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Great Teachers Matter – Credentials Don’t

montessori preschool irvine

How much will your child’s success in school and life be influenced by the quality of his teachers? Here is what studies say:

The available evidence suggests that the main driver of the variation in student learning at school is the quality of the teachers. Ten years ago, seminal research based on data from Tennessee showed that if two average eight-year-old students were given different teachers—one of them a high performer, the other a low performer—their performance diverged by more than 50 percentile points within three years…

Another study, this time in Dallas, shows that the performance gap between students assigned three effective teachers in a row, and those assigned three ineffective teachers, was 49 percentile points. In Boston, students placed with top-performing math teachers made substantial gains, while students placed with the worst teachers regressed—their math got worse. Studies that take into account all of the available evidence on teacher effectiveness suggest that students placed with high-performing teachers will progress three times as fast as those placed with low-performing teachers.

mckinsey.com

Another recent study, quoted in the New York Times, put a monetary value on the damage done by just one bad teacher:

Conversely, a very poor teacher has the same effect as a pupil missing 40 percent of the school year. We don’t allow that kind of truancy, so it’s not clear why we should put up with such poor teaching. In fact, the study shows that parents should pay a bad teacher $100,000 to retire (assuming the replacement is of average quality) because a weak teacher holds children back so much.

nytimes.com

No matter where you look, the answer is clear: Good teachers matter tremendously—and if you want to choose a school for your child, you should find one that hires the best.

But what does it mean to be a good teacher? And which schools will ensure your child will have good teachers, consistently?

Unfortunately, public schools, with their strict, union-driven work rules, often take a simplistic approach to teacher quality. While there are no doubt great public school teachers peppered through the system, the underlying approach to teacher selection rarely guarantees that your child will consistently have the best teachers, even in a good school district.

  • Hiring practices that exclude many capable potential teachers. Public schools usually draw their teacher candidates from graduates of education colleges, that is, credentialed teachers. At first blush, this sounds like a good idea: after all, you want a teacher who is well trained, and a credential certifies that the teacher has completed course work on teaching. Many credentialed teachers are in fact highly dedicated, intelligent individuals who are passionate about educating children; but many others, in fact, are not.

    Yet it’s important to understand that teaching credentials are neither necessary nor sufficient in hiring the best teachers.

    • montessori preschool irvine

    • Many smart, dedicated students who graduate with a B.S. or B.A. in a subject field—math, science, literature, history—would make great teachers. They often are passionate about their fields of study; they may have discovered a knack for explaining and mentoring while in college; they have a deep grasp of the subject that they could readily pass on to students. Yet, leaving aside a few alternative certification programs in high-need areas, these outstanding young people are often excluded from teaching by narrow certification requirements that impose onerous additional coursework of questionable merit.
    • A credential, by itself, isn’t necessarily a good indicator of whether someone will make a good teacher. Teacher candidates vary widely in their skills, and admission standards of teacher colleges typically are not as rigorous as those of the top schools offering subject-matter degrees. Certification programs vary significantly in their content—some are more rigorous on subject matter knowledge, for example, while others require students to spend much of their time on courses on teaching processes (which may or many not be of much practical use in the classroom.)
  • Limited ongoing development. In many public school systems, first year teachers immediately teach a full class load. They rarely have extra time to develop or even adapt curriculum; they rarely receive the benefit of regular coaching, or even have the opportunity to observe in a master teacher’s class. Once in, the public school approach seems to be “sink or swim” (beyond whatever support the teacher gets as part of completing her teacher credentialing program).
  • Fast and largely irreversible tenure, which means ineffectual teachers stay on, even when everybody knows they aren’t doing a god job. Most junior teachers get tenure after teaching a mere three or four years, and the standards for tenure are lax. An L.A. Times article reported that 98% of teacher candidates in LA received tenure, after a process so lax that it requires just one unannounced classroom visit by school administrators! Admits the districts superintendent: “Too many ineffective teachers are falling into tenured positions — the equivalent of jobs for life.” Terminating a poorly performing teacher is nearly impossible. Instead, when parents successfully protest about a teacher, the teacher gets moved on to another school or another district, in a process so common it has a name: the “Dance of the Lemons.” 

To summarize:

  • Good teachers are important – critically so!
  • Public schools don’t consistently hire the best and brightest young people as teachers. They don’t train new teachers well. They put teachers on tenure, making it practically impossible to fire teachers who aren’t performing well.

At LePort, we understand how important great teachers are. That’s why our hiring, training and development practices are diametrically opposed to those of public schools:

  • Hiring based on relevant skills and personality traits, not merely credentials. At LePort, we want to hire the most capable and motivated teachers possible. That’s why we hire based on three standards:
    • Deep skills in and passion for the subject the teacher specializes in. In our 4th – 8th grade program, students have different teachers for different subjects: a homeroom teacher, who usually covers literature and language arts, as well as specialist teachers in math, science and history. We believe that these teachers first and foremost must be knowledgeable about their subjects, and passionate about what they teach. This seems obvious—how can a literature teacher instill a passion for books, if he doesn’t love reading—but it’s unfortunately often ignored in other school settings!
    • montessori preschool irvine

    • A love of and skill in working with children. Being a great scientist isn’t enough to teach science at LePort: we understand that a teacher must love sharing his knowledge with students, and must be able to relate well to children, in order to be effective.
    • Joyous, growth-minded character. We want our students to be inspired by their teachers: we expect teachers to model the type of growth-mindset and joyful living we want our students to achieve. What better way to kill a child’s aspirations than to put a cynical teacher in front of him?!

    While some of our teachers hold teaching credentials, we also hire strong candidates who hold Bachelor’s or advanced degrees in the subject matters they want to teach, and in some cases even hire individuals with little formal training in their area but a clear lifelong passion and knowledge in a given area. We regularly review hundreds of resumes and conduct dozens of interviews, to find the best possible teacher candidates.

