Kyle Steele is the head of school at VanDamme Academy (VDA), where he also teaches art appreciation and math to second- through eighth-graders. I had a delightful conversation with him about VDA’s unique (and uniquely effective) approach to education, the challenges posed by statist responses to COVID-19, and the future of educational freedom in America.
Tim White: What is it about the way VDA does things that gets students to enjoy learning?
Kyle Steele: At VDA, one of the biggest factors influencing student motivation is the fact that the teachers we hire genuinely value the subjects they teach. Our teachers understand why math, grammar, and history are valuable to any human being, regardless of what the future holds. Their enthusiasm is really infectious, and our students—even the young ones—pick up on it.
White: Do you have any examples of students having that kind of epiphany—of realizing, “History isn’t just something I’ll need to know if I want to work in academia” or “Math isn’t relevant only to physicists”?
Steele: I don’t know if it’s natural for kids younger than about eighth grade to integrate that big an abstraction. You can try to explain it to children, and they’ll have some understanding of what you mean, but it’s very distant from their experience until they are in late junior high. For example, I’m finishing up my eighth-grade curriculum in art appreciation, and they’re now at a level of sophistication where I can state explicitly what art appreciation is all about. It’s teaching children how to find meaning in art as a way of teaching them how to find meaning in their own lives and in the world more broadly.
There’s also a perceptual, emotional component that goes hand in hand with the things that they can’t yet understand abstractly. As Lisa VanDamme says, it’s important for the teacher to identify things at a level of abstraction appropriate for their students. For instance, I tell elementary-level kids that studying art makes you really good at observing small details, and that can be a useful thing no matter what you do.
White: In fundamental terms, how does VDA as an institution differ from what typically happens in government schools?
Steele: This is a bit obvious, but one of the big things that separates government schools from private schools is money. In private schools, the parents can take their money and leave anytime. In addition, private schools have more control over employment and salary than their government school counterparts. In private schools, all relationships are consensual, and that consent takes the form of tuition and salary. All parties can interact more openly and honestly through the medium of money.
No relationship is started voluntarily in a government school. If the abilities to choose and to leave are gone, then people have to resort to less civilized means of getting what they want—by “making hell.” If parents are unhappy with a school’s performance, they can’t take their business elsewhere, so they raise hell in the PTA. If a teacher isn’t happy with his compensation, he can’t easily work elsewhere, so he makes hell through the union. If a school is unhappy with a student or family’s behavior, they can’t ask the family to leave, so they make life difficult for the student. Everyone effectively is stuck together with no easy means of escape and no negotiating power. As a result, mistrust pervades all relationships, and people just antagonize each other to get their way.
And it gets worse. The most important relationship in a school should be the one between a teacher and a student. That is where the most autonomy is needed. To be successful, teachers need freedom to decide what to teach and how to adapt that curriculum to the particular circumstances of their classroom. But in a government school, after each generation of failure and poor performance, decision-making power moves further up the institutional hierarchy, to the administrators and boards of education, and so on. In the 21st century, between Common Core and No Child Left Behind, educational decision making is now moving to the federal level.
In a private school like VDA, decisions about curriculum and methods are made by teachers or by teachers in consultation with an administrator. This keeps the most important part of the school, the part that’s actually in contact with students, nimble and adaptive. At government schools, given tenure and mandated curriculum, the teacher-student relationship is the most calcified.
White: It seems so simple when you say it that way. In what other sphere of life do people have good relationships when they’re forced to deal with one another? People will say “Obviously, never,” but for some reason, it’s supposed to be different in education.
Steele: Right. Our approach at VDA really is different from top to bottom. We don’t have this onerous paradigm of tenure and teachers’ unions that makes it impossible to fire anyone. The relationship between administrators and teachers is voluntary.
It’s also a two-way voluntary relationship between the school and the parents. We choose to let kids into our school, and we can choose to remove them, just like the parents choose to enroll their kid, and they can choose to leave as well. Forgive the negative connotation, but those are credible threats, and they incentivize honesty and accountability in the relationship.
