Serving Schools, Educators, and Families

Independent School Value: A 50-Year Perspective

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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.

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4 Comments
  1. Aarrrggh! Security! Thankfully, not everywhere, yet, but it’s not cheap (the service; bet the contract services don’t lay out princely sums in wages).

    Think you are dead on about the insecurity of the wealthy, which seems to be mirrored (in ways that benefit the wealthy, no less) in the insecurities of way too many other people, what with Fox News and the Wall Street Journal keeping all their audiences in a sweat over just this. Now, who owns those?

    More on our overwork tendencies at 20somethingfinance.com: http://20somethingfinance.com/american-hours-worked-productivity-vacation/

    And anyhow, I thought the reason we don’t raise the real marginal tax rate on the the very wealthy and corporations is so they can invest and consume and create jobs for everyone. So, when’s this gonna start happening? If I were an economic activist, I’d start the “We’re waiting!” movement to put pressure on those who have to start the magical trickle-down process that will create zillions of jobs and put the economy back on its feet (unless it’s just that: magical…).

    So, we’re waiting–not just for the 30-hour week but for jobs. See also http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/16/opinion/nocera-what-is-business-waiting-for.html?ref=global-home

    In the meantime, school is starting–PG

  2. Peter,

    What has developed in independent schools over the past 30 years can’t be understood without taking into account the vast economic inequality that has developed in that same period. (For a great set of articles about US inequality see: http://larryferlazzo.edublogs.org/2010/11/08/the-best-resources-about-wealth-income-inequality-help-me-create-a-simple-lesson-plan-using-them/ )

    Curiously, my take is that as the incomes of the wealthy have spiked so has their insecurity. The information at the Equality Trust website (developed by the authors of The Spirit Level) provides insight into why this may be the case. http://www.equalitytrust.org.uk/

    Essentially, in what has become increasingly a winner-take-all game, the cost of not getting into the winner’s circle becomes increasingly large. Parents at independent schools tend to be very savvy about how our economic system works (it is how they can pay those hefty tuitions) and they understand the costs of not winning. As a result they put tremendous pressure on schools to produce a positive outcome.

    Many of the services that have been added to independent schools are directly related to this pressure from parents. Another service, which you don’t mention, is the growing security forces that have been put in place at many independent schools. When I started teaching at RCDS 28 years ago there was no security force. No one felt it was needed. Now there are at least 3 full time security people and another 4-5 part timers. This is a cost that is directly related to growing economic inequality.

    The way forward for US workers in general, and independent school teachers in particular is not to work harder, but to work less. There was no doubt a time when the idea of a 40 hour work week seemed utopian and crazy, yet we eventually got there. We will eventually get to a 30 hour work week, but it is going to be a bumpy ride.

    Fred

  3. Fred–

    Point taken, and you are dead right. I guess I was thinking institutionally rather than individually.

    The fact is, there are a lot more of us working (per school) than in the olden days. Functions that did not exist separately or at all in my old school included:
    –any information tech people,
    –any counseling services (except college counseling, shared by the head and the business manager),
    –any diversity services, any academic support services,
    –any academic administration other than the assistant head who headed the middle (then called “lower”) school, and
    –any teachers in the arts, except for the chorus teacher.
    Coaching was all done by teachers (except for one football coach). There was a development officer, but no admissions office or personnel. B&G was probably about the same as now–presumably among the lowest-paid staff. Food was family style, one menu served at two seatings–much cheaper than the banquet buffets we see now.

    What we’ve done, of course, is to make our schools more like colleges, or more like resorts if you’re inclined toward cynicism. We’ve certainly created administrative functions whose work is arguably largely about smoothing the interface between family and school and between student and curriculum–tasks formerly the province of the head (in the first case) and the faculty (in the second).

    But we’ve done all this, and I think it will be hard to turn back. We promise to deliver on our missions, and we charge a very long dollar to fulfill the promise. I’m not sure it’s necessarily about working harder or sweating more blood (or adding even more functions). What I do think is that we have to be smarter (and please note that I didn’t say “work smarter,” a execrable phrase) about making sure that we are delivering on what we promise, as effectively as possible. We set up conditions (in the form of high tuitions) that create certain expectations, and most schools aren’t inclined to point out any limitations that kids or families may find.

    I guess I hope that schools will see this as their primary priority (not fundraising, not building ideal college or next-school lists, both of which should be sequelae of delivering on the mission) and then figure out how to divert more of the income stream to paying the people whose job it is to deliver the service–that is, the teachers and coaches and advisors who connect daily and deeply with the kids.

    Maybe, as the economy contracts, we’ll see a slight contraction in the growth of new administrative positions or in the amount of money devoted to supporting these offices. But I would then hope that we’d see a proportionate expansion of other ways to make sure that kids succeed in the context of each school’s mission and values.

    Thanks for helping me work toward a clarification–it’s a very tough but critical issue–PG

  4. Peter,

    Middle-class incomes (teacher’s incomes) have essentially remained flat for the past 30 years. http://motherjones.com/politics/2011/02/income-inequality-in-america-chart-graph

    Over the same period the incomes of those in the top 5% (our customer families) have soared.

    This leads me to question your proposition that “we must also ask much, much more of ourselves.”

    Working harder for the same amount of compensation is not something the parents of our students would tolerate. It is not something that independent school teachers should tolerate either.

    Fred

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