Hard to reach for the stars when there's no fuel in the tank

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On my first day of teaching in a large urban high school, I was warned not to drink from the water fountains. "Lead," one of my colleagues told me. In a classroom with no A/C and a chalkboard covered in a yellowish film that literally repelled chalk, I was told to use a computer-based reading intervention for ninth-graders in need of remediation. I had no training in the program, the computer lab had only nine semi-functioning machines for my class of 20, and I only had half the time the designers of the intervention said was necessary for it to have any effect. Not surprisingly, I skipped using it altogether.

So you can imagine that the recent Washington Post story on Rocketship schools read like something out of a sci-fi novel. Up-to-date learning labs with workstations for every child, strong leadership that carefully structured the school day to get the most for students, and, most significantly, intensive professional development for teachers -- what planet was this?

At Rocketship, setting time aside for kids to work in learning labs means that schools have more money for growth, student support and higher teacher salaries. Obviously these schools, like others, need to be rigorously evaluated. But if the article is accurately describing how Rocketship works, then the strong academic results they report seem plausible.

It's hard to ignore my sense that the physical and managerial infrastructure of the school where I taught is a lot more common than what the bright and shiny Rocketships seem to have. I do want to believe in the promise of "flipped classrooms" and "blended learning." But the investment of time and money that it will take to bring these tech approaches up to real scale will dwarf what it took to put humans on the moon. Let's make sure that we put money into the basics -- selecting, training, and supporting our teachers -- at the same time as we're exploring the brave new world of ed tech.