Ep. 42: Cool Schools with Acton Academies

March 27, 2018

In today’s episode of EdChoice Chats, we continue our Cool Schools series with an interview with Acton Academies Co-Founder Jeff Sandefer. He talks about how his family started Acton Academies and what their innovative model of education looks like in the classroom.

Mike McShane: Hello and welcome to another episode of EdChoice Chats. My name is Mike McShane, and I’m Director of National Research at EdChoice. Today’s podcast is part of a new series we’re embarking upon called Cool Schools, wherein we will profile passionate educators around the country and the schools that they lead.

This podcast series has two goals. The first is simply celebration. Starting a new school or running a great, existing school is hard work. Too often, it’s a thankless job. We want to celebrate people who are trying new and something different and kick the tires on their ventures to uncover lessons that they’ve learned and can share with other educators around the country.

The second goal is to try and stretch folks mind about what is possible in education. As education choice supporters, we at EdChoice spend a healthy amount of our time trying to promote education options that don’t exist yet. We push for states to pass laws for conditions for great new schools to open in scale. Many people struggle to wrap their minds around exactly what that might look like.

In this podcast, we’re going to highlight some of those potentialities. With quality school choice programs, innovative models like the ones we talk about here could be coming to a city near you.

At the onset, I would like to say we’re not going to try to use this podcast to educate whether or not these are “good or bad schools.” We’re not going to examine their rating and math scores and ask them why their 4th graders aren’t up to snuff. We are going to ask about mistakes that they’ve made, lessons they’ve learned, advice that they would give, and related questions that should be helpful for anyone listening even if you’re skeptical of their educational model or pedagogical strategy.

I’m always on the lookout for more cool schools to profile. If you know of one in your neck of the woods, please let me know about it.

On the podcast today, we have Jeff Sandefer who founded, along with his wife Laura, Acton Academies. Before that, he founded or co-founded nine companies including the multi-billion dollar energy firm Sandefer Capital. He’s also helped start this Acton School of Business, which is down in Austin, Texas. It’s this really innovative MBA program. He was named by Business Week as one of the top entrepreneurship professors in America and by the Economist as one of the top business professors in the world, which was fascinating.

I should say Jeff’s wife, Laura … As I said who was a co-founder in this has a new book out that’s talking about the history of Acton Academy. If this is a conversation that you’re interested in and you want to get all of the details, the book is called Courage to Grow: How Acton Academy Turns Learning Upside Down. Definitely worth checking into. There’s so much stuff going on here. Jeff and I are only going to be able to scratch the surface. Definitely check that book out. Without further ado, here is my conversation with Acton Academy’s Jeff Sandefer.

Well Jeff, it’s great to be with you today. I was wondering if we could maybe start at the beginning. How did Acton Academy, and I guess the web of Acton Academies, get started?

Jeff Sandefer: Well Mike, it really started as an experiment. I walked in to see our daughter’s middle school teacher, a fine math teacher. Our boys were both about to move from Montessori into traditional school. I asked him, “How quickly should we transition them?”

He said, “Immediately.”

I asked, “Why?”

He said, “Once they’ve had that kind of freedom, they’re not going to like sitting at a desk and being talked at all day.”

Before I could even, think about it I said, “I don’t blame them.”

He looked down for the longest time. I thought it offended him. He looked up and he shook his head, and he very quietly said, “I don’t either.”

I went home that day, and I really respected this man, and I told Laura, I said, “He was sending me a message.”

It was very clear. We’re done. We’re either going to homeschool. I thought of those two beautiful boys and how vivacious they were and curious. I said, “I’m just not going to put them in a traditional school. We’re not doing it.”

That was the start of Acton Academy with seven brave, young souls and a handful of families. Really starting with a blank sheet of paper and really imagining what learning could be like. And really not even school, really what learning could be like. We really had no earthly idea we would end up starting, Going from an elementary studio, to a middle school studio, and then launchpad, which is our word for high school. Or that it would spark, again accidentally, this whole network of Acton schools around the world.

Mike McShane: Now, you were, judging from your bio, quite busy at the time all of this was happening. I see serial entrepreneur, the Acton MBA program, all of these things that you’re involved with. How did you make the time to embark on this endeavor?

