An Excellent Idea, from Fred Bartels

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For those of you who are not members of the ISED-L listserv for independent school folks (mostly), this morning the estimable Fred Bartels set forth a pretty convincing case as to why independent schools and their faculties could and even should become the go-to source for digital and online textbooks. Everything that Fred has to say here makes a heap of sense to me, including his last point–that we’re supposed to be all about leadership, and that an effort to bring this idea to fruition will need a hefty does of it from someone or some group.

In all of our talk about “public purpose” of independent schools, what has been missing for me has been a cogent brief for a specific and definable project where independent school expertise, independence, and resources, exercised broadly by many kinds of institutions, can make a significant contribution to the grand conversation about American–and global–education that is for the moment being dominated by people and interests with a public school focus. Last month I had the opportunity to note our absence from this conversation both in a presentation to the faculty at a school of undoubted cultural and historical significance as well is in the blog entry preceding this one right here.

What I said to the faculty and administration at that school was essentially what I have been trying to say here all along–that independent schools are special places with extraordinary opportunities to do wonderful things in ways very much of our own choosing. In keeping with the Romantic, Rousseauian part of our heritage, we are permitted to focus on the development of our students as individuals, while the more traditional aspects of our history remind us that high standards for individual achievement are critical to the educational enterprise. We get to think about, or at least acknowledge, these notions while other education systems are fretting about standardized test performance as the One True Measure of both learning and teacher effectiveness.

Independent schools, I believe, need to work as hard and as intentionally as possible to become, school by school and classroom by classroom, places worthy of their independence and of the faith that families and students put in them. While in general we are doing pretty well, I think there is at every school some known (and hopefully regretted) gap between aspirations (mission, values, viewbook “promises”) and actual practice. We all need to be reducing that gap, because, in the business-y lingo of our time, the size of the gap is inversely proportional to the “value-added” each school can offer.

Independent schools have historically done a poor job of communicating honestly and openly with one another, on all levels. Fortunately our industry publications and gatherings are of late less just braggy festivals of our prestige and exclusivity and more opportunities to share and learn, with outsiders and with one another. Still, inter-school dialogue at the function and teacher level needs to be improved, although the rise of organizations like the Independent Curriculum Group, the Association of College Counselors in Independent Schools, the Association of Independent School Admission Professionals, and a growing list of regional organizations offers hope that we can improve at this. If nothing else, whatever cross-pollination among schools occurs through these bodies or through professional communication organs like the Independent School Educators Ning, the aforementioned ISED listserv, and the many National Association of Independent Schools-sponsored listservs/”communities” moves us all in the right direction; our many bloggers and even our Twitter-driven PLNs make a positive difference.

As long we rest on our laurels as “elite” schools and arrogantly spurn opportunities both to become better at what we do and to speak honestly among ourselves about our work, our aspirations, and even our worries, we will never have the “street cred” or possibly even the right to become participants in the national conversation about education. But working toward real excellence in our own practice and real openness, even innovation, in our institutions will give us legitimacy and confidence to enter that conversation.

What Fred’s suggestion offers is something concrete for independent schools to bring to the table–online and digital texts that we indeed have the knowledge and even the need to be creating for ourselves and that would draw upon our resources in ways that would not be just “community service” but that could, in fact, provide a real and educationally essential product. Implicit in Fred’s idea are the essential qualities that I see as prerequisite to coming to the table: such texts would necessarily be based on excellent, forward-thinking, “21st-century”-informed curricula, and their production would inevitably be collaborative, both among teachers and among institutions.

I think many of us could make a solid case for doing this work on the open source model, with rewards coming to schools indirectly through increased brand recognition. But even if school-produced digital texts are looked at as potential parts of a school’s revenue stream (an idea that is perhaps cringe-worthy, although few schools are so well provided for in this economy that this won’t be looked at), their real value would lie in the statement such an enterprise would make: as schools, the independents can produce something useful to all educators; whether we charge for this–a nominal fee or fair market value–would be relatively immaterial.

So, it comes down to leadership. Do we need an Independent School Online/Digital Text project (ISODT?), with a national spokesperson, to lead the way, or can we fold such an effort into work already being done by the likes of the Independent Curriculum Group or even NAIS?

Where do we go from here?

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