Leading the Way with Single-Gender Education: Miss Porter’s School | Joel Backon | 12 Min Read

January 9, 2023

During 31 years in the independent school world (35 if you add the student experience), visiting over 100 schools was one of my favorite activities. I always enjoy seeing different campuses, talking with school leaders, faculty, and students, and visiting classes, as the classroom was my passion. I resumed these visits, post-COVID, in early December by traveling a whopping 7 miles to Miss Porter’s School (1843) in Farmington, CT. I’ve visited Miss Porter’s many times before, but by the time I departed on this cold day in December, I sensed that the barriers to the professional success of women were crumbling, and Miss Porter’s was a player in that transformation.

What brought me to Miss Porter’s when I had a choice of several hundred schools in southern New England alone? It was the announcement of a series of changes that had resulted from reimagining their academic program in order to better position students to tackle the challenges of the world. In order to learn more, I spent the better part of a day with Tim Quinn, the school’s Chief Academic Officer. We discussed a series of questions I had sent to him, visited classes to experience firsthand what Tim described, and met alone with groups of faculty and students respectively for observations from those who were implementing the program and those embracing the challenges of a program with high expectations (let’s retire the word “rigor” to the medical examiners). All of these encounters added to my understanding of why Miss Porter’s had become a leader in and model for independent school education. I share our discussion of four of the many questions here:

  • Leadership: The school has much to say about fostering women leaders in all areas of our culture; it is a distinguishing quality of the school. Are you actively integrating leadership education into multiple components of the school program?

Class visits were the best way for me to understand how leadership was being integrated into the school culture through its curriculum. In the 11th grade, there is an expectation that students will immerse themselves in global citizenship, exemplified by the first course I visited. In the 12th grade, there is a similar expectation for each woman to try entrepreneurship, creating something that will positively impact the world. The most common experience was an internship with a local company or organization. Both courses were part of a grouping called Advanced Interdisciplinary Seminar (AIS) Courses. I also visited a required Technology, Innovation, and Entrepreneurship class with the goal of inventing something using the design-thinking process.

The AIS Global Experience course visit, co-taught by French and History teachers, examined the historical roots of cities, how they have evolved since the Middle Ages, and how they might survive in the future. Students spend the month of December in an intensive examination of a city of their choice (in French and English) teaching themselves those factors that make urban management challenging (remember Sim City?). They then travel to Avignon for two weeks of direct global experience with urban management, returning for the balance of the trimester, effectively transferring their knowledge of city management and honing skills in the French language. To know whether Avignon is well-positioned for the future requires students to proactively communicate with city officials and agency personnel in the native language.

The AIS Professional Experience course visit, also co-taught, incorporated psychology into understanding the interview process as each student would be actively seeking an internship in a local organization. The goal was to transfer the concepts of good business acumen to actual experiences in an outside organization. How do I earn the trust of those deciding whether I will join their organization? The students were expected to arrange as much of the process as possible and contribute their entrepreneurial thinking to their temporary employers.

In all three classes I visited, students were comfortable taking responsibility for their learning, and the four teachers were clearly not there to answer questions but to pose them and set criteria for inquiry and discovery. In the two AIS courses, most students seemed relaxed and confident, fully understanding that they were responsible for their work and the ultimate results. Without any formal leadership training, they embraced their empowerment and worked at their own pace to merge their personal goals with those of the course.

  • Competency/Mastery-Based Program: Are you moving to a competency-based program? Where is the school in the process of utilizing cross-disciplinary competencies that can be satisfied by a combination of coursework and other experiences? Has there been a discussion of the role grades will play in that environment?

A project that began in 2017 is expected to be completed in 2027. To date, Miss Porter’s has identified five cross-curricular competencies and is in the process of integrating them into the curriculum. Some courses and activities are already using these competencies, and they are measured through a rubric with four categories: No Evidence, Developing, Proficient, and Advanced. Currently, these categories have letter grade equivalents in Grades 10-12 while Grade 9 receives competency ratings only with their narrative reports. During the trimester, most submitted work (including homework) is considered formative with constructive feedback rather than grades or scores. The same is true for summative assessments, with the opportunity to redo work, consistent with the mastery philosophy (for more information, see the Miss Porter’s School website).

