Pros and Cons of Acton Academy: My experience as a parent

I love the mission of Acton Academy. As a parent, the teaching style was very foreign to me at first, and my wife and I spent a lot of time confused about what was happening at the school, but in the end, my kids were happy and thrived while at Acton.

However, we also learned that not all Acton Academy locations achieve the same high standards. We also had a negative experience at a different Acton Academy.

My goal in this blog post is not to convince you to send your kids to an Acton, nor to avoid Acton. It is merely to share my observations of what Acton is really like.

Why You Can Trust This Review

  • My three kids attended an Acton Academy at different ages
  • We came to know two different Acton Academies in two different states
  • A family member went through the training to become an Acton owner and told us what things are like from the owner side
  • We have extensively studied Acton Academy’s teaching model and, of course, read the book Courage to Grow (multiple times)

First, My Overall Conclusion of Acton Academy

I’ll put it simply: We cried the last day our kids went to school at Acton. We would never have left if we weren’t moving. The first location we attended was wonderful.

Acton is a unique school where students self-learn the things they need to be successful as adults. This includes teaching themselves math and English through books and online resources at school, but it also means self-learning to overcome obstacles, to deal kindly with others, and to develop motivation.

Acton isn’t for everyone, though. Some kids will feel stressed when the burden of their growth is placed on their shoulders. Others may not be mature enough to police their own actions.

Also, we have found that there are sometimes drastic differences in the quality of education at different locations of Acton. We attended an A++ location in Boise, Idaho (Heroe’s Academy), but when we moved to a new state, the owner was not providing anywhere close to the same quality of experience. In fact, we were shocked at how poor the experience was for the kids.

The Acton where we moved to is in a TINY building that is absolutely PACKED with kids. The owner didn’t seem committed at all to the educational experience, but instead seemed much more interested in the bottom line. Seriously, when my family and I walked out of a tour of the school in the city we moved to, we all literally cried. Not joking. Our whole family was in tears in our living room as we discussed it. We were so disappointed that it was NOTHING like the atmosphere or culture of the Acton we’d experience in Boise (which was awesome).

My conclusion? Acton can be far superior to public school, but there are (significant) drawbacks as well that you should weigh. I will be impartial and mention pros AND cons, but please don’t lose the message–go to Acton. It made a significant difference in our kids’ lives. If your local school is anything like the first Acton Academy we experienced, do it!

But, because we felt there is also a lot that could be improved at Acton, we are opening our own private school and we decided not to be an Acton affiliate.

Pro: Our Kids Became More Proactive in Overcoming Obstacles

I can best illustrate this with a short story. My wife and I went to a friend’s house the other day. One of their kids had a chore to do: taking out the trash. The problem was the wheel on the trash can broke so it was hard to get the can to the curb.

The kid immediately came back to the parents crying because they tried to do their chores and the wheel was broken and they needed mom to fix it. My wife and I looked at each other and gave a knowing grin. We knew what was wrong.

In public school, every single thing is spelled out for kids. “Here’s a worksheet–I’ll spend the next hour showing you precisely how to do it. Here’s a science project–follow these directions.” Frankly, most kids these days are helpless. They crumble at the first sign of any challenge. That is a by-product of the government’s education model.

After just a couple weeks of going to Acton, we noticed our kids played differently. They were seeking out challenges to do together. They didn’t want to make a Youtube video and ask me how. Instead, they grabbed a camera and started goofing around until they got it.

Because teachers (called “guides) at Acton don’t lecture and spell things out for kids, they quickly learn to overcome obstacles on their own. Their confidence improved. We saw it in our own kids after just a few weeks.

Con: Our Kids Fell Behind Academically

In my opinion, the public school system sets a very low bar for academic progress. When we homeschooled, we found that in just 2-3 hours per day, we could keep our kids ahead of the public school.

However, at Acton, our kids fell behind even the public school over the course of two years. They were behind in math and reading when returning to another school.

