Accountability: A Way of Life at Nobel: an exclusive interview with A. ‘Jack’ Clegg

Published July 1, 2002

While public school officials berate legislators and taxpayers for not being willing to spend the money they claim U.S. public schools need to deliver a good education to all children, student test scores have essentially remained unchanged since the 1970s, despite above-inflation increases in per-pupil revenues.

Even though total K-12 public school revenues totaled $384.7 billion in the 2000-01 school year—$8,157 per pupil—significantly higher spending is advocated to reduce class sizes, reduce school sizes, and raise student achievement.

A. “Jack” Clegg has a different point of view. He argues public education has a money management problem rather than a money problem, and that inefficiencies in the public education system are robbing children of their right to a good education. It is possible, Clegg contends, for a private company to deliver a quality education at a profit in small community schools with class sizes of 15 to 20 students and for a tuition of $6,000 to $7,000 a year—as much as 25 percent less than it costs the public schools to deliver an inferior product.

The clincher in Clegg’s argument is that he is doing exactly that right now as chairman/CEO of Nobel Learning Communities, Inc., a consistently profitable publicly held company headquartered in West Chester, Pennsylvania.

Starting out as a newcomer to the education industry 10 years ago, Clegg took a small private childcare company that was virtually bankrupt and built it into the largest operator of non-sectarian private schools in the United States, educating more than 25,000 students in 174 schools in 15 states. Nobel Learning Communities students score two to three grade levels above the national norms on the Stanford-9 achievement test.

Describing himself as “just a kid from the streets of Philadelphia,” Clegg started his career as an aerospace engineer in the “can-do” 1960s and was running several small companies by the time he was 37. After a British firm bought out an $85 million company Clegg had formed, he became involved in helping turn companies around. That’s how he came across Merryhill Country Schools, a Division of Rocking Horse Child Care Centers, the K-8 education prototype that has been used to create Nobel Learning Communities.

Clegg was first interviewed by School Reform News in October 1998. (See “It’s Hard to Go Back to Building Widgets.”) Recently, he spoke again with Managing Editor George Clowes.

Clowes: Could you give us an idea of your current company strategy?

Clegg: It’s our objective to be the leading operator of private schools all the way from pre-elementary to twelfth grade.

We operate what we call general private schools for preschool and K-8 students. We operate schools for learning-challenged students, both standalone and within our own general private schools. And we operate high schools for children who are failing in the public arena. That’s through our Saber Academies, and/or through charter schools, or through services to public schools.

We also have an equity interest in a company called Total Education Solutions which provides special-education services to public and charter schools, so they comply with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Also, in Florida, some parents now can get publicly funded vouchers for special education.

The primary means of revenue for Nobel Learning Communities is private pay from the parents. Our cost per student is about $6,000 to $7,000, and it’s been going up at only 4 or 5 percent a year. We’ve also performed some public-funded contracts with the public schools, with Catholic schools and with charter schools.

We’re also creating a high school model which has been nicknamed the Nobel University High School. Because our students are at advanced levels of learning, our high school concept will be partly via the Internet and partly by teachers in the classroom, and our students will have the opportunity to earn up to two years of college credits before they leave high school.

Besides what we’re doing relative to the operation of schools, we’re also continuing to push the curve in terms of quality and scope of the education being provided. We start the education process earlier, starting the curriculum-based learning at the age of three. The length of our day is 12 hours, and we’re available to the children 12 months a year.

We also believe in small classes and small schools, so the children are safe, every teacher knows every child, and every principal knows every child in school and all the parents. Our class size is 15 to 17, and our K-8 schools range from 280 to 300 students.

Clowes: How did you choose that school size? Public schools seem to be getting bigger and bigger even though research studies say smaller schools are better.

Clegg: Whether it’s 300 or 400, we’re not sure at this point, but we do know it shouldn’t be much more than that. Children need individualized attention and they don’t get it when you have schools with 1,000 and 1,500 students. To foster individualized attention, you have to have a small school. All our schools are one floor, laid out very efficiently, with no hidden spaces. If somebody’s out in the hallway, it’s very apparent they’re out there, and belong elsewhere.

We’re also working diligently on the integration of technology so we can move more and more towards individualized curricula. We believe that’s the way education’s going to go, with every child having an individualized curriculum. They won’t just be a member of a class any more. They’ll have their own portfolio, and maybe their own CD-ROM that follows them through school.

Nobel’s Concept of Education

The approach Nobel Learning Communities takes to education is to create schools with a disciplined, safe, and nurturing learning environment. The components that create this environment include:

  • a small neighborhood school of 150 to 250 students with an average class size of 17;
  • committed teachers and principals;
  • accredited preschool and school curricula;
  • full day, year-round educational service.

Further information is available at the company’s Web site at

Clowes: With an individualized curriculum, isn’t there a danger of neglecting important material?

Clegg: No. We have what we call Curriculum Frameworks, which all our teachers and our principals have access to on an educator’s Web page. A Curriculum Framework for, say, history tells a sixth-grade teacher, for example, what is supposed to be taught during each semester and what each child is supposed to have achieved as a minimum during those semesters. That’s the first level.

There’s a second level of the Framework, which says, “Here are all the tools that are available for you to accomplish this. Here are the books, here are the extra materials, and here are the tests.” Everything is provided to the teacher. If it’s a new teacher, there’s also a third level which provides lesson plans.

After providing the teachers with the lesson plans, the tools, and our expectations for student learning, we tell them they are going to be held accountable for the achievement of their students. But we also tell them to use their creativity in making use of all these materials in their teaching. We don’t want to take the creativity away from them.

