Sara Gardner’s voice breaks and she covers her face briefly before composing herself. Gardner, a mom of twin boys entering middle school and a girl preparing for first grade, apologizes as she recounts the day she visited American Preparatory Academy’s founding campus in Draper, Utah. “I’m sorry, it’s really emotional for me. My boys were in second grade at the time, and I toured a second-grade classroom. When I walked in I nearly just wept, because it was exactly what I had wanted for my boys. They were orally diagramming sentences, and the kids were excited. They weren’t just moaning the words. They were animated, they were engaged—and that’s something that had been missing in my boys’ education from Day One.”
Frustration with Nevada’s education system, which ranked 50th in last year’s much-publicized Education Week “Quality Counts” report, is so widespread it barely merits mentioning, except when it’s your kids who are suffering. And to be fair, Gardner’s desperation is hardly a Nevada-only phenomenon. A Pew study published last year found that two-thirds of Americans feel the nation’s education system was either in need of a major overhaul or needed to be rebuilt entirely.
Like many states, one of the ways Nevada is attempting to tackle the problem is through the development and funding of charter schools. The state has 34 of them, 18 in the Las Vegas area, with six more—including the Utah-based American Preparatory Academy—planned to open in the Valley this fall.
It will be American Preparatory’s first campus here, and, though its permanent home is still a vacant lot near Interstate 215 and Durango Drive, Gardner and the parents of 400 other K-9 students are pinning their hopes on it. The school—housed at 6000 W. Oakey Boulevard until the new building is ready in 2015—has a unique, old-school approach, stressing sequence, order and scripting. It’s radically different from what you will find in most Clark County School District classrooms—and it’s on the front lines of a pedagogical shadow war being waged out of sight of most parents.
In 1996, Carolyn Sharette—a mother of seven who holds a bachelor’s degree in nursing from BYU and has worked as an RN in maternal health and psychiatry—was becoming increasingly frustrated with her children’s education in Highlands Ranch, Colorado. She found that her children in different grades were coming home and telling her they were reading the same book and doing the same projects. There was little communication between teachers about the curriculum, and the principal didn’t seem to care about this disorganization or that the children were repeating the same material.
“I started asking questions and became more and more alarmed at the structure of public education,” Sharette says. “Simple things, like I would ask a teacher how well my child was doing in reading, and they would give me a very nondescript answer. They would say, ‘Oh fine,’ or ‘He is reading as well as we’d expect a first-grader to read.’ There was no structure, no sequence as to what the students would be learning each year. It [was] really based on what the teachers wanted to teach. I couldn’t believe an industry that operated with such disorganization on such a wide scale could ever be successful.”
And so Sharette decided to organize. After researching the top performing schools in Colorado and a wide range of methodologies, she found that the best schools had clear, data-driven goals and focused instruction. “These were successful schools performing in the top 1 percent in the nation. It’s not rocket science; everyone should be doing this.”
When her family moved to Utah in 2001, Sharette decided the kids needed to have “a school that made sense.” So she got to work creating one. She is now the executive director of six American Preparatory Academy campuses—five in the Salt Lake City area and one in Zambia.
“I took everything I had learned and created the APA model based on classical education; we do everything, including music, art, humanities, English, STEM [science, technology, engineering and math], and we do all of it to a high level of excellence.”
The school’s philosophy, Sharette says, is based on classical education, the roots of which go back to the Ancient Greek trivium of knowledge—grammar, logic, rhetoric. Each third of the trivium represents a different phase of learning. In the grammar phase, students develop fundamental knowledge in the form of discrete facts (think multiplication tables, spelling, sentence diagramming). Next comes the logic phase, when they develop the ability to make linkages between those discrete facts. Finally, there’s the rhetoric stage—the ability to create new ideas and arguments based on those facts and linkages.
Children in kindergarten through second grade spend roughly 70 percent of their time in the grammar, or fundamental knowledge, phase, Sharette says. By the time they are seniors in high school, this basic knowledge instruction will take just 40 percent of their time. Synthetic and creative work becomes more important and is given more emphasis as students progress.
To deliver this curriculum, APA uses a rigidly structured, teacher-directed instructional model loosely grouped under the umbrella term “direct instruction” that emphasizes clearly defined roles. Teachers deliver standardized lessons using finely scripted plans constructed for them by an in-house curriculum development team that uses Saxon Math, Core Knowledge and Shurley English, all widely marketed programs that emphasize drill and repetition. The structure is further enforced through a classroom management system that explicitly states that during instruction, students will “look at the teacher or book,” “follow instructions immediately,” and will not converse, ask questions or move.
Sharette explains what the APA program looks like on a daily basis: “Our students wear uniforms, and by fourth grade they are quite formal; the boys and girls wear ties, and this is purposeful, because we want them to understand that this is their job. We emphasize how much better adults treat them when they dress for success. Our students all wear name tags as well, because we teach them that they represent themselves, their family names and their school names. Wherever they are, they are representatives and ambassadors. Desks are in columns and rows. We don’t do social seating where kids sit in groups and teach each other.”
While “classical” and “direct instruction” may conjure images of school marms and ruler-rapped knuckles, Sharette is quick to point out that much has changed. Modern direct instruction is a classroom defined by constant teacher-student interaction, calling out for group and individual responses, and repetition. “Our classrooms are lively, and a little bit noisy, but it is all managed noise and they are giving cheers when good things happen, which is probably every few minutes. They’re doing rhymes and chants in the young grades so that memorizing things is easier.”