We felt like Acton’s approach to academics was too extreme. Public schools hold kids’ hands too much, but at Acton, we felt like there wasn’t enough adult mentoring that could have helped our kids.

A kid can be left for many months who is struggling with learning multiplication. No adult intervention. Just waiting for the kid to finally say “enough is enough” and jump in. Yes, it does teach the kid to eventually dig in and be self-motivated, but it also normalizes and enables the many months of laziness.

To be fair, there are many reasons that a child can fall behind academically, so I couldn’t say that the lack of academic progress was the fault of the school. However, we didn’t feel confidence that our kids kept pace with public school.

Con: Parents Are Kept at a Distance

Right from the start, we noticed that Acton tends to keep parents at arm’s length. When we went for our initial visit to see the school, we weren’t allowed to go during times when the school was open, so we always felt like we didn’t understand what was really happening on a typical day.

We had regular parents’ nights, but we expected to be able to influence what was happening at the school and have an input, but instead it was the school training US on what WE should do as parents.

I understand that some parents are very overbearing and this is probably why they keep parents at arm’s length, but I did feel a bit of separation from the kids.

Pro: Our Kids Felt That Their Peers Depended on Them

I remember the first time we had a family event planned on a school day. My kids were legitimately sad that they couldn’t go, because they were in teams of kids working on projects, and they didn’t want to let their peers down.

Our kids did not struggle to find friends at Acton because there is so much social engagement between the kids all day. They don’t have to sit down and shut up like at public school.

Con: Communication About Academic Progress is Poor

There is a website, called Journey Tracker, where the kids have their progress reported to parents. It was helpful, but we still felt like communication was poor. We really had no sense whatsoever of if our kids were progressing nicely, or falling behind.

That last phrase, “falling behind” is one that is kind of ignored at Acton. The school really doesn’t like comparing progress to public school or other kids in general. Instead, they focus on progress that is demonstrable through learning new skills.

In our opinion, the approach to academics was a little too extreme, and we feel that a few low-stakes standardized tests during the year, a clear set of milestones, and commonsense benchmarks could have been implemented in a way to improve the experience.

In the end, we felt like we were mostly flying blind about our kids’ academic progress, and we were in for a surprise when we brought them back to public school and found out that they were behind.

Con: Exhibition of Work Was Lackluster

We really like that Acton focuses on demonstrable progress. Instead of a test about video editing, they have the kids make a video and show it to the parents at an “exhibition.” They even did fun things like renting out a local movie theater for showing off the videos.

Honestly, however, we were a bit underwhelmed with the exhibitions. We felt the kids were left on their own to self-learn to such an extreme that they weren’t being encouraged to produce their very best work. Most of all, our kids didn’t really care about the exhibitions and it didn’t matter to them if we showed up, because it wasn’t really work they were super proud of.

We feel that a little adult mentoring could have produced a result that the kids would be proud of. An adult mentor could teach them the basics to shorten the learning curve, have encouraged them to learn to tell a story, could have provided positive and negative feedback to spur them to create something valuable. Instead, the kids played around and made something they weren’t actually proud of and felt they’d fulfilled the requirements.

We like that Acton doesn’t only focus on testing, but also shows progress through demonstrable skills. However, the demonstration of those skills revealed to us that the class as a whole wasn’t really progressing at a rate that we felt would be possible. We felt the adult guides were mostly WATCHING and not GUIDING; however, we did still feel this approach is better than the “paint-by-the-numbers” approach of public school.

Pro: Not Having Absences Tracked is LOVELY

I have anxiety about my kids’ absences at school. I’m a rule follower, and I hate it when the school secretary calls me to ask where my kid was. “None of your business! I am the parent and will decide what is needed for my child” is what I always want to say.

I love that Acton doesn’t track absences and many locations have a great school schedule that will allow you to go on family vacations, still focus on school, and not have a zillion “half days” just so the local public school gets credit for holding lunch that day.

