Next NAIS President Candidates Series, Part 1: On Curriculum & Knowledge | Sanje Ratnavale | 11 Min Read

Note from the Editor

Most of our readers know that NAIS is searching for a new President. We would like the search to be a more open process, therefore subject to questions from independent school constituents. Consequently, we will publish a series of articles with one question each to candidates for the next NAIS President. Four of those articles have been committed and will appear in August. This is the first. We welcome other articles with a discussion of a key question. If you are interested, let me know. We are also more than willing to publish the views of applicants if they wish—our audience reaches deeply into the independent school teacher and administrative circles with 80,000 active users since our launch 18 months ago.

August 3, 2022

By Sanje Ratnavale, President OESIS Network

The new President of NAIS will begin their job at a moment not dissimilar to the predicament of Pope Leo X five hundred years ago when he received the letter of Martin Luther justifying a different view on the source and validity of Christian knowledge. For Leo X, (as for all of us today in independent schoolsperhaps all schools), the nature of the beliefs that lead to knowledge was not only a curriculum question for how his priests sourced and designed their services, but also a pedagogical question of how the knowledge was being transmitted and received. That seminal moment has other similarities with today that the new NAIS President would be wise not to ignore: a bit earlier (in the 15th century) a viral technology appeared, the Gutenberg printing press, which like the internet today, dramatically increased the velocity of knowledge transfer and education. The rest is history for Pope Leo X and the Catholic Church as the Protestant Reformation was to prove. Spiritual Christian knowledge had been liberated.

A Question Going to the Root of Purpose

Through the curriculum, what knowledge should independent schools value most? 

(a) the objective intellectual knowledge accumulated through the disciplines,
(b) the normative actionable knowledge based on current societal standards, 
(c) the subjective experiential knowledge gained by the individual, or 
(d) the critical affinity-based knowledge necessary for creating a better society in the future.

My question above for the next NAIS President will elucidate what the candidate considers the purpose of education. It is not therefore an “up in the clouds” philosophical, theoretical, or epistemological question. It is, in fact, a practical and ideological question, something that motivates behavior, has a spectrum of social contexts, and is articulated in the curriculum.  In one scholarly view, the American education system has been driven by four ideologies describing the purposes of curriculum over the past 150 years: the Scholar Academic ideology focuses on knowledge and truth within the major disciplines, the Social Efficiency ideology on preparing students with the skills and knowledge to serve useful, productive, and prosperous lives as adults, the Learner-Centered ideology on the growth and self-actualization of the individual through experience and the meanings they are able to construct from their environments, and the Social Reconstruction ideology on using education to build a fairer and more just society with a focus on social values rather than personal, normative or objective values.


Differences Regarding the Source and Utility of Knowledge

The next NAIS President will understand that each of these ideologies has a very different relationship with knowledge, and therefore will impact the purpose of independent schools. Michael Stephen Schiro, a retired Boston College professor, distilled and analyzed these ideologies and their progress over the last 150 years. His book, Curriculum Theory, Conflicting Visions & Enduring Concerns: Sage Publications, 2013, is a must-read for the OESIS Network.

In essence, the Scholar Academic ideology that is very much the prevailing curriculum ideology at many elite independent schools assumes that knowledge is culturally accumulated through the disciplines, where they acquire objectivity from the validation of Colleges; that knowledge is then internalized or absorbed intellectually by the student. The Social Efficiency ideology sees knowledge as more normative than objective since the curriculum formulated is consumed with developmentally appropriate skills that result in useful and actionable capacity (behavior): being normative it has both subjective and objective elements. The Learner-Centered ideology sees knowledge as individually subjective, emotionally validated, and constructed by interacting with the learning environment in creating meaning. It is naturally more subjective and more diverse so less susceptible to developmental sequence or objective assessment. Finally, the Social Reconstruction or Justice ideology takes social meaning to the top of the knowledge construction ladder. Knowledge is similar to the social efficiency normative but based on future rather than current social needs as the basis of normative imperatives.

