Like most people, I am regularly approached with requests to donate to educational causes. I’ve found that these approaches come in two categories.
The first cause requests money to help turn “bad” schools into “great” schools . The second cause requests money to help “great” schools stay great. (I get this kind of request every year in my alma mater Duke University’s fundraising letters.)
Recently I contributed to a much different and all-too-neglected educational cause: redefining what a great education is. More specifically, I supported a school that I believe can and should serve as a model for American education.
Since many readers of my work are passionate about education I hope you will be interested in learning about this school and possibly joining me in supporting its life-changing work.
The problem with a “great” education
By every conventional metric, I had a great education, the kind of education every parent is supposed to aspire to provide for their children.
As a child growing up in one of the nation’s most prestigious school districts (Montgomery County, MD) I had every educational benefit a student is supposed to have: well-funded schools with their pick of aspiring teachers, supported by a large contingent of heavily involved and highly educated parents.
I attended one of the top 10 STEM high school magnet programs in the country and then one of the top 10 universities in the country.
But somewhere near the end of my time at Duke University, I came to a painful realization, one that permanently changed my views of how to fix American education.
Despite attending “great” schools, I was not properly educated in the sense that previous generations, above all our Founding Fathers, had been — in the sense of having a deep, lasting foundation in the humanities and sciences, and an unquenchable love of learning that abides through adult life.
Neither were my classmates. While we had passed through math, science, history, and literature classes we had retained very little — and had virtually no motivation to learn more. To make matters worse, many of my peers were so stressed from the workload that they felt compelled to escape it constantly through binge-drinking (from which one of my classmates died) and drugs.
I wish this problem were a product of my particular educational path. But having guest-spoken at dozens of “great” schools (including Harvard, Yale, and Stanford) and having spoken to hundreds of students about their experiences, I know that it isn’t.
Here are some trends that I have observed among students attending America’s top schools.
- They are under incredible pressure to perform in school.
- They do almost unimaginable amounts of homework, often staying up past midnight.
- Despite the enormous effort they put in, they remember almost nothing of what they learned.
- Their enthusiasm for learning has almost completely disappeared.
- They frequently engage in drug and alcohol abuse in order to cope.
- A large percentage feel very uncomfortable with the so-called STEM subjects.
- Their educational experience largely consists of performing on demand, which stifles the development of any kind of independent or entrepreneurial mindset.
- They are not happy.
We need a new model
I, like everyone, want every kid to have an opportunity to get a great education. But after my own “great” education, I disagreed with the conventional approach to this goal, which is to take what works at the “great” schools and implement it in the “bad” schools. Before we can do that, I concluded, we need a new model of what a great school is — one that actually succeeds at making education an experience of ongoing fascination, joy, and empowerment, with students truly learning the core knowledge and thinking skills they need to flourish as adults.
Soon after I became interested in finding a truly great education, I read an article by an educator named Lisa VanDamme who claimed that her K-8 school produced deeply educated graduates.
The key to her success, she claimed, was that her school had a distinctive combination of content and method. If content was selected by the standard of the truly essential knowledge human beings need to flourish, and taught in the right sequence for students to gain a truly independent understanding, they would value what they were taught, remember what they were taught, and be empowered by what they were taught.
In 2004, I fortuitously got a job in Orange County and begged a mutual acquaintance for an introduction to Lisa VanDamme, whom I begged in turn for the chance to visit.
I wish I could describe to you in writing what I experienced when I first visited that school — and what I have experienced the dozens of times I have visited since. But I can’t. The reason is not that I’m that bad a writer but that it’s that uniquely good a school. It’s not just an improvement on what you’ve seen. It’s a totally different phenomenon that changed what the term “school” meant in my mind, just as the iPhone changed what the term “smartphone” meant in my mind.
The best way to get an indication of what the school is like is to read the articles on their website.
If you care about American education and think there’s even a 10% chance I know what I’m talking about, you owe it to yourself to take 15 minutes to read these three articles by Lisa VanDamme: “Our Curriculum” | “A Culture of Dignity” | “No Homework Policy.” And if you’re particularly interested in STEM make sure to read a brilliant example of the VanDamme method in science by VDA science teacher Dr. John Krieger.
Here’s an example of some of these principles in action. During a recent visit to the school (I like to visit several times a year because it’s that inspiring) I was watching Miss VanDamme teach a 7th grade literature class. During the class, the students were discussing the similarities and differences among the heroes in the books they read this past year — The Count of Monte Cristo, The Scarlet Pimpernel, The Miracle Worker, To Kill a Mockingbird, Twelve Angry Men, Shane, and The Browning Version.
They had an incredible recall of the characters and, more than that, it was clear that they knew the book’s heroes so well that the book’s heroes had become their heroes. I had the thought that these kids, at this age, instead of just having, as I had, mostly athletes and pop culture figures to choose from as heroes, have Shane and Annie Sullivan and Atticus Finch to inspire the course of their lives. When these students think about what values will guide their lives they will have encountered dozens of amazing people, whether from literature or history, to inform them. I wish I and my classmates had that when we were 12 (I remember being a combination of bullied and bored at that age). Imagine if we had a nation of students with real heroes to look up to. (Not to mention great reading comprehension abilities!)
If you visit VanDamme Academy the first thing you may notice is the facial expressions and body language of the students. In my entire educational career, I do not remember ever being in a class where even a third of the students were visibly excited about the material, unless it was some game or other diversion. But touring VanDamme Academy in practically every class — grammar, math, history, supposedly “boring” and “hard to teach” classes — you’ll see at least half the kids lunging forward, practically jumping out of their seats as they thrust their hands up in the air to ask or answer questions.
When you watch the lessons, you’ll see why they were so excited. The teachers were teaching many of the same subjects I had “learned,” but in a way that was much clearer and more understandable — because of the school’s unique curriculum and sequence.
Bringing the Model to the Masses
Since I encountered VanDamme Academy I have become a fanatic advertiser for the school, telling everyone with a young child or a desire to impact education to visit that school. Usually they are blown away and ask some variant of this question: How do we spread this kind of education around the country?
Until recently, I had never heard a good answer to this question: Lisa is not an empire-builder and even if she was the vast, vast majority of students would never get a taste of what VanDamme Academy can offer.
But recently I learned of a new project that was so obviously the way to do it that I am embarrassed that I never thought of it: create a documentary of the school. A talented filmmaking duo with extensive knowledge of the school have offered to film and produce a documentary during the 2016–2017 school year. Here is a preview.
Here’s how I think of it: if every parent and teacher in America had the opportunity to visit the school, learn from its founder, learn from its teachers, and see the classes in action, I believe it would cause an educational revolution — parents would demand it, teachers would be inspired by it, school districts would ask for curriculum, philanthropists would have higher standards.
A documentary will enable everyone to have the experience of visiting the school. It’s the ultimate high-leverage way to fix American education. That’s why, upon learning that the full project will cost $100,000, I immediately committed $5,000.
You can join me in contributing to this project on generosity.com.
And you can ask questions to Lisa VanDamme at email@example.com.
The window to fund the documentary, if it is to be shot during the upcoming school year, ends August 15. I, for one, do not want to wait an extra minute, let alone year, for it to be a reality.
PS If you are reading this and are a parent of a VanDamme Academy student, I hope this note makes you even more appreciative of the permanent positive difference that school will make in your children’s lives — and that you will want to help other students to gain from the school, as well.