Con: Tuition Can Be High Depending on the Location

Because Acton allows each location to set their own prices, the tuition cost varies drastically. There is one location in Washington DC charging over $25,000+, and other locations that are nearly free.

We have written about the average tuition cost at Acton, so check that out for more info.

Con: Things Can Get a Little “Lord of the Flies”

Acton focuses on everything being student-led and student-driven. This principle extends to allowing students to determine discipline issues of their classmates.

They use a “bucks” system where students are paid essentially Monopoly money for doing good things. When a student breaks a rule, a classmate can request a “buck” from misbehaving student. Similarly, classes can sometimes vote another student out of the school if they are taking away from the experience (obviously, within limits).

We found that this turned the kids against each other. It seemed to INCREASE personality conflicts dramatically because they were always trying to catch each other in a mistake. Instead of letting some things go, they would bring another student to account in front of the council. It made things unnecessarily contentious.

The thing my kids didn’t like about Acton was the way discipline was handled. They didn’t like students always picking at each other.

Pro: None of the Crazy Rules of Public School

When working on a craft project, my 11-year-old son took a pocket knife to school so he could carve a piece of wood. He didn’t think anything of it, but we were horrified when we found out he had taken a knife to school!

We went and talked to the owner and he said, “Ahh… it’s not a big deal. He’s a good kid and certainly isn’t threatening anyone. We’re focused on teaching them about dangerous behavior, but not about making strict rules.” I like that approach. I like that a lot.

Con: Some Acton Academy Locations Are Far Better Than Others

I can’t emphasize enough how big of a difference there is between locations. They have a training and support program for new owners, but we worry that Acton has grown too quickly and some of the locations just aren’t keeping up.

Acton locations are launching at a staggering pace. The company is aggressively purchasing Google ads to try and attract new owners of locations. This is a franchise that is growing too quickly and is not controlling the experience at all locations.

Pro: Kids Can Develop a Spiritual Foundation

Acton is not a Christian school or a denominational school, but it does allow kids space to develop their spiritual foundation and moral footings as they are confronted with challenges.

There is a daily “Launch” where the kids discuss issues and news items, where they can bring in their religious beliefs in the discussion. Also, there is a heavy focus on freedom to choose and kindness to others.

Your kids won’t study the Bible at an Acton, and they won’t receive religious training, but there is still a nice focus on morality and ethics.

Con: Systems Can Be Too Complicated for the Kids

Acton Academy has lots of systems like Journey Tracker (an online tool for goal setting and progress), and freedom levels (reward levels for their work each week).

One thing we experienced multiple times, and we’ve heard from many other parents, is the kids don’t really understand the system, and sometimes feel punished for simply not understanding the system.

For example, kids that work for months and still have no idea how to actually GET a badge. They ask the adult “guide” and the guide just sends them back to ask the other students. They talk to a few students, and get confusing and contradictory instructions. Now the student is working toward…. nothing. The student is aimless in her work because the system is complicated and not explained well.

Another example is something we saw with our own kids. They would sometimes be sad on Sunday nights in anticipating school the next day. I’d ask why, and they would say they had a low freedom level for the next week. However, I discovered in talking to them, that they didn’t actually know what they had done wrong to deserve the low freedom level. They couldn’t really explain how the freedom levels worked. So they would sometimes be frustrated, but didn’t feel that the teacher would help them to figure it out.

Again, I want to repeat that our kids were happy at Acton and liked it there (which I’ll discuss in the next point), but they did also express frustration at the confusing systems.

Pro: Our Kids Were (Very) Happy There

I want to end with a positive so that it is clear that we were very happy with Acton. Our kids were cheerful about going to school. They matured, learned to overcome obstacles, and they made friends.

Acton Academy CAN be a great experience and it’s certainly a school you should take a hard look at, but I wanted to paint a clear picture of the positive and negative things you may find.

We hope your experience at Acton is great!