Independent Schools: Colleges Need to Grant Us The Gift of Autonomy | Alden Blodget | 5 Min Read

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 specialists.

In my experience, even the most modest challenge to the status quo triggers massive resistance from colleges and parents. My former school initiated two changes: a voluntary school-within-the-school that provided an alternative, self-directed path to a diploma by waiving the standard departmental requirements; and, for all ninth graders, a new curriculum that integrated history, English, the arts, and science, emphasizing the skills of reading, writing, reasoning, speaking and listening, rather than the usual subject-specific facts of the departmental curricula in those areas. The goal of these initiatives was to give students more agency to follow their own interests and genuine questions. We hoped to deepen their engagement in their studies. During the existence of these programs, we spent countless hours every year explaining them to colleges and parents. Even our own college counseling office was unhappy because the director knew from experience that these sorts of changes could create a competitive disadvantage for the participating students.

This struggle against the shackles of college admissions is not new. A hundred years ago, the Progressive Education Association (PEA) began an exploration that would result in the Eight-Year Study (1932-1940, curtailed by WWII). At a meeting of 200 principals and teachers in 1930, several of the attendees “complained that college requirements restricted secondary schools from enacting curriculum reforms that could help students” and “prevented [schools] from changing their academic requirements.” The study had two basic goals: “to see whether meeting the traditional requirements for college entrance made any difference in their academic success,” and to determine “whether freeing the secondary schools from external restraints would encourage them to develop new programs that would be better for young people, for colleges, and for the society.” 

Although the specific goals of the PEA were different than what ours might be today given shifting cultural realities and all the new research since then, the PEA provides a model for successful leadership and the power that can result from bringing together and organizing educators behind a cause—the power of numbers and organized activism. The PEA managed to get 300 colleges (including 25 of the most prestigious) to waive their traditional entrance requirements. It also recruited 30 high schools and school systems (public and private) to participate in making changes to their traditional curricula that they thought appropriate to achieving their educational goals. “By removing one key constricting factor—the fear that their students would not get into good colleges—the commission freed schools to try out bold new ways of teaching.”

To develop the Eight-Year Study, the PEA successfully established “a Commission on the Relation of School and College to explore the possibilities of coordination between school and college work and to seek freedom for the schools to seek fundamental reconstruction.” NAIS could use this approach as a model for creating a similar leadership group within the organization:

  • To educate and provide resources to teachers and administrators about relevant research, specifically the neuroscience of learning for the purpose of rethinking school designs; 
  • To launch an initiative to identify, recruit, and organize member schools that are eager to develop new, research-informed structures and practices to support learning free from the constraints of current college admissions criteria;
  • To organize and lead conferences that bring secondary school educators, college educators, admissions officers, and relevant researchers together in working groups for the purpose of identifying the most effective approaches to learning;
  • To meet with appropriate college administrators to advocate for and secure the independence that we claim to have, and show them that our programs resulting from that independence are the best way to ensure student success at their institutions.
  • To articulate specific goals and develop criteria and processes for assessing the success of this initiative.
  • To provide a public forum that invites educators to share their various school initiatives promoting collegial discussion and candid (civil) debate about ideas pertinent to curricular and structural changes.

The time seems right for NAIS to consider taking an active leadership role in addressing the persistent problem of the constraints that college admissions requirements continue to place on secondary schools, constraints that trickle quickly down to middle and elementary schools. In addition to looking for candidates with excellent management, financial, and leadership skills, NAIS would benefit from an incoming president that has a deep background in education as a teacher and administrator and, especially, an understanding of the recent research and its implications for school design—a president who understands that independent schools need to be truly independent and autonomous to stand out in the education world for reasons other than high tuition.    

You may also be interested in reading more articles written by Alden Blodget for Intrepid Ed News.

Alden Blodget

Veteran teacher and administrator Alden S. "Denny" Blodget is the author of "Learning, Schooling and the Brain: New Research vs. Old Assumptions." He also helped create the Annenberg Foundation's Neuroscience & the Classroom.

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