A Rocketship lands in Barnet

December 2016
I do think we’re at a time, as a country, where this stuff really fits pretty well with economic crises … when you’re in a situation when you’re gonna be laying people off anyway, how do you make that as good as possible, and one of the ways is to have more of the work happening somewhere other than a classroom, through technology
                                                                                                                     John Danner

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The Blended Learning Academy

Two years ago, the DfE approved a proposal by Ark Schools to open four new schools.  One was an ‘all-through blended learning school with an emphasis on technology’ — the Ark Pioneer Academy.  The school will be built on an old football ground in Barnet, and is due to open in September 2018.

The school’s original name was, simply, the Blended Learning Academy.  Ark’s initial application to the DfE states:

Ark Blended Learning Academy will use blended learning, the combination of traditional class-room based teaching [sic] with online learning, to strengthen its proven academic model.

The job ad for the school’s principal defines blended learning as ‘a mix of traditional teaching and online learning, in an IT-rich environment’.

This new educational model is already in use at Ark’s King Solomon Academy, in Marylebone.  KSA, which serves an area with very high levels of child poverty, has been hailed as the ‘best non-selective school in England’ on the basis of its exam results.  In 2012, the school began a trial of blended or ‘personalised’ learning, called Project 24 (‘Delivering personalised learning in a Year 7 maths classroom’).  A number of staff travelled to the US to visit charter schools where ‘personalised learning’ was in operation.

Bruno Reddy, then head of maths at King Solomon and the leader of Project 24, described the trip in his blog.  One of the highlights was a visit to the ‘reknowned [sic] Rocketship schools’ — specifically, Rocketship’s Si Se Puede Academy in San Jose.

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‘Personalised learning’ in action at the Si Se Puede Academy in 2012, when the Ark Schools team visited  (image: PBS NewsHour)

It is no secret that Ark’s ‘school improvement model’ borrows heavily from US charter schools.  (Like English academies, charter schools are publicly funded but privately managed; unlike academies, some are run by directly profit-making businesses.)  The main model for Ark has been the KIPP chain (Knowledge is Power Programme).  As Paul Marshall, the hedge fund manager and chair of the Ark Schools, told an interviewer in 2011:  ‘We model ourselves on the American KIPP schools’.  KIPP is the source of the so-called ‘no excuses’ school model, which involves an extended school day and year, very strict control of students’ behaviour, and a relentless focus on improving test and exam results.

In many ways, Ark’s King Solomon Academy is a faithful imitation of a KIPP charter school.  In 2012, however, the ‘Project 24’ team turned for inspiration to a different chain:  Rocketship, a ‘not-for-profit corporation’ which runs a number of K—5 charter schools in California, Wisconsin, Tennessee and Washington D.C. (K—5: ages five to eleven).  The chain, ‘serving primarily low-income students’, is the chief pioneer of blended learning in the USA.  Other, bigger chains of charter schools, which are now jumping on the blended learning bandwagon, are basically using versions of the Rocketship model.

The aim of this article is to describe that model.  The main sources are: two reports from the Dell Foundation, one of the philanthropic foundations funding the growth of charter schools and blended learning (the reports can be found here and here); Richard Whitmire’s book On the Rocketship, an admiring account by a strong supporter of charter schools; a more critical report by the Economic Policy Institute, a US think tank; and some youtube clips of John Danner, the architect of Rocketship, explaining his ideas (they can be found here, here and here).


Disruptive innovations:  ‘no excuses’ comes to Silicon Valley

Where, the start-up guys ask, are the disruptive innovations that should have toppled outdated school models long ago?  The smart money in Silicon Valley bets on charter schools […]
                                                                                                                  Richard Whitmire

John Danner, the brains behind Rocketship, is a Silicon Valley entrepreneur.  He became a multi-millionaire in his early thirties when his internet advertising company was bought up by DoubleClick.  He then moved into the charter school business.  After a brief spell heading a KIPP school in Nashville, he set up Rocketship Education with Preston Smith, a fellow Teach for America trainee, in 2006.