As you might expect, not everybody is on board with direct instruction. Public schools tend to emphasize “constructivist,” inquiry-based educational theory, which argues that students learn best when they are free to explore ideas. Teachers are facilitators and provide a general framework for student inquiry. Students work in groups, often using the “social seating” that Sharette rejects, and explore how best to approach problems. Students also often teach each other in peer groups, another nonstarter for APA. Supporters of inquiry-based pedagogy—perhaps most famously and broadly articulated and championed by Maria Montessori—argue that it produces innovators and fosters creativity.
One of the difficulties direct instruction encounters is the impression that it is synonymous with lecture instruction. Critics often refer to it as “drill and kill” linked to “teaching to the test” and intimate that students are just memorizing and regurgitating facts rather than truly engaging the material.
Advocates of direct instruction agree that peer-group problem-solving is important at the appropriate developmental level, but criticize its inclusion in the early stages of development. Sharette says that critical thinking and group problem-solving are important, but “if you miss [the grammar and logic] stages, you can’t be a critical thinker, so it is very silly to be thinking that first-graders need to be critically thinking most of the day.”
Critics also question the emphasis of Western ideals at schools such as American Preparatory. Over the last 60 years, schools have moved away from teaching literature and language that bear the musty whiff of “dead white men” and toward curricula that include a balance of global traditions and cultures. Latin, for instance, has long since been lost in secondary schools, but the American Preparatory Academy requires junior high students to complete “two years of Latin language and culture.” While some might see this as a key, together with context, to decoding unfamiliar words, others might view it as an encroachment of Western bias and implied superiority: a hint of Empire and close-mindedness on the rise.
Sharette says that arguments against classical education and direct instruction are red herrings that distract from public education’s fundamental problems. “The resistance and opposition is not coming from parents; the resistance comes from the education industry,” she says. “They are anti-structure and anti-direct instruction because they feel like it puts too much pressure on their teachers. As a result, there are very low standards of accountability, and we can’t afford to maintain that. It is coming from our colleges of education, which actually don’t teach elementary teachers about direct instruction, which is malfeasance in my opinion, because that is the developmentally appropriate way to teach kids of that age. Because they have been philosophically turned against it.”
Some might argue that No Child Left Behind and the Common Core try to address these shortcomings, but both approaches attempt to raise standards by emphasizing what students need to learn and the way they will be assessed, but do not specify how they will be taught.
And, says Dr. Kim Metcalf, dean of UNLV’s College of Education, “direct instruction is, in fact, explicitly taught [at UNLV]. It just isn’t the only pedagogical approach that our students are exposed to. Different subjects, different students and different learning objectives are each most effectively addressed using different pedagogies.”
Metcalf says studies have found that direct instruction was “more effective when standardized-test-score results were used as the outcome measure.” But while it can be particularly effective in the early stages of concept learning, he says, research has shown that students learn most when teachers use a variety of approaches.
The school district allows such variety, says Nevada State Education Association President Ruben Murillo. “We aren’t opposed to being structured and accountable,” he says. “But we do want to provide children with a flexible teaching style. Because not all children learn the same.”
American Preparatory’s first school opened in the relatively affluent Salt Lake City suburb of Draper in 2003, and the Utah State Office of Education gives the campus an overall school performance score 15 percent above the state average and roughly 7 percent higher than comparable public schools in its immediate vicinity.
But Sharette wanted to prove that the school’s model is portable to all demographics, so she “picked the toughest demographic we could find in Utah”: West Valley, another Salt Lake suburb but one with a median household income of $54,000 and with 34 percent of families speaking a language other than English at home. “American Preparatory isn’t about elitism,” she says. “It isn’t about rich white kids in the suburbs. A strong academic model works for all kids—most especially ESL kids, who need that extra repetition in the early stages, because that is what direct instruction provides.”
The West Valley campus scores 10 percent below the state average, and an average of 5 percent above its public school neighbors.
It is clear that trivium delivered through direct instruction is a valid educational approach: Students do learn. Plus, it looks good because it is ordered, straightforward, clear-eyed and operated with the zeal and passion of true believers. And it has a “getting back to basics” rhetorical appeal.
Could direct instruction become a broad answer for Nevada as the state tries to climb out of its educational sinkhole? Based on the numbers coming out of Utah, it isn’t clear that APA’s top-down, structured methodology would perform any better than the school district’s decentralized approach. It’s true that American Preparatory schools perform slightly better than public schools in their area, but charters fill their seats from a lottery of all who apply. This means that parents have bought into the charter’s philosophy and are committed to supporting their children’s education. If the school were given the requirement to teach all students—the incarcerated, the incorrigible, the inattentive—then those small gains would almost certainly be erased.
Unfortunately, districts haven’t come up with effective ways to deploy flexible instructional models. While they may argue that different students respond to different teaching methods, teachers are quickly overwhelmed and simply shift to doing the best they can with who and what they are handed. But parents don’t want to hear why things can’t be done, why new ideas are hard to deploy or why rival philosophies can’t make space for one another. They just want a good education for their kids, right now. And if that means trying something entirely different, they’ll do it. Right now.
Kurt C. Rice is a former high school English teacher who now teaches at Nevada State College.