There is a fast-developing problem for independent schools. It is more systemic than alleged racism and more disruptive than pandemic-induced protocols. Independent schools are becoming ungovernable.
A 1970’s Management Ideology
Organizations such as the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) and its accreditation partners have perpetuated a narrative that governance is all about “mission” without any specific accountability to students and their families. According to NAIS Principle 1 of Good Practice, “The head works in partnership with the board of trustees to establish and refine the school’s mission; articulates the mission to all constituencies — students, faculty and staff, parents, alumni/ae, and the community; and supports the mission in working with all constituencies.”
Then the accreditation connection is, for example, “… self-study, a thorough self-examination seen through the lens of the school’s mission…” (per NYSAIS policy). Even in a space where rigorous outcomes could be used, the standards used to assess and accredit schools adhere to the vague promise of mission, and include a body of standards that covers the spectrum of school services from admissions to finance to advancement. For student learning and programs, “the standards require schools to conduct a thoughtful assessment of individual student progress consistent with the school’s mission” (ICAISA), the association for accreditation associations).
This mission artifice relies heavily on the intellectual work of management guru Peter Drucker, who came to popularity in the early 1970s, around a decade after the creation of NAIS (1962). Drucker wrote:
“The effective mission statement is short and sharply focused. It should fit on a T-shirt…. It must be clear, and it must inspire. Every board member, volunteer, and staff person should be able to see the mission and say, ‘Yes. This is something I want to be remembered for.’” (The Five Most Important Questions You Will Ever Ask About Your Organization, 14)
Sadly, schools have not met Drucker’s test because Boards, Heads, teachers, parents, and students, don’t know what the mission is, and if they do, are not aligned with what it says. We surveyed our schools about parent mindset with 75 school Heads and leaders responding (full report coming out shortly). Only 17.1% confirmed that most of their parents had strong familiarity with the mission. Digging into the responses, these very few schools that had strong parent familiarity with missions tended to be…