  • An intensive, structured on-boarding and ongoing development program. Teaching is a skill that can only grow with practice, practice, practice. New teachers at LePort have many opportunities to develop their skills under the guidance of our academic staff:
    • An onboarding training program. When we hire multiple teachers to start for a new school year, we put on a multi-week, intensive training program. Teachers get immersed in our unique curriculum. They practice teaching lessons the LePort way. They observe each other and give and receive feedback. They learn about our systems, from report cards to organization, from classroom management to parent communications. Most of all, they form a learning community – the basis of growing together throughout the year.
    • montessori preschool irvine

    • Ongoing observation and guidance. All teachers, but especially new teachers, receive regular feedback from our academic supervisory staff (the Head of School, the Assistant Head of School, and our Executive Director for the Elementary and Junior High program). We regularly observe teachers in class, and give them feedback on how to improve. We also expect teachers to observe each other’s classes and to give each other detailed feedback. (Curious about this feedback? Click here to read a sample of the feedback one of our newer teachers received after such an observation.)
    • Reduced course loads. While many elementary school teachers in other settings teach all day long, with rarely a break, at LePort, even home room teachers have several hours off during the school day, while the subject matter teachers take over the class. This provides time for them to prepare lessons, observe other classes, and think through any classroom or playground issues so that each student has an optimal learning experience. It also enables them to participate in weekly or bi-weekly departmental meetings to discuss curriculum and pedagogy issues specific to their subject area. Every month during minimum days, teachers also have an afternoon to participate in development workshops and further strengthen their teaching skills by collaborating with each other.
  • A willingness to part with teachers who do not live up to our standards. Letting a teacher go is extremely hard: students and parents connect with teachers, even with some that are not top performers. And bringing a new teacher on board to replace one we let go means a lot of effort and cost. Yet because we know how crucial great teachers are, and because even the best hiring and training system cannot guarantee that every single teacher we bring in is a great fit with our program, we find that we on occasion need to replace a teacher who cannot meet our standards, despite much coaching. Because we are a private school and not bound by onerous union contracts, we are actually able to replace under-performing staff members in a timely fashion.

If you are seriously considering LePort for your child, we invite you to do your research about our teachers. Scroll down and read what some of our parents say about our teachers. Review bios of our teachers (Huntington Pier campus & Irvine Spectrum campus). Watch some videos of our teachers in action. Call us to schedule an observation: we invite you to come in, spend an hour or a half-day in our schools, so you can judge our teachers for yourself.


Related Articles

Elementary & Junior High: Who We Are
Parent Testimonials


LePort teachers love what they do, and care a lot. A great education boils down to the teachers. At LePort, every single teacher is very passionate about his subject, has deep knowledge, and cares personally about his students. There’s a personal relationship that grows between a teacher and each child. The teachers become the student’s role models and mentors. Our son wanted to please his teachers, because he respected and admired them—and that made him strive harder. When his teachers gave him their constructive feedback, it thus motivated him, and allowed him to go back and do even better. I really believe LePort teachers care—they take a vested interest in each student, and there is a strong personal relationship that goes on. You can see that—watching my son leave the school, and how sad he is to have to go, and to not be able to see his teachers every day any more. The heart of LePort is the teachers, individually and as a group. They are all a little different, they have put together a good mix of nice people with their own styles and personalities. Every single teacher at LePort actively engages the children in learning, and connects with them socially.

Kevin G.

The teachers at LePort inspire their students. They are all young and engaging – not teachers that have been doing it for 20 years, and are just going through the motions. Every one of them is sincerely concerned about a student’s personal growth. As they do the academics, they constantly talk about how they relate to the rest of life. All the teachers at LePort are the same way – they have a passion for their work, and it shows with the kids.

Lina S.

LePort’s teachers are consistently amazing. At other schools, you’d have a teacher here and there who would be great; their reputation is well known among parents and students—so you’d hope that your son/daughter was in their class at some point. The astonishing thing about LePort is that every single one of their teachers is excellent. The consistency is incredible: you never have to worry about which teacher your son/daughter will have the following year. To have an entire school of outstanding teachers speaks to their recruiting standards, their processes and how they train teachers as they come into the school. This is even more amazing given that all the LePort teachers are incredibly young!

Maritza A.

All the LePort teachers are excellent. I don’t think there was a bad teacher at LePort at all. Every one of them is an incredible professional, they are into their subjects, they are excited about teaching and learning. And that attitude transferred to the students.

Noreen M.

LePort teachers have what I like to call, “youthful enthusiasm”. This is probably due, in large part, to their clear philosophy that no teacher can teach a subject that they are not personally passionate about. If you think about that, it makes so much sense: if teachers love what they are teaching, that passion is present in every day classroom activity and that enthusiasm filters down to the students. It is apparent that the teachers feel supported. The equation is quite simple really: Happy teachers’ = happy students= happy parents.

Ruthie T.

I am really excited about the LePort teachers’ passion. My daughter will come home talking about history with such enthusiasm, that I even get excited and ask her questions about her history class! Because the teachers are so passionate, students become passionate—and go into real depth to explore the subjects. They become enthusiastic learners, and always ask to learn more. It’s a major contrast to some of our past experiences, where it appeared at times that the teachers didn’t want to teach the subjects, that they just went through the motions, to get the day done.

Tami W.

The passion and compassion of the teachers is rare—it is something that’s difficult to find. My younger daughter would just talk non-stop about her teachers, about how much she admired them, and how she respected them and enjoyed working with them. The LePort teachers took time to work with each of my girls, to help my older daughter fill in her knowledge gap due to illness, and to inspire my younger daughter to become an eager reader and writer. It also inspired my girls to be able to see a woman as amazing as Lindsay Journo, the head of school, and to dialogue with her every day: their teachers truly became role models – and that’s a hard thing to achieve in middle school.

Tom C.

5 Ways LePort Is Different: Your Choice, In a Nutshell

Since you are reading this blog post, you are probably researching a private school for your child. Maybe your child is in a private school already; or maybe you are just deciding between public school and private school.

This choice may be one of the most important you’ll ever make for your child – and, if you choose private school, one of the biggest investments you’ll make as a parent. Private schools, after all, need to charge tuition for their services, while public schools don’t require much payment from parents (beyond, of course, the taxes you will be paying, whether or not your child attends public school).

Faced with the choice of “free” public schools and the private school alternatives, parents naturally wonder: is it worth paying for private school?

