Bob Luddy had already experienced massive success as a businessman and entrepreneur before launching Thales Academy, one of North Carolina’s most innovative private schools.
In 1976, Luddy founded CaptiveAire Systems, now the leading manufacturer of commercial kitchen ventilation systems in the U.S. with annual sales of more than $300 million. Why, after such success, get involved in education?
“Primarily because in my life I had a reasonably good education and I realized how much it contributed to my life, and to the American way,” Luddy told Battleground State News in a recent interview. “And also within our family, my parents certainly stressed the importance of education throughout our lifetime. So in making observations after being in business for many years, I felt like too many students are deprived of the opportunity to reach their fruition in life by having a good, sound education.”
And that is exactly what Luddy’s Thales Academy (Thales), now in its eleventh year and named for the Greek philosopher Thales of Miletus, does: educate each student to his maximum potential. Luddy launched Thales in 2007 using a “temporary facility in the back of” his corporate office, the school’s website explains, and had just 30 students.
Now, the school has 3,100 students enrolled at 10 campuses across the state.
Direct Instruction and a Classical Education
One of the crown jewels of Thales Academy is its use of Direct Instruction, a teaching method invented by Siegfried “Zig” Engelmann in the 1960s.
“He thought there should be a more scientific way of teaching reading, math, phonics, reading comprehension, and spelling to students. So he devised this Direct Instruction. It’s absolutely by far one of the best methodologies of teaching, but it involves a high level of emotional and academic effort on the part of the teacher. It’s highly organized, and it’s scripted,” Luddy explained.
Direct Instruction involves grouping students by ability level, as opposed to strictly organizing classes by grade, but every student ultimately reaches grade level. This method, according to Luddy, makes class size far less of an issue.
“When you ability group students who are all moving at the same pace, class size becomes less important. If you have students at five levels in one class then obviously class size is much more important. So that’s what we did from the beginning, and some of the classes might have four kids in them and some may have 30. It just depends on their ability and where they’re at that particular point in time,” he said.
This allows every student to be in a group where they can learn at an appropriate pace, but at the end of each month they can either stay in the same group, move up, or move down.
“And just because you move down or up doesn’t mean you’re going to stay there. It’s just the best place for you to be at that time,” Luddy added.
The lesson plans themselves are fast-paced, scripted, and require frequent student engagement. A video on Direct Instruction produced by Thales Academy, for example, explains that an observer of a Thales classroom would notice regular “choral group response.”
“There’s no sitting there mindlessly absorbing knowledge and maybe making one or two responses in a 45-minute period of time. No, I mean with the little kids, 5-10 responses per minute. With the older kids, probably 20-50 responses per 45 minutes,” said Edward Schaefer, the Direct Instruction advisor to Thales Academy.
The goal is to provide students with a foundation of knowledge early on so they are prepared for the intensive Classical Education taught at the 6-12 levels. A Classical Education, traditionally involving a grammar, logic, and rhetoric phase, then provides students with “the skills needed for analytical problem solving and a lifetime of self-learning.”
Costs and Results
Another factor that sets Thales Academy apart is its ability to provide a high-quality, private education at a low cost. Tuition, for instance, is $5,300 annually for elementary school, and $6,000 annually for junior high and high school. These costs, Luddy suggested, are roughly half of the “quality private school price” in North Carolina.
“We build a very high quality building, but one thing that we learned is we can build it at a reasonable price, and it’s more cost effective and it’s a better learning environment to build that building. And I’ve been supplying at least a third of the capital funds for those buildings. The rest of its financed and paid out of tuition,” Luddy said.
More importantly, he noted that his schools “don’t have virtually any bureaucracies,” which eliminates many of the costs associated with other schools in the area.
“So if you look at a K-5 school that has 500 kids, students, we have a principal and she has an administrative assistant. And that’s it. So all these plethora of jobs that exist in the public schools, they don’t exist in our schools. That’s huge,” he said.
Luddy and the Thales model are producing impressive results. On the Iowa Test of Basic Skills and the PSAT, Thales students consistently rank in the 98th percentile nationally.
“We get results. If you look consistently over a period of time, kindergarten students come in, they can barely walk in the door, they can barely sit down, and then you see them progress as they learn sounds, and they learn to decode. By the time they progress into the 3rd or 4th grade they’re doing very sophisticated work, which is going to prepare them to be excellent students in the long term,” Luddy says in a video on the Thales Academy website.
Public Education and Policy
“Well, the way I look at life is: if you’re beginning anew, you start with a clean sheet of paper. And to some degree we are all bound by certain traditions and norms, but following the norms in the case of education doesn’t make a lot of sense because essentially we’re trying to get away from that,” Luddy told Battleground State News.
The Direction Instruction model, Luddy said, is often rejected by public schools because they want to allow their teachers to “be more creative.”
“Well, being more creative is a little bit silly when you think about it. We’re just trying to teach kids how to read. Another thing parents don’t understand: you can’t be creative unless you have a baseline of knowledge,” he said.
Luddy said he has “no hope” for public schools, referencing the 1983 “Nation at Risk” report.
“I did all types of things to improve the public schools, and the reality is that they get a little worse every year. So I wouldn’t spend anytime trying to reform the public schools. It’s not going to happen,” he said.
While he acknowledged that there “are anomalies” and that “there certainly are wonderful teachers in public schools,” he believes “those teachers are severely handicapped by the nature of the way these schools are run.”
“The only way the public schools have any potential of improving is from severe outside competition, and even with that I don’t think they will improve,” he added.
To improve the public schools, Luddy said the first thing he would do “would be to develop and implement very strong disciplines within the learning environment.”
“Teachers are not supported. I know in our Wake County schools they’ve almost completely abandoned any discipline. And what chance does any teacher have in a completely undisciplined environment? Very little. That would be a starting point,” he said.
Last Week, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and the Trump administration rescinded an Obama-era policy that aimed to reduce racial disparities in student punishments, particularly by discouraging expulsion. The policy, however, was criticized for potentially allowing the Parkland shooting to occur, according to The Daily Caller.
“Our decision to rescind that guidance today makes it clear that discipline is a matter on which classroom teachers and local school leaders deserve and need autonomy,” DeVos said.
Luddy’s bold and innovate approach to education has been mostly supported by parents and the community, he said, noting that there’s been “surprisingly” little criticism.
“I would say that parents—the community—have supported the Thales Academy very consistently during our first ten-plus years. Now there’s probably individuals out there that disagree with us, etc., but they’re not very vocal, and if anything, if I travel around the community and out in public places, people come up to me and they’re just very interested and supportive of Thales Academy,” he said. “People I don’t know at all.”
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Anthony Gockowski is managing editor of Battleground State News and The Minnesota Sun. Follow Anthony on Twitter. Email tips to email@example.com.
Photo “Phil Luddy” by Thales Academy.
Background Photo “Thales Academy” by Zachpw. CC BY-SA 3.0.