Is the Ron Clark Academy a scalable model of school excellence?

The Ron Clark Academy looks like a wonderful school. But is it realistic to expect a significant number of our teachers to teach like this?

57 Responses to “Is the Ron Clark Academy a scalable model of school excellence?”

  1. I saw this on CNN too and went looking for info on their site and elsewhere…not to diminish from what they’re doing, but here are some advantages they have that would be impossible to give to all public schools:

    1. Students must apply and “fit” the school, not vice versa.
    2. Big money from donors allows two international field trips plus many domestic field trips in every grade (covered by the sliding scale tuition and sponsorships). No students are allowed to opt out of these trips.
    3. Parents are required to give 40 hours of community service to the school each year.
    4. No kids with IEPs (Special Ed students) are admitted.
    5. The school has about 100 students, who are required to do all four years at the same school. No one is admitted after fifth grade (the school is grades 5-8).
    6. Full, non-discounted tuition is $18,000, indicating a substantial per-pupil spending rate.

    So, if I could get my school to have only the students we select, in small number, with no one moving in our out, with no special ed issues, with requirements for parent participation and consent to our curriculum, PLUS plenty of dough for great educational experiences, I wonder if our school would be lauded as a model for other schools?

    • This post debunks the news propaganda that dancing is the thing making these students learn better. I knew it sounded fishy. Basically the students are already smart, motivated, and have a stable family unit that participates in their education. Those are the reasons they do well, not dancing.

      • I just learned about the academy from a book, not the dancing. The students do not come from stable families…almost all are in a low socio-economic class. There are behavior problems–kids admitted were kicked out of their previous schools. Some are living without electricity. It sounds like the founders do a lot of fund-raising to make this a reality. 95% of kids get financial aid.

    • 1) The school does interview students, but the point is to have a diverse population with different strengths and weaknesses. It is not just people who “fit the school. They set expectations from us and learn from them.
      2) Depending on the trip, students may take a test that determines whether they go or not. Parents pay part of the money to take trips, and often times the board does not agree. The board only agrees because they come to the school and see the energy that both the students and teachers have, making them want to give the school more.
      4) There are ESOL students, students with learning disabilities, speech impediments, etc.
      6) You were correct in the “sliding scale tuition” portion. Not all students pay that much, and even so, a lot of that money goes into running the actual physicality for the school. The Ron Clark Academy is not just made up of it’s walls, it is magic that lives in the teachers and students. I do not appreciate when that is diminished.

    • I am so glad I am not the only teacher who saw this when I visited this school. I asked about special needs kids and was brushed off. I also asked where the art room was and was told there wasn’t one. The students are hand picked and go through tracing before school starts. I felt like I was I. A big dog and pony show when I was there. I just was no impressed because it is not the real world.

    • Actually, the DO have students with IEPs. They don’t even look at the IEPs for the first month of school. Ron Clark himself said this yesterday while I was at RCA. Second, tuition is a sliding scale. And all of the funds from visiting teachers and Ron’s book sales go to scholarships. I’m not sure where you got your info, but it isn’t correct. And educators can spend all the time in the world making excuses for why they can’t teach like the ones at RCA, but time and energy would be better spent deciding what they CAN do to improve their classrooms.

  2. This is obviously not at all a model that could be widely utilized. But good for those 100 students — what a great opportunity for them.

  3. Scott,

    It looks like a great school with some excellent teaching strategies. I don’t think, though, that it’s necessary to have a significant number of teachers to use them. I think there are many different teaching strategies that could be equally effective — particularly with a group of students who come to school ready to be engaged.

    What the video report neglects to mention, and which most media reports on charter schools also fail to include, is the fact that typically the students enrolled in these schools come from the most motivated, stable and driven families. These schools often say that it’s open to anybody via lottery, but as Richard Rothstein has shown, the most engaged parents are the ones who will enroll in the lotteries.
    (for example, this article talks about a mother who drives her son 80 miles one-way each day to the school

    So, yes, maybe we can pick up some good ideas from Ron Clark’s Academy that some of us can use in our classrooms — if it fits our teaching styles and if it works in our classroom situation with students who might be facing different challenges.

    But lets also recognize that no one school — especially one that can self-select their students — offers the perfect teaching methods that we should all replicate.