It’s a very personal question, dependent on your family’s financial circumstances and your other values. In many cases, the answer may well be that private school is not worth it: in some cases the difference just doesn’t make enough of a difference. Yes, private schools usually offer nicer facilities, more extra-curricular options, and smaller class sizes. Beyond these factors, however, many private schools aren’t that different from public schools: Often, they follow the same California Standards and use the same text books as public schools; they hire teachers from the same education colleges; they use the same pedagogical approach in the classroom and prepare students for the same standardized test battery. Sure, class sizes are smaller and there’s more accountability—but is that alone really worth all that money if at root private schools offer the same educational product as the public schools?

If we ask a different question, whether LePort Schools in particular is worth the investment, it won’t surprise you that we believe the answer ought to be yes for many, many more parents. The reason is that LePort Schools offers a truly different education. In our view, we offer a wholly different product, not just a better quality of the same thing offered by public schools.

Here are five fundamental differences between an education at LePort and at many other schools, private or public alike:

  1. A deliberate, carefully thought-out focus on your child’s long-term happiness. What is your goal for your child’s education? How does it line up with what the schools you consider aim for? For many schools the answer is either very specific (“getting children into good colleges”, “achieving proficient scores on API tests”), or very broad (“responsible, global citizenship” or “making meaningful contributions to the world community”). At LePort, our core goal is different: we want to enable your child to achieve his own personal happiness. As we put it in our mission statement, “At LePort, we help our students acquire the essential knowledge, thinking skills, and strength of character required to flourish as joyous children today, and as successful adults tomorrow.” This difference in purpose has many implications; stay tuned for an upcoming post just on this topic!
  2. A carefully sequenced, content-rich curriculum. With the dominance of No Child Left Behind and now Race to the Top, public elementary schools focus excessively on a narrow, test-driven, memorize & regurgitate approach to the basics – reading, writing, arithmetic. Many traditional private schools unfortunately follow a similar approach. Others, identifying themselves as progressive schools, commit a different mistake: worried about the negative impact of rote learning, they throw out an adult-guided, structured curriculum altogether, and rely instead on child-led, project-based exploration, which may leave children with significant skill and knowledge gaps. We reject both these approaches. Instead, we have developed a carefully sequenced, academically challenging curriculum that respects the child’s motivational context. Click here to learn more about five key ways in which LePort’s curriculum differs from what your child would encounter in public school. (In case you are concerned about test scores, we do want to assure you that our students test well – see here for recent scores.)
  3. Motivation by interest and joy, not grades and fear. Here’s a question you should ask of each school you visit, private or public: how do you motivate children to learn? For many schools, the answer relies heavily on extrinsic motivators, which reward “good” behavior and results with stickers, praise, class parties, treasure chests or good grades, and punish “bad” behavior with loss of privileges (recess, independent work time), extra work (more homework!), bad grades or a trip to the principal’s office. Sounds familiar?! LePort is different: we understand that in order to really learn, children have to make a choice to want to learn. We think it is our responsibility to make what we teach so interesting that children can’t wait to learn. Curious how that works? Click here to find out!
  4. Passionate professionals as teachers. A teaching credential: at most schools, public and private alike, this piece of paper is a must-have, do-or-die requirement for becoming a teacher. Not so at LePort. While we do have many credentialed teachers, we didn’t hire them because of their credential—and many of our teachers never attended a teacher’s college. Instead of relying on a credential, we have our own exacting hiring standards. Parent feedback, student comments, and our academic results all bear witness that our hiring approach consistently leads to high quality teachers who connect with their students and motivate them beyond the parents’ wildest dreams. Click here to find out how we manage to consistently hire, train and retain excellent educators, or click here to read bios of our staff at the Irvine Spectrum and Huntington Pier campus.   
  5. A focus on individualization, made possible by small class sizes and low ratios.  At LePort, we limit class size to 16 students for grades 4 – 8. (Our Montessori elementary classrooms typically have 24 students, with two teachers, for a 1:12 ratio.) As impressive as a 16-student class size is, our actual teacher-student ratio is closer to 1:10: each class of 16 has a dedicated homeroom teacher, who usually specialized in language arts. In addition, students receive instruction from subject-matter specialist teachers in history, math, geography and science. Our typical 4th – 8th grade program is staffed by 10-12 full-time teachers, for a 1:7 or 1:8 student teacher ratio. Hiring this many highly-qualified staff members isn’t cheap, but we think it is essential to providing a great education: we expect our teachers to get to know and appreciate each child and family; to motivate the student by understanding his temperament, talents and interests; to provide detailed coaching feedback on each assignment (as against just assigning a letter grade and moving on); to help the child learn personal skills (such as organization, time management, goodwill during competitions), in addition to strictly academic content; to create ample time for questions in class and an opportunity for each student to participate. There is just plainly no way this level of personalized instruction is possible in classes with 25 children in 1st grade, or even 35 or more students by middle school (numbers unfortunately now typical of most public schools, and even many private schools).

These are five of the fundamental differences between an education at LePort and at many other private and public schools, and there are more subtle differences that parents pick up on when they become LePort parents.

In some ways, the process of becoming a LePort parent is like purchasing that very special car you’ve been eyeing. Before choosing the car, you probably first decide what type of car you want: sedan or SUV, roadster or truck. Then, your next step is a test drive.

As you research schools for your child, we encourage you to follow the same process: identify first what type of education you want for your child, then search out schools that offer a program in line with your goals. Next, take a “test drive” by spending a few hours observing at a few different schools you are considering.

Here at LePort, we love to have prospective parents come visit and sit in our classes and see our teachers in action. No matter how much we write about our unique approach, the best way of understanding it is to come in and see for yourself. Feel free to come for a guided tour, ask to meet with our Heads of School, or schedule a time to observe classes in action.

While many private schools and most public schools limit parents to pre-scheduled open houses, we think the decision of which school to send your child to is so important that you should have the opportunity to see for yourself. (Isn’t it ironic that car dealerships will do anything to get you in to look at their cars, while many schools are resistant to having parents even come in for an observation – and this is the education of your child, not just a test drive of a sedan!) So, please contact us and set up a tour: click here to find all campuses phone numbers.

The Fundamental Choice

It is the child who makes the man, and no man exists who was not made by the child he once was. Dr. Maria Montessori

Last May, I had the opportunity to observe a kindergarten and first grade class at the local elementary school my then 5-year-old daughter would have attended in fall, if we went the public school route.