The teachers I spoke with were quite honest about the project. The mastery-based learning initiative was the most difficult project they tackled. As expected, there had been turnover because some teachers were not prepared to shift their traditional practices of grading and teacher-centric pedagogies. Those who stayed or joined the faculty were optimistic and excited about how this initiative would change the way students think about learning, how the curriculum would change, and how it would enhance the role of the teacher as somebody who specializes in expert feedback, supporting the development of student learning, “soft” skills, and leadership qualities. 

The students were equally excited and felt that Miss Porter’s cared about their interests and passions while still providing them with a solid foundation of skills and knowledge to be successful in the future. There was a combined sense of trust in the adults commensurate with students’ need to answer the call for leadership in their learning experiences. They admitted that it was an adjustment to learn without grades and to learn in an interdisciplinary style, but they were discovering that the shift aligned more closely with their interests and passions. It was difficult to answer the question, “how are you doing in…” because there were no grades during the trimester to facilitate the response. 

  • Demonstrations of Learning: Were the public demonstrations a natural culminating experience for project-based learning or a replacement for traditional term-end exams and projects? If the latter, are there plans to migrate more courses to an authentic PBL approach?

Major assessment practices are guided by Grant Wiggins’ definition of mastery: “effective transfer of learning in authentic and worthy performance.” Consequently, Miss Porters strives to ask every student to deliver a public performance, consistent with the guidelines of project-based learning. While many courses are not project-based at this point in time, the public performance piece can stand on its own as a means of sharing learning with peers and adults rather than producing something for a specific teacher. I had an opportunity to peruse the schedule that the school published identifying each performance time and venue, and was surprised to see that every student was required to attend several of these performances, both to learn and support their peers.

Regarding the question of project-based learning, it was clear that the school was moving to more project-based courses, but they were migrating in a thoughtful fashion, understanding that some courses/disciplines lend themselves to project-based learning better than others. They were also respectful of the significant mindset shift that both teachers and students experience when engaged in PBL. Still, it has not stopped the school from extracting the best features of PBL, collaboration, public performance of results, inquiry-based learning, and emphasis on both soft and executive skills, and using them successfully in more traditional courses.

  • Block Schedule and Trimester Strategy: Are teachers embracing the possibilities associated with longer blocks? What are the benefits of your trimester full course strategy and how do students keep up with courses that require regular practice?

Miss Porters has migrated to both a modular block weekly schedule and a block trimester schedule. The trimester schedule features three 10-week terms in which students may take up to three complete courses. Over the course of a year, students are able to meet their general graduation requirements and enjoy electives of their choosing. Each class meets five times per week in 90-minute blocks or double blocks. I did share a common concern with this type of schedule regarding learning loss during the terms in which languages and math are not taken. During those terms, students are encouraged to participate in school-selected online offerings designed to keep skills and knowledge current and provide topics that might not be offered in regular coursework. Students I spoke with regarding the trimester full course schedule shared they felt there was more and deeper learning in a given course while reducing their homework load (fewer nightly assignments) and getting more sleep.

The Daily Schedule is illustrated below, and I note a few qualities that have really enhanced the school day as reported by both faculty and students. Both confess there was an adjustment period, but it didn’t take long to recognize the benefits of a more engaging and slower-paced day. Several students reported that they get more accomplished and feel better at the end of the day than they did with their previous, more traditional schedule.