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Danner’s plan for Rocketship was to ‘make something that’s KIPP-like in terms of results’.  He and Preston Smith copied many features of the KIPP model:  an extended school day and year, a drastic narrowing of the curriculum in order to focus on literacy and maths, and a ‘data-driven’ approach geared to driving up students’ test scores.  In 2012, the young Rocketeers had an 8.00 a.m. to 4.00 p.m. day.  This was divided into two 100-minute blocks of literacy instruction, one 100-minute block of maths, and a further 100 minutes in the ‘learning lab’ (more about this later). There was no provision for art, music or PE.

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                                                     Rocketship school day in 2011

The current curriculum seems to be slightly broader, including science, social studies and art as well as maths and reading.  But science is ‘embedded’ in maths, and social studies and art are ‘embedded’ in literacy instruction.  50 per cent of teachers’ pay is tied to their students’ scores in maths and reading tests.

Rocketship’s first school, Mateo Sheedy Elementary, opened in a poor neighbourhood of San Jose in 2007.  The pupils were mainly Latino, the children of first-generation immigrants (in 2012, 85 per cent of Rocketship students were entitled to free or reduced lunches, and 70 per cent were English Language Learners).  Danner’s and Smith’s ‘KIPP-like’ methods, however, were successful in boosting the students’ scores in the state tests in maths and reading.  To use the rhetoric of the US school reform movement, Rocketship was ‘closing the achievement gap’ — the gap, that is, between the performance of ‘low-income’ children in standardised state tests and that of their more privileged peers.


The ‘stripped-down efficiency model’

On the basis of its initial success in ‘accelerating’ student test performance, Rocketship grew rapidly.  By 2012, the company had seven schools in the Bay Area.  Expansion was fuelled by a $5 million grant from Reed Hastings, the founder and CEO of Netflix, and the Charter School Growth Fund, a ‘non-profit venture capital firm’.

But Danner’s growth plan was very ambitious: a million students by 2030.  And he aimed to achieve ‘scalability’ – to use the Silicon Valley jargon – without regular injections of philanthropic cash.  The plan was to generate sufficient savings from the running of each school to make the growth of the chain self-propelling.  Given that state funding of education in California is the fourth-lowest in the USA, this called for a highly cost-efficient operation – what Rocketship’s former chief schools officer describes as the ‘stripped-down efficiency model’.

Rocketship’s first school, Mateo Sheedy, started in a rented Methodist church, where, as Richard Whitmire notes, ‘the “playground” was just a blacktop parking lot next to the kindergarten room’.  As the chain grew, schools ‘got built on tiny parcels of land, using inexpensive modular construction’.  On average, US elementary schools have six- to eight-acre sites.  Danner challenged his contractors to come up with a prefabricated school building that would occupy no more than a quarter-acre.

But the real savings had to be made elsewhere – in the wage costs that typically make up around 80 per cent of a school’s expenditure.  To realise his growth plan, Danner had to find a way to combine ‘accelerated’ test scores with a massive reduction in staffing costs.


Kids right out of college

‘A kindergartner whose uniform pants were falling down was told to “dress for success”…’

To staff its schools, Rocketship relies on Teach for America recruits.  These are recent graduates who have committed themselves to two years of teaching; they form a significant part of the workforce of charter schools.  Their training consists of a five-week summer camp.  Danner and Preston Smith, who had both come to teaching via TFA, regarded the organisation as ‘an incredible recruiting and selection company’.  In 2012, 75 per cent of Rocketship teachers were either TFA trainees or recent ‘alumni’.

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This means that a high staff turnover is built into the Rocketship model, since few TFA teachers stay in the classroom for more than two years.  According to Gordon Lafer’s report for the Economic Policy Institute, the average rate of turnover at Rocketship schools in 2012-13 was 29 per cent.  Rocketship’s Si Se Puede Academy lost 37 per cent of its teachers in the year that Bruno Reddy and other Ark staff visited.

Very unusually for elementary school teachers, Rocketship staff are ‘subject specialists’. This means that they teach either maths or literacy:  two blocks of literacy instruction per day, or four blocks of maths (by 2013, instruction in both subjects had been totally standardised).  This is one way of managing a young, minimally-trained, and high-turnover workforce.  But, as a Rocketship teacher points out, ‘building relationships with 60 or 120 elementary students and their families, as well as maintaining classroom culture throughout the day, is difficult’.

