Reality Check: Schools Can’t Always Do Everything We Tell Them To

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A few years back, in the summer after the 2008 Crash, I wrote a Financially Sustainable Schools advisory for the National Association of Independent Schools titled “Alive and Well: What It Takes to Thrive in Hard Times,” reviewing some survival strategies practiced by schools that had been granted “previews” of the economic downturn by virtue of their being situated in communities that had not exactly been experiencing all the glitz and glam of the previous few years—places whose last housing bubble burst before Richard Nixon started giving interviews to David Frost. I’m afraid you’ll need a NAIS membership to get at the piece, but the gist is: be smart, capitalize on the resources you have, and above all, mind your mission—not exactly rocket science, but for the Alive & Well schools a kind of self-disciplinary formula that had been working. The point of the advisory was pretty straightforward: if your school is new to economic uncertainty, here are some lessons you should consider if you want to be alive and well, too.

By contrast, earlier this winter I was shown an online photo gallery featuring shots of “The 31 Most Expensive Private Schools in the U. S”; how excited I was to see my own place featured, somewhere in midpack and gently mocked for the name of one of our student-created clubs.

In fact, the “31 Most Expensive” piece was pretty shoddy journalism, ooh-oohing over pricetags but offering no insight into why fees at these particular schools were approaching the $40K mark, and no mention at all of the things these schools quite obviously have in common: excepting a handful of boarding schools whose day tuition for a relatively few kids is a hefty percentage of their boarding fees, the priciest schools tend to be clustered in Boston, New York, and L. A.—cities where the sun never (or has not yet) set on the affluent and where paying the long dollar for luxe items isn’t exactly news. But a little investigation into why it costs a New York parent $35,000 for pretty much the same educational services that a parent in Charlotte gets for a mere $21,000 might have been made for an interesting article—although not as eye-catching and tweet-able as the photo scroll-cum-cheapshots. Whatever.

But it’s still a good question—it’s a great question, in fact—and it was brought to mind rather sharply by a recent listserv post on by a teacher at one of the Alive & Well schools. In essence, the poster was chiding other members for espousing relatively big-ticket approaches to school improvement, in particular full-on laptop programs with all the infrastructure and professional support we assume that best-in-class programs of this sort need. Of the couple of thousand independent schools, how many (he asked) are actually implementing, or are even in a position to implement, such programs?

Doing the research for “Alive & Well” was a chance to recapitulate my own growing up, first as a faculty kid at a tiny, thriftily run boarding school and then as a student at what became an Alive & Well school when the city’s steel and auto industries moved on. I was reminded that not all schools can do all things for all people at the luxe level, and that folks in a whole lot of schools work extra hard to render those differences in service all but negligible.

And yet we ask so much of ourselves, and we (I’m guilty, and I know it) are so eager to hector our peers and peer institutions to embrace all the trappings, bells, and whistles of “schools of the future,” operating (as we often do) on the premise that not to embrace the programming and gadgetry of the “21st-century learning,” not to “innovate,” is to hold a collision course with irrelevancy and ultimate disaster.

The Alive & Well schools, and hundreds of schools just like them, know what it is to make choices, and they know that making or not making substantive change to programs and practices has enormous opportunity costs. What schools in the high-income demographic regions may tend to forget, as we at least feel as though we have the luxury of opting into or out of new ideas based solely on their merits rather than on their costs, is that ours is sometimes a kind of fool’s paradise, where the choice between lovely cakes obscures the reality that most schools in this country are happy to be eating bread.

The rabble-rousers among us will say that all schools simply must find ways to opt in on all of the coolest, most Sir Ken-approved, most forward-thinking ways of doing our work, even if it means waiting a couple more years for the new roof (and wouldn’t a Green one be cheaper in the long run?) or adding that new science position. But for schools operating close to the bone, it can be desperately hard to conceive of amortizing the cost of an expensive Green roof when the current one is leaking and there’s a contractor willing to replace it for what looks like a pretty sweet price, one that the PPRISM account can manage. And the science classes will just have to be a bit bigger so we can give the faculty a small raise.

Furthermore, local norms make things with the same dollar cost actually more expensive in less affluent places. A thousand-dollar BYO laptop represents a bigger “add-on” to the cost of a $20K school in Detroit than it does to the cost of a $37K school in Boston, and I’m afraid that independent schools have a tendency to price themselves at what the local market will bear—the wonderful laptop program, however well conceived and educationally valuable, is going to hit the average Detroit independent school family harder than the average Boston one.

Does this mean that we need to put the brakes on vital educational progress? Of course not. It does mean that those of us in the hectoring business will need to keep making better cases for why a few leaks are worth enduring to bring a faculty up to speed in strategically vital skills or what the real parameters and cost-benefits there are in a branding and marketing initiative that will eat the cost of the first new tuitions it brings in. We also need to do more of what I did and promise to continue doing as I was preparing “Alive & Well”: listening to many voices, not just the ones with the most Twitter followers.

It means realizing, as many of the Alive & Well schools found, that the kind of innovation that yields institutional survival actually starts right within the school community—that schools need to recognize that people already on hand can generate bold ideas to tap their schools’ strengths and both draw upon and serve the larger communities in ways that will fortify their institutions against the slings and arrows of economic chaos.

In other words, the future of most of our schools does not lie entirely in embracing the ideas of the gurus du jour, or even of this writer. It lies instead in inspiring, recognizing, and nurturing the best ideas wherever they arise and in recognizing that each school faces unique conditions that will require making particular, careful decisions to ensure continued existence and development.

It’s not ever easy work, but it’s harder in some places and circumstances than others—and as we cheerlead for change, we need to acknowledge that not every school can do everything we think it should right now—but that steady leadership can ensure that all schools, in the end, can be alive and well, each in its own way.

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