Tim Dernlan was working toward a doctorate in education when a professor told his cohort, “We all know the system is broken. Stop talking about fixing it.” The implication was clear: The public school system is beyond repair. It’s time for a new one. Go forth and create it.
So I’m thinking back well over 25 years ago, when then-Gov. Mike Castle launched a public school reform program titled Delaware 2000. Since then, several local and federal reforms have come and many have gone: New Directions, Delaware Comprehensive Assessment System, No Child Left Behind, Vision 2012, Vision 2015 and, now, Race to the Top, the
Common Core Curriculum and Vision 2020. How many times do we have to do this?
I have to wonder if members of the Vision 2020 committee missed the irony of its new name, because if hindsight is perfectly clear, it is obvious our reforms have failed. And despite the great boon that was Race to the Top funding—$119 million—it seems we’re blind to some obvious successes.
As you’ll see in “From Tiny Acorns”, Dernlan’s Tall Oaks Classical School has hit upon something special—the so-called “trivium” of education born in Hellenic Greece. In a word, students are taught in a way that is most appropriate for their stage of psychological development. By leading them through the grammar, logic and rhetoric stages in language, the arts and humanities, math and science, Tall Oaks students encounter ideas that many others never hear about until they reach college. One result is that, a couple years ago, Tall Oaks scored the second-highest SAT scores in the state.
It’s hard to argue with that kind of success. So why don’t our policy makers look more closely at what happens there?
Tall Oaks is, in many ways, the antithesis of a traditional public school. Classes are small. Standards are high, students and teachers are expected to meet them, and there are strict penalties for failing to do so. The school is governed directly by its board and teachers are given great latitude in shaping the curriculum. Students are not taught to pass a test, but how to learn and how to think, which is far more liberating and empowering. And all of this happens at a cost of about $7,500 per student.
A traditional public school is characterized by large classes. Students and teachers are subject to the reform du jour. The schools are governed by a large, expensive administration. And academic performance, as measured by whatever test happens to be the standard of the moment, is still mediocre, despite average per-student spending of $14,700 in the same 2012-2013 school year that Tall Oaks rocked the SATs.
Is it a strictly fair comparison? Tall Oaks has no transportation costs. Tall Oaks does manage to keep its class size small. Tall Oaks doesn’t have to accept everyone who comes its way.
Tall Oaks still accepts students of all abilities. Its high minority population has closed the performance gap. And Tall Oaks seems to be better than the public schools at identifying and educating students with special needs. Those SAT scores are all the proof that should be needed. The classical model is so successful, Don Post recently left his position as Tall Oaks’ headmaster to run a similar school in Ghana, where the government is exploring it as the national model.
Classical education was the model of public American education until 125 years ago. I can’t help thinking that a return to some of its fundamentals—coupled with real local control, a right-sizing of state-level administration and help for those who want to send their child to any school they want, public or private—would be the greatest reforms we could make. Because for all our big talk of being unable to compete in a global marketplace, the real victims of a substandard school system are not our economy and our national pride, but our children.