Table 1: Distillation of Schiro survey of Curriculum Ideologies

Ideology  >>Scholar AcademicSocial EfficiencyLearner-CenteredSocial-Reconstruction
AdvocatesThe Colleges,
E.D. Hirsch
NCLB, Bobbitt, Gagne, Behavioral psychologistsRousseau, Froebel, Dewey, Francis Parker, Steiner, Montessori George Counts, Derrick Bell, Crenshaw, Kendi
PurposeTransfer of accumulated cultural knowledge to advance the disciplines.Preparation for productive lives and the needs of a functioning society and economy.Releasing the unique capacities of the individual to grow by experience and knowledge construction.Releasing the potential of society to grow through better understanding of what is and should be.
TeachingTransmittingManagingFacilitatingCollegially Participating
LearningTransferred, developmentally modularized and intellectually internalized.Transferred, developmentally modularized and externalized through prescribed skills and behaviors.Received, experienced as a whole, and self-actualized into attitudes, skills, and behaviors.Received, contextualized, experienced as a whole, and self-actualized into attitudes, skills, and behaviors that change social behaviors.
KnowledgeObjective reality from the disciplinesNormative reality through societal skillsSubjective meaning through experienceSocial constructs  with actionable imperatives
ChildhoodIn need of filling with norms related to disciplinesIn need of filling with norms related to current societal needsHaving capacities they can discover in larger contextsHaving capacities to develop norms related to future societal needs
AssessmentObjective ranking for discipline content/skillsObjective ranking for criterion skill standardsSubjective diagnosing of personal growthSubjective measurement of criteria of societal value 

Strategic & Structural issues Emanating from this Question

The new NAIS President will face a number of serious structural challenges that need to be addressed. We try and frame these issues below in the context of knowledge:

  1. Independent schools have a Curriculum Alignment problem. By and large Boards of Trustees and older Alums adhere to the Scholar Academic and Social Efficiency ideologies. Most teachers and many students adhere to the right side of the quadrants, Learner-Centered and Social Reconstruction. This divide has led to the polarized position that not only independent schools but NAIS itself is facing. Fortress NAIS has been the response, a hunker-down mentality over the last 18 months with not only the names of Board members removed from the public-facing website (for fear of targeting) but virtually all content related to the NAIS People of Color Conference (for fear of it being published in national conservative news sources). The ideological tension is also reflected in protests at schools (A Cry from the Heart of all Independent Schools & An Elite School Meltdown).

    To reinforce this portrait, let’s take one survey question from the National OESIS Teacher Survey 2022 Report coming out in September. In this survey, we asked teachers a series of questions formulated by Professor Schiro to determine where an individual might fall in each of these ideologies using 6 criteria (the Purpose of Education, the Ideal Conditions for Learning, the Role of Teachers, the Knowledge of Most Worth, the Nature of Childhood, and the Purpose of Assessment). The charts below detail the responses of 343 teachers from 210 schools across the U.S. (they had to rank their choices 1-4) on what they perceive to be the Purpose of Schools: Please note the results did not change based on how long they had been teaching, suggesting no age divergence. The next NAIS President will want to focus on teachers as much as administrators because, as you can see below, the belief in student efficacy and social justice is clear, even though the power structures at schools limit teachers’ ability to make significant pedagogical and curricular changes. NAIS would be well-served to bring constituent differences in ideologies into alignment so schools can move forward with a common purpose.

  1. Independent schools have a Curriculum Governance problem. NAIS revised its mission to claim a role in “co-creating the future of education” for its schools. Can that be done by focusing simply on advancement issues? Obviously not. How NAIS can “co-create the future of education” without helping schools impact curriculum ideology is a mystery. NAIS governance has “artfully” created a separation between Board Governance and Curriculum by placing everything related to finance, “strategy”, and fundraising as the remit of the Board and everything related to program and curriculum as the remit of the teachers and administration. Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson perfectly articulated in her confirmation hearings this separation of powers when pressed whether she had a role in curriculum oversight by saying “That’s not what we do.” That artificial separation works only if the other elements that bind a school, such as its mission, its admissions, its community, and its program are in alignment. We have written extensively about why missions no longer align with schools (Why the 50-Year NAIS Governance Experiment is Over). The next NAIS President will take action to help align functional areas of schools with curricular ideology and align schools with missions.
  2. Independent schools have a Client Definition problem. With Scholar Academic and Social Efficiency, the ultimate client remains the Colleges. With Scholar Academic the Colleges are the source of cultural truth, and with Social Efficiency, the Colleges are the ticket to a prosperous career and thereby a productive life. With Learner-Centered, the client is the current student, an individual not in deficit and in need of filling but with talents to discover and grow. With Social Reconstruction, the client is ultimately not a member of the current society but a future, better, and more equitable society.