Jeff Sandefer: Well, I’m really glad you asked that. I better be clear about this. My wife is really the one that started Acton. Laura’s new, terrific book, by the way, Courage to Grow, is out. It’s really the origin story of Acton. I think it’s now got 82 five-star reviews on Amazon. It’s a terrific story about how we got started. We started it together, but she did all the heavy lifting.

I got called in to become the middle school guide, which is our word for teacher because we ended up firing the person we’d hired about a week before school started. I raised my hand and became the middle school guide and later the launchpad, high school and middle school, guide. I was drafted. I got a battlefield promotion.

It was really her idea to start the school. She’s the one that got it started. I was just along for the helping think about when you start a blank sheet of paper what sort of experiments you might try.

Mike McShane: Great. If we think about this from the perspective of a student, what is the student experience at an Acton Academy?

Jeff Sandefer: Sure. Our promises are very clear. We expect each and every person that enters our doorway, whether it’s a young person or a guide or a parent, to be on a hero’s journey and to find a calling that will change the world. We’re very clear about that. When you walk into this environment, you are walking in with the expectation that you’re a genius. And by genius, by the way, I do not mean 180 IQ. Not everyone’s a genius. Look at the word. The word doesn’t say 180 IQ. The word means having a special talent.

When you walk in, you are treated like a special person who deserves great, deep respect. [You] can really take charge of your own learning as early as six or seven. Truthfully, a learner-driven community, which is our word for it, is really not a school. It’s a place where people learn. It’s a mistake to think about it in any way like a traditional school. It doesn’t function that way. It’s more like being at Google than it is like being at a school.

Mike McShane: When it comes to things like a student’s schedule or their coursework, what does that look like?

Jeff Sandefer: In the morning, you would choose, during core skills time, which would typically be fairly quiet, you would choose what you wanted to do. Math today on Kahn Academy or Esteem Math or DreamBox if you were younger. You might choose to read a deep book, a life-changing book. You might pick up anything from Harry Potter, depending on where you were in your reading to War and Peace.

You might decide to do, instead of that, you’re going to work on a genre project on writing. You would probably have a critique for one of your studio mates that you need to deliver for one of them. You might have a piece you wanted to be critiqued. That would be in the morning. You might also, depending on the day, have a civilization Socratic discussion where one of your peers led a discussion on whether Machiavelli was, let’s say, evil and a genius or confused and good. You might have that whole Socratic discussion going.

Or in the afternoon, you would likely be on a quest. You would be on a narrative-based series of challenges. Maybe you’re Thomas Edison in his Menlo Park lab working on electricity experiments. You’re preparing, after a six week series of these challenges and this narrative, you’re going to have a public exhibition. And not like a science fair.

You’re going to have to actually deliver something to the public when they show up that was worth their time to show up. The whole series, the way it works is, you’re on a six-week sprint towards a public exhibition. In the morning, you’re working on core skills. In the afternoon, you’re working on these quests.

Here’s the kind of crazy part. It may be an entire week goes by and no adult even walks in the studio. This is all being led by young people themselves, who are delivering the challenges, who are conducting Socratic discussions. So it’s very, very, very student-driven.

Mike McShane: That’s amazing. Now, I would imagine though the adults that are in the building—he teachers or the middle school guy or the terminology that you have for it—it would take a special type of person to be able to facilitate that kind of learning and know when to offer a helping hand and when to stand back.

I’m curious, where do you get your teachers or your school leaders? What do you look for when you’re finding these people? How do you support them, help them develop professionally, all the sort of stuff that we think around finding really high quality educators?

Jeff Sandefer: Well, we really don’t do that. This is back where you really can’t think of this as a school. A guide, in our view, is more like a game maker. Your job is to set up an interesting end-of-game state. It might be a reward, but it might be that you’ve leveled up in a role.

You’re given this series of challenges. There’s still sort of extrinsic and intrinsic rewards, just like a regular game. Our challenge—our goal as guides—is to get out of the way as quickly as possible and to have the young people become game makers for themselves.