Teachers are given ‘rigorous support’ by managers known as ‘academic deans’.  These are ‘master teachers’ – in other words, people with two or three years’ experience of the Rocketship model – who work with new staff to ‘improve their instructional practice’.  Coaching can take place in real time, with an academic dean instructing a new teacher from the back of the class via a wireless headset (for a first-hand account of this kind of training, which is surprisingly common in charter schools, see here).

Young, inexperienced trainees – ‘a lot of kids right out of college’, in Danner’s words – are not likely to question the model imposed by Rocketship’s management.  The result is that teaching is degraded into training for standardised tests.  A Rocketship teacher explains to Richard Whitmire how she cultivates ‘critical thinking’ in her pupils:

In order to connect testing to students’ lives, we think about critical thinking within test taking:  this question is trying to trick me in this way….This answer is wrong because of this.

A journalist’s description of her visit to Rocketship’s Fuerza Community Prep, in 2015, shows how far Danner’s and Smith’s schools ‘disrupt’ the 20th century model of primary education:

its brightly-lit classrooms [are] almost entirely devoid of the low-tech educational toys of other elementary schools. On a recent visit, there were no pretend kitchens, boxes of wooden blocks, or easels to be seen  […]  Students were often spoken to using language more common in corporate offices than elementary schools. A kindergartner whose uniform pants were falling down was told to ‘dress for success’, and administrator boasted that a first-grade teacher ‘was maniacal about not wasting time’ with her young charges

Kids right out of college can also identify with ‘KIPP-like’ systems of behaviour control which – to an older generation of teachers, at least – seem close to child abuse.  Rocketship’s ‘Zone Zero’ policy requires total silence in the learning labs (see below), during transitions, and even during parts of the lunch break.

Zone Zero

                           ‘Zone Zero’ at Rocketship Discovery Prep (image: vimeo)

But none of this – schools without adequate space or facilities, teachers without experience or proper training, the relentless focus on test scores, the demand for ‘100 per cent compliance’ from both pupils and staff – was particularly new or innovative, even in 2007.  This culture is common to ‘no excuses’ charter schools.  In these chain schools, as in English ‘system leader trusts’ like Ark or Harris, educational aims and principles are replaced by the single goal of ‘improving student achievement’ – in other words, achieving higher test scores.  To quote the Director of Pedagogy at another ‘high-performing’ charter chain, Success Academy, the aim is to turn children into ‘little test-taking machines’.

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What was truly ‘innovative’ about Rocketship was something else:  the use of information technology.


In the learning lab

‘this is an industry where technology and the use of technology has been possibly the worst of any industry in the world’
                                                                               John Danner


All Rocketeers, including kindergartners, spend 100 minutes each day in the learning lab. The children ‘rotate’ from their classrooms into something like a miniature call centre.  There they work on computers, individually and in silence, using programs supplied by commercial vendors – principally DreamBox and ST Math, for maths, and i-Ready for reading.  According to John Danner, this was ‘to allow kids to practice and do things in an individualised manner, without the need for a teacher’.

The Dell Foundation reports give a detailed picture of the labs (this news clip from 2014 is also worth watching).  Each one accommodates around 100 pupils.  In order to maintain a ‘productive learning culture’, the children sit in separate ‘carrels’, with ‘cardboard or wood dividers on either side to prevent interactions’.  They are expected to maintain ‘college library quiet’, using ‘different coloured popsicle sticks’ to signal silently to adult supervisors.


                                Rocketship Discovery prep (image: PBS NewsHour)

A lot of time is spent training the children to ‘rotate’ from the classroom to the lab and back again.  As one of the Dell reports notes:  ‘students were expected to transition in and out of the lab quietly and begin work immediately on the online software programs, without interacting with other students’.  A clip of Rocketship staff managing the transition can be seen here; the children are told to keep ‘eyes forward’ and to ‘bubble’ their mouths to enforce silence (a common technique in ‘no excuses’ charter schools).

