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What Our Schools Must Be: Behind the Manifesto

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Other than being a kind of sideways tribute to my heritage, then, what is Not Your Father’s School supposed to accomplish? And where does this self-styled “Manifesto” come from, and where do I think it should take us?

Since I was a kid reading the Rover Boys at School and watching Goodbye, Mr. Chips on the afternoon TV movie, independent schools have fascinated me. It helped that I was growing up on a campus, eating dinner and sometimes breakfast and lunch with students, having them in and out of the house (along with many of their teachers) and, at times, living upstairs as a small dormitory. Later, when I was a student. I was as fascinated by our independent school athletic rivals as I was by my own school.

In a nutshell, I was predisposed pretty much from birth to be excited about and frankly impressed by independent schools—by the presumed quality of the education and experience they offered, by their traditions, the differences among them, and probably (at least when I was a kid) their aura of prestige and specialness. The head of the school I attended assured us that we were receiving the finest education in America, a line that too many of us bought, making us feel a little sorry for the lads at places like Andover when we encountered them in ice hockey tournaments. It wasn’t until I was almost out of high school that I realized that schools aren’t always what they are cracked up to be and that elitism is generally manifested in arrogance, and that I had swallowed a heaping helping of self-delusion.

What I became interested in at that point—a senior in a very traditional boys’ school in 1968, when idols were teetering on their pedestals all over the place and “prep schools” were queasily adrift on the roiling waters of historical change—was what I would now call “improving the breed.” How could, in particular, my own school begin to examine itself and make some adjustments that would allow it to continue to be as excellent as we had been told it was and as authentically confident as it might have been a decade before? For my senior project, I took a survey, wrote up the results and some suggestions, and passed in a lengthy report. I think I received a good grade, but that was it for feedback. (Although the next year, when I was in college, the head wrote me that he had been “disappointed” by the implied criticism.)

Fast forward six years, and I was an “administrative assistant” at my father’s school, doing lots of the gopher work and research required to complete the process of becoming a nonprofit and starting a development office. What was cool about the work—wedged in among classes, coaching, study hall duty, and serving as the floating dorm sub—was that it was right in at the ground floor, and it was about making a school better—really better, with more resources, a stronger brand, a more systematized administrative structure, and even better teaching. I loved it.

For the next decade or so—and a couple more schools—I focused on teaching, working on my chops and figuring out what mattered in making a classroom a place of success for kids and for myself. It was good work, but I could never stop myself (as is true for so many teachers) from trying to figure out how administrators thought and acted and how they perhaps could have done even better. What I ultimate cared about—sensibly, as they were by bread and butter—was whether the schools I was working at were as good as they could be.

Another couple of decades on, I’ve realized that I have had a mission in life: it’s all about improving the breed. I desperately want independent schools, all of them, to be the best versions of themselves that they can be: with the most appropriate and engaged students, the best trained and most excited and happy teachers, sustainable in all five dimensions (demographic, financial, environmental, global, and programmatic), and above all delivering at the highest level possible on their brand promises (the “covenant” between school and family, as my friend Patti Crane calls it). Along the way, I’d like to see arrogance supplanted by pride in authentic accomplishments, kid by kid. I’d also like to see some pretty serious re-examination of values and priorities.

Maybe it’s leftover arrogance, but a big part of me believes that independent schools are our nation’s last, best hope for real education reform. One day, I dream, we’ll wake up from the long national nightmare that school reform, and in particular test-driven school reform, has become for millions of public school students and their teachers, and on that day the country will be looking around for proven, rock-solid, common-sense and commonly decent ideas about how to teach kids and run schools. I think we have these ideas, and I think many of us are trying to live them.

Not only do I want the rescuers of American public education to notice us, but I want us to be ready to respond. We can only do that if we are really and truly doing the best we can, delivering ethically and energetically on our most highly refined and ever-improving student-centered, high quality, high value kinds of education—education diverse in its types and methods and missions, but unified in its commitment to integrity and excellence for all the children we serve. And let’s not forget that among us all, we really do serve all kinds of children.

Independent schools, in other words, have to stop thinking of themselves—and letting others think of them—as versions of the “school on the hill,” lofty and remote. We have to start seeing ourselves as, working to be, and above all deserving to be “cities on the hill”—worthy exemplars of the highest educational ideals.

We’ve got a long way to go, but this work ought to be a helluva lot more inspiring than just filling seats and generating woo-woo! lists of next-schools and colleges.

Let’s get to it!

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1 Comment
  1. “Independent schools, in other words, have to stop thinking of themselves—and letting others think of them—as versions of the “school on the hill,” lofty and remote. We have to start seeing ourselves as, working to be, and above all deserving to be “cities on the hill”—worthy exemplars of the highest educational ideals.”

    This statement is very powerful! Thank you for, once again, making me think!

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