White: What feedback do you get from students and parents who have experienced both public schools and “the VDA way?” Do parents notice a change in their kids’ attitudes and academic performance?
Steele: Yes. They definitely notice a difference, and the students notice it, too. Parents notice that their children are more excited to go to school and that they have more stories to tell about what they learn in the classroom. They notice that their children seem to be more generally knowledgeable than others and that they take more pride in their work. Our parents want to see that their children are growing and maturing and that they’re happy and satisfied.
White: Because of COVID-19, VDA is now exclusively online for the foreseeable future. Government schools, by and large, seem to be struggling with online classes in a number of ways. What has that transition looked like for you?
Steele: We were flexibly stubborn. We were stubborn in the sense that we wanted to do the same things that we’ve always done, just online. We know that our methods work. In that sense, we were stubborn, but we were flexible in the sense that we’ve had to figure out how to bring an offline system online more or less intact.
At the beginning of March, we were the lowest-tech school in Orange County—maybe some hippie Waldorf schools were more low tech than we were. We had no tablets in the classroom. The teachers had laptops just for slide shows. Everything was done with pencil, paper, and red ink. Ironically, that meant that our curriculum ended up being very easy to put online.
Because we didn’t have a prior part of our school online, we approached the challenge with no preconceived notions about how that should be done. Other schools that had an online component before the mandatory closure were more likely to just double that online component (which was mostly digital worksheets) and drop everything that wasn’t online before (the actual lessons and interaction). At VDA, our students have thirty Zoom classes a week, not just one or two, which is the norm at many schools. We still have lectures where the students take notes and ask and answer questions. We still have discussions where they engage with the teacher and with one another. We use Google Classroom, but really only to pass writing assignments back and forth so that we can edit them and make comments.
We’ve been able to put 85 to 90 percent of the VanDamme experience online. Our families have been very happy with the result. We even got lots of new applications from parents who wanted their kids to join us just for the last month of school because they were getting nothing from their current schools.
White: It’s almost as though, once you figure out the principles that underlie good education, adapting to new logistics isn’t that challenging.
Steele: Yes, and this is a soapbox that I want to stand on for a second. As I’ve looked at other online and technology-based resources, I find that they’re almost exclusively about the technology—not about the learning. It seems like there are programmers who know what can be easily done in programming, so they try to make the education fit into that programming. In most of these systems, you have far less content that requires human grading, like essays, and you have far more that could be graded by an algorithm, like multiple-choice and fill-in-the-blank quizzes.
I think that if you start with technology, as opposed to starting with good principles of education, then you’re in trouble. Nothing against the tech companies for doing that; that’s fine, and if they can find a market, then more power to them. But VDA didn’t go to technology and ask, “How should we teach with these pre-configured tools?” Instead, we started with good pedagogy and asked, “How can we deliver this with technology?” Pedagogy should dictate the technological tools we use, not the other way around.
White: Online learning technology can be great, of course, but I think what a lot of people either forget or don’t hold at the top of their minds is that teaching is a back-and-forth process between two minds, or between one mind and thirty minds. You’ve got to have a human who can interpret and integrate what the student is doing and figure out how to respond to it, and technology can help only so much in that process.
Steele: Exactly. Some of these tools and tech companies are implicitly telling teachers, “Don’t worry about having the students learn how to organize thoughts into essays. Instead, use this flashy platform that really just teaches them how to use different features of a tablet.”
White: Is there any part of getting VDA online that would have been harder or impossible if you were a public school?
Steele: I think that most of it would have been impossible. For one thing, there’s no such thing as a small government school. They’re all state-run institutions that have to abide by federal regulations as well. There are an enormous number of boxes that need to be checked and a huge amount of red tape that needs to be cut before you can make any choices or decisions. If we were a public school, we wouldn’t be anywhere near as nimble as we are.
Many public school teachers were largely passive in the transition process and were waiting for training and to be told what to do with various online platforms. They didn’t have an alternative. At VDA, we have teachers who know the value of their subjects, and such teachers also tend to be content creators as well as content deliverers. VDA teachers don’t have to follow the Common Core, and they’re used to designing their lessons on their own.