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                                                                  ‘Lab rotation’


If the machine doubts, it loops back…

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When Danner and Smith began to look for ‘online learning programs’ to use in the learning lab, they ran into a problem:  most educational software is still designed on the assumption that a teacher is present to help students in difficulties.  This was no use to Rocketship.  As Danner told Whitmire:

We were looking for a very specific thing, a piece of software that would work for fifty or one hundred kids in a computer lab, so that when they get confused they didn’t have to raise their hands and ask for help from an adult, because with that many kids having an adult remediate all the problems just didn’t work

The solution, at least as far as maths was concerned, seemed to be a firm called DreamBox Learning.  Their software is ‘adaptive’ – another key word in the marketing of computer-based instruction.  The company’s chief programmer explains:

We have deeply integrated assessment into learning.  We’re constantly asking, ‘Does the kid really know the stuff we’re teaching?’  If the machine doubts that, it loops back and gives a refresher…

To quote from the DreamBox website: ‘the product’s patent-pending “engine” constantly assesses each student’s mathematical understanding’.  In other words, students are continuously tested.  Every task ends in a test – usually a series of multiple choice questions – which must be completed before the student can move on to the next task (and test).  If the student passes, she is automatically presented with a more difficult task; if she fails, she re-takes the original test after automated ‘hints and encouragement’ – or she is given an easier task.  The target market is five- to eight-year-olds.


Soon after Danner and Smith opted to go with DreamBox, Reed Hastings – CEO of Netflix, and Danner’s mentor – bought the company, in partnership with the ‘non-profit’ Charter Schools Growth Fund.  Hastings apparently saw no conflict of interest in simultaneously sitting on the boards of both DreamBox, a for-profit company, and Rocketship, a ‘not-for-profit corporation’ providing a test bed for DreamBox’s product development.


A heck of a lot less expensive

While in the learning lab, the pupils are supervised by Individualised Learning Specialists.  These are hourly-paid ‘paraprofessionals’ with no teaching qualifications (Danner: ‘a high school degree but not a lot more than that’).  Their job is to monitor the children, and to ‘assist struggling students on computer programs’.

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                   An Individualised Learning Specialist in the learning lab at Discovery Prep

They are also responsible for tutoring students, individually or in small groups.  In their role as tutors, the Individualised Learning Specialists literally work from a script – a ‘scripted tutoring curriculum’ prepared by Rocketship’s central office.  As Danner explains:

you’ve got $10 an hour, $15 an hour people working there, who are overjoyed to have the job […] they’re not offended by the idea that they’ve got a script – and they’re a heck of a lot less expensive than a teacher

Another part of an Individualised Learning Specialist’s job description is to ‘interpret and manage online student data generated by multiple educational software platforms’.  Computer-based instruction produces a lot of data.  As we have seen, ‘adaptive’ software is designed to test students more or less continuously (this is what the promoters of blended learning – and the companies selling the software – call ‘formative assessment’).  The test results are relayed, in real time, to ‘data dashboards’ on the adults’ computers.

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As Bruno Reddy notes, the stream of data can be ‘overwhelming’, and the ‘coaches’ in the learning lab may themselves need ‘coaching and support for data interpretation’.  At Rocketship, the Individualised Learning Specialists are overseen by assistant principals, who are also monitoring ‘student productivity data’ on their own computers, and giving instructions via headsets.

Ideally, the data from the children’s computers allows underperformers to be rapidly ‘targeted for intervention’, as a Washington Post journalist observed:

Ebony-Princess Cutts thumbed through a stack of printouts as first graders clicked away at their computer stations. Cutts […] earns about $14 an hour with benefits.  “This tells me that he’s struggling,” she said, referring to a chubby boy sitting at the end of a row of computers, his small ears swallowed by big blue headphones. “I wouldn’t ordinarily notice because he’s quiet and he looks like he’s engaged.”

In the same year, Reddy and the other Ark staff found the work of the Individualised Learning Specialists at Rocketship’s Si Se Puede Academy to be ‘very impressive’.

