An Education on ACE
Educators will agree that a true education is more than mere tidbits of knowledge randomly collected, then scattered throughout the brain. In educating young people, we are not trying to produce Trivial Pursuit champions. We don’t want our graduates leaving high school with diploma in one hand and a bread basket full of crumbs in the other, even if there are enough crumbs to feed a family of five. Yet, the “systems” of education available to Christian schools today offer little more than that. Students are given, in each class, random bits of knowledge, useful no doubt in competitive trivia games, but without any real connection to life, the world God created, or even to their other classes. This is not education.
To educate involves more than stuffing a head full of things to know. The mind, as one educator said, is not a shoebox. Nor is it a filing cabinet. Nor is it a computer. True, computers work in similar ways, one might say in imitation of the human brain. But the mind is so much more than a mere machine. Truly, we are fearfully and wonderfully made, and to educate a young person (as opposed to, say, educating a mind) is a serious responsibility.
The word educate comes from the Latin root duco, meaning “to lead.” The root duco should be familiar to us, as we find it in many familiar words: conduct, deduct, produce, induce, seduce, inductive, deductive, conducive, to name a few. Each of these variations give a different perspective of leading. Education focuses more on imparting knowledge, on leading children and young people from immaturity to maturity, from ignorance to understanding through instruction. Perhaps the most eloquent statement of education’s true mission can be found in the first four verses of Proverbs. The educator’s task is to cause the student
to know wisdom and instruction; to perceive the words of understanding; to receive the instruction of wisdom, justice, and judgment and equity; to give subtilty to the simple, to the young man knowledge and discretion.
However, if a teacher were to examine the “systems” available for consumption by Christian Schools, he might get the impression that education’s task is to help students find right answers. Students are fed list after list of facts to be memorized through mnemonic devices, and then are required to regurgitate those lists on tests ad nauseum. Special prizes are of course reserved for those who excel at regurgitating, including but not limited to Honor Roll certificates, diplomas, and Valedictorian medallions. But “knowing many things” does not mean “educated” as we are no doubt aware.
Seven and a half years ago, when I first felt the desire to pastor a church, I prayed specifically that God would not send me to a church that had a Christian school. Among my reasons for this was that I wanted to devote my time to pastoring and schools are awfully time-consuming . However, God in His wisdom gave me a church with a Christian school and a great need to sustain that Christian school. Over half of the families in our Christian school would be forced to send their young people to a Government school, the equivalent of offering them up to Molech, if we closed our Academy. So, God gave me a church with a Christian school. Our academy, operated by the church for over 25 years, had always used the Accelerated Christian Education (ACE) curriculum (also known as The School of Tomorrow). I was familiar with the system, having attended an ACE school in 5th grade and in junior high school, and serving as the Secondary Supervisor in our ACE school for four years before becoming the pastor. I had worked with the system long enough to have a developed opinion–a strong opinion in fact–of the value of that particular system. Over the course of the next three years, our church and our school parents worked together to bring our academy out of the ACE system, a feat which we accomplished two years ago.
The purpose of this post is to give our reasons. But before I do, let me acknowledge that ACE has enabled many churches to start schools who otherwise would not know where to begin. And in that sense, I can appreciate their work. Starting a Christian school is a daunting task. It is not a calling for the faint of heart. And for many, many years now, ACE has been there to encourage and enable churches to start a school with minimal effort or resources. In addition, they enable small church schools such as ours to stay afloat.
That being said, we felt very strongly that we needed to give our young people more than what ACE is able to offer. It isn’t that ACE hasn’t done their best to produce quality materials or that they haven’t tried to give schools the resources to give young people an education. They have a quality product with many, many helpful supplements. The problem is with the medium, not the materials. The medium, quite frankly, is not conducive to a quality education.
An ACE academy will naturally attract a certain amount of the “project” students–students who cannot make it in other schools, usually including the public schools. Through the years, we had our share of these “reform” students, and through the years, we made a discovery. If a student has a natural aptitude towards learning, then he will do well in the ACE environment. In fact, we have several graduates who have excelled and exceeded their counterparts in both public and private schools. These students were gifted, and would have done well in any setting. Being educated in an ACE “Learning Center” did not hinder their education. But on the other hand, if a student is not gifted, if schooling was a chore, the “Learning Center” environment did not aid that student. At best, it allowed the student to get a diploma. At worst, the Learning Center tended to bog students down, dampen their spirits, and fog their minds.
As a Learning Center Supervisor, I found that my job could hardly have been described as “teacher.” Rather, I was a motivator, a cheerleader, and at times a slave driver. Much of my job consisted of trying to get the students to finish their assignments. Every month, I had elaborate prizes and games and motivators to urge the students to complete their daily work. Somehow, if they just got the work done, they would get an education. And we did manage to have great success, mostly through dedicated parents who wanted their children to have an education as badly as we did.
In order to further make my case, I will need to explain how the ACE system works. In each subject, the students need to complete twelve “self-packs” (called PACEs) per year. They receive one PACE at a time, per subject, and must complete a four- to five-page portion each day in each subject. So, each day a student will be required to complete between twenty and thirty pages, depending on the number of subjects he has. The work is done entirely by the student, with minimal help from the “teacher.” (Supervisor or Monitor is the more accurate title.) The student reads each section, then answers a series of questions from the reading. When those questions are answered, the student reads the next section and answers the questions from that section, continuing until he has completed the day’s assignment. When the daily assignment is completed the student then goes to the “scoring table,” a table set up in the open in the middle of the room, where he will check his own answers against the answers provided in the answer key. The student marks his answers, goes back to his desk to correct any wrong answers, and then re-checks those answers again until he has them all right. When all answers are filled in correctly, the day’s work is done in that subject.