The other thing we do is to involve our teachers and principals in upgrading our curriculum and the tools we use. We have committees across the country comprised of teachers in various grades who get together on a regular basis to re-evaluate our curriculum and evaluate the tools that are being used. If they believe changes should be made, they recommend changes to our Education Advisory Board.

The people who are actually using our curriculum tell us how well it’s working, how well it’s accepted in the classroom, and make recommendations for changes. Our Education Advisory Board then makes the final decision.

Clowes: Why do you think so many educators have the idea it’s somehow wrong for a for-profit firm to be involved in educating children?

Clegg: It’s been one of the major thrusts of the teacher unions to say, “These people are making money on the backs of our children.” That’s what starts it all and gives people the idea that when you make a profit you cut back on quality.

There’s a misconception of what making a profit is. Profit is simply what is left over from your revenues after you’ve paid all your expenses. For-profit schools call this “profit.” Non-profit schools call it “surplus.” There is no such thing as a school that doesn’t make a “profit.” Schools that have more expenses than revenues—regardless of whether they’re called “for-profit” or “non-profit”—are the ones that go bankrupt.

I say, “Hold us accountable and compare.” When you compare, you see our children score far above the national norms. We also compare school to school, grade to grade, and class to class. If one school isn’t doing well versus the average, we go in and we check. Is it the teachers? Is it the students? What’s the problem? Accountability is not a debate at Nobel, it’s a way of life.

If a school is doing what people count on schools to do—give children a good education—I don’t care whether it’s a public school or a private school, I don’t care if it’s for-profit or not-for-profit. I don’t try to wage war for one over the other. I’m waging war for the children, because no child has an equal opportunity in life until they have an equal opportunity to a quality education. I don’t care how they get it.

They can wage the war against me, or against the kind of concepts that Nobel Learning Communities provides, but the fact is that our system works, our children are properly educated, and we’re doing it at a cost that, in most cases, is below the per-child cost in a public school.

Making a profit is, first of all, providing quality education at a reasonable price, and making the profit through the efficiencies of minimizing bureaucracies, national contracting of goods and services, clustering schools for field management efficiency, and centralizing support services. We’re using the best practices of business to run our schools efficiently. For example, we have 51 people here at the corporate office for 174 schools. In almost all our schools, the entire administrative staff is a principal and an assistant principal.

We pay all the bills and payroll out of our central office. We centrally provide all the general marketing, all the human resource management, and all the legal services. Our general and administrative cost runs around 7 percent of tuition revenue, which is the lowest in the industry. We’re providing one of the highest quality education experiences at one of the lowest prices, and with one of the lowest administrative costs. That allows us to make a slight profit.

Clowes: The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule by July on the voucher program in Cleveland. What are your views on school vouchers?

Clegg: I probably feel as strongly as anybody that vouchers are an important answer to the inequality of educational opportunity in this country. Having a voucher means the parents of an underprivileged child in the center of Philadelphia can then pick a school of their choice for their child. The privileged child on the Main Line of Philadelphia could always do that. If you don’t give the children from the inner-city an equal opportunity to the quality of education, you have prevented them from having any equal opportunity in life.

Vouchers are the easiest route to doing this because vouchers equalize the playing field. The funding follows the child, and therefore the parents can pick the school that works best for their child.

With vouchers, Nobel Learning Communities would be able to provide our quality product anywhere. We’d be able to go into the inner-city with our type of schools, which the parents of those children in the inner-city schools cannot afford right now.

But the value of the voucher has to be changed. You can’t afford to run a school on $2,500 per student, and poor people can’t afford to make up the difference. Give them a full voucher. The answer is to give them the equivalent of what you would have paid at a public school, just as you do with a charter school.

Clowes: What about accountability? The teacher unions claim private schools are not accountable. How do you respond to that?

Clegg: Our students take the Stanford-9, just like most public schools, and we proudly publish our results. In some states they take two tests because there might be a test more recognized by the state, but I don’t really believe in a state test, because most children are not going to grow up and live only in the state where they were educated. A person must be able to compete in the national and international community.

If a child moves from Alabama to Pennsylvania, the child still has to be up to the standards of Pennsylvania. Everybody should be ready and willing to do a true accountability test, and that accountability test should be on all students in any school, whether it be public, private, or charter. I believe in accountability. How else do you tell that a child’s achievement levels are adequate?

Clowes: Do you have any suggestions for lawmakers in addressing education issues?

Clegg: My plea to the legislators is—and it’s not going to happen until the parents rise up and demand it—they have to start considering the children and not their re-election. That’s a tough thing for most politicians.

If you have a Democratic House or Senate within a state, you’re going to have a hard time getting anything through because the teacher union is either the number one or number two contributor to the Democratic Party. In Michigan, for example, when the unions found they couldn’t do a frontal attack, they went into small counties and small areas and got anti-voucher, anti-charter school people elected. They then swung the vote at the state level. So, you have multi-million dollar resources against you.

One example was in Philadelphia recently where there were children on the streets with pre-printed placards, pre-printed stickers on their heads, opposing any change in the school system that is failing them. It made me nauseous to see this.

A reporter from the Philadelphia Inquirer called me and asked what I thought of it. I asked the reporter if he had ever wondered how all these children who had just walked out of school had obtained their pre-printed materials? Where did they come from?

Just asking the question makes you realize this truly is an orchestrated campaign in which the children’s needs are placed last. At Nobel Learning Communities, the children’s educational needs come first.