Acton Academy: Socrates’ Antidote for Government School Hemlock

Only someone in deep denial, or in total thrall to teachers’ union propaganda, believes our inner city public schools are anything more than dropout factories. Yet the comfortable belief that our own suburban public schools are doing fine seems just as misplaced. For a good idea of how misplaced, ask Jeff Sandefer, co-founder, with his wife Laura, of the Acton Academy, an alternative school that is turning teaching upside down.

Jeff’s soft spoken, low-key demeanor belies his considerable accomplishments and burning desire to remake America’s moribund educational institutions. A graduate of Harvard Business School and a multi-millionaire energy investor before turning 30, Jeff has packaged Socratic teaching into a system that can take a one-room schoolhouse full of children of various ages and different abilities and unleash the inner hero and genius in each of them. And he can do this without answering a single question, much less lecture students for hours as they sit passively at their desks.

At the Acton Academy, kids teach themselves and each other, as they respond to a series of challenges offered by adult “guides.” The challenges are tough, which leaves no one a stranger to life’s best teacher—failure. Talking out of turn and challenging the status quo are commonplace, but laziness and shirking are not acceptable.

The kids are responsible for an astounding number of things, right down to the janitorial work. Students run their own governance and currency systems, immersing themselves in negotiation and conflict resolution. They work part time as apprentices at local architecture firms, bakeries, and dance studios, exploring their personal interest and talents. And yes, they learn reading, writing, and arithmetic using state-of-the-art, game-based teaching tools that have helped them progress at three times the rate of their public school peers.

So if it sounds a bit chaotic, it’s worth asking: What do parents think of all this? Every week, Jeff gets customer feedback on every aspect of the program, from both parents and students via online surveys, with results published for the whole community to see. Try doing that at your local public school.

Acton’s motto is learn to do, learn to be, learn to know. Jeff’s thesis is that conventional education has become besotted with that last bit at the expense of the other two, filling students’ heads with knowledge that is a Google search away while leaving them incapable of actually doing anything, and uncertain of whom they are. Instead of loading children up with responsibility as soon as they can handle it, we infantilize them well into adulthood, which is one reason so many end up in their parents’ basements after college.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Jeff for this week’s RealClear Radio Hour and I’ll confess he had me so mesmerized I started contemplating having another round of kids. What makes Acton’s approach so compelling is imagining what kind of citizens this type of education will produce. Not complacent factory workers destined for a lifetime on assembly lines, not docile voters ready to accept whatever pabulum politicians feed them, not entitled whiners looking for their next handout, but self-assured, entrepreneurial go-getters who might have a prayer of digging this country out of the hole we’re in.

It’s one thing for a highly motivated, ideological, brilliant rich guy to start a school. It’s another to figure out how to scale it up. But here’s where the Socratic Method supplemented by the latest computerized teaching tools comes in. With the right program as a model, anyone who home schools his kids can operate an Acton Academy. And not just for his or her own children, but for a schoolhouse full of them. Run the numbers and you can even make a lucrative living while charging tuition well below than that of most conventional private schools.

Lord Acton, after whom the academy is named, famously said that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. For the state, there is no power more absolute than the ability to control our children’s education and mold their minds and characters, rendering them subservient to an ever growing bureaucracy. It’s about time someone came up with an antidote to take that power back, restoring the self-reliant character and temperament for liberty that made America great.