Rocketship’s Preston Smith on Investing in the Art of Teaching

By: Preston Smith
As a former teacher, I completely understand the value of professional development. In my first year of teaching, my district strictly followed a scripted language arts curriculum, yet I knew it would take more than a binder full of generic tools to help me become an excellent teacher. I quickly realized that I wouldn’t get the support I needed from my district to do this, so I sought out resources—on my own—that transformed my teaching, and consequently the outcomes for my students.
It soon became clear to me that teaching was an art, not a pre-programmed set of lesson plans. I also realized that in such a complex profession, with outcomes that are integral to our students’ success in life, that teaching must constantly evolve, continuously be refined and improved, and reflect the different kids you have each year…and that isolating myself in my classroom wouldn’t help me get better at my craft.
Consequently, when I co-founded Rocketship Education, I was driven to create professional development that looked stunningly different at our schools. We would honor our profession of teaching by deeply investing in our staff, the foundation of our Rocketeers’ success, which would improve their daily experience at school. Professional development at Rocketship would be a purposeful, intense and data-driven process focused on improving and refining the art of teaching. It would be a compilation both of best practices gained over generations of instruction and cutting-edge methods from within our profession and other industries, and would be incorporated throughout the school year.
As a result, Rocketship teachers receive an average of 250-300 hours of professional development each year. This is five to six times the average 49 hours that researchers describe as “well-designed professional development” and claim can increase student achievement by as much as 21 percent. Our teachers’ professional development is customized to what they do and the students they serve, but also provide all teachers with the critical skills to appropriately manage, share and interpret data with one another.
Educator Susan Lucille Davis calls for professional development to be “empowered, self-directed learning to reach professional standards and goals teachers embrace as their own.” This is exactly how we view and design professional development at Rocketship.
For instance, all Rocketship teachers receive training in the online programs that their students will use, as well as in Schoolzilla, our new data management platform, and Illuminate, our new formative assessment tool. Time is also spent on data analysis, real-time coaching, co-teaching with school leaders, collaborating with our Individualized Learning Specialists and special education teachers, and integrating our online programs into instruction.
Each year, our professional development is informed by our data and assessments from the previous year, feedback from our teachers, and trends and best practices we have seen across the country. Recently, we’ve also been looking ahead at ways to start incorporating Common Core State Standards into our curriculum. All this information helps us determine our organizational priorities for the year.
For the 2013-14 school year, we will focus on excellent literacy instruction across all our schools. Within this priority area, professional development is personalized by each school leader for their teaching staff. For example, Rocketship Alma Academy in San Jose will concentrate on the writing process, from brainstorming to publishing. This differs by grade level, so where kindergartners will work on learning to write narrative paragraphs, fourth graders will strive to master informational essays.
Professional development is also a time for self-reflection. When we see that our Rocketeers are not achieving at the levels that we expect (or still have room to grow), we determine what we must do to further support our teachers in order to reach those goals. However, we do not use student performance data to “vilify” teachers; instead, we use data as an opportunity to hold ourselves accountable within a supportive community. This allows us to adapt and personalize our approach to coaching and developing our teachers, to ensure they can be as successful with their students as possible.
We already know, from being a leader in blended learning, that our model serves students well, but we also believe it can improve the teaching profession. Our model is not only revolutionizing instruction; it’s also transforming teacher collaboration and professional development. For instance, our incredible teachers who will be working together in the fourth/fifth grade flexible classroom space will have time during each school day this year to collaborate as an entire grade level team. This may sound simple, but providing grade level teams with the daily opportunity for structured collaboration during the school day is a rarity in elementary schools.
We were excited to kick off another school year this past Monday, Aug.19, when we welcomed over 5,000 Rocketeers to eight schools in San Jose and our first school in Milwaukee. Our mission is to eliminate the achievement gap in the U.S. and as we continue to improve our student outcomes, we will continue to grow to bring high-quality education options to communities across the country. With our ambitious goals, we know that our teachers are the foundation of our movement and are proud to invest deeply in their professional learning and development.
We must continue to innovate in this critical area and demonstrate what it takes to ensure that every teacher can succeed and transform the lives of their kids while also being a reflective organization, knowing that we still have plenty of opportunities to make professional development even better. Teaching is a relentless craft that can quickly consume individuals who are not supported. Like with art, you can color in the lines and copy pictures, or you can learn the foundational techniques you need to create your own masterpieces. At Rocketship, we’re investing in our teachers and school leaders so that they can continue to grow into the master artists that our Rocketeers deserve.
0 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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