The school I observed is about as good as it gets in public education. It’s a “Blue Ribbon”, “California Distinguished” school, with standardized test scores in the top 5% of the state. It has families all over the city vying for spots. The principal, whom I had the pleasure to talk to at length, is a kind man and a good listener; he struck me as the type of educator deeply dedicated to providing the students in his charge with a quality education.

private-school

Generally, public schools are reluctant to allow observations by prospective parents. After I shared that my daughter attended Montessori school, and that I was concerned how she would transition to the public school environment, the principal made an exception to his usual policy and invited me to observe some of his best classes.

I saw a lot in the time I spent in each of two classrooms. The kindergarten students were working on individual letter sounds q, v, and z. The 1st graders were writing 3-4 sentence paragraphs and working with numbers up to 100. The contrast with a Montessori classroom was dramatic. Kindergarten-aged children in a Montessori environment are reading real books and writing multi-sentence stories in cursive, and elementary 1st year students are writing page-long stories, reading chapter books and doing arithmetic into the thousands.

But while the contrast was dramatic, it wasn’t surprising to me. I went in expecting this difference in academic progress. What really took me by surprise was just how deep the difference between the programs went. The traditional classrooms I observed were, in a thousand ways large and small, training students to conform passively to adult rules and expectations—a completely opposite behavioral mindset than the active-minded independence we encourage in Montessori preschool and elementary programs.

Let me share just two small observations among many, one from each class.

First grade: Teachers as guides or as servants? Children as independent actors, or passive observers?

In the first grade class, the children were studying how seeds grow into plants. Each child was asked to observe how a few lima beans and sunflower seeds germinated, and to record their observations in a science journal—a project that you might well find in a Montessori lower elementary classroom.

But here is how the project was implemented in this classroom: the teacher walked around the tables in the room, stopping by each child. She tore off a paper towel, put it on a plate, and sprayed it with water. She then had the child put the lima beans and seeds on the paper towel. After that, the teacher folded the towel, and inserted it into a zip lock bag, upon which the child had written his or her name. Over the entire 15 minutes I observed, the teacher was occupied making these kits for the children, while children were apparently supposed to be working independently on other tasks, but in fact spent much time chatting and mingling without a clear purpose, as the minutes ticked by. The teacher completed the kits of approximately 6 out of the 30 students in the room, suggesting that she was going to be occupied by kit making for well over an hour that afternoon.

private school

As someone familiar with Montessori rooms, I could not believe that the children had such a passive role! This was a class of 6 ½ to 7 ½-year olds, fully capable (one hopes!) of tearing off paper towels, of wetting them by using a sprayer, of counting out beans and seeds and placing them on a towel, and so on. These children could have and should have made these science kits by themselves! Instead, the teacher did it for them. The teacher was in charge, the students, outside observers of their own education.

I couldn’t help but contrast this with how the same experiment would happen in a Montessori classroom. The teacher might take 10 minutes in the morning, collect a group of students ready for this experiment, and give them a brief introduction, describing the purpose of the work and demonstrating how to assemble the experiment. She would then set up a table with all the materials, and invite the children to make their own kit. The children would autonomously make their own bags, taking turns at the table. They would have ownership of their work, and reinforce many practical skills in the process. They would help each other if one got stuck, with the teacher monitoring from afar to ensure that the peer interaction was to mutual benefit. The teacher would gain over an hour to dedicate to her actual job, helping students learn, rather than spending her time in essentially the role of an unwanted nanny or servant, doing things to children perfectly capable, and almost certainly eager, to do them for themselves.

Kindergarten: Respect for intellectual independence, or conformity and obedience?

In the kindergarten class, I arrived during a silent work period. I was pleasantly surprised at first: after all, independent, engaging, self-initiated work is the core means to develop concentration skills in children!

But when I observed more carefully, here’s what I saw: these 6-year-old children were totally silent. Not one word was spoken. They were glued to their desks, upon which were found things like play dough, simple coloring pages and other very basic activities typically undertaken by 3- or 4-year-olds in a Montessori class. Some children were engaged, but many more seemed bored and disengaged.

And then the work period ended. The teacher turned on the light, and started counting, loudly: “Five, four, three, two, one. All eyes on me!” Without giving children time to process her expectations, she immediately started directing her students: “Sara, put that down. Ian, stop. Look at me, now. Come on class, remember our agreement: when I count, you stop working. Let’s try that again. Put your fingers on your noses, all eyes on me!”

I stood, stunned, as I saw these twenty-odd six-year-olds touch their noses, line up, and stare at the teacher. I cringed as they were ordered to clean up, pronto (“you have three minutes to clean up, then please find your spot on the carpet” and “Peter, you are late, pick up your pace.”)

Compare this scene with the work periods I observe regularly in Montessori classrooms. There, children have 2-3 hours of uninterrupted work time, twice a day. During this time, the classroom is calm, but not eerily silent, as children are free to move about, talk in appropriate volumes as they work with friends, and select from a wide range of stimulating activities much more engaging than play dough or coloring pages.

private school

In such a Montessori room, here’s how the work period might end: the Montessori teacher would ring a small bell, and speak gently in a quiet voice, “Children, I invite you to finish up your work and put it away if you are interested in coming together in circle.” After this request, children are free to complete their activity, and to put it away on their terms. A child immersed in an advanced task might continue with it, even as the other children join the circle and the teacher starts reading a book or singing a song. Another child might leave his work out, with his name badge on it, so he can continue and finish it in the next work period.
Consider the difference. In the public school class I visited, the implicit theme is obedience to adult rules. In practice, students learn to conform habitually and unthinkingly to cues and prompts and commands. In a Montessori class, in contrast, the theme is respect for each individual, and the result is that a child develops the ability to responsibly take care of his own work, learning how to act freely while also considering the needs of others.

I cannot be sure how representative my observations are of public schools in general. As a parent, if you’re considering public school, you should definitely make the time to observe the school and classroom your child would be joining. What I know is that this was a highly-rated school, and the two classrooms I observed were chosen by the principal as examples of what a good public school education can look like.