  4. Larry, do you think that charter schools could have some lessons on parent engagement for public schools? My public school has been doing a lot more around reaching out and having events for parents to attend and participate in, and we’re going out in the neighborhood door-to-door. This is what new charters often do to recruit students, but it’s a good way to stay in touch too. A lot of local public schools have done a push to inform parents about kindergarten registrations in neighborhoods (instead of just counting on the parents “knowing” or reading about it in the news). I think a lot of this reach out and recruitment comes from seeing charters do it.

  5. Alice,

    It’s a great way to connect to the neighborhood. You’re right — charters do it. Public schools involved with community organizing groups also do these “neighborhood walks.”

    I think we can all learn from what has worked well in other schools — public, private, or public/private charter. Let’s just pick and choose…


  6. The stable home life piece is incredibly important. If every student in my school came from a stable home the vast majority of our problems would be solved. While I respect what Ron Clark is doing, the challenges faced by public education make a revolution based on his school’s model virtually impossible. As Mark said, great for those kids. I do hope that other schools benefit from some of the practices at the Ron Clark Academy.

  7. I’m with Jeremy. Give me a school that fits all of the requirements of the the RCA and, of course, kids will achieve.

    This is a boutique private school funded by a multi-millionaire who enrolls kids based on a very specific set of criteria. We’re not even sure if the Ron Clark Academy is sustainable – it’s only in its 3rd year.

  8. Is it realistic to expect teachers to engage their children through creativity and enthusiasm? Let’s throw away old-fashioned teaching methods and create an environment children enjoy being in. I’ll bet a majority of teachers who watch that video would respond, “That would never work in my school.” With that attitude, they’ve already given up.

    Hall Monitor

  9. Scaling this model up is a HUGE issue, as is the issue of what kind of students the school attracts and accepts. The concerns regarding the effectiveness of public schools are not simple and one-dimensional. Schools in urban areas where the majority of students are disadvantaged and have a myriad of challenges are different from schools in rural areas and schools in the suburbs. There simply is not one simple fix. However, there can be consistency with a focus on teaching and learning in ALL schools and in how schools and school districts must be structured and must be operated, as well as the role policy-makers should play in the education process. There also should be some consistent expectations on the proficiencies ALL students must develop to be well-educated and prepared. But, we love to watch stories of glitzy, showy teachers – or charismatic leaders – problem is – there are not enough of them (nor do I believe they are needed). We seem to love the idea of the hero-teacher, hero-leader instead of every day people doing purposeful, systematic, consistent work day in and day out.

  10. So, this model does not offer a lot in the way of parent engagement, since it’s built in with a competitive entry school. Some of the delivery of instruction model here could be useful for some teachers.

    Is anyone troubled by the fact that in spite of being a school with a waiting list, and trips to Europe, etc. most of the students are African American. One mother maybe trucking her kid 80 miles to that school, but white families just don’t seem to see any value in this model. I love that they are doing so much for African Americans, but I remain troubled that most of the solutions promulgated for “fixing” education for African Americans involve more, not less segregation.

  11. Talked to a teacher who went to an in-service where Ron Clark spoke (on a table of course).
    Asked her questions about techniques, tips, etc. She gave a few but said it mostly invigorating to listen to him.
    WEll that can’t be good …teachers must have hand outs, sure fire solutions, and multiple examples.
    Here is how I see his message…
    Get as engaged as you want the students to be!!!
    I know this is the ultimate sure fire solution and all the engaged teachers, administrators, parents, and students can give you thousands of examples.

  12. I know this won’t necessarily be a popular comment to make, but when I look at the Ron Clark Academy I’m reminded of Rafe Esquith’s There Are No Shortcuts. These are both approaches for working with students in at risk situations that rely heavily on faculty giving 150%. Most high quality educators I know who operate at this level of investment don’t tend to question this approach, but I have to. While I laud any educator who is ready to give their all and then keep giving, I also see it as fundamentally unscalable at a systemic level and more or less unsustainable at an individual level.

    In essence we currently have a de facto model for excellence which relies deeply on passionate teachers, and seeks to sustain them through advanced pedagogy and curricula. When we hold up instances of excellence like the Ron Clark Academy it draws our focus to innovative instruction (if we’re looking for the good rather than assuming a cynical lens), but doesn’t really lend us a means for providing perfectly capable educators who consider teaching their day job rather than their passion a path towards greater effectiveness.

