Looking Inward, Looking Outward: Good for Us All

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A large part of my life these days is a kind of distillation of what it has been for a while: advancing the work of independent schools. I’ve got threads going relating to curriculum and assessment, data development, professional development, even marketing. It’s all pretty fun, and incredibly rewarding.

But there’s something else that’s been on my mind for a while that doesn’t obviously align with my other projects. Paradoxically, it might yet turn out to be the weightiest, and it has taken mild-mannered me into realms where emotions can run very high.
Just as I believe that independent schools and their faculties need to break down the barriers among themselves, I have a strong conviction that the independent school community needs to step outside of itself and engage as a productive force in the national conversation on education and teaching. I even happen to believe that independent schools ought to be natural allies of traditional public schools.

Why? What’s in it for independent schools, especially in a time when demographics have some schools teetering even as changing approaches to teaching and learning demand that all schools, teetering or prospering, evolve in ways that are famously disruptive. How does adding my voice to a discussion that is often contentious advance independent schools and the independent school community?

My logic comes as much from my heart and my head here, and it’s actually pretty simple.

From ages four to twelve I was a public school kid, a happy kid in a half-rural, half-suburban community. We lived at the ill-defined confluence of three school districts, and my parents chose what they chose; alas, I missed out on being able dine our forever on my days in a one-room schoolhouse, which was in fact one of the options.

I’ve written elsewhere and in some detail about the experience, but the long and the short of it is that I had pre-kindergarten, kindergarten, looping teachers, smallish classes, a rich menu of the arts, recess, P.E., and even Spanish—all in the Eisenhower presidency. It was pretty idyllic, as “Leave It To Beaver” as anyone could ask, small-community post-war America. We took Iowa tests in the spring and received the results with our final report cards, to be opened in the car on the way home and challenging my parents to explain percentiles.

A couple of years back, being sometimes slow on the uptake, I realized that the similar kindergarten and elementary education my own children were receiving in suburban Boston was actually different in one rather critical way: their independent school charged a boatload of tuition, reduced considerably by the fact that my spouse works in the school. What had been free for me, and an experience not dissimilar from that of lots of kids in the U.S., was in fact now a luxury item, paid for by tuition at a school with selective admissions. I suppose we could move to a town with ritzier public schools, but that would mean paying taxes that would amount to a luxury tariff that we couldn’t possibly afford.

Because by this point I was paying pretty close attention to what was happening in public schools across the nation. Testing was becoming not an assessment but a burden on which schools in poorer districts “underperformed” and had funding cut and teachers punished. The thoughtful, orderly, holistic kinds of teacher evaluation I promoted in independent schools were being supplanted in public schools by a quick look at aggregated test scores—which every bit of research proves are correlated on the lower ends with poverty just as they are at the higher ends with wealth. And socioeconomic stratification was only making this worse.Things like arts, languages, and recess were being slashed in the name of test preparation.

Charter schools offered (and may still) promise, but their results seem as varied and uneven as their missions and business models; and some of these business models were designed to extract profit from a system that was already being cut to the bone.

My Southside Elementary School idyll was being transformed more and more, as I look at it, into a kind of public education nightmare (Gerald Bracey called it Education Hell), with kids, who are supposed to be beneficiaries, often looking like victims—not to mention their beleaguered teachers, whose drop-out rate seemed to be rising with that of students in many areas and is rising still.

It didn’t look right to me as I allowed the picture to come into focus, and it doesn’t seem right now. I decided it was time to start talking about it.

I’m proud of, often awed by, our schools and by my colleagues in them, and I believe that we have something to say in the national conversation on education. Setting aside the politics of it, which I would really like to do, I think we owe it to our fellow citizens and their children to share what we know about teaching and learning and encourage our public school counterparts to share with us.

Along the way I don’t see any reason why our profile as a sector shouldn’t rise, but for real reasons, based on authentic evidence of what we know about teaching and learning and kids (which is a treasure trove) rather than just on reputations and self-serving elitist lore. I believe that people will always need and find our schools, and I believe that most of us in this business are sincerely committed to figuring out how to make our schools more accessible to more families and more kinds of kids. If we’re nationally renowned for our contributions to the enterprise of education rather than for the Dun & Bradstreet ratings of our alums, what could be bad about that?

And so, I see my work and activities these days as actually making up a unified whole, a whole still devoted to independent schools and to bringing out the best in them—not just for self-promotion but because it’s our civic duty to connect and to share.

And that’s why I’ll keep going to EdCamps and why I participate in the #PubPriBridge Twitter chat (Mondays at 8:30 Eastern/5:30 Pacific), even as I hammer away at projects ranging from marketing to promoting the Independent Curriculum Group. Looking inward is fun and deeply interesting, but looking outward, scary as it can be, is the challenge that is icing life’s cake.

By the way, the transcript of the inaugural #PubPriBridge chat is online; please check it out and join us—and bring a friend or two.
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