What Is Classical Education? Using Curriculum Theory to Define A Classical Approach to K-12 Schooling

Jessica Richardi, University of Rhode Island


A general lack of foundational research makes defining classical education in K-12 contexts nearly impossible. Researchers eager to study American classical schools today will encounter a huge gap in scholarly literature, bridged only partially by a few archived dissertations. The quality and focus of available empirical research, the problematic nature of popular literature, and the conflicting views of various K-12 classical organizations will cause difficulty for any researcher wishing to gain an accurate preliminary understanding of K-12 classical education. In this study, the perspectives of K-12 classical schools themselves are brought to bear on the issue through two research questions: 1) On K-12 classical school websites, how do schools describe their curriculum? (2) What aspects of these representations, if any, are shared across different school affiliations? Which are unique?

The purpose of this qualitative content analysis has been to generate a nuanced and comprehensive definition for K-12 classical education through the lens of curriculum theory by exploring classical school curricula via descriptions provided on the websites of K-12 classical schools. To that end, the study employed qualitative content analysis methodology, a mixed-methods approach to textual analysis. Web texts describing school curricula, understood as communicative artifacts, were subjected to analysis for both manifest and latent content. A purposive sample of 68 classical schools was generated using NCES survey data and K-12 classical organization membership lists. Sample school texts were uploaded to the qualitative data analysis program MAXQDA and ultimately analyzed via a mixed deductive-inductive approach. Parent categories were derived from established curriculum theory in order to standardize school descriptions and provide structure to the data and the definition for classical education which resulted from it. Subcodes were allowed to emerge from the data, and a second round of coding was conducted to reduce and summarize it and to draw out themes or shared aspects of school curriculum descriptions. Multiple steps were taken throughout the process to support trustworthiness, including continuous congruence checks between the research questions and methodological choices and the employment of a second coder.

Results indicate that classical schools tend to value and emphasize core disciplines such as English Language Arts and mathematics as well as Latin. Nearly half the schools in the study reported use of the Core Knowledge Sequence to deliver core content. Curricular goals and overall purpose appear to vary by school, but classical schools across the affiliation groups in this study prioritize character formation, articulate expression, and a disposition toward “truth, goodness, and beauty.” Approximately half of the classical schools in the sample reported use of the trivium to organize instruction; many of those also consider the trivium to be a model for cognitive development. An emphasis on learning activities related to memorization, discussion, and debate emerged from the descriptions, as well. The sampled schools do not emphasize approaches to curricular access or interdisciplinary coherence. Ultimately, the schools appeared to share elements of curricular knowledge, purpose, and methods, despite affiliation with organizations possessing different perspectives and priorities. However, they varied in terms of emphasis on some curricular elements depending on affiliation. The data did not support the classification of Paideia schools as classical institutions.