  13. There’s probably something to be said for the amount of physical exercise going on in that classroom, and it’s clear that Ron Clark has the students’ attention! I cannot tell if the students are actually engaged with learning mathematical concepts and with the ideas generated, or just with the atmosphere that might be more fun than the average classroom. That alone might be a vast improvement, of course, since they’ll certainly pick up something if they’re paying attention.

    On the other hand, I imagine that I would have been one of those kids who didn’t fit this model, who might even have been intimidated by the teaching style. I still remember feeling bombarded and lost by my era’s fast moving multi-media presentations that were supposed to engage us. I would have much rather read a book. It seemed less threatening.

  14. Tina – I agree with you, and thanks for identifying a major part of teaching. Motivating and engaging students is the key to learning success but also to personal teaching success. As a teacher, I am saddened by the number of teachers who can’t/won’t find opportunities in the backyards of their local community and school systems, and worse yet, aren’t encouraged to do so by school administration. I find things that interest mu students and take local field trips that are low-cost, meaning no $$ for gas for busses, and have cheap admissions to lots of interesting things. I encourage students to get involved in community projects and advise a volunteer club with no supplemental pay. How many teachers would do that!

  15. I think it is a differnt way of teaching and learing, but only for the few families that have the means to pay the tuition, especially in todays economy. Want to be blown away by what a Charter School can do?? Check out Sarasota Military Academy in Sarasota, Florida.
    This is a 4 year, public Free Military High School Academy in Sarasota that has all the activities of a Private school without the cost and has over 700 Female and Male that attend..and NO there is no requirements to serve in any branch of the service. The Military aspect is only used to promote a discplined atomosphere. Thank you.
    Founder of Sarasota Military Academy.
    Burt L. Bershon

  16. If they are receiving funding for this type school why is there only 100 students attending? better yet why is there a tuition involved while people and sponsors have donated millions of dollars? Yes it is a different approach to teaching, but to spend 18K a year going through elementary school, who can afford this except the affluent? While many schools house 400 over more students in a public school, this is a drop in the bucket for the few who can enjoy the privilege of attending this sort of school..For me, i think everyone needs to open their eyes to Charter Schools as the new advanced and free way to educating our youth!

  17. Engaging instruction is always preferable over sit and get – no matter what the setting. We should all dig deep to find that something within us that we can give to our students to engage instead of just to “deliver”. We don’t need a hand picked student population and international field trips to write good, engaging, diverse lessons. Spectacular teachers in some of our poorest schools do this every day.

    Of course, all those extra perks sure help…lucky students! And I’d rather see 100 students get the opportunity than none.

    • Finally, a positive comment. Thank you! I have almost finished reading his entire book, Molasses Classes. I wonder if many of the people commenting here have actually read it or are just making assumptions about the RCA? I teach Speech to middle school kids, most of whom do not speak English as a native language. Ron Clark’s principles and methods are priceless and inspiring. My students, even the formerly sleepy ones, are certainly learning because no matter how little energy I feel at the start of the day, I find ways to get energized so that they’ll catch the spirit. IT WORKS!

  18. Few of the students spend $18000 to attend. Many are not affluent and are provided scholarships to attend. All families are asked to pay something, but it may be a minor amount each month.

    It seems from the comments that many are too hung up on the cost of the Ron Clark Academy. It’s taking the focus off of the real key to the school. Watch what the teachers are doing and look at the results the students are getting. I was fortunate enough to go with a group from our school to visit the school. It’s incredible to witness firsthand, but what they do there can be done anywhere.

    People need to get over the hangups with the advantages of the way the school is set up. Why not, instead, look at what works there? They have teachers who hold students to high standards, academically and behaviorally. They engage students in the lessons, involving the students directly in their own learning. They use technology. They create an environment where students look forward to going to school every day. They get to know their students personally. How are we doing in all of these areas? Are any of these so cost-prohibitive that we can’t replicate them in our schools? Focusing on all of the “advantages” of the Ron Clark Academy takes the focus off of the problems we face in some classrooms with unimaginative and less than engaging teaching.

