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A Success Story at an Orange County Charter

A Success Story at an Orange County Charter

By Michael Davis

Dire were the predictions when our little charter school, Orange County Classical Academy, was approved over three years ago in a famously raucous Orange Unified School District board hearing. 

The skepticism was forgivable then but not today. In its first year of operation, 50 percent of OCCA’s English Learners achieved English-language proficiency by the end of the year; the rest of them hit the mark the very next year. Compare that to the broader Orange Unified School District, where just 15 percent meet the standard.

Today, the Classical Academy is the highest-performing school in Orange Unified.

The Classical Academy, is a free public charter school affiliated with Hillsdale College, admits students non-selectively based on a lottery. But while our students are drawn from the same student population as all union-run schools, we follow two unique educational practices: we teach structured phonics and content knowledge.

Why content knowledge? Because 30 years of research has shown reading comprehension is ultimately a function of subject-matter mastery. A student who possesses prior knowledge about a subject will demonstrate greater understanding when reading texts about that topic even against readers otherwise more advanced and with greater aptitude. To teach a subject well is also to teach how to read that subject well and the curriculum we use, Core Knowledge, has been recognized in countless studies over three decades as a foremost curriculum in achieving just these outcomes through content mastery.

These are practices with important implications for children – and for the world they’ll create as adults. University of Virginia researchers recently concluded that “if we could collectively raise the reading scores of America’s fourth graders by the same amount as the Core Knowledge students in the study, the U.S. would rank among the top five countries on earth in reading achievement.” 

And it’s no secret that teaching kids to sound out words is what works best. But phonics was abandoned decades ago for flavor-of-the-month strategies like whole language, then balanced literacy and its popular spin-offs. 

The abandonment of these approaches is the real story behind the poor student outcomes that have plagued our public schools for over half a century. 

But now, because the nation has directed its attention to the formidable challenges of learning loss in the aftermath of COVID, outlets like the New York TimesTime Magazine, and the New Yorker confirm what we already knew at OCCA: teach kids to read, and those kids will learn.

“With the best of intentions, we grown-ups have bungled the task of teaching kids to read,” Nicholas Kristoff writes in a recent New York Times op-ed. “There is growing evidence from neuroscience and careful experiments that the United States has adopted reading strategies that just don’t work very well and that we haven’t relied enough on a simple starting point — helping kids learn to sound out words with phonics.”

Kristoff goes on to tell the story of this national neglect of our children’s education, now widely reported, but ignored for decades. This tale, Kristoff goes on to say, has been elaborated with amazing detail in Emily Hanford’s recent groundbreaking six-part expose, Sold a Story.

But what all of these reports have failed to disclose is this: that while the nation’s public-school systems ignored the research, there was one growing educational movement that emphasized phonics and knowledge content from its inception over two decades ago: the classical charter school movement of which OCCA is a part.

This good news has been largely ignored in the media. The result is that most American children still attend schools that emphasize reading strategies that do not work. The unfortunate truth is that if there was a student within the confines of Orange Unified School District getting explicit phonics instruction, and a content-rich, coherent, and cumulative curriculum, that student was going to one school: Orange County Classical Academy.

Some skeptics are going to be upset about these facts. But parents and educators interested in real-world data and student achievement will see this as an opportunity. 

It has always been our deepest hope that once the effectiveness of our school was demonstrated, critics who are truly open-minded might come to see what we are actually doing at OCCA. 

But that would mean letting go of a narrative a lot of folks have been clinging to about our school and rethinking some deeply held assumptions. 

We understand letting go is hard to do.

However, if you’ve been seeing stories and social media posts about OCCA, you’ve likely noticed that no one has asked the obvious question: “Why does OCCA succeed where so many others are failing?”

For all of those willing to rethink their assumptions, we cordially invite you to come and see for yourselves the amazing things happening in our little classical charter school.


Michael Davis is OCCA’s director of school development and culture and father of fourth grade twins attending OCCA.



In April of this year, a long-term study out of the University of Virginia (cited in the article above) assessed the effectiveness of the Core Knowledge curriculum in achieving reading comprehension for students based off of standard state assessments taken through third through sixth grade. The results are summarized by Robert Pondiscio of the Fordham Institute as follows:

The six-year randomized control trial followed over 2,300 students who applied for kindergarten to one of nine oversubscribed Core Knowledge charter schools in the Denver area. Nearly 700 students who won seats in the lottery were compared to students who applied but ended up matriculating elsewhere. Researchers looked at state test results from third through sixth grade. The cumulative long-term gain from kindergarten to sixth grade for the Core Knowledge students was approximately 16 percentile points. Grissmer and his co-authors put this into sharp relief by noting that if we could collectively raise the reading scores of America’s fourth graders by the same amount as the Core Knowledge students in the study, the U.S. would rank among the top five countries on earth in reading achievement. At the one low-income school in the study, the gains were large enough to eliminate altogether the achievement gap associated with income. Eliminate it. 

Core Knowledge has been the standard elementary school curriculum for the three largest Classical Charter School systems in the country: Great Hearts Academies, Hillsdale’s K12, and Responsive Ed’s Founders Classical Academies. According to the Knowledge Matters Campaign, an organization dedicated to assessing the alignment of curricula with the principles of the Science of Reading, as of right now, there are only six curricula that fulfill the full requirements of teaching literacy through an approach that effectively combines structured phonics with knowledge building.

If a student in the country is receiving a curriculum properly aligned with the Science of Reading, there is a decent chance that they are going to a classical charter school.    

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