Literally, you cannot in the studio, ever answer a question. Ever. It is one of the few do not dos-

Mike McShane: Sure.

Jeff Sandefer: You can offer choices, like a Montessori guide in some cases might offer choices Or maybe an Outward Bound instructor might offer you challenges. Really, we never … Our young people have opinions and experts. Sal Khan is an expert. They have mentors and apprenticeships. They have lots of adults in their life, but they have no authority figure in the studio that’s doing anything other than offering some sort of series of challenges to play.

Mike McShane: Now, are students in the studio five days a week? Is it a normal school day? Is it a hybrid? Is it a mix? What does that look like?

Jeff Sandefer: They are typically, if they’re not traveling or out on an apprenticeship, they are in the studios five days a week. Now, they may be wondering outside looking at the clouds. They may be, just like Google, you don’t have to be inside your office all day-

Mike McShane: Sure.

Jeff Sandefer: But yes. It is a normal five day. 8:30 AM is the first launch, which might be a guide-led. It might be an eagle-led. Eagles are my scouts. We refer to them as eagles.

Mike McShane: Sure.

Jeff Sandefer: It might be an eagle-led launch. By 3:15, you’re finished. No homework. No tests. No grades. However, you do have to deliver badges. The badges are peer-reviewed and have to be of excellent quality, and the badge’s got to pass. There’s no grades, but everything has to be done to a level of excellence or it doesn’t count. Those excellent standards are set by the young people themselves.

Mike McShane: How many Acton Academies are around the country, around the world now? How many students are participating?

Jeff Sandefer: As of today, we have 67 Acton affiliates. Again, this is kind of by accident. We let one friend open one, then a second friend open one.

Suddenly, there was a flood. There’s 67 Actons around the world today. This count’s about right, but I think in 13 countries, 24 states and provinces, probably 50 cities. We’ll open another … I think we’ll have 150 opening total by December. We have over 8,000 applications for parents who want to open one.

Our big challenge, now, is continuing to pick very quality owners of these affiliates and equipping parents to launch their own. We have a gigantic backlog that we really can’t service right now.

Mike McShane: How do you look at opening these? Do you all have pretty tight controls over the type of learning environment or who gets involved? Is it looser, where they’re able to shape it to meet their own needs? How do you think about that?

Jeff Sandefer: Yeah. We have very tight controls in an odd way. We tend to only award affiliates to parents that are going to put their own young people, their own children, in the academy. We almost always only award to people who have either run serious projects or who have started their own business. We tend to look for people who have trusted networks. They’re someone that their community looks up to. When they say I’m going to try this new form of learning, they have credibility.

As far as quality control, every Acton has to make the same promises to their families that we make. They have to make them publicly and all the time. At our Acton, and every other Acton, every week a customer satisfaction survey, a net promoter survey, goes out. It says would you recommend Acton Academy to your friends and family? One to five scale. Then there’s room for comments. All of that is open to the public.

In other words, you could go read every Acton Academy’s feedback if you wanted to. For ours, and our rule is, if you’re not having very high customer satisfaction ratings, we’re going to remove the name from your school. We’re trusting parents and young people, when you’re making very clear promises, that they can judge whether they’re learning or not.

Mike McShane: That leads me to sort of my next question that I’m interested in. There’s no grades. There’s no tests. How do you measure success? How do you know if what you’re doing is working?

Jeff Sandefer: We have a couple of ways. The most interesting way is once a year we’ll take, it used to be called the Stanford 10 Achievement Test. Now, they’ve kind of phased those out. Now, we’re taking the Iowa Test. Just to make sure the basics  are being covered and that we’re not doing something too far off—something’s going on.

We take those tests. We’re seeing, on average, the young people move two to two and a half grade levels per year, every year until they max out the test. We look at that and we say, “Okay. At least that’s working. Now we can relax.”

There’s all sorts of ways we measure effort, or that they measure effort with each other. They do 360 peer reviews for measuring who’s being tough-minded and warm-hearted in the studio as kind of leaders.

