Classical Choice: A Founder's Perspective

by Marcia Cassady, LCA co-founder and head of school 2007-2013

I still remember the article extolling progressive education that inspired me to set my three children on a path for which I've spent the rest of their lives apologizing.  The year was 1991. With a first-born entering first grade, its author pushed all the right emotional buttons with phrases like child centered, learning by doing, authentic assessment, critical thinking.  The photos conveyed happily engaged children, all collaborating on group projects with teachers smiling from the sidelines.  Appropriating the term "progressive" for this 20th-century creation was brilliant –– who questions progress?

By no coincidence, the article closely followed passage of Kentucky's Education Reform Act of 1990, with $1.3B in new school funding.  Progressive education merchants descended on those funds with curricula and teacher training. The reforms were piloted in 91-92 in a few schools, one of them in an adjacent county.  I actually paid tuition for my daughter to attend that public school pilot.

By 1997, all three children had finished primary schooling shaped by progressive reforms:  whole language reading instruction, technology-infused math education, social studies with little to no history, constant projects.  With no standardized testing, I was slow to see the growing gap between their aptitude and achievement. When we finally did private testing at U of L, the results showed serious deficits.  Anxious but clueless, we moved to a private school. To help cover tuition of $80K in pre-tax dollars, I returned to practicing law with my faith in schools remarkably intact.

In the fall of 1999, my daughter failed a freshman Algebra I exam.  I requested a conference for insights to share with a soon-to-be-hired tutor.  As the teacher directed her through a sample problem, we found that she didn't know 6 x 6 = 36.  But the insight I most needed came with the teacher's immediate response, "That's what calculators are for."  In that moment, I began to understand the pervasiveness of progressive education, across teacher training and credentialing and across both public and private schools.  

My children in grades 9, 7 and 5 were soon enrolled in Kumon Math, where all had to return to single-column addition to find a secure skill to build upon.  We needed more tutors for grade-level math, where they joined many classmates whose parents were comparing notes in parking lots.  The engineering types blamed the school's curriculum. On the language side, the school's mantra was 'balanced' language arts instruction, progressive-speak for minimizing explicit instruction in grammar and composition.  Here, even I could see cause and effect. Why the struggle with reading speed and comprehension? For starters, whole language instruction had limited the ability to parse out prefixes or suffixes to quickly see the roots in multi-syllabic words.  

By the time I understood what I'd allowed to happen, we had little time for repairs.  Desperate to choose remediation with more wisdom than I had chosen schools, I left the practice of law for full-time research into education that would continue for a decade.  

The Schools We Need by E.D. Hirsch was an epiphany.  While the claims for progressive education never came close to describing my children's experiences, Hirsch nailed them as if he'd been a classroom observer.  He was just as correct about what they needed to become engaged students again. In addition to Kumon, we added explicit instruction in all facets of language arts.  Happy to finally experience some learning success, my children hung in with the work that filled their evenings, increasingly frustrated at classroom time that felt wasted by comparison.  Even so, I was floored when my rising 7th grade son said, "Mom, can't we just homeschool?"    

My husband and I anxiously deliberated for months, especially after his 9th grade brother asked to be included.  The tipping point was my research into classical education, then in the early stages of a renaissance in reaction to progressive education's dismal outcomes.  Being done with blind faith, I researched its claims across every discipline, especially cognitive science. Exchanges with Hirsch and psychology professor Dan Willingham, author of Why Don't Students Like School?, clinched the decision.

The story of that terrifying, sleepless, wonderful year of homeschooling cannot be shared here, but the outcomes can.  Testing at U of L before and after that year showed gains of two to four years in all subjects for both boys. The most important thing learned was that joy in learning depends upon being good at learning.  Being good at learning is far easier when teaching methods both respect the need for efficiency in learning and properly account for how the mind works.  Progressive education failed monumentally in both respects, while methods that drew upon the wisdom of many centuries repaired the damage to the extent possible. *    

These were the lessons that inspired my role in founding LCA.  My co-founders were brilliant academics who understood better than I how the study of classical languages hones the young intellect and unlocks the logic in language –– how shared inquiry into great literature provides a vocabulary of powerful ideas and the confidence to use them –– how mathematics and music can be studied as languages that, with enough practice, open our minds to transcendent beauty –– how the study of history makes sense of the present –– how science can be informed by wisdom derived from all the rest.  But I knew something they never had to learn: the bitter regret of failing my children.

Together, we created the school of our collective dreams, Kentucky's only non-sectarian classical school.  We resisted the false dichotomies rampant in education debates and maintained thoughtful flexibility in pursuing our mission.  But we remain committed to a rigorous and knowledge-centered education, one that cultivates students' habits of mind and intellectual capacities in support of whatever they dream for themselves.  That is the source of the joy and respect, for each other and for learning, that we call the spirit of LCA.   

*Mrs. Cassady's daughter is an attorney with an LLM in trial advocacy and a former Jefferson County prosecutor who now works in the office of the Attorney General.  Her elder son earned an MBA, serves as a Central Bank Investment Officer, and continues his education in software development. Her younger son, also an attorney, attained an LLM in real estate development and practiced at Greenberg Traurig in Miami before joining the firm of Dinsmore & Shohl.