  19. @Matt

    Count me as one of those who is ‘hung up’ on what it costs. Ron Clark Academy is highly subsidized by Ron Clark and many other big donors.

    You can only responsibly make the claims that you’re making after you have actually replicated what is done at RCA in a major urban public school. Don’t tell me what is possible on a public school budget; show me.

  20. We educators are great at making excuses and saying it only happens somewhere else because it costs more money, has selective enrollment, blah, blah, blah…If you have ever heard the early Ron Clark story, he was successful with engaging teaching in very urban settings in which most of us would not choose to work in. His high expectations and caring about students does not cost money but rather an investment in passion by the individual educator…

    Please stop making excuses about why we can’t be better! We can and it should start with each one of us tomorrow. I know I am going to take the positive comments from your posts and the energy that Ron and his staff exhibits and get better at what I do tomorrow.

    We must keep moving forward with engaging students…or we should find a job that doesn’t require such “hard work.”

  21. This is not an issue of what we choose to inspire us to be better teachers; the question at the top of this post asks – is the RCA a scalable model. The answer to that question is a clear NO. We can all be inspired to do better, and maybe watching the RCA video will trigger some creative thoughts in teachers or administrators. The model of the school is not, however, scalable to large districts.

  22. I find it hard to believe fellow educators would be so critical of someone changing the lives of students no matter what type of school it is. Maybe I should have known better, in all the schools I have ever worked in the dynamic teachers threatened the likes of those who became teachers for one simple reason….Summer break. Those who became teachers for the wrong reasons will forever be protected by the tenure system. This is why public schools will never look like the Ron Clark Academy…

    Many thanks to Ron Clark for being a leader and teacher even in his days in the Carolinas and New York City.

  23. The field trips and out-of-class experiences (and thus the expense) are PART of Ron Clark’s approach, and can’t be separated from it. Blame it on lazy teachers if you want, but it would require quite a few changes in funding and policies to extend his (very successful) method to even an entire school district much less every school district. Yes, enthusiasm and hard work are part of it, but don’t insult teachers by pretending they can do what he’s doing within the typical constraints of public schools.

    • When a teacher can reach one extra student by any method in a lifetime, then every effort is worth it.
      It is significant to that learner, and every person whose life is somehow connected to that learner.
      Talking numbers takes away from humanity.
      I chose to teach in a community where there are generations of low performers in the hope of reaching, not groups and crowds of learners, but groups and crowds of individuals. Let’s get humane.

  24. The Ron Clark Academy looks like a wonderful school. But is it realistic to expect a significant number of our teachers to teach like this?
    This is the original question.
    No, it is not a realistic expectation for a significant number of teachers to teach like this.
    Does that really matter? If one or an insignificant number of teachers learn to teach and be engaged like Ron Clark and it makes a difference to one or an insignificant number of students won’t that be worth it? Is it realistic to ask for a significant number of teachers to embrace a new teaching idea or method before it is given value? Technology use in education started with insignificant numbers of teachers and administrators embracing an idea and has become extremely significant.

    • Couldnt agree more with you Tina. What we need is someone who can inspire our teachers and us too!

      • But he can’t teach other students because he has his own students to teach. That’s why he’s teaching your teachers to be like him.

  25. Scalable? Sadly, no.

    1) This model is built on personality. Good inspiration and motivation and fun, but not all can pull off this type of energy.

    2) Grant funded, tuition, limited to 100 students – yes a costly little undertaking per student. With direct payment also comes parental involvement. These stats SHOULD indicate good scores. If not, it is clearly LIMITING their learning. Public school options here? Few.

    3) How about that first lawsuit for negligence when a student who was encouraged to jump on a table and dance falls and has major injuries? I would say that would really hamper this approach in terms of “reckless endangerment” – remember those involved parents?

    • Ron Clark throws kids out of his school at the slightest chance they won’t be able to keep up. In Jan 09 he tossed 10 students out from the 30 he just admitted in Sept 08. 16 Students that left a good public school(hard to get into) found they could not get back in their old school after Mr. Clark gave them the boot. All that glitters is not gold, and sadly some children are getting hurt behind this, but he doesn’t seem to care. It’s getting to be all about the $$$

  26. Anyone better aquainted with the legal process want to weigh in on the legal aspect of #3 in my last post?

    Is RCA mitigating their potential losses by doing something besides insurance?