For several reasons, both our school parents and myself felt that we could not continue to utilize the ACE system. First, we felt that ACE did nothing to address the needs of the individual, despite ACE’s claim that they are the only curriculum that sufficiently addresses the needs of the individual. ACE addresses the individual on one level only–the rate of work. The students in an ACE school are able to work at their own pace, to a limited extent. They can slow down or speed up as needed, although they still must complete all the work in the twelve PACEs for that year in order to pass into the next grade. In that sense, the need of the individual to move at their own pace, ACE has the answer. However, I would point out that this is not so much individualized, as it is individualistic. On an individualistic level, if a student does not want to work at a fast or uncomfortable pace, he doesn’t have to. He can take six years to complete sixth grade, if he wants. But this defeats the purpose of education, which Noah Webster said comprehends all that series of instruction and discipline which is intended to enlighten the understanding, correct the temper, and form the manners and habits of youth, and fit them for usefulness in their future stations. One could hardly argue that tolerating slackers is fitting him for usefulness in his future stations. The ACE student gets to determine the PACE at which he will learn and work, and thus ACE is individualistic on this level.
Where we believe that ACE fails is in addressing the needs of the individual in the areas that pertain to education. Certainly, the student can do what is right in his own eyes when it comes to the pace of his work. However, every student is required to read the same material, answer the same questions, give the same answers, and learn the same way. Educators will tell you that young people learn three different ways: through hearing, seeing, or doing. Normally, you don’t have a student who can only learn by doing. Students learn in a combination of these ways. But all three ways are necessary in order for the needs of every individual to be met, and ACE cannot begin to accomplish these methodologies. Again, we can blame it on the medium. The Learning Center environment prohibits all but one of these ways of learning in most cases. All students are required to learn the same way.
Individual students will express things differently. Because of the medium which ACE must necessarily use, there is little opportunity for students to express their understanding of key concepts in their own terms. Review, which is a necessary part of education, includes re-stating concepts as they are understood, rather than giving verbatim answers. John Milton Gregory, in his book The Seven Laws of Teaching, recommends having students repeat key concepts in their own words so that the teacher can evaluate their understanding of the concepts. This is because the teacher’s task is not to produce parrots, but to produce thinking students who know the material for themselves. The teacher is not to give the students a fish, but to teach them how to catch their own. ACE leaves little room for a student to give answers in their own words.
Individual students will certainly work at different rates. Both classroom teachers and ACE supervisors adjust for this. A wise teacher will teach and review concepts until the class knows the material. Both classroom teachers and ACE supervisors also require a minimal amount of effort and accomplishment. This is as it should be. No teacher should coddle a sluggard. However, it should also be pointed out that ACE lends itself to laziness more so than any other system of education, which is why ACE supervisors must be good motivators. ACE realizes this as well, as is evidenced in their Teacher Training Workshops, which have more to do with good motivational tools and ideas than they do with teaching methodology.
A second problem we saw with ACE was that the medium tends to stumble the students in the area of honesty and intellectual integrity. In the course of completing the assigned PACE work, students are required to read the material and then answer the questions. But this presents students with a great temptation. The students are constantly tempted to read the questions and then look for the answers without reading the material at all. Additionally, the questions are written in a way that the students can find the exact words in the reading material, so that they learn to spot the key words, and then find the answer. More than a few students get through their day’s work very quickly in this manner. Of course, the conscientious educator will recognize the problem with students who are taught to find answers rather than to know the material. But then again, really knowing the material would require more than reading an encyclopedia-like paragraph about the subject and then answering a few questions about it.
Another way that ACE lends itself to cheating is with the accessibility of the answer keys. Every seasoned ACE student knows that the answers are available. If the student is stumped by a particular answer, he knows that he can find the answer in the score key. And since finding answers is the whole point anyway, it can be hard to resist the urge to cheat in this way. In fact, the most scrupulous students cannot avoid “cheating” on some level (if you want to call it that). If it is cheating to find the answers in the answer key and then go back to your desk to write in the correct answer, then it is impossible for a student to avoid cheating. In our Learning Center, we did not allow students to check their work until they had filled in every answer. But if the student can’t “find” the answer, if he must have some answer, then he will give a guess and go to the answer key to “find” the answer.
Problematic as this is, for the less-gifted student the answer key presents a very large temptation, the equivalent of setting a keg with an empty mug in front of an alcoholic. School is hard and he doesn’t like it, and so he is tempted every day to go find his answers in the answer key and then fill them in.
But would we say that the cheating is limited to students? Will a less-than-gifted student’s grades ever reflect his struggles? Is it really honest to show his grades and transcripts when his failed tests never count against him? Is it really honest to average in the “A” he got on the test after he failed and repeated it sometimes multiple times?
A third problem we found with ACE is that we don’t know who is teaching our children. Worldviews are vital to education. If I put my children in a Government school, I would be able to thoroughly examine the teacher, would be able to question individual lessons and statements that were made. I cannot do this with ACE. I do not know who is teaching my children. Certainly one could argue that textbooks present a similar problem. However, in a classroom setting, the textbook is not the teacher. In the ACE learning center, it is.
In the two years since leaving ACE, we have seen a wonderful spirit come over our student body, and a fresh delight in learning. Students love school, love learning, love delving into new subjects. We are grateful for the changes, and hope to share some of them with you in future articles.
(1) One of the great oxymorons of education is the idea of an ACE “teacher.”