In a public school—that is, a large, bureaucratic institution that moves very slowly—most decisions are made at the top, and no one at the bottom is used to making decisions when asked to, much less on their own initiative. In such an environment, changes won’t happen smartly or quickly. At VDA, we can rely on our teachers to make good decisions on the ground.
The trust we have between teachers and students at VDA made the transition a lot easier, too. Do you remember when this whole push toward online school started, and memes were everywhere about the different ways that students were subverting and undermining online classrooms? Those memes were a sign that people knew that this online learning was BS—that it’s not something that really deserves our respect and attention.
That did not happen at VDA. We had a few squirrelly kids who learned how to play with virtual backgrounds, but it was all fun and within reason, and we were able to redirect that toward good and useful ends quite easily. Having that trust between student and teacher has been really critical for our success in moving online.
White: You mentioned that, for the most part, your students are still engaged and still having a good time at school, even in the midst of all of this. It sounds like that’s the ultimate testimonial for the way you do things. The students are at home, so you can’t control them physically in any way. They could just not show up. They could fool around, they could tab out of the class and play video games, they could do any number of things, but they’re still choosing to sit at the computer and engage. Why would they do that if they didn’t really enjoy and get value out of the school?
Steele: Right. I think that that is a testament to our methods, and it shows that we know how to deliver on the promise of education. Being online all day is more taxing for both students and teachers, but they are willing to endure the difficulties.
When I’m in the classroom, I can use my physical presence to maintain good behavior. I can be livelier and more dynamic to keep students engaged. Just moving around the classroom helps, and it’s easier to make jokes because I can hear students laughing, and I can use my other senses to figure out how people are doing and who needs something. That really doesn’t work online. The students often have to be muted because of the background noise in their home. If they’re laughing at my jokes, I can’t hear it.
There’s a real cost to doing all of this online, but the families are willing to do it because this is far and away the best option for continuing education and normalcy right now.
White: Zooming out a little bit, let’s look at what’s going on in education across America right now. What silver linings, if any, do you think might follow once the government gets back to its normal methods of violating rights in education? Is there a sense in which the COVID status quo might highlight some of the problems in government schools and help some people think more clearly about freedom and choice in education?
Steele: Well, it’ll definitely help at the margins. What’s happening now is that parents are seeing into the classroom a little more clearly. They’re judging how public schools attempt to adapt to changing conditions and deliver quality education—and they’re not impressed. I think that this will be a one-two punch to public schools. Their reputation will be tarnished even further by how they’ve adapted to this.
Then, when the recession hits, public schools will start getting a lot less tax revenue. On top of that, the demands on them for social distancing and so forth will be very costly. They’ll be expected to do more with fewer resources, and they will have even fewer choices available to them. The measures that public schools need to follow will be dictated, as usual, from the top down.
But I’m skeptical that this situation will lead to sweeping changes. It’s unlikely that the voucher or school choice movements will reach an inflection point because of all of this. I just don’t think that’s how change works. The revolutionary ideas need to saturate the culture before an event spurs people to act on them. There are good arguments for educational freedom out there, but they haven’t spread through the culture enough. Will some people change their behavior at an individual level? Yes, I definitely think so. Will there be broad society-level changes in education? Maybe, but I’m pessimistic on that front.
White: I wish I could disagree, but I don’t. Is there anything else you’d like to share about VDA’s plans for the future?
Steele: Parents who are interested in having more options for their child’s education, especially for the duration of these closures and disruptions, should look to the VDA website at vandammeacademy.com. We’re putting together more options for people to attend classes virtually. We might even offer an auditing option at some point. We’re also offering several summer programs, which start on July 6.
White: Well, that’s all super exciting, and I’m glad that VDA is making the best of a pretty bad situation. A lot of others can’t say the same. Thanks so much for your time!
Steele: I appreciate the opportunity. It’s been fun!
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