The badges certainly measure excellence. Anyone can look at your badge. There’s all sorts of ways. The stuff that’s really interesting, the self-governance and the self-determination, you know, I would say the best way to measure that is go to Acton’s Facebook live. Just this week, we did an open house. Watch the young people on the panel think and respond. See if that’s what you think young people should look like. Because the things that are really interesting—self-management, self-governance—you can’t measure empirically. And that’s what matters.

Mike McShane: I think that’s right. One of the things that as you’re describing this. From how you look at who’s going to open a school. I think it’s fascinating parents putting in their own children, putting their money where their mouth is and looking for folks who have run serious projects or started businesses, have these trusted networks, using these types of 360 peer analysis. I mean, this is very different than the kind of dominant educational model even in many places that would be considered … If you want to use the term progressive or outside-of-the-box schooling-

Jeff Sandefer: Sure.

Mike McShane: Method. My question is, I would imagine and correct me if I’m wrong, you deal with a fair bit of skepticism. There are these sort of established patterns, routines, cultures in education. Many of the things that you’re doing is kind of a fundamental challenge to that. I guess, what I would be sort of interested in from maybe the perspective of parents who are interested or other people when you talk to these: What are some common things that people can’t seem to wrap their mind around? And how do you talk them through it?

Jeff Sandefer: Sure. I mean, the first thing they’re seeing is we’re not really in the education reform business. I think there’s 100 different models that’ll work. I’m a good friend of Sal Kahn’s. I love Kahn Lab School. It’s different than what we do. I think Maria Montessori was a genius. I love what Summit Public Schools is doing. We love what a lot of different people’s models are doing. We’re just a different model.

We’re not really in the ed reform business. We’re in the serving parents and young people who want to learn business. We don’t really get involved in those kind of battles. Younger people come in and say, “Well, you have to have grades” or “You need to have more standardized tests.”

We just don’t get into those arguments. If you believe that, we’re not the right place. We’re not trying to convert people. We’re not trying to start a movement. We’re not trying to do anything other than serve the parents that want what we’re offering. We just don’t get in a lot of debates about it.

I’m not being smug. It’s just like, if people think we’re wrong, I agree with them. I think we’re probably wrong too. I think we’ve probably figured out 15% of this model. Literally, while I’ve been on this phone call and I’ve been on this podcast with you, we’ve probably had three suggestions from our 67 current owners on our Google forum saying, “Hey I tried this in the studio today. This worked, and this didn’t.”

We’re iterating so quickly to change things and improve them that if somebody thinks we’re doing it wrong, I would wholeheartedly agree with them—totally agree with them. We’ve probably screwed most of it up. We’re going to fix it. Hopefully, and when I say we, it’ll be one of these owners in Malaysia or Peru or Oklahoma City who is going to come up with a new thing we’re going to try. We’re just going to try new things until we find more of them that work.

We’re not in the battle of trashing traditional education. I’m a product of public schools. Love public schools. We’re just trying something new that’s a grand experiment for people who want to try it.

Mike McShane: Well I think that’s a fascinating tack to take. I think something that the broader, if you want to call it, school choice movement or any of those things, could learn from. At the core, it’s about creating wonderful learning environments for children. If that was more front and center, as opposed to a lot of this political hand fighting, it would be interesting to see how the kind of contours of that debate would change.

I am curious, just as a kind of policy person myself, are there ways in which federal policy or state policy or local policies intersect with your schools? Are there policies that make your life more difficult? Are there policies that make it such that you can operate in some states or some countries and not other ones?

Jeff Sandefer: Yeah. I would say … And again, we don’t, when an owner comes to us, we say, “We can’t advise you on the regulatory issues, either educational regulations in your state or your country for that matter or the local regulations about health and safety and fire. You need to go figure those out.” As you pointed out, they vary state to state.

Generally, we find the states and the countries that are friendly with homeschoolers are friendly with Acton. We can co-exist in those models. In the states that aren’t friendly with that, we just aren’t in right now. Again, we’re not going down to state legislature and trying to change rules.

Generally, the states that are friendly to homeschooling and experimentation, it just kind of makes sense for Actons. The ones that aren’t, we’re going to tip our hat to the home schoolers and the innovators. When they can change public policy, hopefully some parents will open an Acton there.

