Change: Why Independent Schools Must Be FOR It!

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The 1932 Marx Brothers farce Horse Feathers opens with a presidential installation involving the gown-clad faculty and the more casually attired student body of Huxley College (whose rival, incidentally, is Darwin). The new president is inexplicably Groucho, holding nothing back just because his character wears a doctoral gown. After a brief speech, Groucho breaks into song:

I don’t know what they have to say,

It makes no difference anyway —

Whatever it is, I’m against it!

No matter what it is or who commenced it,
I’m against it.


Your proposition may be good

But let’s have one thing understood —

Whatever it is, I’m against it!

It doesn’t matter in the end, of course, as Huxley defeats Darwin and the brothers polyandrously win the hand of the “college widow.” It’s utterly nonsensical, chaotic—Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Zeppo at their best.


Independent schools open the 2011–12 school year on possibly a less stable note. The economy is wobbling, the political process is unraveling, and our national intellectual aspirations have sunk so low that the Miss USA contest had no qualms about asking contestants whether evolution should be taught in schools; a bunch of contestants thought not. At the same time, the wealth and parental ambitions of households at the tip-top of the economy—the couple of undertaxed percent of the U.S. population who control most of its wealth—have grown apace, and I suppose the independent school world can hardly be faulted for wanting to provide good service such families.


At the risk of repeating myself, I remind readers of the power of brand. “Brand” tends to be used as a good reason for institutional consistency, which makes superficially good sense. But if a school’s brand is truly “educational excellence,” that’s not necessarily the same thing as “educational stasis at a high-but-traditional-and-familiar level.” One’s brand should not prohibit change, at least change made thoughtfully and for reasons that are supported by experiential reality.


Because the approaches and practices that make an education excellent are changing, in ways that have been so belabored and oft-repeated that the term “21st-century skills” has become kind of annoying. But it’s true, and it’s real. Ask any college admission officer or professor if students who have significant experiences doing high-level collaborative project-based work or who have had intensive experiences with design thinking don’t have a leg up when it comes to admissibility and academic promise. Sure, they must also know how to write and to have mastered the second derivative, and test scores and GPA are still the coin of the realm in most admission offices. But, to be blunt, colleges are looking for students whose experiences and skill sets are differentiated from those of the generality of applicants—and in 2011 a kid whose résumé is packed with “21st-century skills” still stands out as different.


In other words, schools actively engaged in developing their academic programs along lines that are now pretty well established as very effective are giving their students the kind of instrumental boost—along with actually useful cognitive skills and mindsets—that anxious parents (and wealthy ones—in other words, our traditional clientele) expect independent schools to provide.


Several generations of serious thinkers, from Jerome Bruner to Howard Gardner to Sir Ken Robinson, and a host of gurus heralding the promise of technology and new ways to think about curriculum and assessment have shown us the way to better world, and faculties and leaders who shudder at this world—educators like Groucho and the Huxley professoriate, reflexively “against it”—risk, well, everything. Soon enough there may be very little place for teachers who are afraid to advance their methods and curricula, administrators who are unwilling to push the issue, and boards who are trapped in the idea that tradition somehow froze solid—or should have—in 1965. Those anxious and ambitious families will be looking to take their kids, and their wealth, elsewhere, to schools that can serve their students and that will provide the kind of differentiating program that will make their children stand out in the beauty pageant that is selective college admissions these days.


I’m always shocked when I hear of great, “legacy” schools, rolling in endowment and applicants, that are paralyzed—teachers or leaders or governors or all three—by the idea that comprehensive curricular change could do them harm. Good grief! Who among us have stronger, more secure brands—more rock-solid credentials of “excellence”—to leverage in the direction of something new and substantially better? If St. Grottlesex were to change its methods—even if it meant following the lead of less prestigious but prospering schools who have been moving 21st-centuryward for a decade or more—those methods would soon become, like Harkness Tables—industry standards for this new century.


Of course, were this to happen the schools that have already embraced 21st-century methods might risk losing their competitive advantage and their students risk losing their differentiating characteristics. But I’m quite certain that such schools do not see themselves atop a plateau of practice but rather as engaged on a continuing journey toward new ways and new ideas.


But schools that aren’t wholeheartedly undertaking this journey, schools that permit themselves the false luxury of being fastidiously “against it,” may soon find themselves going nowhere, fast. To bring some of the more far-flung elements of this essay together in one stroke, it’s about evolution—it’s Darwinian. Adapt, or face the dead end.


I am aware that this “argument to the market” is materialistic almost to the point of cynicism. But what is it going to take to get more of our schools and their faculties off the dime? If survival, or at least a raise, is at stake, will more independent school educators open their minds and embrace real change?

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4 Comments
  1. Yes, there are still little boutique blacksmith cottages scattered here and there charging $100 for a badly forged rustic nail. I suppose there will be a place for tradition and traditional experiences; I liken it to school qua Theme Park, “I want my kids to go to Hogwarts, it was magical for me…”

    Prestige, influence, power…all these things matter to a certain segment of the market. Maybe independent schools still have a 150 years riding the wave of globalization, selling the promise of class ascendence to the next class of international nouveau riche. Maybe even forever.

    And, perhaps, aspiring to theme park status would be okay. Meanwhile, we are probably witnessing the beginning of something truly transformative happening in education coming from unexpected corners.

  2. @Ernest. Agreed, and thank you. It just sounds so darn harsh when you put it that way…

    But I also think that some schools can sustain their status quo for quite a while longer. Their conservative boards and leaders will grump about how much more competitive things are, and their “fastidiously” change-averse teachers–who call themselves purists, as in “nobody has any standards any more but us”–will find it harder and harder to reach kids. But huge endowments and colossal reputations will keep them afloat. They will misunderstand their own brands and their own strengths, not necessarily knowing or at least acknowledging the dead end even when they reach it and blind to the many turn-offs to a new kind of vitality and even essentiality.

    And I suppose there will always be a real and even important place in the market for a few truly Old School schools, although they will need to do it “smart” and exceedingly well. The last iceman (or blacksmith), they say, will still make money.

  3. Given that Kahn Academy is now more relevant than what some independent schools offer, curriculum and content wise, “innovate or die” comes to mind.

  4. Thank you, Peter.

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