What’s Keeping Me Up At Night

By: Preston Smith
Recently, I was invited to speak at the Software and Information Industry Association’s Ed Tech Industry Summit in San Francisco. I was asked to share my thoughts as the CEO and co-founder of Rocketship Education about the biggest challenges facing Charter Management Organizations (CMOs)  and how ed tech providers can be part of the solution.
Rocketship currently serves over 3,800 Rocketeers across seven schools in San Jose and is the highest performing K-5 public charter school network in California serving low-income students.  In the fall of 2013, we’re expanding to Milwaukee, our first region outside California, as we work toward eliminating the achievement gap in this country within our lifetime.
I see CMOs and ed tech providers as powerful partners, especially as many of us are on the cutting edge in regards to flexible classrooms and blended learning.  CMOs are willing to share our models to help providers have a better understanding of how teachers leverage technology in a flexible classroom environment to meet the unique needs of every single student. If you collectively group high quality CMOs, we have the potential to be one of the largest school districts in the country within the next five years – and have the autonomy to grow and adapt quickly with the changing ed tech landscape.
Better Understanding of Schools by Ed Tech Providers
When Rocketship first started using technology in our schools, we believed that the content would eventually catch up with the implementation. Now we feel that the overall quality of the market is far from where it needs to be. The game is changing as classrooms are becoming more and more flexible –effective teachers are focusing on grouping, data, and objective assessment systems.  As a result, the content needs to be more flexible, giving teachers the ability to meet the needs of the right student with the right content, at the right time.
The key for ed tech companies in partnering with schools is the degree to which their programs can empower teachers, who are their primary customer.  Ed tech companies must deeply engage teachers in the design of their programs, continually incorporate their feedback, and should consider embedding staff in our schools for real-time observation of their products.
Much like the music industry has evolved from purchasing an entire album, to buying single songs on iTunes, to free streaming music online, ed tech providers must begin to think of the next step in their industry. This could mean moving away from pre-defined suites of content towards customizable options and the ability to pay per lesson.
CMOs Rethinking Teacher Training and Professional Development
Over the past few years, education has shifted dramatically due to both legislation and innovation, which has created opportunities for the ed tech industry to design better tools for educators.
As technology and education become more and more intertwined, schools can move towards an increasingly sophisticated approach to instruction– but only if our teachers are prepared to implement these new technologies and the proper content within a more flexible classroom environment.
CMOs must work with ed tech companies, schools of education, and within our own training programs to improve the approach to teacher training and professional development. With the integration of technology into the classroom, we need to provide more support to teachers as their roles evolve. The ability to focus more on critical thinking skills and higher level instruction and activities will be crucial skills for teachers to implement in the classroom of the future.
Teachers also have the ability to help both parents and students engage with ed tech products outside of the classroom, allowing learning to continue at home. With smartphones becoming almost as commonplace as television, parents and children (including low-income families) are connected to the internet in rapidly increasing numbers.  This allows schools serving all types of student populations to ensure they have input into the products that best meet the personalized needs of their students and the instructional needs and control of their teachers, while allowing ed tech companies to reach new consumers.
Technology has been a component of Rocketship’s model since our founding in 2006, and early on we became a leader in the blended learning space.  Yet, technology and education are never static, especially at Rocketship.  This year, we’ve piloted ways to better integrate technology into a flexible classroom space, in order to provide teachers with the resources and format that will best reach all their students’ learning needs. Our goal is to provide the right lesson to the right student at the right time.  Now, we hope ed tech companies will become stronger partners to help us achieve these goals and like us, will continue to innovate and evolve in this rapidly transforming landscape of education.
Preston Smith is co-founder and chief executive officer of Rocketship Education, the highest performing low-income school system in California.

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