criticism vs. Commendation

 The NPR writer’s piece on the charter school was made with fairly malicious intent. She sought to take the charter network down rather than commend them for any of their successes. Every school has its own issues, its own room for improvement, but they also have their own triumphs. Criticism can be healthy, it can push people to become better, or it can tear people down. She did the latter. She did not attempt to create a conversation that might push Rocketship to take a look at some potential areas of improvement. Instead, she pointed out flaws and condemned the school network for them.

She commends the school system on some of its successes, however, given the tone of the article, her praise feels half-hearted at best. Pieces such as this one need to show a sense of concern, longing for improvement, and an intent to help rather than hurt. As an educational community, we all want what is best for our children, for our students.

Constructive criticism brought up in a manner that creates the constant push for improvement will benefit us all in creating schools that can continue to educate children to the best of their abilities. Similar to the points made above, a balance of criticism and commendation is important when we analyze the performance of our schools. Tell us schools what they can do better, but also tell them what they’re doing well. If we can do this with respect and honesty, schools and education will only improve for us and our children.


Moving Forward

As the educational community looks at this experience, several questions should be being asked. The NPR writer, despite the overall tone of her piece, brought up an opportunity for the education community. The key issues she brought up against Rocketship charter schools can and should be talked about in a larger educational context. The balancing of screen time with teacher instruction time in the 21st-century classroom is an important discussion to be had. How do we as educators and as parents react to a future that continues to move more and more into the digital realm?

Classroom management is another important place for discussion. How do we teach teachers to control classrooms in a healthy way and see that our children receive the best care and education possible? In the context of the digital classroom, this may prove to be more difficult as teachers are expected to pay attention to things they hadn’t had to before.

These issues aren’t only being seen at Rocketship Education; they are issues that need to be thought about by the educational community as a whole. Regardless of what we believe, it is important that we continue to move forward and ask these types of questions about the education of our children. Having a conversation about these things can only result in the advancement of our educational system.

Innovation will always come with repercussions. How we handle those repercussions, how we learn, and how we move on is what is important. Rocketship Education’ goal of eliminating the achievement gap is a goal that requires innovation and the constant effort to improve each day. The criticism they receive will, in the end, only show them where they can improve, allowing them to educate children to the best of their abilities.


Rocketship Education’s Results and Awards 

After recently celebrating its ten year anniversary, Rocketship Public Schools is making leaps in scaling the system through change. In a recent report, the charter school system shared detailed statistics and personal narratives of students.

According to the results report from 2017-2018, their internal achievement gaps in math and ELA (English Language Arts) are half the size of the state’s gaps with a 14 and 17 point difference.

In addition, Rocketship’s Nashville schools’ scores show substantial progress on TVAAS (Tennessee Value-Added Assessment) as opposed to other schools. Rocketship Southside Community Prep in Milwaukee recently earned the state’s “Beating the Odd”s Award” in honor of its outstanding students. The school also ranked in the top ten of all district and charter elementary schools on the 2017-2018 Wisconsin Forward Exam.

In DC Rocketship Rise ranked number two on schools who serve prominently “at risk” students the new STAR rating system.

The Rocketship Mission and Values:

With multiple locations spanning across cities, Rocketship Public Schools claims it “believes in the infinite possibility of human potential.” The mission statement page goes on to discuss that every student has the right to dream, discover, and develop their unique potential, thus striving to end the achievement gap. The charter school system aims to help students unleash that potential.

Rocketship Education discloses its mission as “to catalyze transformative change in low-income communities through a scalable and sustainable public school model that propels student achievement, develops exceptional educators, and partners with parents who enable high-quality public schools to thrive in their community.” With this mission at hand, its values are authenticity, community, tenacity, innovation, and excellence.” This is displayed through its continuous dedication to student success and well being.



The Bay Area is home to Alma Academy, Brilliant Minds, Delta Prep, Discovery Prep, Fuerza Community Prep, Los Suenos Academy, Mateo Sheedy Elementary, Mosaic Elementary, Redwood City Prep, Rising Stars Academy, Si Se Puede Academy, and Spark Academy. Nashville is home to Nashville Northeast Elementary and United Academy. Milwaukee has Southside Community Prep and Transformation Prep. While Washington DC has Legacy Prep and Rise Academy.


The Three Pillars:

Rocketship describes its foundation with three specific pillars.

  1. Personalized Learning that prioritizes tailored instruction and a unique learning experience. This is intended to help children with varying learning styles and abilities from all backgrounds.

2. Talent Development investing time and effort into the growth and further development of parents, students, and fellow team members in and outside of the class.

3. Parent Power – giving parents the ability to champion their children’s education, and further allow high-quality schools to succeed.


Ultimately, Rocketship Public Schools prioritize implementing high quality and memorable experience for all of its students through its detailed values. It is likely that as the school system moves into the future, Rocketship Education’s scores, stories, and students will continue to defy the odds.



  1. My daughter goes to Rocketship United in Nashville and she loves it! Her teachers are dedicated and focused on their students. It’s so encouraging to see her growing in an environment where she is both challenged and lifted up.

  2. Great read! I think the quality of education is an important topic. Test scores, technology in schools, silence in class are all things to bring up for discussion. Kids all learn differently, so this is a challenging subject. I definitely feel like times have changed drastically since my kids were young and in school in the early 90s.


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