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                                          (Image:  Martin E. Klimek / USA Today)



25 per cent of staffing costs

It was this ‘hybrid school model’ that allowed Danner and Preston Smith to achieve the savings which were essential to their growth plan.  As Danner told an audience of potential donors in Denver in 2010:  ‘You basically save 25 per cent of your staffing costs’.  A typical US elementary school has around 600 pupils, and 21 teachers.  The learning labs and the ‘rotation model’ allowed Rocketship to cut this number to 16, while fudging the issue of increased student-teacher ratios.  As even Richard Whitmire, a big fan, admits: ‘class sizes were “small” only because so many students were rotating out of the classroom and into the learning lab’.  He notes that one school, Rocketship Mosaic Elementary, was serving 630 students with only 16 teachers, plus the hourly-paid assistants.

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                        Rocketship Mosaic Elementary  (image: PBS NewsHour)

The money saved – around $500,000 per school per year – is used to drive expansion.  As Danner puts it:  ‘We can buy land, build buildings, and start schools without raising additional philanthropy’.  In a nutshell: ‘The fewer teachers per school, the more schools you can start’.

And Danner is bullish about the future possibilities of online instruction.  In 2012, he told the Washington Post that, as the software improved, students could spend as much as 50 per cent of the school day engaged in individual work on computers.  He had the same message for the donors in Denver:

This is the real pie-in-the-sky – five, ten years from now.  You can imagine moving to a world where you’re splitting your day between basic skills and thinking skills, and you’re spending half your time online and half your time classroom – four hours of each, for us.  This gets very compelling … You save about a million dollars a year, you only need 10 teachers 

                                                                   (Image: PBS NewsHour)


The flex model

By 2012, Rocketship were ready to expand the Bay Area chain to twenty schools – and also to open their first out-of-state school, in Milwaukee.  Then they hit a bump.  The chief financial officer had been looking at the figures, and he had bad news for Danner:  ‘The formula we used to finance schools one through eight won’t work for schools eight through twenty’.  A significantly higher return on investment was needed.

So, just a few months into the school year, Danner initiated a ‘model change’.  The learning labs were scrapped.  Rotation from classroom to lab was replaced by the ‘flex model’.  This involved knocking down walls, and putting 100 children into a single room full of computers – a ‘flexible space’ – where they were supervised by only two qualified teachers.  According to Rocketship board documents, the new student-to-teacher ratio would generate an additional $230,000 of net income from each school.

But the experiment was not a success.  Rocketship’s own report on the ‘model change’ notes that ‘relationships and individual student accountability’ suffered.  To make the flex model work, it would be necessary to hire more ‘hourly “flex” staff’ – when the point of the exercise had been to cut costs even further.  Rocketship reverted to the ‘rotation model’ and reinstated the learning labs, while introducing computers – in the form of Google Chromebooks – into every classroom.  The company’s growth plan was scaled back.

Danner left Rocketship early in 2013.  He is now CEO of a for-profit business called Zeal Learning.  In 2014, the company launched ‘an adaptive Common Core practice app with game-like features’.  The first charter chain to partner with Zeal was — you guessed it — Rocketship Education.


Charter schools ‘go blended’

The big chains of charter schools are now rushing to adopt versions of Danner’s model.  As one ed tech booster put it in 2013:  ‘no-excuses charter networks across the United States are experimenting more and more with blended learning in various forms’.  This includes the KIPP chain, the originator of the ‘no excuses’ model so widely imitated both in the USA and in England.  KIPP’s first ‘blended’ school, the KIPP Empower Academy in Los Angeles, opened in 2010.  Others have followed.


                                                     KIPP Austin Obras, Texas



           KIPP Washington Heights Middle School, New York City (image: Gail Robinson)


Ark gets on the Rocketship

And, here in England, Ark Schools is following suit.  As we have seen, blended learning has been trialled at Ark’s King Solomon Academy in London.  And computer-based instruction in literacy now seems to be a permanent part of KSA’s timetable.  According to the school website:

From Year 4 and up, children receive a 1h 45 minute literacy lesson based on the Blended Learning model. This ‘blends’ children’s learning through teacher lead activities [sic] and software activities.