    Am I wrong to think that this is an opportuntiy for an upset parent (and they will be no matter what they say in advance) and a personal injury lawyer to see this as a dangerous activity for middle school students promoted regularly by people acting as custodians of these kids? In loco parentis…or something like that, right?

  27. Even those not “passionate” about teaching can easily become more effective. They must be one willing to think outside the box, to be flexible, and at least approach new ideas with an open mind. They must also be willing to take advice, one of the hardest things for people to do.
    Create games to teach the mundane, such as prefixes and suffixes. I don’t consider myself a Ron Clark, but after 12 years of teaching, I have created art projects, poems, songs, etc. to help make the mundane more interesting for the kids. You have to find a way to connect the information with what interests the kids and they will learn.
    After a year of battling the “Oh, this is boring” and the kids not retaining the meanings of prefixes and suffixes, I came up with “Supersuffix” and “Powerful Prefix” games and now, the kids enjoy it, ask for it, cheer it, and remember it. That’s all it really takes. Find ways to engage the kids and they will learn. Grammar lessons can include a scavenger hunt, math lessons become playground games — there are all sorts of ways to be a good teacher.

  28. In Washington DC, yes our nation’s capitol, $15,000 is spent per student (don’t remember the source) and has the worst educated children in the nation. Ron Clark, anybody. A motivated principal and willing teachers can change the atmosphere of the school and the dynamic their classrooms. Using some of his ideas is certainly better than none.

  29. I personally like Ron Clark and wanted to comment because I now have aspirations to start my own Academy/private school. The reason why I wanted to start my own was because I know how limited public education can be with the approaches we can use to teach students. As an educator, I am a firm believer that just offering to pay teachers more with upcoming governmental programs is not enough for public education. We also know that calling schools failures is not working either. Thus, teachers need to have the freedom to teach with fun and innovative approaches (scripted or not-the fun and motivational teaching needs to appear). I am a complete advocate for this and I am convinced that private school teaching approaches need to be allowed in public schools. The sad part is that there will be the court of public opinion among those already in charge who might create the resistance. Parents and teachers need to buy into the approaches and since Ron Clark pays more, this is where Pay For Performance would apply. When teachers volunteer for more money based on scores, then they should be required to be trained in this way.

  30. I just visited RCA. I am sick of educators going negative. Can his model be replicated? Only if you as the teacher have passion for your content and for kids. Public education is sorely lacking this. It doesn’t cost a dime. Just energy and passion.

    • I’m sorry, but you’re 100% wrong. RCA is like coaching an all-star team. They get to pick and choose the students that they want, and can get rid of them for not performing. We have universal public education, we teach everyone, not just who we feel like allowing to attend!

      • I agree wholeheartedly with Bill. If what another poster said about not accepting students with IEP’s is true, that’s a deal breaker for me. I’d like to see the RCA do this as a neighborhood public school.

  31. I think lost in the debate is the buy-in from parents. The RCA (and other successful charters) work in large part due to parental buy-in. Parents apply and often commute great distances to get their children into these schools. The people tending to take their children out of neighborhood public school are those who are motivated enough to be involved in their child’s academic lives and show the committment to have a vested interest in their success. That being said, it’s not fair to compare the RCA to public school models. It must be nice to cherry-pick your students (and parents).

    As a teacher, I’ve read several of Ron’s books and I have found many techniques that I’ve been able to successfully implement in my own school and classroom. At the same time, while I admire his passion and comittment to students, he is first and foremost about Ron Clark. All the name dropping and gloating in his books gets a bit old.

    There is a place for the RCA’s of the world, but as a scaleable model for a universal public education system, I would have to say that is wishful thinking. Until charters like RCA accept all students, include those students and families with a wide range of disabilities and issues, comparing the two in terms of student engagement or achievement is apples to oranges.

