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Michael ZwaagstraPicture a school in an underprivileged part of north London, England. 

One-third of nearby families live in poverty, a significant percentage are visible minorities, and the neighbourhood crime rate is twice the national average. What kind of academic results would you expect from this school?

If you expected this school to score below average, think again. Michaela Community School is one of the top-performing schools in the United Kingdom. In fact, students at Michaela scored substantially higher than the national average.

With such impressive results, this school is definitely worth a closer look.


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Michaela is a “free school,” which is the British equivalent of charter schools in Canada. Charter schools are publicly-funded schools that operate independently from school boards. They’re not private schools and they can’t charge tuition.

Obviously, Michaela is not a typical public school. Its principal, Katharine Birbalsingh, doesn’t push her teachers to adopt progressive teaching methods or focus on generic skills such as critical thinking and creativity. Also, she’s not a fan of project-based learning.

Instead, Michaela takes a traditional approach, with a strong focus on content knowledge and lots of practice drills and memorization. Discipline is strict and teachers are expected to take charge of their classrooms. Students are held to high academic and high behavioural standards, regardless of their home lives.

This certainly stands in stark contrast with progressive educational practices where teachers are expected to be a ‘guide by the side’ rather than a ‘sage on the stage.’ Progressive educators mean well but there’s little evidence that their educational practices actually work.

It’s one thing to talk about closing the gap between rich and poor, but it’s another thing to put your beliefs into practice and make a real difference in the lives of children. And that’s what Birbalsingh is doing at Michaela Community School.

Given Michaela’s impressive track record, one might expect progressive educators would be eager to learn more about this exceptional school. If they did, they would quickly discover a few things.

First, they would find out that direct instruction, where the teacher gives focused lessons, checks for understanding and gives timely feedback to students, is far more effective than project-based learning, where students try to figure out things for themselves. In other words, most students learn best in a structured and orderly learning environment that’s directed by a good teacher.

In addition, research overwhelmingly shows that, when it comes to initial reading instruction, phonics is vastly superior to whole language. The only reason whole language persists is because progressive education ideology holds sway in education faculties where teachers are trained.

Research also shows that content knowledge is the key to reading comprehension. The more students know about the topic of an article or a book, the more likely they’ll be able to understand it. If we want students to develop better reading skills, we need to help them become as knowledgeable as possible, starting in Grade 1.

This means that a content-rich curriculum is vastly superior to a more generic skills-based curriculum.

Progressive educators who want to help disadvantaged students should set their personal ideology aside and take a fresh look at the evidence.

They might be surprised at what they discover.

Michael Zwaagstra is a public high school teacher and a senior fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.

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