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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Old school: Strict and safe is making a comeback

"Super strict schools" are "increasingly popular" in England, writes Emma Bubola in the New York Times. She focuses on Michaela, an inner-city school in London known for “strict routines and detentions,” silent corridors, and “zero-tolerance” for even minor student misbehavior. It's also known for academic excellence: The independent school ranks first in the country in academic progress on national exams.

Students shout out a poem at lunch -- it was Ozymandias that day -- and discuss a preset topic while they eat, Bubola wrote.

In classrooms, teachers are in charge. Students are required to sit up and track the speaker, known in the U.S. as SLANT.

“How do those who come from poor backgrounds make a success of their lives? Well, they have to work harder,” said the principal, Katharine Birbalsingh.

Similar strategies used in "no excuses" charter schools in the U.S. proved successful, writes Bubola, but fell out of favor. Uncommon Schools abandoned some of its strictest policies, including SLANT in 2020, she writes, to stress "building student confidence and intellectual engagement."

"No excuses" schools are due for a renaissance, writes Robert Pondiscio, who visited Michaela and found it "impressive and invigorating."

Like everyone else who's visited -- it hosts many observers -- he found the students exceptionally confident and articulate. "The students aren't robots," he wrote on X. "Spent a delightful lunch with middle school students who are charming conversationalists, make eye contact and smile readily." They recited Invictus: "I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul." He thought it was "awesome."

The Times states "that such schools spring from the idea 'that children from disadvantaged backgrounds need strict discipline, rote learning, and controlled environments to succeed'," he writes. "No. The point is to give disadvantaged kids the opportunity to learn in the kinds of safe and orderly schools that well-off kids and their parents take for granted."

Pondiscio predicts a pendulum swing in the U.S. back to "no excuses" as teachers, parents and students tire of classroom disorder. He'd like to see Michaela-like schools became a choice here too.

In a series of 2016 posts on Reading All the Books, a British teacher describes teaching English at Michaela. When she started, she was told to speed up. She was used to explaining concepts over and over for students who weren't listening. At Michaela, students are listening, so they get it the first time. "With 100% focus, we get a lot done."

No time is wasted. When "Jo" began packing up her reading group at 4:29, she saw nobody had closed their book. A student said: "we still have one minute! Can we keep reading?" They kept reading.

Teaching at Michaela is hard, she wrote at the end of her first term. But she's spending her time teaching, not having "stressful altercations with recalcitrant students."

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Bruce Smith
Bruce Smith
Mar 19

This kind of teaching can work here too, since some pupils want to read outside of school, and love to go overtime, if they are properly engaged in their reading: for example, in four minutes, I will begin teaching an advanced group for an hour and a half on poetry, and we never consider ending early, which would suggest that I would be cheating their parents, who pay for 90 minutes of teaching, plus homework; the lazy customs of some public schools cannot survive in a private market.


Mar 18

This will only work in the U.S. if there are other public schools where the "strict school" can dump its problems. In addition, in the U.S., the school district that has these kinds of charters will have to ensure the statistical problem that boys will be much more likely to be kicked out versus girls.

I wonder if Richard Reeves thinks that strict schools would be good for the success of boys or just another way for girls to massively outperform boys.

Mar 19
Replying to

One might generalize from rockets to other phenomena and technology that might catch the interest of young men. As many of my textbooks say, this is left as an exercise to the reader.

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