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What is the Independent School Presence in Education Programs?

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Regular readers know that I am passionate about involving more independent school people in the larger—national and global—conversation about education. There are more than a few challenges in making this happen, including some assumptions and stereotypes that get not only in our own way but in the way of others entering into dialogue with us independent schoolers.

One place that I have been involved in this effort is the #PubPriBridge Twitter chat, a biweekly event (Monday nights, 8:30 ET/5:30 PT; the next chat is this Monday, February 16), which tends to be a smallish group but no less yeasty and engaging for that. The chat is complemented by a website that lays out our goals and has a few resources, including some chat archives. You can also look here for information on a couple of opportunities to join us in person as we carry the conversation onto the public stage.

A couple of weeks ago one of the #PubPriBridge chatters, Greg Martin, an independent school teacher currently working on his doctorate in education, wondered out loud how much presence independent school issues and perspectives had in the generality of American schools of education. The query hit me like a ton of bricks, as it’s a truly great question with, I suspect, a rather disappointing answer.

If the answer is not disappointing, I’d sure like to know more. But I’m going to proceed, cautiously, on the assumption that schools of education, outside of a handful of graduate schools, don’t get into the question of independent schools much at all except in relation to general issues around “private schools” as a monolithic body—say, in the context of vouchers or school choice or nineteenth-century academies—as these might arise in “foundation” or history of education courses.

If my supposition is correct, I think the lack of independent school awareness and presence in education programs is less the result of a choice made by the schools of education themselves than about the way independent schools have tended to operate vis-à-vis the formal teaching of education.

For example, I’m a certified teacher, or at least I was before Massachusetts swept away the lifetime certifications it had been its practice to grant. During my first years of independent school teaching I did all the graduate work this required at Rhode Island College, that state’s original “normal school,” with one course at the University of Rhode Island branch in Providence. I was the only independent school person I encountered in any of my highly engaging and informative courses, and by the time I was finished I might have been the only certified teacher, or one of only a couple, working at the high school level in my particular school. There were several certified teachers in the middle school, but mostly because it started at grade five, and so a few elementary ed-certified teachers were on the team.

There are independent schools I know that like to hire experienced public school teachers, but they tend to be far more interested in their creativity—and to a degree, their restlessness, which is often motivating—than in whatever they may have been taught in their education courses. There are of course a couple of programs like those of the Klingenstein Center at Teachers College at Columbia that focus on training independent school leaders, and every independent school I know of is happy to look at applications from Harvard Graduate School of Education EdMs, possibly as much for the comforting value of the H Word as for the not inconsiderable value of what was learned in Cambridge. To be sure, a fair number of early- and even mid-career independent school teachers opt to take a year at Harvard in order to earn this reliable credential, many along the way experiencing their first and sometimes only formal education in our field.

Thus, the few graduate schools of education that offer programs explicitly for independent school educators are just that, few, and it would not surprise me to learn that their students are to some degree separated from their public school peers at even these places.

So it strikes me that there’s not a ton of cross-pollination between the independent and other school sectors in schools of education, and the relatively few lonely independent school teachers in these programs do not comprise anywhere near a critical mass for making their concerns or perspectives part of the conversation, much less the curriculum.

I think it is also fair to ask, humbly, whether the independent school world has contributed much in the way of academically interesting ideas and research on which education professors and courses might draw, or that are even worthy of a passing reference.

Independent schools and their leaders have tended to sit out the conversations and the research, focusing, perhaps understandably so, on their own schools and concerns, paying little mind to and, in my experience, often denigrating the value of graduate or undergraduate education in education; I’ve had any number of people tell me how “boring” or “useless” their education courses were. (This was, I should add most emphatically, NOT my own experience at RIC or URI.) We do occasionally grab at shiny ideas as they go by, and we are certainly often swept along by the zeitgeist of macro trends. And in our overall consideration of higher education, as John Chubb has noted in a post on his NAIS blog onto whose coattails I shamelessly climbed, we have had an unfortunate tendency to blame the colleges and the all-holy power of their admission offices for not embracing or creating lots of new thinking about education.

In a word, we have quietly and maybe even willfully made ourselves quietly irrelevant in the much of the world of education about education by devaluing it as a source of vitality in our own schools and by stepping away from engagement except in a handful of special programs.

It’s time for this to change, somehow, and the thread on the Twitter chat the other night was a Doh! moment. By asking the critical questions and raising this critical issue, I like to think that our contributor has perhaps laid another plank on the #PubPriBridge. Perhaps there are online communities where students and professors of education might take up this question, or where it might be introduced by any of our readers who are engaged in those spheres.

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