All students are given Google Chromebooks in Year 5.  The hope is ‘to have a device for every child at primary so that we can further drive innovation and personalised learning’.  In planning to issue all primary school children with laptops, King Solomon is following the lead of US charter schools, which have extended computer-based instruction not only to kindergartners, but even to pre-kindergartners (i.e. four-year-olds).


                                     Cornerstone charter school, Detroit  (image: youtube)

As we have seen, ‘personalised’ is a key word in the marketing of blended learning.  Ark’s plan for the Pioneer Academy ‘involves leveraging IT to afford each student a more personalised learning experience’.  The new academy will use a version of Rocketship’s ‘classroom rotation model’ for English, maths and science.  The application to the DfE suggests that Ark are sticking closely to the blueprint:  students will learn from ‘online content / software’, which ‘frequently adapts to [their] level’, while receiving ‘instruction and input from the teaching assistant’.  Apparently, this will help them to become ‘independent thinkers who take ownership for [sic] their learning’.

The job ad for the Pioneer Academy’s founding principal notes that the rotation model is ‘one of four models: Rotation, Flex, A La Carte, and Enriched Virtual’. The rotation model itself includes four ‘sub-models’.  If you’re wondering where all this jargon comes from — well, large chunks of it are literally cut and pasted from the website of a San Francisco-based think tank, the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation.

The Rotation model includes four sub-models: Station Rotation, Lab Rotation, Flipped Classroom, and Individual Rotation. This taxonomy will evolve as the practice of blended learning matures.  (Institute for Disruptive Innovation website)

The Rotation model includes four sub-models: Station Rotation, Lab Rotation, Flipped Classroom, and Individual Rotation. This taxonomy will evolve as the practice of blended learning matures.  (job ad for the founding principal of Ark Pioneer Academy)


Improving efficiency

The question is, how efficient should you be when you’re dealing with little human beings?
                                                       Kate Mehr, former chief schools officer at Rocketship

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Clayton Christensen is a professor of business administration at Harvard, and ‘the World’s Most Influential Business Management Thinker’.  The author of Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns, he has emerged as the guru of blended learning, which is heavily promoted by his think tank.

Christensen is surprisingly upfront about the impact of computer-based instruction on student-teacher ratios.  A 2011 paper from the Institute notes that ‘schools can leverage technology to create radically different staffing structures that increase school-wide student-teacher ratios’.  Ed tech will play a big part in ‘eradicating rules that restrict class size and student-teacher ratios’.

Announcing its plan for a Blended Learning Academy, Ark told the TES, rather more coyly, that the model offers ‘an opportunity for revised teacher roles’.  (The Daily Mail was less cautious; its story about the Pioneer Academy was gleefully headlined ‘Computers Replace Teachers’.)

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Christensen argues that ‘computer-based learning on a large scale is less expensive than the current labour-intensive system, and could solve the financial dilemmas facing public schools’.  Similarly, Ark hopes that blended learning will ‘improve cost efficiency through both staffing and school design efficiencies’.

It will also, of course, open a huge new market for tech companies, and for venture capital firms specialising in ed tech.   One such firm is Ed-Mentor LLC.  It was set up in 2012 by Ron Beller and Jennifer Moses, two financiers who have been closely associated with Ark since the beginning.  Beller and Moses now live in San Francisco, where they are building up a chain of blended learning schools — and Ed-Mentor.  But they remain the chair and vice-chair, respectively, of the local governing body of the King Solomon Academy, which they founded in 2007.

During their fact-finding trip in 2012, Bruno Reddy and the other KSA staff also visited the Arthur Ashe Charter School in New Orleans, part of the FirstLine chain.  FirstLine began to adopt blended learning in 2011.  Interestingly, the chain’s CEO, Jay Altman, was Ark Schools’ first Director of Education, from 2005 until 2008.  For Bruno Reddy, one key ‘takeaway’ from the visit to New Orleans was that the new model needs to be marketed carefully:  ‘All communication to stakeholders should be about personalisation, not the technology’.  Reddy, a Teach First trainee and ‘Google certified teacher’, has now left the classroom to start his own consultancy business.


A kindergartner engaged in ‘personalised learning’ at a FirstLine charter school in New Orleans