If what I saw is indeed indicative of a pervasive characteristic of public education (and sadly, I suspect it is), then the implication is that in choosing between a public school and an authentic Montessori school, you are making a choice that goes far deeper than just the difference in academics. You are choosing the type of implicit values that will be emphasized to your child: respect vs. obedience, creativity vs. conformity, active-mindedness vs. passivity.

As Dr. Montessori put it, it is the child who makes the man. I’d encourage you, in judging your child’s future classroom, to ask yourself what kind of man or woman you want your son or daughter to become.


This blog post was originally featured on the Maria Montessori website.

A Sense of History at LePort

Amid the safety and comfort of Orange County, it is hard for us to imagine that living in America once meant risking your life for an uncertain future. Yet this was exactly the challenge early British settlers faced in the untamed New World. Thousands of miles from family, friends, and king, settlers in Jamestown, Virginia, and in the colony at Massachusetts Bay, literally struggled for basic necessities while working to build a future for themselves and their descendants.

This school year, the students in LePort’s 7th-grade history class are studying early America, and last month they completed an assignment allowing them to vicariously experience the life of an early colonist. Writing as a fictional settler in one of the first American colonies, the 7th graders’ mission was to compose a letter to a friend or relative back in England and attempt to convince him or her to travel across the ocean to join the new colony. Within the bounds of what they learned from lectures, assignments and discussions, along with independent historical research, students were left free to determine the details of their letter – of their settler’s life, values, and voice. They completed their research, planning, and initial writing in history class, and received additional feedback on further drafts from their language arts teacher, Mrs. Longley. The results were impressive.

Below is one example student letter. Sidney Bowen – or Sir Terrance Francis Williams XVI – chose to write from the perspective of a settler who came to seek gold in Virginia, and found himself quite unprepared for the rugged life he now leads. In inviting his friend across the Atlantic to join him in America, “Sir Terrance” tries to put a good spin on the challenges he has faced, but does not quite succeed. I hope you enjoy reading Sidney’s letter as much as I did!


January 12th, 1622

Dear Sir Arnold Louis Bennet,

How are you, my old friend? How is your insuperable daughter, Mary? (I am only joking…) I am now living in the “New World” in Jamestown, Virginia. It is quite a lovely place, indeed! The reason I am suddenly speaking to you on such matters is because I wish for you to join the settlers and come to the new land. I know you were a wealthy man, just as I was, and I have heard that you are beginning to lose your fortune, as I had sixteen years ago in 1606. I was running low on gold, but I did not want to work, and why should I? Should a handsome, dashing gentleman be forced to plant crops and pick up foul cow manure? I think not! But before I went to weep in a corner, I heard that the London Company was going to send three ships out to Chesapeake Bay to search for gold. GOLD! In an instant I decided to invest in the London Company and board one of the ships to become a gold hunter, in order to gain back my fortune and possibly receive more. In late August of 1607, we all arrived in Jamestown, named after King James. We faced a few conflicts with illness, as any colony did, because of the lack of food and the swampy atmosphere. But a man named John Smith, whom I happened to abhor, saved some of the other gentleman settlers who were having a miniscule bit of trouble with local natives. The colonists and I were at the time living near the Algonquin Indians, whom John Smith befriended. This friendship allowed us to trade food and crops with the Indians.

After we settled briefly, all of the gentleman settlers, including me, went out to search for gold. After a few days of unenthusiastic rummaging, we all spotted yellow dirt deep in the ground! We brutally and viciously dug, and dug, and dug until we found immense pounds of gold! It was a precious sight…until we sent it back to England. We realized that our riches were not truly riches, but pyrite (fool’s gold). John Smith believed that we spent too much time searching for worthless gold. (But anyone could’ve mistaken it for gold, Smith!) Then—the nerve of the man!—he created a ludicrous law that we needed to plant our own crops or we would not receive food. “He that will not work shall not eat”, he snorted insolently.

In 1609, John Smith fortunately left our colony and went back to England, but then we had a little glitch in our lifestyle. People now call it the “Starving Time”, but that saying is quite exaggerated. We merely had a lower amount of food in our supply, which made us lightly gnaw on wild animals, and dead bodies…but it wasn’t as horrid as you might think. It could’ve happened to any colony without the proper tools for building homes. Luckily, England heard of our inconsequential troubles, and they instantaneously sent over supplies. We were saved…I mean, helped. In 1611, the London Company sent Sir Thomas Dale over to Jamestown to become governor of our little colony. He gave each person a three-acre amount of land, but we were forced to work in order to keep it. Soon after, we discovered that the Indians had found a plant, which they would smoke out of a clay pipe. The plant was named tobacco. After this incredible plant was discovered, everyone was planting tobacco in their land to sell to English merchants at exorbitant prices. And believe me, this plant that is formed into smoke is the most addicting material I have ever tasted.

1619 was one of the most exciting times in Jamestown because a ship of women arrived to enlarge the colony’s population. According to the colony’s laws, I am obligated to work most of the time in order to keep my land, which is a contemptible rule. The arrival of these women was principally exciting for me because I wouldn’t have to work nearly as much with a wife. My dear and charming wife, Jane, is not only beautiful, but labors day and night like a mule for her loving husband. Also, I do not have to pay my mule…I mean wife. Jane helps me through the horrendous pain by making our own clothes, planting crops for food, making soap, candles, and more! My favorite chore to watch is the process of candle making. There is a large iron kettle held on a crane over the fire, and when the fat and grease melt, she dips the cotton in the fat and allows it to dry.

From what I have explained about the colonies, you may not be entirely convinced to join me, considering all I have spoken about is work. If and when you arrive in Virginia, you will recognize that life is not only work, but there are families living in the colony, whose young children are receiving a glorious amount of education. I, for one, despise children, so I do not have any because they whine and cry, run around in dirt, and more things that I don’t wish to share with you. Since you always wanted to raise a family, you might consider having a child here. Although, I’m sure introspection will bring you to a firm decision to NOT have children, since they damage your life greatly.

Well, my dear friend, I have had a longing desire to see you again, for it has been sixteen years, and that is too long, Arnold. I anticipate that you find my letter influential enough that you will perhaps consider joining the colony. It is unlike anything I have experienced my entire life, and I believe you will concur with me. I hope to see you in the new land, Arnie!