  • Class blocks of 90 minutes to accommodate deeper inquiry, combined science classes and labs, project-based work, and experiential learning
  • Later start time of 8:45 for students, supporting sleep research about high school students
  • Daily dedicated early block for teachers to collaborate, plan, do PD, etc.
  • A block of 40 minutes for community activities or teacher office hours between classes to make course transitions easier and address curricular and co-curricular needs

[From Miss Porter’s School Website]

Summary

Whenever I visit a school, I come away having learned a great deal more about that school and the possibilities for independent school education. Miss Porter’s School has embraced a theme that has evolved over the past five years, that independent schools can provide leadership and model practices for public education. Several lessons were learned or reinforced from the experience of this visit:

  • Transformative change takes time and patience, strong leadership with a clear vision of goals, and the trust and buy-in of every affected constituency.
  • Some are unable to make the journey and that will result in turnover of faculty and changes in the student body. 
  • Independent schools cannot be all things to all people, despite the temptation to enroll all qualified applicants. Maximize your strengths and minimize your weaknesses.
  • We need more serious conversations about the strengths of single-gender schools. I sensed a distinct “quiet energy” that was less distracted by some of the daily adolescent concerns in most schools.

I know of a few other independent schools that are at the same stage of programmatic transformation, but don’t know if they are fighting battles with their constituents, facing passive-aggressive responses from some teachers and students, or offering their new programmatic approaches only to a small and unusually talented segment of the student body. What impressed me about Miss Porter’s, knowing that change is imperfect, was that the big, traditional obstacles I mentioned had been addressed. This is a school that knows who it is, where it is going, and how it will get there. They are a model of what is possible when one thinks carefully about strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats.

Notes on Miss Porter’s School Leadership

Intrepid Ed News has written extensively about strong senior leadership and the need for leaders to build a relationship of trust to enable the alignment of school initiatives with the mission. I met Head of School, Kate Windsor, at the entrance to their school meeting venue, greeting each member of the community. That outreach and warmth is a component of community trust, but it doesn’t fully describe why Miss Porter’s is where they are today. It only begins to explain Kate’s very high expectations for the school, best summarized by her current motto: “When we know better, we must do better.” It is not a statement of overcoming gender discrimination or a chip on the shoulder, but a direct commitment to institutional strength as the driver of continuous improvement. The message is, you are a talented group of women attending our school and with that privilege comes great responsibility for the society to which you will be contributing.

The member of Kate’s team most responsible for the new program is Tim Quinn, Chief Academic Officer. Upon his arrival in 2017, Tim embarked on an extensive process to rethink and reinvent the school’s academic program with the goal of better preparing the young women of Miss Porter’s for the challenges they would encounter in their adult lives. The goals of what Tim described as a 10-year initiative are published in the school’s literature:

  • Learn to innovate and create
  • Understand what it means to be an entrepreneur
  • Conduct original research
  • Migrate to more project-based learning in STEAM and Entrepreneurship
  • Develop a deep understanding of the humanities and social sciences to address complex social issues

To meet these challenging goals, Miss Porter’s would have to make several fundamental changes to the traditional independent school programmatic structure and garner support from faculty, students, parents, and alumni. With Board support, Kate and Tim worked with faculty to design that new structure. By including them in the process every step of the way, the faculty was empowered and took ownership of the changes, thereby developing trust in the leadership. Through Tim, the school was transparent with parents about what would be happening and approximately when changes would take place. The message was that all of the changes were designed to make their children stronger students and leaders, and ready for the next steps in their lives. No institution of higher education would view that goal as anything other than great preparation.

Joel Backon

Joel Backon is the Editor of Intrepid Ed News, responsible for all educator content on the website. He joined the OESIS Network as Vice-President from Choate Rosemary Hall (CT) where for 27 years he held key roles in Information Technology, Academic Technology, classroom teacher, curriculum designer, and roles in academic and student advising. Joel leads the online and professional development initiatives through the Intrepid Ed News website and a variety of other platforms. He has been an OESIS Network Leader since 2015.

One thought on “Leading the Way with Single-Gender Education: Miss Porter’s School | Joel Backon | 12 Min Read

  1. Nicely written, Joel.
    Living the retired life in Raleigh NC right now.
    You might also look at Wilbraham and Monson Academy for a fully mature program in entrepreneurship, financial awareness, and global understanding which I began in 2002 and continues today. Only prep school in America with a full trading floor a la Babson College

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