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The U.S. Could Learn a Lot from This School in the U.K.

National Review

June 30, 2023

Last month, I took advantage of a trip to the U.K. to spend a day observing at London’s legendary Michaela School, which serves about 800 students ages eleven to 18, a short distance from Wembley Stadium. Katharine Birbalsingh, who has gained fame in her country (some say infamy) as “Britain’s strictest headmistress,” invited me for an entire day of unrestricted classroom observations, which is always a good sign: Less accomplished or confident school leaders typically try to stage-manage what visitors see.

Michaela is an object of fascination, nearly a cult item, among a certain subset of educators in America. The nine-year-old school is known for its exacting school culture and unwavering commitment to academic excellence. It practices a muscular brand of academics, character formation, and student discipline not seen in the U.S. since the heyday of “no excuses” charter schools like KIPP two decades ago.

Then there is Birbalsingh herself, a formidable and outspoken critic of progressive teaching methods, given to unfiltered commentary on race, class, and social issues in the media and on Twitter. Michaela is adamantly and unapologetically old school, emphasizing direct instruction and explicit teaching of challenging curricular content. The proof is in the performance, and Michaela routinely delivers some of the best student outcomes in the U.K. with a mostly disadvantaged urban student population.

My visit reinforced a notion that I’ve been toying with for the last several months: America needs Michaela. The U.S. school-choice movement in particular needs Katharine Birbalsingh or someone very like her.

The rapid adoption of universal education savings accounts (ESAs) in several U.S. states has created an unprecedented opportunity — and perhaps a limited window of opportunity — for affordable private schools to sprout and take root in this country. If there’s ever going to be a serious challenge to the standard American paradigm of schooling with the vast majority of children assigned by zip codes to public schools, the time is now in states such as Florida, Arizona, and a half dozen others that have demonstrated both the appetite and the political will to challenge the hegemony and complacency of traditional public schools.

The details and dollars vary from state to state, but the basic idea behind universal ESAs is to give parents the ability to opt out of the traditional public-school system and take with them the lion’s share of state dollars that would otherwise be spent educating their child. Parents can direct those funds to provide for their child’s education — anything from hiring tutors and purchasing curricular materials to simply using the money as a de facto voucher to pay private-school tuition.

ESA enthusiasts have largely focused on parents’ ability to customize their child’s education. But as a practical matter, most working families need their children to be in a school during the day, which limits the potential uptake of ESAs: In many communities, there’s not a huge supply of high-quality private schools. Thus, the greatest long-term opportunity associated with ESAs is the potential to jumpstart and grow effective and affordable private-school models that even the charter sector would be hard-pressed to match. When Arizona adopted universal ESAs, for example, Great Hearts Academies, a well-regarded charter-school operator, moved quickly to launch a network of private, classical Christian academies aimed at low-income families who are now armed with an average of $7,000 of state money per child — fair game under the state’s universal ESA program.

When I asked her about bringing Michaela to America, Birbalsingh was flattered by the suggestion, but not ready to book passage to the U.S. Like many visionary school leaders, she is open to scaling her model but fiercely protective of its high standards and distinctiveness. She also expressed some doubt that she’d find enough teachers willing and able to teach “The Michaela Way.” On this last point, I think she’s misperceiving the state of play in the U.S. and underestimating the number of American teachers struggling with deteriorating student behavior, feeling out of sync with pedagogical fads and fashions, and who would flourish in a Michaela-like setting outside of the public sector. Birbalsingh acknowledges that many teachers come to her seeking refuge from chaotic conditions in their schools. Such teachers are legion in America and would likely walk to Florida or wherever else she might set up shop for the chance to teach at an American Michaela.

With its emphasis on rich curriculum, academic rigor, character education, and “small-c conservative” values, Michaela would also find an enthusiastic audience among inner-city families who prize safe and orderly schools, a shot at the upward mobility a first-rate education offers, and who tend to be far more culturally conservative than outsiders often imagine.

I suspect even a subset of elite private-school parents uncomfortable with their schools’ aggressive embrace of the “woke” agenda would also be intrigued. If Birbalsingh needs convincing, she could talk to Andrew Gutmann, a.k.a “Brearley Dad,” who set the private-school world on its ear two years ago when he withdrew his daughter from the hyper-exclusive Manhattan school after blasting its “obsession with race” and efforts to appease “an anti-intellectual, illiberal mob.” He’s been on a mission to find a replacement ever since and sees “a desperate need” for schools such as Michaela in the U.S. “given that most secular schools in this country have abandoned traditional academics, hard work, discipline and respect for the community.” Gutmann, who has moved to Florida and launched a bid for Congress, tells me he would be “ecstatic to see a branch of Michaela open in the U.S., and hopefully many such schools.”

There are considerable hurdles to building networks of modest-cost private schools in the U.S., not the least of which is real estate. Great Hearts, for example, is partnering with churches that have available buildings that can host a school. There may be a role for education philanthropists to assist, particularly those who’ve grown disenchanted with their inability to drive lasting change in the public sector.

Universal ESAs are truly something different under the sun. If they are to be more than an immune response to discontent with traditional public schools, or a boutique option for the most engaged and well-off families, strong institutional alternatives to the public system are needed. That means well-run and effective schools that appeal to parents. I can think of no better example than Michaela.

Come to America, Ms. Birbalsingh.