Serving Schools, Educators, and Families

On Outsourcing: Lunch, the New SAT, and Why We Need Independent Curriculum

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When I was a child at my father’s school, the barber, the dry-cleaner, and the linen truck were the primary outside service providers. I remember the happy day Pop inked the contract with a food service company, in one gesture removing his most vexatious operational burden. Pretty much everything else was done in-house, by what in today’s world would seem an absurdly tiny staff.

Most independent schools would probably concur that their first major foray into outsourcing was when they signed on with one of the outfits that now prep our salad bars and sauté our tofu—including global giants who were among the first service corporations to turn economies of scale into huge profit margins built on students. The Age of Sage then cleared the way for other, similar services—landscaping and field care, cleaning, trash and recycling, plant infrastructure support of every kind.

In the last twenty years or so a new realm has been added, professional services related to both advancement and academic program, primarily tech-intensive “solutions” to problems once addressed by administrators and staff whose institutional value was directly proportional to the number of beige filing cabinets their offices. Now, every business, development, admissions, college counseling, health, and academic office has its “key vendors,” in whose servers whole schools and student bodies exist in digital form and upon whose expertise schools, faculties, students, and families rely in ways that would give them the shakes if they stopped to add it all up. As a some-time consultant, even I am an outsource resource, though no school would fail were my hard-drive to melt down.

We’ve outsourced, we believe, to give us more time and energy to focus on things that matter, like kids and teaching and learning, although most of us would be hard pressed to point out specific areas in which a lighter clerical workload has resulted in an easier or smoother overall workflow; it has been famously noted that we’re working harder than ever, even with all of the labor-saving benefits of technology. Nor have I noted any reduction in staff size at independent schools. Outsourcing has ramped up the number of our tasks and expectations about how we will perform them—better, faster, and more frequently.

But there’s another bit of outsourcing we’ve been doing for a while, and this week’s announcement of a “new and improved” SAT rather highlights this. Whatever one thinks about the SAT, new or old, or its ACT cousin and its AP step-children, it is and will be with us always. Whatever its roots, in the Common Core or in the desires of the multitudes with whom the College Board’s David Coleman is said to have consulted, it will be debated until another revision comes along.

With large-scale standardized testing, schools have essentially been outsourcing for a century the accreditation of individual students, mirroring the not-quite-as-old outsourcing of school accreditation itself. A student’s test score is a kind of seal of approval, numerically coded to show relative strength in particular areas; the debate rages and will continue as to whether these areas are “arcane vocabulary,” test-prep gamesmanship, or important knowledge, but there you are. Every student from your school who sits a standardized test has been outsourced, by school and family, for judgment. (I might also point out that schools offering “Advanced Placement”-designated courses also outsource the accreditation of these courses via the review process that permits them to use the AP trademark.)

This might be an extreme way of viewing the matter; it probably is. But since the SAT and its kin aren’t going anywhere soon, it’s worth pondering what all this means for schools.

On the one hand we can “own” the standards and methods on which the tests are based. We can incorporate them into our practice much as you have adjusted to the wishes of your food service provider for new equipment or as your business office has clung to PCs in order to accommodate the creaky software package that now contains every transaction the school has made since 1991. It won’t be terrible to do this—many will argue, almost irrefutably, that it’s the right way to support students. If the tests and the standards on which they are based—SAT, ACT, AP, SAT Subject Tests, or even the CWRA—can demonstrate that they are worthy, we’ll focus a little harder on evidence-based reading, science reasoning, specific content knowledge, and performance tasks. It’s what we’ve been doing, or often claimed and sometimes denied doing (depending on who’s asking, and why), all along. But the old worry, that “teaching to a test” can divert us from core values and core mission beliefs, will remain.

Schools will still need to address yet another outsourcing question: What about test prep? Khan Academy and the SAT may now be hand-in-glove, but will that be enough for families conditioned to believe that more, and more expensive, is better? We’re told that the test-prep industry is worth $4.5 billion to the American economy, and I’d bet that independent school families pay a disproportion of those dollars. Will the new SAT be enough “like school” to obviate the need for test prep? Ask families who have shelled out to tutor their children for the ACT, also described as being “like schoolwork.” A great many schools now contract with outside vendors to offer standardized test prep, either as part of the freight or for an extra fee, and I suspect the new SAT will not reduce their number.

If the new SAT turns out to be everything it’s cracked up to be—sight unseen—it will be a good thing, but in any case it will remain as an external validator of our students if not our programs. Objectively, external validation is a good thing, and few would argue that independent school accreditation, for example, is a actively harmful, even when it doesn’t live up to its promise. Good external validation can truly “improve the breed,” and therefore we can hope that appropriate, smart standardized tests can help make schools better and bring out the best in our students—especially if schools and students are given feedback that supports better instruction and learning on a holistic basis, beyond simply achieving higher scores.

It’s worth taking a moment, however, to mull over the degree to which we’ve passed so much of what used to be our own work to third-party vendors. In theory this should have been enabling us to focus on our core work—students and their learning and teachers and their teaching—and in sum it probably has. But take a moment, as the news cycle briefly reminds us all of the power of the College Board, to consider what all this outsourcing offers us—and what it might also take away.

Some years back the Independent Curriculum Group, which I am now privileged to lead, came together to support the development of school-based, teacher-created, mission-based curriculum and assessment. The new SAT underscores the continuing relevance of schools’ efforts to draw upon their own resources to serve their own students in the best and most intentional of ways. Food service is one thing, but our academic programs are quite another.

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