Sincerely,
Sir Terrance Francis Williams XVI


One of our goals in the LePort history program is that students do not just study history, but are immersed in it — that the past is understood not as a series of names, dates, and events to be memorized, but as flesh and blood. Taking on the role of a historical character is one of the most rewarding ways to immerse oneself in history, but also one of the most demanding, because making such writing realistic and compelling requires a student to integrate a wealth of information. For assignments like the settler letter, students need to know more than the 5 Ws of history (the who, what, where, when, and why); they must have a full-blown sense of the past — of the goals, manners, and values of historical cultures and people. Sidney clearly achieved that in her letter, as did her peers in theirs, and the result is a meaningful understanding of early America that will not be forgotten.

Matt Ballin, History Teacher

Just not good enough: why your child deserves a better curriculum

If you attended Elementary Curriculum Night, you had a sneak-peek into LePort’s unique approach to education. [See the videos at the bottom if you weren’t able to attend.]

In this newsletter, I’d like to offer you further insight into what makes LePort’s curriculum different. How does LePort’s approach, which we call “Knowledge for Life”, compare with the California Standards?

Almost everyone agrees that there’s something wrong with “teaching to the test”, the practice of focusing in school on memorizing and drilling for standardized tests. But this practice is based on the California Standards—the textbooks, lessons and outcome measures approved by State education committees.

Read more

Why Do We Study Science

Science education is a staple of modern schooling. One rarely hears anyone question the value or necessity of teaching our children science. But what is the reason behind this view? Why should a child study science?

Despite today’s focus on standardized test and national content standards, it’s clear that the purpose of science education cannot merely be to ensure that children score well on standardized tests of science. (Why have those tests?) The same is true of any answer of the form that science education is necessary to ensure that a child will succeed in high school science, or be ready for college many years down the road. (Why should science be taught at those levels?)

Read more

Don’t Redshirt for Kindergarten–Eliminate Fixed Timeline

Over the past year, much has been said about the right time to start students in Kindergarten. Starting in fall 2012, California will move up the age cut-off, so only students who turn 5 before September 1st can enter Kindergarten. (Previously, the cut-off date was December 2nd.) Researchers have reported on a growing trend that parents are holding back children who would otherwise be eligible for Kindergarten, so as to give them an extra year of maturity. Much of this concern is due to the “increasingly academic nature” of Kindergarten, and worries that students may not yet be ready, at age 5, to sit still and pay attention in class.

These concerns are understandable and valid in the traditional public school model, and many parents rightly agonize over the decision of when to start their children in Kindergarten.

Fundamentally, though, the issue is not when children should start Kindergarten, but whether the transition into Kindergarten needs to be as difficult and consequential as it is in the public school system (and many private schools). What is it about Kindergarten that makes it such a negative experience for so many children?

montessori preschool huntington beach

More than anything, it is the artificial and unnecessary change in behavioral expectations and academic methodology. At age 5, public school children are suddenly expected to shift from a preschool’s free-play environment to the rigorous, group-based structure of a traditional classroom. They are required to sit still, to be quiet and listen, and to follow a tightly-scheduled plan of 30 minutes of this subject, then 30 minutes of that. They are expected to transition from playing with Legos or trains or doll houses, to completing monotonous worksheets. They are, on a dime, required to stop following their own interests and impulses, and to adhere instead to adult-set, adult-led procedures and goals. Without preparation or training, children are expected to transform their entire approach to school. No wonder parents are concerned about when and whether their children will succeed at making this transition!

This is all very unfortunate, because there is such a beautiful alternative to this whole manufactured struggle: Montessori education. Montessori schools do not require such a black and white decision about when to start Kindergarten. They do not subject a child entering her Kindergarten year to abrupt, radical changes that are inconsistent with their actual needs.  Nor do they leave a preschooler unprepared for the actual, gradual changes that are forthcoming.

In a well-run Montessori school, students aged 3-6 are grouped together in one classroom, called the Primary classroom. The classroom is equipped with a wide range of educational materials. It offers simple “practical life” exercises, such as pouring or sorting, for the youngest children, as well as very advanced academic materials, which can take some 6-year-olds all the way through reading chapter books, studying introductory grammar, and doing arithmetic into the thousands (skills typically not taught until 1st grade or later in most other schools.)

montessori preschool huntington beach

In a Montessori program, each child progresses through the sequence of materials at her own pace, under the guidance of a trained, observant teacher. Because all of the work is individual, because children practice as long as they need to achieve mastery, because children move ahead only if and when they are ready, there is no need to make each child transition into “academic Kindergarten.” Academic challenges get tackled naturally, as the child is academically ready—not when it suits a school system’s artificial schedule. [Many Montessori schools also move children up to 1st grade when they are developmentally ready, not on a fixed September timeline.]

In fact, Montessori students are never forced to make the radical shift in behavior that public schools demand. Not in their Kindergarten year, and not in the higher grades. Instead, they gradually grow over time into more scheduled routines and abstract content (including class lectures and group lessons as it becomes age-appropriate). Using the Montessori materials, they steadily build their attention spans, learn to pace and plan their own work, and progress from concrete to abstract. For example, they first learn to solve multiplication problems with the Golden Bead materials, then, as they solidify the principles involved and become able to hold them more abstractly in their minds, they move to solving them with just pencil and paper.

By the time they graduate from the “lower elementary classroom” (ages 6-9), students are ready for the more conceptual, abstract studies of upper elementary, as well as for the more structured schedule, and are eager to discover the exciting insights that come next.

Fundamentally, the question is not when children should start Kindergarten, but why a system that so clearly violates children’s most fundamental developmental needs continues to be accepted as the norm for schooling in this country.

Heike Larson

Choosing a School

Before I started working with LePort, I once had the following encounter with a friend who was getting ready to send her daughter to school. She excitedly told me that her daughter had been admitted to the Kindergarten class of a private school in the Oakland, California area. Curious to hear more, I asked her how she chose the school. She told me, in great detail, about the school’s beautiful classrooms, the artist-in-residence program, the new auditorium, and the emphasis placed on diversity in the classroom.

