Opening day chapel, and the distinguished-looking man at the pulpit wasn’t the Headmaster, and he wasn’t anyone else known to ninth-grade me. Tanned, with silver hair and a dark suit, he had to be important.
“Your parents are spending nine dollars a day on your education here. Be sure that every day, you put in your nine dollars’ worth of effort!”
Whatever else he said, the man (who turned out to be the chairman of the school board of trustees), made an impression with this little factoid—at least on the Headmaster, who made it the mantra of that year and possibly several years to follow. We were to finish our homework every night, pay attention and speak up in class, and practice and play hard at sports. We must justify our parents’ investment in us.
Nine dollars a day—an amount arrived at by simply dividing the number of our day school days into the tuition and other required fees. This was during Lyndon Johnson’s inherited term, what we then thought were tumultuous times. I remember the number seeming important, but not unreasonable.
Nearly fifty years later, who among us would have the nerve to exhort students to do the same—to put in their one hundred dollars, even two hundred dollars (and more) a day worth of effort? While the logic hasn’t changed, the numbers have, and while nine bucks was a lot in those days, it just didn’t have the same stratospheric feel that a hundred or two have today. (Using the federal minimum wage, in 1964 those nine dollars represented 7.2 hours of work—almost a full day. A hundred dollars now is equivalent to 13.8 hours of minimum-wage work—nearly two days; for students at the $40K day schools in New York City, the 2011 cost of even a single day of a generously calculated 180-day school year works out to something close to 31 hours—nearly four full days—of minimum-wage work.)
There are some much larger and extremely urgent and important questions embedded here about school costs, socioeconomic diversity, and equity. We are not even talking about either the proliferation of administrative roles and services that have propelled tuition rises or the nature of teacher and administrative salary change. Perhaps another time, although the math I’ve already done points in some kind of disheartening directions.
But back to my question, Who would ask this explicitly of their students today: to put in their proportionate value of effort each school day based on tuition?
In 1964 it was plausible to envision the calculus of the school–student–parent “contract” in terms of students beavering away at their school obligations—the school providing an academic and moral framework—toward the fulfillment of some fairly clear-cut expectations: good grades, successful teams, pleasant vacations, and college. One could still have a couple of C-range grades on one’s transcript and hope for the Ivy League (with “decent” College Board scores and another compensating factor or two), and socioeconomic diversity wasn’t even much of a topic of conversation. The student was at the center; success or failure, that nine dollars’ worth of effort, was up to him (or her, although not yet at my school).
Today it seems so much more complicated, perhaps because on some level we’re embarrassed enough by our tuition rates not to want to resort to such simple math. Instead of “masters” teaching a limited continuum of courses, we have curricula carefully organized and vetted and presented by teachers whose professionalism and skills require continual monitoring and updating. We offer a range of social and support services aimed at assuring student success, and we make loud noises about holding ourselves as institutions even more accountable than we do our students. We turn ourselves inside-out to make sure that our message and reputation in the marketplace speak not only to students’ learning but to their comfort and efficacy in “the school community” and, by strong implication, to the ways in which their assured successes will give them a leg up as they approach the next level.
In 1964 my school offered me an opportunity: for a price, if I worked to be worthy of that price, I could learn some things and prepare myself for a college whose demands would be commensurate with my abilities. In 2011 the essential exchange may be the same, but there is a far greater sense that the school must now warrant and even guarantee a kind of experience that will be both rich in its daily elements and also valuable as the backdrop of a student’s c.v.—a résumé that will make the student stand out in a college (and next-school) admissions climate that is unimaginably more competitive than it was in the LBJ era.
Things are different, and that is why the numbers are different. For better or for worse, the Age of Accountability and 8% Ivy League admission rates mean that simply placing responsibility for success on the back of each student is no longer quite enough; independent schools know we must work our own tails off to provide support and services that really will help each student succeed, and our customers—the families who are paying more than ever proportionately (based on that minimum wage comparison and plenty of other measures) as well as our students—have a right to expect our very, very best efforts.
In 1964 my school didn’t need to be a think tank, and perhaps it didn’t even need teachers whose capacities needed to grow each year in response to new ideas and new ways (although many did, on their own). It seemed reasonable that the board chair could put it to students that we needed to live up to the price our families were paying so that we could sit in those pews and those classrooms and wear the school uniform on the field.
In 2011 we can still ask much of our students—at least a full working day’s worth of effort, just as it was in my student days—but we must also ask much, much more of ourselves. Are we providing an education that is fully worth one or two hundred dollars, each day to each student?
A board chair might well ask this question, but I think not just to students. I think it is also a question we must all continually ask ourselves.