As an independent school teacher for the past 25 years, I have been around long enough to have seen trends and buzz-words come and go, financial events upend schools, and the talk of “21st-century” education push into its third decade. Through all of this, some predicted events have come to fruition (remote schooling) and others remain unicorns (true diversity). As part of a multi-article series, I am focusing on emerging topics that will significantly alter the nature of independent schools in the next few years while at the same time offering a tremendous opportunity to reframe what they do, why they do it, and how they go about enacting their mission-aligned programs.
Much has been written about the slow rate of change in education and this holds true even in the private independent school realm whereby great freedom and latitude to innovate exists compared to the public sector. Even so, the state of independent school education has shifted little in the last 40 years beyond updates to technology and subtle shifts in curriculum and classroom management. Schedules, staffing models, course catalogs, grading standards, and cultures are fairly ingrained at schools at a time when other major spheres of American life are changing at a head-spinning rate.
Change is something each of us and each type of organization views and manages differently. It is fraught with stress and fear due to the reality that what was is no longer and what may be is an unknown risk. Change can mean a loss of personal investment, investment of time or money, loss of status, or simply loss of what was “normal.” This fear and stress can be seen in both individuals and groups at times when change is most needed or would provide the greatest opportunities, thus immobilizing them and making change impossible. The fear and stress generated by change often lead people and organizations to do what Russell Ackoff refers to as “trying to do the wrong things righter.”
For schools, this amounts to redoubling all types of investment in programs, methodologies, and cultures that should instead be changed or even abandoned. I refer to this as the “noble blind spot” of independent schools. School leaders, teachers, parents, alumni, and boards are all invested in bettering the experience of students. However, this myopic focus on carrying out a school’s generic mission in much the same tactical way it has been done for decades does not take into account the significant differences between the world of 2021 and the world of 1991 or 2001. Instead of changing the paradigm and looking at what is needed today and the next decade, school leaders often default back to what they know and feel safe with. In doing so, there is no growth. These best intentions fail to address the true issue at hand, the need for change, particularly since the needs of their customers have clearly changed.
Independent schools have always operated in a fairly sheltered bubble for a variety of reasons. While parents at independent schools are generally seen as the “customer” since they pay tuition, other groups influence the decision-making process more and can drive agendas as well. Boards, alumni, and past parents (who often populate these very insular boards) weigh into the conversations in a way that is regressive, or in other words, trying to recapture what was in decades past. Fiduciary responsibility is frequently interpreted as a conservative philosophy. The group usually left on the sidelines and given little agency is the “other customer,” the students. They have the most at stake, yet are often the last to be asked or thought of in terms of what they need in order to be successful.
The challenge rests on independent schools being able to emerge from their silos of interest and responsibility to gather data and information that will help inform forward-thinking and strategic decisions. From geopolitics to demographics to climate change to labor economics, schools must utilize the data available to help make informed decisions that connect with the future. Boards, Heads of Schools, and CFOs must lead with the trust of their school communities by not simply reverting to models used in the past or by falling prey to the herd mentality. The far too common retort to any suggestion that is outside the independent school “norm” is to see that outlier idea as a threat to stability when the reality may be that clinging to “stability” is an even greater threat. Tradition is a tricky word. In one sense it encompasses the best of what we have done, something worth retaining. In another sense, it is what ties us down and keeps us from progressing, even at a time when progress is key. When a school is clearly aligned with its mission, innovation and tradition do not have to be antithetical.
I hope this introduction offers a sense of the article topics to come and generates some honest and introspective thought. The next 10 years are going to be all about change, and with that opportunity, independent schools will need to have the flexibility and dexterity to shift the conversation forward and reimagine what they are: mission-aligned, data-informed, program-aligned, and student-centered. As such, the article series will focus on three key areas: effective enrollment strategies, effective and mission-aligned staffing, and effective and innovative programs. As with other industries, a failure to acknowledge a potential paradigm shift will likely lead to obsolescence. Just look at Kodak, Oldsmobile, and your local vacant mall. Each article will look at a single topic through multiple lenses such as demographics, labor economics, and workforce development. While there is no clear right and wrong here, schools must focus on what is to come and avoid falling for the “noble blind spot.” I look forward to sharing these next pieces and engaging in the work at hand.