The Independent School Value Proposition

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As the economy stalls and some schools look at empty desks, there is quite a lot of talk about the “value proposition” of independent schools. This is simply the bottom line in the calculation based on the question: Is sending my kid to this independent school worth it?


What gets factored into that calculation, of course, is the big question. It’s all about brand, signature programs, values, college and next-school lists, prestige factors, campus bells and whistles—on and on. Some people have even tried to set the calculation up with actual numbers.


That’s great, and probably a worthwhile exercise, but I’m going to try to reduce the value proposition to lowest terms, terms that may also point toward ways that schools can work to make this calculation come out in their favor.


Here’s my simple formulation: A school’s value is measured in the degree to which it can stoke the capacities of kids to be the best possible versions of themselves and the degree to which the school extracts those capacities—at an appropriate developmental levels—while they are at the school; all of this is in preparation for a life beyond the school in which the process of independently discovering capacities and then stoking and expressing them becomes automatic.


I’ve worked out some metrics for this, even. Humor me, if you will, by focusing on your own school as I go through them:


First is what I call the Parent Thrill Factor. This is the measure by which parents at your school are thrilled by their child’s experience. The best empirical gauge I can come up with is the frequency of occasions on which your parents, listening to parents of children in other schools, feel a flush of pride, satisfaction, and relief—as opposed to unease or even pangs of buyer’s remorse. It might be hard to gather the data on this, so I suppose one is left with parent participation in annual giving as a second, more concrete, measure.


Second is the degree to which graduates of your school go on to lives that continue to enact the highest values and aims of your school. Superficially this may be about college majors and vocations, although even more telling are the deeper choices graduates make about how to live their lives: their social and civic activities, the ways in which they shape their relationships and share their values and passions among families and friends, and the ways they continue to engage with the world as a place of constant learning. Some of these elements might actually be quantifiable somehow, but I am not aware that anyone has devised the units or the scales.


Third is the Faculty Thrill Factor, measurable at graduation ceremonies by the number of smiling head-nods per faculty member per graduate, as graduates walk across the stage and give their old teachers, coaches, and advisors a few seconds in which their students’ character, accomplishments, and growth flash before their eyes—values-based developmental biographies in miniature. If the school is really providing transformative experiences, you can feel an almost constant buzz from the faculty section.


The hardest metric to figure out, I guess, is how students actually respond to their school experience. Maybe there’s a shining-eye factor or something like it, but I won’t pretend to describe it. I suppose, at the risk of being misunderstood, that it might be worth looking at next-school and college lists—not for those prestigious names that have served as quality proxies for a century or so, but rather for real breadth that indicates that the school is inspiring and supporting students in a variety of interests and passions, from the arts to the sciences to intercultural exploration to … whatever. The individual school names on these lists are supposed to be about the kids, not about the school, but even so, an aggregation that covers many interests and different types of experience says something great about a school.


A few years ago our faculty worked up a set of core standards or values, which we keep around (they’re posted on the wall) as guides and touchstones for our work. As I have been thinking about this post it occurs to me that the sentence, “An education at our school will expand and develop student capacities in _______” (fill in the blank with each of the ten areas specified in our standards) is a pretty good statement of our value proposition—as long we continue to hold up our end of the bargain, to make good on the assertion.


Stoking capacities and extracting behaviors based on them, and building the confidence and habits of mind to continue building and using these capacities—and continually discovering and developing new ones—through a life of meaning and purpose, is what schools are supposed to be all about. The “how” matters of course, but it is that essential work, and the degree to which a school is successful in doing it within the context of its expressed aims and values, that is the essential measure of whether a school is worthy of the tuitions it charges and the efforts of everyone—faculty, students, families, alumnae/i—who supports it. This is the value proposition to which every independent school must aspire.

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