The new NAIS President will want to consider what two previous NAIS Presidents, who were educators, saw as the purpose of education, based on what they have written and spoken about. Pat Bassett was surely in the Learner-Centered camp with his outspoken advocacy of real Project-Based Learning (PBL), and the late John Chubb was in the Social Efficiency quadrant with his significant advocacy of Mastery-Based Education. Project-Based Learning does not fit into a Social Efficiency and Scholar Academic curriculum because they are based on a heavily prescribed scope and sequence with discipline-specific learning standards. That is why PBL has never taken hold except in a diminished fashion as end-of-unit afterthought projects assessed on discipline content standards rather than on broader skills.  Mastery, the passion of John Chubb and much embraced by the charter school world he came from, very much fits with Social Efficiency but offers a standards-driven self-paced route to incremental progress across a sequence. Mastery-Based is sometimes known as Competency-Based and is not to be confused with true Cross-Curricular Competencies.

A look at the history of these ideologies in recent American education and their place alongside current events will help the NAIS President candidates. Although John Dewey looms large in the annals of Progressive Education as the protagonist of Learner-Centered approaches, of equal stature is George Counts, who is less well-known today. In 1932, he argued forcefully for the Social Reconstruction ideology in a series of speeches that now comprise the book, Dare the School Build a New Social Order? His work benefited initially from the prevailing political climate of desperation during the Great Depression but took a major interlude with the ructions and needs of World War II. By 1955, progressive education took a back seat amidst rising anti-progressive education sentiment in cultural trends, including political conservatism and anti-intellectualism, school standardization, and emphasis on vocational education. 

As any NAIS President would know, the angst around the lack of literacy in math and reading, as exposed by World War II, and the quantitative anxieties unleashed by Sputnik gave the Scholar Academic and Social Efficiency ideology much greater prominence and funding. Similarly, they both received a major bump in acceptance through the standards movement in the last quarter of the 20th century, with proponents like E.D. Hirsch, fears about American decline through globalization with China and the “Tiger” economies, and the accountability movement of NCLB. The academic disciplines returned with a roar as bastions of intellectual power and rigor driving American leadership and research. 

And here we are again in similar circumstances. Recent events like the death of George Floyd have brought Social Reconstruction and social justice to the fore, but the Ukraine war, a global food crisis, and high global inflation all serve as reminders of the fleeting popularity of social justice (reconstruction)-based ideology of the 1930s and 40s. With the polarization around education, the curriculum is now seen as the battleground. The new NAIS President is likely to face this issue in his/her first year: a potentially Republican Congress will probably make good on its promises to call NAIS into Congressional hearings, believing that independent schools are leading the charge of a “woke” culture.

What the next NAIS President believes is the purpose of education will be reflected in his/her relationship with the nature of knowledge and advocacy of the appropriate curricular approaches. No question could then be more fundamental. We may well be at a Pope Leo X – Martin Luther moment.

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Sanje Ratnavale

Sanje founded OESIS in 2012 and serves as the President of what has grown to become the leading network for innovation at independent schools: the acronym OESIS grew from the initial focus on Online Education Strategies for Independent Schools. He has held senior administrative positions at independent schools including Associate Head of School at a K-12 school for seven years, High School Principal for three years, and CFO for seven years. Prior to making a switch to education, Sanje spent 15 years in venture capital, investment banking, and senior C-level (CEO, COO, CFO) management. He was educated at Christ Church, Oxford University (B.A. and M.A. in Law/Jurisprudence). Sanje is based out of Santa Monica.

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