  32. It’s all fake.
    All fake.
    Guys, you have to look beyond the glamour and the ‘inspiration’ and the getting-on-the-desk, and the ‘Mr. Clark’ gimmick of the school. Because beyond that, it’s an unstructured organization that is about to topple any minute now. Because even when this forum was posted, signs of financial struggles were starting to erupt, and now, in July 2013, RCA is BROKE. B-R-O-K-E. Not Bankruptcy Broke, but…broke. Five staff members are leaving, and so far, only three are being replaced. And they don’t take all those ‘magical’ trips anymore. As a matter of fact, the fifth grade trip, the only one by the way for the year, was almost cancelled because of, in their words ‘difficulties’ (translation: because we’re broke). From: a current student

  33. I am a teacher and I get very nervous every time I see Ron or the students dancing around on the tables. I would imagine there must be more than a few terrible falls and traumatic head injuries every year. If you fell off a desk you’re going to land on chairs, other tables, a hard floor, or God forbid, students.

  34. Charles A. Sendrey Reply December 27, 2013 at 8:57 pm rated close to 25-30 in mathematics; close to 20 on the international scale in science. I would be in agreement with anything that improves our position in the world. Yet, the Ron Clark approach does not appear to address the problems in math and science. Maybe the dance steps and choral approach improve motivation to attend school, but I wonder how this translates to higher test scores.

  35. @ Zyron the current student, thank you for that comment, my son was one of the students kicked out of Ron Clark’s school, I always felt it was about the money even though he kicked out mine and nine others that year right when Ophra Winfrey gave him 385k. My son who is now 15 just told me he felt that Mr. Clark was disappointed he wasn’t into the singing and dancing. It never made any sense to me and all these “educators” are debating about models and the IEP issues the bottom line is no school will be successful without the commitment to the students to see them all the way through. Ron Clark is a fraud the total opposite of that movie.

    • wish I could speak to you! My son is there and I’m removing him! This is his last year, and he’s only in 6th.

  36. @Zyron didn’t they go to Utah and I believe Germany and South Africa or Russia recently?

    As a former teacher in a public school, some of Ron Clark’s methods of instruction or very similar to my own. My goal was to get the students excited about learning so that they would take ownership of their educations. My scores were always high and it wasn’t all my doing and I had no extra money (I do understand that money helps.) I had students who were special education and students with dyslexia, behavior problems and many other problems. I did innovative and creative projects and outside of the box teaching. I “borrowed” ideas from other teachers.

    That’s what you do with everything in life. You learn from others. Take what you can back to your school. Leave or ignore the rest. No one said that everyone had to do things exactly like RCA.

    Kudos to those kids who “fit” in and have the opportunity to travel, etc. I also know that the process for selecting teachers is very strict there, unlike most public schools. More power to RCA. I don’t blame him for being selective. If you remember, Oprah hand-picked the students that would attend her school in Africa. In some countries, some students go to work instead of high school. It’s a private school right? Well they can be selective. Believe it or not some public schools are too.

    Kudos to RCA’s staff and students. To those who got kicked out, the best revenge is to make them think that they had kept you. Everyone can’t and isn’t supposed to be at RCA for whatever reason. Maybe there is a better school for some.

    Let’s lift one another up and not bring each other down. Let’s not make excuses for why our children ‘can’t’ learn.

  37. I’m curious about the curriculum and the state testing. Do they take the PARCC tests or any other standardized tests? Do they use the CCSS? I am curious how their scores measure up. I feel too many schools are bogged down by these factors.

  38. what happens to these kids when they get to high schoo?

  39. 1) Since this is NOT a public school, RCA can cherry-pick students to ensure success.

    2) I detect a lot of sour grapes and general whining. Just because you don’t have all that RCA has in the way of resources, it doesn’t mean some of the techniques can’t be implemented to see if anything sticks.

    3) After seeing some of the poor spelling and grammar several of these comments, maybe some of you need to go back to school. I sure wouldn’t want my kids in your class.

  40. I recently attended the teacher training and I have to say it was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. Some of the training validated what I was already doing, but my biggest take away was to go bigger and bolder with my teaching. It’s only been a week and I can see a major difference in my students. We had already reviewed his 55 rules at the beginning of the year, but seeing the students at RCA made me realize I could use these rules more effectively to change the climate and culture of my classroom. Is a school going to be able to implement every single thing RCA does? Probably not, but that is not the point. The point is to train teachers to improve student lives and I feel the academy is very successful at that.

  41. I would like to know what happens to the students once they reach high school. To go from such an energetic learning environment to a mundane public school system has to be a huge shock. How do they adjust and maintain that motivation to learn?

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