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Silicon Valley Execs Funnel $3 million into Rocketship

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Students using computers at Rocketship's Learning Lab.

Silicon Valley executives -- CEOs and COOs of companies like Netflix, Facebook, and Skype -- have funneled $3 million to Rocketship Education this year that will be used to refine its sophisticated software system.

The money will be spent to improve four components of Rocketship's computer software: assessment of students, the way it generates learning plans that identify what students need to learn, a scheduler that uses the learning plan to choose from a bank of lessons that's best suited for each student, and a management system that keeps track of all that information.

With a more streamlined process, the aim is to lighten the load for teachers who have to analyze all the data for each student, and to have the software recommend better default learning plans that teachers can easily adjust for students, according to co-founder John Danner.

It's a software engineer's dream -- or nightmare -- however you look at it. Creating a system that takes into consideration 1,000 standards that students need to master from K-5, and lessons mapped to each of those objectives offered by dozens of different vendors.

"There's a lot of nuts and bolts work to just make it simple for a student to sit down, log in, and start working on the right lesson at the right time," Danner said.


Though it stands to be improved, so far the system seems to be working. According to Danner, 90 percent of students who are below grade level move up to basic proficiency or beyond within one year of entering a Rocketship school, Danner said. So far, there are three schools in San Jose with plans to add two more next year. Danner expects to grow the network across the country.

With its heavy emphasis on high tech engineering to resolve a lot of the logistical issues, support for Rocketship from Silicon Valley shouldn't come as a surprise -- and that's exactly Danner's goal.

"There’s a sense in Silicon Valley that there’s got to be more in the way that Silicon Valley solves problems that can be applied to education," he said. "Education has been this monolithic thing that's been left on its own, there hasn’t been a lot of innovation or significant disruptions. And without that, it doesn’t seem like we're going to get a public education system that’s the best in the world in the next 10 or 15 years, which is what we need to be competitive."

Rocketship straddles the line between Silicon Valley-style tech company and a traditional school organization, he said. "We're very humble about the fact that schools are hard to do, much harder than software companies," he said.

The appeal to donors comes from the fact that Rocketship approaches education with a tech company's perspective.

"And now Rocketship needs to deliver on that and show that we can develop a better system and reinvent the way a school works and scale it in a way that’s higher quality," he said.

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