As a father, educator, and person, I strongly value excellence, not only for myself and my family, but also for others looking for it in an educational world today characterized increasingly by mediocrity. The ideas behind Atonement Academy come out of many years of thinking deeply about why we have such mediocre results in our education system as a whole. While there are certainly some amazing schools, both public and private, there are an overwhelming number of schools that are mediocre at best and at worst significantly and negatively impacting the lives of children.
I strongly believe that the root of this problem is not in the lack of well-intentioned and competent teachers. I respect all of my teaching colleagues, including parents teaching their kids at home. The problems we now face are both systemic and cultural. Our education system is structured in certain ways that inhibit excellence. The socialistic structure of a government entity with its own elected board, able to levy its own taxes, accountable to increasingly smaller numbers of citizens in local elections, and that has monopolistic power over the educational marketplace will normally and inevitably lead to mediocrity unless such a system exists in a cultural environment that strongly mitigates against such mediocrity by widely agreed upon norms of excellence. Sweden, much touted as a public education system that works well, has a very cohesive society. Once upon a time, Americans shared a much more cohesive set of values and expectations that arguably led to decent educational results. As we have lost cohesion as a society, we have expected that it would not affect the quality of our schools. We were wrong. No amount of tinkering within the current system will achieve the results of the previous generation or two. And the root of the problem is not funding, which has increased significantly while the quality has been decreasing.
So what can be done? Do we need to try to keep the current system but somehow go back in time to an earlier point when America was more cohesive and less pluralistic? I do not think this is possible. The answer is to create smaller, nonpublic schools with cohesive cultures of excellence. It is extremely difficult for any public school, including charters, to incorporate a strong sense of shared values. Public charter and magnet schools can usually do this better than public district schools, but private schools have the opportunity to create a new standard of excellence in the educational marketplace today, and one that people are increasingly hungry to acquire for their children.
I believe that young people are hungry for the sorts of challenges and responsibilities that produce excellence, but they need guidance that is uncommon in high schools. Guidance should include placing as much responsibility on the student as possible. To empower someone means necessarily to make their life more difficult rather than easier. It means giving them responsibility, not coddling them. We talk and hear a lot about empowerment, but are we really doing it? To be empowered means having the ability to make choices and bear the consequences of those choices. This must come from a culture of high expectations in an organization small enough for everyone to have a place of responsibility.