I nodded along, impressed. Then I asked her about the curriculum: what her daughter would be taught in Kindergarten and later grades, how the teaching would happen, the content and method of the school, etc. She didn’t know and hadn’t thought to ask about it.

I often remember this encounter when I think about how difficult it is as a parent to figure out how to choose a school. We as parents aren’t education experts. Because we aren’t always sure what to look for, we sometimes get carried away with positives or negatives we observe in one category (e.g. facilities, the appearance of the school, or extracurriculars). We can forget that there are whole other categories that we aren’t considering or factoring into our decision.

It would be as though you went house shopping, saw a house with a gorgeous kitchen that just knocked your socks off, then bought it at once on the basis of the kitchen. Only later you might realize that the plumbing needed to be ripped out and replaced, that there weren’t enough bathrooms to suit your needs, and that the layout was inconvenient, so that you wound up not using a good portion of the house.

If you had catalogued in advance all of the different categories of things you wanted from a house—perhaps made yourself a checklist before visiting—you might not have been so immediately sold. You might have kept investigating and found a house that not only had a gorgeous kitchen, but that met all of your other needs as well.

It’s the same when shopping for schools. Fancy auditoriums and stimulating extracurriculars are valuable and important, but there are other factors that may be even more important. I now know that one of the most important factors that most people don’t consider is the curriculum.

The curriculum is what your child will actually be learning, and how (by what teaching method) he will be learning it. The curriculum is the difference between whether your child learns what he needs to learn or not. Parents should reserve a place of honor for curriculum on their checklist when they evaluate a prospective school.

My guess, though, is that even when parents try to assess a school’s curriculum and teaching methods, they find themselves stumped—hence the need to rely on more visible markers like facilities and extracurriculars. Curriculum is a complex, intangible value that is difficult to evaluate when you visit the school. This is particularly true as it is often communicated in “education lingo”, such as “constructivist math”, “whole language”, or “arts-integrated curriculum”. Having spent some time looking at the websites of other schools, I was surprised at how little information they generally provide on the “what” and “how” of their teaching. (Though most do offer a lot of detail about buildings, athletics and arts programs.)

To help demystify the intangible of “curriculum” and enable a parent to judge for him or herself, I like to break it down as follows (this is the advice we give to prospective parents at LePort, but it would apply to any parent who is trying to evaluate a prospective school):

  • Does the school have a clearly defined, written curriculum?
  • What core subjects does the school expect all children to succeed at?
    • Language arts—including spelling, vocabulary, writing and grammar as separate courses
    • Literature—with a focus on classics of today and yesterday (as against basal reader collections or adolescent fiction) 
    • History—taught as a chronological story which children experience (as against the disconnected grab-bag typically taught in Social Studies) 
    • Geography—taught as the fascinating study of different cultures 
    • Mathematics—taught with a dual focus on skill practice and conceptual understanding (as against rote facts memorization or “constructive math”)
    • Science—as the exciting discovery of the world, not a memorization of disconnected words and jargon
  • Does the school integrate personal development into each child’s day-to-day experience (as against a dry sermon on virtues)?
  • Does the school offer a wide range of extracurriculars, field trips and special events to build a community and to celebrate life?

Heike Larson

Igniting a Passion to Learn

Take a moment to think back over the different experiences you’ve had during the past year.  What do you remember? When you do a quick survey of the significant events of your recent life, what type of things come to mind?

If you’re like most people, the events you tend to remember are more emotionally charged than those you’ve forgotten. Your mind goes to the gripping movie you watched, the novel that you couldn’t put down–but not that dry lecture at the long work conference. You have a vivid memory of the exuberant bike ride where you finally made it up that hill in target time, or the morning when you pedaled up over a fog bank to see a beautiful sunrise—but not the everyday training slog you conducted much more frequently. It’s hard to recall the daily routine of cleaning around the house and washing dirty laundry, but easy to invoke an image of the moment when your son took his first step right before your eyes, or the time you and your daughter had that wonderfully silly pillow fight, the one that left both of you out of breath from giggling so hard.

It’s not surprising that your lasting memories tend to involve events in which you are emotionally engaged. To the contrary, it intuitively makes sense: the reason you’re emotionally affected is that you care about what’s happening—and since you care, you’re more likely to remember it.

But why? What is it about being emotionally invested that enables greater retention?

In his recently published book, The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How, author Daniel Coyle offers us a fascinating answer.

Coyle argues first that learning of skills and memory occur as a result of particular way of being voluntarily engaged in a task—what he calls “deep practice”. Deep practice is a type of sustained focus in which a person is intently focused on completing a task superlatively. Coyle suggests that such deep practice results, neurologically, in the accelerated growth of myelin, an insulating substance that wraps around brain cells carrying signals from location to location the brain, and thereby strengthens those neural pathways.

The connection to emotions is this: only when learners are emotionally connected to the skill or knowledge they are pursuing are they sincerely motivated to put forth the effort that deep practice demands. Coyle argues that the will to engage in deep practice is ignited by emotional passion.

In his research, Coyle studied what he called talent hotbeds, places around the world where a certain talent–for music, baseball, learning–abounds, and observed that they all shared passion for what they do:

When I visited the talent hotbeds, I saw a lot of passion. It showed in the way people carried their violins, cradled their soccer balls, and sharpened their pencils. It showed in the way they treated bare-bones practice areas as if they were cathedrals; in the alert, respectful gazes that followed a coach. The feeling wasn’t always shiny and happy—sometimes it was dark and obsessive, and sometimes it was like the quiet, abiding love you see in old married couples. But the passion was always there, providing the emotional rocket fuel that kept them firing their circuits, honing skills, getting better.

Coyle’s argument fits with what we’ve observed in our classrooms at LePort Schools. The best teaching is teaching that makes a values-based, emotional connection between students and the rigorous academic content they need to learn. Only if students connect what they are studying to their own values, only if they are sincerely interested and engaged with what they learn, will they consistently remember and be able to apply their knowledge to situations in their own lives. Engaging students emotionally in what they study is a fundamental principle of correct pedagogy, and a necessary component of ensuring that students develop a meaningful, deep, integrated knowledge base.

