What does it take to close—or at least significantly narrow—the achievement gap? Billions of dollars and untold amounts of time and energy have been devoted to this problem—without much to show for it. But it’s possible that the answer is actually pretty simple. Or at least that’s how it appears after a visit to a remarkable school in London called Michaela.
Michaela Community School is what’s known in the U.K. as a “free school,” which is a status that is roughly equivalent to a charter school in the U.S. Founded three years ago by a former French teacher named Katharine Birbalsingh, Michaela employs a strict “no-excuses”-style discipline regime to maintain order and politeness among its pupils, who enter at age 11. While that approach has been controversial, it’s not so different from what many high-achieving charter schools do here.
But Michaela has also embraced something that is rare among American public schools of any kind: a deep commitment to providing its students with knowledge of the world and ensuring that the knowledge sticks.
If you visit Michaela, as I did last week, you’ll find low-income students, ranging in age from 11 to 14 and coming from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, being asked direct questions about facts they have learned. In one class, the teacher asked students what the decision in Brown vs. Board of Education was about. After getting a correct answer, the teacher summarized it on a sheet of paper projected on the board: “Brown v. Board of Education was about segregation in schools. As a result, schools were forced to integrate.” The students followed suit. A few minutes later, the teacher asked for the word that was used to describe marriage between people of different races. “Miscegenation,” the students chorused.
In another class, students prepared to spend 15 minutes individually writing paragraphs explaining the role of religion in the development of England as a nation by the year 1066. To do so, they consulted notes the class had put together under the teacher’s guidance.
After school, a group of perhaps thirty students who needed to work on their reading spent half an hour following along as a teacher read Jane Eyre to them. With the text in front of them, they moved their plastic rulers down line by line as the story progressed. Occasionally the teacher would call on a student to read a sentence or two aloud. Despite the text’s sometimes archaic vocabulary, all eyes were glued to it, and students appeared to be entirely wrapped up in the story.
Homework at Michaela consists largely of self-quizzing: students memorize key concepts for each subject, write the definition from memory, and then correct their own mistakes. The next day in class, they’re tested on what they’ve memorized. If they haven’t done their homework, they get a 30-minute detention in order to complete it.
Students are also expected to memorize poetry. Those in Year 7, for example, learn Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” Kipling’s “If,” and Henley’s “Invictus.” There’s a lot of choral recitation.
You might think students would bristle under all this old-fashioned memorization and fact-focused instruction. Isn’t it boring and deadening? Wouldn’t they rather be engaging in small-group discussions, focused on acquiring analytical skills rather than just absorbing information?
Apparently not. The students I met at lunch—where visitors are invited to seat themselves at any table—and others who guided me on a tour seemed quite happy to be at Michaela. When I asked the Year 7 students at my lunch table if they felt burdened by homework, one girl said she did at first but soon got used to it. One talkative, self-confident boy, his blazer studded with merit badges, said he usually spent four hours a day on homework. It could be done in two, he added, “but that wouldn’t be Michaela.” They all agreed that they were learning far more at Michaela than at the other schools they’d attended.
That’s because most British schools, like most American schools, shy away from direct, explicit instruction focused on knowledge. The Anglo-American education establishments have evolved to favor methods that assume it’s best for students to “discover” knowledge for themselves, and to limit instruction largely to skills—like making inferences and comparisons, and generally “learning how to learn”—rather than the kind of facts that Michaela goes in for, unapologetically.
And yet Michaela students demonstrate on a daily basis that they’re able to make inferences and comparisons and analyze the facts they’ve been taught. That’s because—as Katharine Birbalsingh points out—if you teach facts and then discuss them, analytical skills will develop naturally. The standard approach in the U.S. and Britain assumes the opposite: that if you teach the skills, the knowledge will develop naturally. Unfortunately for millions of children, that’s not the case.
While Michaela may seem old-fashioned in its approach, its methods accord with the latest findings of cognitive science about how people learn. Want to teach kids how to be good readers? Then teach them the facts and vocabulary they’ll need to understand what they’re reading. Want them to retain what they’re learning? Then have them review what you want them to remember and commit it to long-term memory—and write about it.
Birbalsingh says that after two years, Michaela has been able to catch every one of its students up to the grade-level they should be reading on—even the ones who entered as 11-year-olds reading on a first-grade level. The results in math are almost as good. In a couple of years, when the school’s oldest students take state-mandated exams, they’ll have results in other subjects as well.
But frankly, it doesn’t take test scores to demonstrate that Michaela’s methods are working. All you have to do is read the essays that students are able to write, at the age of 12 or 13, about topics like the causes of Macbeth’s downfall, or challenges to the king’s power in medieval England.
If you want to learn more about Michaela, I recommend reading the book its teachers have collaboratively written, called Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers: The Michaela Way (which includes those student essays). It goes into much more detail than I’ve been able to, including about things like how the school instills kindness and optimism in its students (I saw some of this at lunch, when my table-mates spent much of the time discussing who they would stand up and express “appreciation” for when the time came for this daily ritual–and one of them, the tall and talkative boy, expressed appreciation for my having told them about the American education system.) You may think it all sounds too good to be true—I know I did. But then I saw it for myself.