What academic lessons will my child miss by not attending an excellent public school?

Comparing the academic programs at public schools with the learning that occurs at Acton Academy is like comparing apples to oranges – or even apples to ostriches. Let’s start right at the beginning: our mission at Acton compared to the objectives of most public schools.

Horace Mann, the father of public education in America, when asked about its goals replied: “Education is the great equalizer of the conditions of men – the balance wheel of the social machinery.” Since 1827, many public school administrators have sought to churn out “productive citizens,” as if their goal is to manufacture standardized employees to serve industry and government.

Jeff and I both received excellent public school educations. While there are examples of excellent public today, these are the exception and not the rule. 


In contrast, our mission at Acton is to equip and inspire independent learners, so they can discover personal callings that will change the world for the better. This mission is what drives our purpose-centered and individualized curriculum.

With the divergent goals in the spotlight, let’s ask the question again: What will my child miss by not attending an excellent public school?  

Your child will miss:

1)     Moving in lockstep with all the other children his or her own age, in particular moving uniformly through math, grammar, spelling, science and civics, regardless of ability and interest.

2)     Memorizing lists of information (multiplication tables, state capitals, periodic tables) for the sake of regurgitation on a standardized test.

3)     Being forced to read a long list of books, in a way that can curb curiosity and kill a passion for reading;

4)     Having worksheets and other homework assigned that takes away from family time;

5)     Seeing knowledge as information that must be categorized into subjects or silos.

Here are few examples:

Perfect grammar versus a love of writing:  At Acton, we care most about our children learning to love to write and finding their creative voices.  Yes, grammar and spelling matter, but once a student learns to think deeply and choose vivid words and write sentences that sing, grammar and spelling are relatively easy to master.  The reverse is not always true.

A lack of early emphasis on grammar and spelling can be a lightning rod for some parents. It is shocking to pick up a letter written by one of our children and see glaring mistakes in spelling or grammar. We all want the rules to be mastered and followed.  We all want proper spelling and punctuation.  But being a parent at Acton means learning to appreciate our children before we try to perfect them – to listen to their beautiful ideas and voices and celebrate that they love to write.  Mastery of grammar and spelling will follow soon enough.

Memorizing versus understanding:  Memorization is another major difference between Acton students and their peers at the public schools. Memorizing multiplication tables is just fine, but as a requisite, it just doesn’t necessarily lead to a love of mathematics.

Yes, we all memorized multiplication tables, and it is often helpful to have that information in your head. (A confession – we have multiplication flashcards at home too!) But at Acton, we care more about the “why” behind the calculation – and the hero who discovered a new mathematical insight – than memorization alone. Our Montessori manipulables at Acton are excellent tools for students to see and feel why math works before ever putting pencil to paper.

It is the same with the state capitals and U.S. presidents. Wonderful to memorize! Some students will choose to do so. Others don’t have a passion for it because they know in the 21st century they have the information at their fingertips – so they’d rather master critical thinking or a useful skill instead. 

Required reading lists versus a love of reading: The danger of required reading lists is that they can kill the love of reading. My stepdaughter can speak eloquently to that point. At Acton, we guide our students in their choices and let them experience what it feels like to lose yourself in a beloved book. So far, our community has a love for reading like no other school I have ever seen. (Parent note: One trick I have for satisfying my love of the classics is through nightly read alouds: from “Animal Farm” to “Anne of Green Gables” and “To Kill a Mockingbird,” we have cried and laughed through many books together as a family.)

Homework versus Quests: The only thing I’ll say about homework is this – school isn’t life. We want our students to live full lives spending time with family and friends and pursuing their own passions. They are in school eight hours each day. That is enough. Some of our students do choose to do their math and writing at home; and most do lots of evening reading. The choice to do so is empowering. The requirement is deflating.

Siloed subjects versus integrated learning: A final difference is that of categorical “Subjects.” Our curriculum will not have a “biology class” or an “English class.” This may be hard for parents to accept. It is comforting to see a textbook highlighted or a high score on a multiple choice test. But how often in life do you get to focus on just one topic and ignore the broader world? When you write your family budget or plan a trip or market a product or choreograph a ballet, aren’t you integrating knowledge at breakneck speed?

At Acton, our projects combine several “subjects” into an exciting quest or journey, with a clear and pressing problem to be solved. We will cycle through physics, engineering, economics, entrepreneurship, biology, earth science, chemistry, geography, government, history, art and more – many times throughout our elementary, middle school and high school years.   We just won’t do it in a standardized order, according to a state educational agency.

We believe “learning to do” multiple times, at different ages, encourages  deeper learning than one pass through a textbook. We also believe that learning must matter to our students on their hero’s journey, so they have a passion to master a skill or idea. As our students get older, they will go deeper into the particular areas in which they are passionate. Some may go deep into chemistry or physics; some into art history or economics. Our independent learners are equipped to make these choices, in a way that best suits their individual gifts.

In conclusion, please know that we are constantly reading through curricula documents from schools all over the world – public and private – searching for gaps and new approaches. We love stealing great ideas – and often we find them in public schools, like diamonds in the rough. We are grateful our hands are not tied by regulation and that we can create cutting edge challenges based on the best practices from schools and the real world.

Please bring your ideas to us. Pass along websites, links, projects and challenges. We want to be curators and co-creators with parents, so together we can savor every new discovery.  We want to feed our students the very best, nourishing experiences so they can fly.

I promise to keep you informed as we create new curriculum –  the why, how and what of it all. Up next: a detailed look at “learning science.”