So how can material be made emotionally engaging? There are countless ways, large and small. Take a Montessori classroom. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the entire Montessori approach is geared towards the goal of ensuring learning is properly motivated—students are provided an environment in which their internally driven interests are what fuels their cognitive inquiries.

Or consider LePort’s middle school history curriculum. We interest students in the study of a given historical period in a number of ways, one of which is by dramatizing that period through the inclusion of rich, moving historical fiction—novels and plays that invest the students in the times they are learning about. For instance, after reading The Lantern Bearers (a book that tells the story of a young Roman boy’s life in a once-civilized Rome now ruled by Saxon barbarians) our students become much more engaged in learning about the Fall of Rome: the literary dramatization of the period makes it emotionally real and important. Our history program also invests students emotionally by tying what they learn to their own values and life experiences—i.e. to that which already matters emotionally. See a vivid example here.

The underlying principle here is age-old: when something matters to you, you pay attention much more closely. Or more simply, when you care, you focus more. What Daniel Coyle offers in The Talent Code is a fascinating new perspective on this principle: not only do you focus more, but you actually focus differently. This point, along with the rest of Coyle’s uniquely rich analysis of the mental and neurological processes underlying the retention of knowledge and skills, makes The Talent Code a book that all educators should take the time to read and reflect on.

Ray Girn

Few question what students are being taught or how.

Memorizing and drilling students, once thought out of fashion, is now back in vogue in schools across the country. In the wake of the “No Child Left Behind” act, the emphasis of teaching has shifted to basic skills, and to increasing performance on state-wide standardized multiple choice tests.  And while many children, especially at middle class public schools, are scoring better on standardized tests, some educators are starting to wonder if these results might not be telling the whole story.

In his book The Global Achievement Gap: Why Even Our Best Schools Don’t Teach the New Survival Skills Our Children Need – and What We Can Do About It, Dr. Tony Wagner questions the wisdom of the traditional teaching approach and the apparent excellence of suburban elementary, middle and high schools.  It is an important book to read for parents and educators alike.

Dr. Wagner believes that even the best public schools spend too much class time on memorizing content and drilling on basic skills, and he suggests that this leaves students without the thinking skills and real, meaningful knowledge they need to succeed in life. He writes of his decades of experience as a teacher, researcher and education policy advisor:

What I have seen in some of our best public schools over the past decade is that while Johnny and Juan and Leticia are learning how to read, at least at a basic level, they are not learning how to think or care about what they read; nor are they learning to clearly communicate ideas orally and in writing. They memorize names and dates in history, but they cannot explain the larger significance of historical events. And they may be learning how to add, subtract, and multiply, but they have no understanding of how to think about numbers. Not knowing how to interpret statistics or gauge probability, many students cannot make sense of the graphs and charts they see every day in the newspaper. They are required to memorize (and usually quickly forget) a wide range of scientific facts, but very few know how to apply the scientific method—how to formulate a hypothesis, test it, and analyze the results. Finally, I have observed that the longer our children are in school, the less curious they become.

Dr. Tony Wagner

He quotes a scientist from MIT, who describes his two sons’ experience in science class in 4th grade at one of the most acclaimed public schools in the country:

They went to the same school and had the same teacher. … My eldest son had a great experience. His class went over to the pond at Mount Auburn Cemetery and took samples from the muck. They brought them back to school and studied what they found. They discovered all kinds of creatures there –ones that even I hadn’t seen! It was great, ‘hands-on’ science, and it really motivated my son.

But my second son’s experience was totally different. Now all the kids had to take the MCAS test [annual standardized test required of all Massachusetts schools], and the teachers felt they couldn’t take the time for the ‘fun stuff.’ They felt they couldn’t take the time to collect and study the muck. They had to prepare fall the kids for the tests.

I worry about the future of science in this country… For kids to get passionate about science, they have to get their hands dirty—literally. They have to have labs where they study things in depth and learn to observe, instead of just memorizing facts from a textbook. The kids who take my intro lab courses today have gotten top scores on all the Advanced Placement science courses in their high schools, but they don’t know how to observe. I ask them to describe what they see in the microscopes, and they want to know what they should be looking for—what the right answer is.

Dr. Tony Wagner

In our view, this is one of the best summaries of what is wrong in education today: children memorize words, but don’t learn about the world.

Mr. Wagner continues with an even more alarming observation, namely, that the public education establishment—from educators to policy makers, from researchers to concerned business men—is not even asking the right questions to address the problem: “The only debate taking place about education in America today is simply whether to modify certain provisions of NCLB [the No Child Left Behind education act.] Few question what students are being taught or how.”

Yet these are exactly the questions an intelligent parent ought to ask of potential schools: Why are you teaching—what is the goal of your education? What are you teaching my child? And how are you teaching it? If you share our belief that children need to be engaged at school, that they need to care about what they learn, that the content of education matters (=what children learn), as does the pedagogy (=how children learn), then come and observe in our Montessori elementary school and Montessori middle school programs. You’ll discover an education like no other, and may just decide that it is time to question your own child’s educational options and explore Montessori for your child.

Excellent Test Scores—For What They Are Worth

Recently, we received the annual standardized test scores for our Mission Viejo Campus: we are happy to report that as a school, we scored in the top 10% nationwide. Our 3rd graders scored in the top 2%!

As a private school, we are not required to participate in standardized testing. We also don’t believe that these types of tests are very meaningful: like most assessments, they focus on basic skills in mathematics and language arts only. The questions test rote memorization and blind process repetition, rather than real understanding and broader skills. In contrast to many public schools and charter schools, we don’t spend much classroom time on tedious test preparation exercises. Instead, we teach real, meaningful content and skills. But, apparently, our approach pays off even on such multiple-choice tests.

Why do we have our students take these tests at all? Two reasons: first, because of society’s focus on standardized testing, our students have to learn to take tests like these—think ACT or SAT tests required by many colleges. Participating in annual testing allows our students to get some practice, and as we don’t spend much time preparing, they don’t lose much. Second, many parents do look to test scores to select a school. While we don’t think that’s a valid standard, we need to ensure that they don’t screen out our school, just because test scores are not available.

With that as context, I do want to say “Congratulations” to our amazing students: you did wonderfully—because you worked hard at learning real skills and knowledge. You should be excited about learning so much, and keep up the good work!

Ray Girn