In the competitive marketplace of schools—where independent schools, religious schools, and a panoply of charter schools compete with traditional public schools for the attention of savvy parents—any point of differentiation can be a critical element of brand. Maintaining a strong, positive brand presence is especially important for independent schools, which must attract voluntary tuition and gift dollars in order to thrive and grow and whose brands must be regularly refreshed or renewed through assertions of quality.
Anything that highlights some aspect of an independent school’s curriculum or culture—particularly in the context of “excellent” or exemplary programming—is a positive. Such initiatives as the NAIS Schools of the Future, Challenge 20/20, and the now-ended Leading Edge programs give schools both an incentive and a showplace for the exploration of new practices; NAIS publications, above all Independent School magazine, offer further avenues for public recognition, as do opportunities for presentations at NAIS and regional association conferences.
Many schools have leapt into such programs with great eagerness. School communication and advancement offices, in conjunction with increasingly alert and brand-conscious academic administrators, have become adroit at discovering and showcasing work that is consonant with values and ideals that industry and educational thought leaders espouse as essential to school quality. Over the past three or four decades these ideals have included diversity, multicultural education, awareness of differences in learning styles and proclivities, community service/service learning, new understandings of cognition, environmental sustainability, the application of educational technology, and the ideas currently gathered under the umbrella of “21st-century learning capacities.” The independent school landscape is dotted with schools that we readily identify as doing great work in these areas.
With schools being lauded for and even trading on very specific work being done relating to these ideals—with NAIS and local media featuring this work in very positive ways—I think that it’s important to ask, What is the actual reach within the school of the particular program that is being showcased? To what extent does a signature program represent the true and full nature of the school that offers it? Does work that is in fact occurring in isolation or as a one-time event sometimes serve as a quality or brand proxy, more or less inauthentically, for an entire school?
I don’t pose these questions as a cynic or an iconoclast; good work is good work, and we need to encourage and recognize it.
In fact, I propose a set of questions that I think are far more important and that get to the heart of the goals that NAIS and other bodies have for their recognition programs:
· What are the conditions under which innovative or exemplary programs come into being in a school?
· What are the conditions that allow a single good idea or novel practice to become pervasive within a school’s culture?
· How does a school translate values and ideals into institutional attitudes and actions, and how does it encourage and promote programs and practices that reflect its values and ideals?
· How does a school recognize and incorporate the ideas and practices of individual teacher-leaders and teacher-entrepreneurs to ensure that such practices spread within its institutional culture?
The challenge that lies before schools, whether phrased as a “need to innovate” or a “mandate for change” or perhaps something a bit less urgent, requires that new ideas and best practices reflective of 21st-century exigencies become widespread within schools and their classrooms. While it is all well and good that we highlight and reward individual instances of breakthrough work, it is more important that we consider the ways in which this work becomes not just “the wonderful things Ms. Jones is doing in her science classes at Shangri-La Country Day” or “St. Basalt’s School’s great service trip to Honduras” or the like but “the wonderful science program at Shangri-La Country Day” and the truly global understanding that all St. Basalt’s students gain by the time they graduate.
Having a part represent the whole is fine as a figure of speech, but it’s critical that schools not allow themselves to rest on the laurels of a single course or program, to complacently present themselves as offering something institutionally that in fact only a few students actually experience. All schools want to do the right thing, I believe, and in this instance all schools must, or suffer the consequences in a time when expectations are high and customer savvy is increasing.
I propose to devote the next few posts here thinking about how a school can use one teacher’s great idea or one great program to enhance its entire culture—and the experience of every student.