“Real Gold Amid Fool’s Gold”

Chapter Two from Ted Dintersmith’s new book, What School Could Be includes what he describes as real gold amid the fool’s gold of American education. I hope you enjoy this excerpt from his book which is a must-read for anyone curious about what’s happening in teaching and learning across our country. From pages 35-37 he writes:

“With the motto ‘Find a calling, change the world,’ Jeff and Laura Sandefer founded Acton Academy in 2008, with a goal of creating a scalable twenty-first-century model to provide children with superior, affordable education. Not for a few cherry-picked kids but for all kids.  Acton challenges every core assumption of U.S. education, with far-reaching implications.

“Acton is loosely organized into elementary, middle, and high school clusters – although the concept of grades isn’t relevant at Acton.  They push the concept of student-driven learning and personal agency to the extreme.  Students set their own agenda, learn to access online resources, and manage their own progress.  The school has no teachers, just a few adult ‘guides’ who aren’t expected to be subject-matter experts or allowed to answer questions. When students need help, guides can only respond with relevant questions or suggested resources. Students organize their own Socratic seminars and create their ‘quests’ – meaningful projects taken on individually or in teams.

“For two hours, I observed two dozen eight- to eleven-year-olds immersed in their learning.  During this time, not one adult set foot in the classroom.  Let me say that again.  A group of young children were left alone in a classroom and spent two straight hours learning – on laptops, in small groups at a whiteboard, or in vibrant discussion groups.  At the end, I asked a few what they had been doing.  Their explanations invariably started with, ‘Well, I want to understand…’ or ‘The project I want to create is…’ These classes run themselves – organically, a bit chaotically, but purposefully.  Obviously, this isn’t the case instantly with new students, but Jeff explained that most students rise to this challenge within a couple of months.  How far does it go with Acton students? Unprompted at day’s end, kids divided into groups to perform chores, including cleaning the school’s bathrooms.

“Assessment isn’t swept under the rug at Acton schools.  They believe in public exhibitions, group presentations, and student self-assessment – calibrated by adult review.  Students update their progress on public charts.  Children told me exactly where they stood against goals, what was going well, and what needed work.  Mind you, I’m describing elementary school kids, not college students.  The school uses standardized tests sparingly as diagnostic checks at the beginning and end of each school year.  While tests aren’t a priority, rates of improvement on test scores outstrip those of conventional schools, even though many students start at Acton with a history of testing poorly. In the trade-off between depth and breadth of content coverage, Jeff observes,

‘When young people want to learn, they learn at a 10x rate.  So getting broad coverage isn’t an issue.  In Civilization, we make sure we touch all the important questions of history, economics, and politics, spread over time and many of the great heroes.  In Writing, we have a broad selection of genres – far, far broader than traditional schools.  The same for reading with Deep Books, life-changing books that usually have won a major prize or worldwide acclaim.  In Math, we use Khan Academy. And our Quests rotate through the major sciences with real, hands-on work – plus subjects that most young people aren’t exposed to until college or graduate school – like Big Data, Psychology, Physics, Negotiation, and Entrepreneurship.’

“The Sandefers aren’t thinking small.  From this flagship Austin school, Acton has spread to forty schools in thirteen states and seven countries. Currently, tuition is around $10,000, with many kids on scholarship.  Their medium-term plan is to bring tuition below $5,000/student.  As for what motivates them to take on this ambitious mission, Laura’s response speaks for so many:

‘The urgency I felt was very personal.  I saw the light going out in my children’s eyes when it came to school and learning. Jeff and I looked at each other and simply said, “No more. Let’s create our own model based on what we know deep in our hearts.” Today, the urgency is deeper because I see how desperately our world needs young people who know how to think deeply, communicate clearly, resolve conflict, and lead with empathy.  These are the important outcomes I witness in the learners at Acton Academy every day.  I truly am amazed by what young people – as young as six years old – can do when adults stop micromanaging them and give them space to think and grow.'”

We are but one story.  I could not be more grateful for Ted’s work in revealing the work of so many others across America. This is a time to be bold and optimistic. Onward!