September 22, 2022
Although independent schools enjoy the autonomy to shape their own curricula, policies, and practices and to govern themselves free from federal and state oversight, that autonomy is constrained by a long history of being held hostage by college admissions offices, which establish the criteria for admission, and, as a result, by parents who pay a small fortune specifically to get their kids into the most reputable of those colleges. What is the point of autonomy if you can’t use it? Why hasn’t NAIS moved independent schools beyond the image of launching pads for higher education?
NAIS markets itself to parents with claims that independent schools are “special” because they are “independent in the truest sense of the word.” “Each independent school is driven by its own unique philosophy, values, and approach to teaching,” which theoretically gives us “the freedom to create educational experiences that meet each child’s needs.”
Not in my experience.
Colleges want all their applicants to meet the traditional graduation requirements: four years of English, three years of science, etc. Secondary schools are constricted by intense college pressure to ensure that students build resumes on this base and add as many AP and honors courses as possible. These are the measures of rigor, a word that the most competitive schools have adopted to reinforce selectivity, ensuring that applicants successfully complete the most “difficult” courses offered by their school.
Yet for over two decades, researchers have provided educators with increasing insights into how people learn, insights that suggest a need to rethink our philosophies, values, and approaches and develop new goals and new structures. Take just two of these. Thomas Armstrong (The American Institute for Learning and Development): “[W]e ought to accept the fact that there is no normal brain or mind.” Antonio Damasio (University of Southern California): “Emotion is the rudder for thinking.”
A deeper exploration of these ideas can rather quickly lead to such heresies as scrapping the traditional one-size-fits-all approach to graduation requirements, course curricula, expectations, concepts of rigor, daily schedules, course loads, and assessments. But our schools lack the freedom to do so. Bottom line: College admissions prevent our creating “educational experiences that meet each child’s needs.” The traditional model of schooling doesn’t recognize each child as having different needs, except, perhaps, for those with diagnosed learning disabilities or who lag so far behind their peers that they require interventions from…