Mike McShane: Sure. Now, what is tuition at Acton Academy?

Jeff Sandefer: Tuition varies from across the network. People can set it up for different rates depending on what they’re doing. Our tuition’s $10,000 a year. We just made that up. Some Actons charge as little as $3,500 a year. Other ones charge as much as $20,000 a year. It varies depending on the goals of the parents and what kind of facilities you have. We’re increasingly convinced that we can drive the cost down to about $2,500 per student per year including facilities. That’s kind of our goal is just to see if the model will support that. We have a lot of owners who couldn’t care less about that.

Mike McShane: Sure.

Jeff Sandefer: We have parents that are willing to pay $6,500. That’s competitive with a good, Catholic private school or something parents can afford our scholarship. They’ll charge $6,500. We’re, again, staying out of that. We’re interested in driving the cost of the model down just as an experiment. That’s only at our one Acton. Other Actons are pursuing different kinds of cost models.

Mike McShane: Sure. I want to close with two questions. I think one leads into what you just said there. One kind of looking forward and one kind of looking backward.

I’ll start with the forward-looking question. That is, what do you think the next year holds, the next five years, the next ten years for Acton? I know you mentioned the possibility of being up to 150 schools. Is that going to become 250? Is that going to become 350? What are—in the kind of short, medium, and slightly longer term—hold for Acton?

Jeff Sandefer: Well, I’m stunned we have one. You know, the fact that we have people that want to open them … We’re not trying to start thousands of schools. We’re just going to try to satisfy the customers that we have. And I don’t know where that’s going to lead. I would be surprised by, given the demand and early success, we won’t have several hundred. Who knows, maybe we’ll 1,000 or even a couple thousand. How we deliver and how the model continues to evolve is still a mystery. I don’t think we know that. I’m just grateful to have one. We’re not trying to go out and have a thousand.

Frankly, if we have a thousand, it would still be one tenth of one percent of the market. It’s not going to bother anybody. I don’t have an answer. We’re getting prepared to have a lot more and to serve a network and have the ability to create new learning challenges and share them with the network. We’re getting prepared to have more. That’s only good stewardship. I don’t necessarily expect that to happen. We’re just going to see where it goes.

Mike McShane: That’s great. My last question, looking backwards, if you could go back in time to when you started all of this and give yourself one piece of advice—and if you want to go with more than one piece of advice that’s fine as well—but if you could go back and give yourself one piece of advice, what would it be?

Jeff Sandefer: The one piece of advice would be that young people are capable of far more than we ever imagined. They’re capable of ten if not a hundred times more than we can imagine. We should treat them with that kind of respect. I don’t mean … Look they’re still young people. They’re still learning. It’s not Lord of the Flies, do anything they want.

Acton has enormous amounts of freedom and responsibility built into the systems. But at the end of the day, if you treat young people with the proper respect, they’re not cogs to be created into productive citizens. They’re heroes in a hero’s journey. They’re individual geniuses. If you treat them with that respect, more often than not, they’ll respond. They will do things that will quite simply amaze you.

Mike McShane: Well, awesome! Thank you so much. Thank you for ending with that. I think that’s a great challenge to all of the educators and folks that are involved that are listening to this podcast. Jeff Sandefer, thank you so much for taking the time.

Jeff Sandefer: Thank you Mike.

Mike McShane: Wow. What a fun conversation … Such an interesting perspective. Part of the reason that I wanted to do this podcast and that we’re putting it out is that we want to find people that look at education, look at schooling from a completely new lens. I don’t know if you heard me as I was talking through … Trying to say what about teachers? What about all of these things? That kind of normal grammar of schooling that we’re used to hearing about. It was so cool that at every point he sort of like, “Nope. We think about this differently. We have a totally different approach to it.”

Hopefully, that was thought provoking for all of you. Like I said at the beginning, if you’re interested in knowing more, Laura Sandefer’s book Courage to Grow: How Acton Academy Turns Learning Upside Down gives more details there. A really enjoyable, thought-provoking conversation. Hope you all enjoyed it as much as I did.

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