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)Peter Drucker
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 schools that knew who they are and what they are striving to be. See charts below:
Go ahead and test it yourself so you have at least some explicit data. Ask a group of parents, students, or teachers at your next in-service to write down the mission of your school, without warning, and try to prove that your stakeholders are able to remember the mission.
The core of the problem with association governance is that they are not helping schools create strong mission statements that will stretch the community and connect to measurable outcomes. In the OESIS Parent Mindset and Education Survey of 75 schools, only 2.7% said that most of their parents had strong familiarity with student competency statements.
Current missions don’t listen, they dictate what is sold as “inspiration” by framing the school as it is today: an institution of the future defined by tossing in a few words that suggest innovation at the fringes of the culture. For example, we say our kids will be entrepreneurs and demonstrate that quality by adding one course to the curriculum and building a maker space. Because most school missions lack true vision, they have turned into an authoritative and hierarchical construct of management: governance by ideology rather than a responsive and inspiring statement that is aligned with accountability and evidence. NAIS and its association feeder world have also, by design, made mission the domain of the least inclusive and most isolated of all school constituencies — the Board of Trustees (Principle 1 of NAIS Good Practice). That narrow ownership space is looking as out of place today as the Electoral College.
Drucker’s mission ideology nicely suited the final chapters of the “modern world” (c.1650-1950) with more static cultures, established hierarchies of authority, and an endorsed narrative that raised the sanctity of the institution above the individual, communities, and stakeholders. Did Drucker notice at the time he was promoting his ideas that we had entered a world more impacted by globalism, consumerism, and a focus on individual needs and freedoms? Just as economist Milton Friedman’s concurrent and prevailing notion of shareholder-only-value (with employees, customers, and wider communities at best secondary and subservient in priority), Drucker’s approach provided a neat, unifying lens that seemed perfect for an orderly, scheduled vision of education, a top-down bureaucracy rather than an organic learning community. Since then, the world of enlightened finance has evolved to include all stakeholders as the lens, driven by sustainability and social equality. Will schools follow?
So, what happens when no one references, cares about, or remembers the mission of the school? Or as Drucker demands, when missions don’t “inspire”?
Tactics not Strategy
“Strategy without tactics is the slowest path to victory: tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.”Sun Tzu, The Art of War.
In the absence of a clear, inspiring, and aligned purpose, schools have fragmented into what are called siloed domains of “best practices”. But these “best practices” represent tactics, not strategy, because strategy requires deep constituency buy-in and alignment with something broadly meaningful. A symptom of this helter-skelter approach is that there is now an association primarily for Heads (NAIS), one for admissions officers (EMA), one for CFOs (NBOA), one for technology officers (ATLIS), one for college counselors (ACCIS), one for librarians (AISL), and one for every geographical accreditation agency (ICAISA). By the last count, there were over 40 associations serving independent schools and disseminating “best practices” for each functional area or region. Over $50 million a year from school budgets (and parent pockets) is drawn to support these associations (based on Form 990 data); $1 billion over 20 years, with a dismal report card for the goals of diverse enrollment, inspiring curriculum, equity & inclusion, student emotional health, and sustainable school finances.
The underlying message is that it’s more important to do what others are doing in your silo than it is to align with your mission. As a result, many schools contract two diseases. One is the guarantee that schools will not evolve as unified communities, but only at the fringes. The second is that these silos assume that because the equivalent silo at another school is doing something (“best practice”), that their silo should be doing it as well (how many times have you chastised a student for doing something because another student did it?). And each silo embraces its tribalism, holds its own events, and complains about the lack of inclusivity or cross-functional expertise of the other tribal silos. Teachers complain that Admissions is admitting students not suited to the program. Admissions complains that Boards focus too little on their market challenges when raising tuition. CFO’s complain administrators are adding courses and sections that cannot be funded in a curriculum growing out of control. Advancement complains that teachers don’t understand the need for responsiveness to major donors. “Best practices” in each of these silos replace mission-driven systemic change. Strategic planning and vision are frozen.
The mantra of “we can only do what we can control in our limited space” pervades instead of mission alignment and strategic growth. Where is this misalignment most siloed and most dangerous? In professional development, which most organizations depend on to evolve. Teachers go through the motions on deeper learning pedagogies like PBL and SEL, but they know in their hearts that no one wants to sacrifice curricular scope and sequence. There is an unspoken understanding that administrators expect teachers to choose the “best practices” at the margin because they will work within the institutional constraints. The result is either an end-of-unit assignment with the same content masquerading as a project, a group presentation, a new unit on anti-racism, or an SEL role-playing activity in advisory, for example. Professional development has not aligned with the real strategy because the mission provides nothing measurable to align with.
If a mission is to guide and inspire, then it must provide a platform for sustainability and change. For a century before this 1970s-driven notion of a mission, two elements were the core of a school: curriculum and student health. That is as true today as it was then: See chart below.
The biggest failure of the current association-driven mission ideology is that schools have not evolved the curriculum and now preside over a student mental health crisis that some attribute to a swollen curriculum with dated performance measures and academic policies. So many schools over the last 30 years have had as one of their line items in their Strategic Plan: “Developing a 21st Century Curriculum”, but the vast majority would be hard-pressed to justify achieving that goal to an objective outside panel: adding contemporary content through consortia online courses to pad a course of study with electives might be “changing” the curriculum (and may make good financial sense), but it is certainly not making it a 21st-century student-centered curriculum.
The curriculum that schools preside over is now so large and layered to allow for student differentiation (inaccurately called rigor), that it is causing immense student stress and anxiety. When corporations slide into misalignment, they produce inferior products and services or go bankrupt. When schools slip into misalignment, they effectively assault the inner selves of their students. What was supposed to be “rigor” is transformed into trauma. Curriculum development, professional development, and student health have no measurable way to align with the mission, and the results are chaotic, fragmented tactics rather than a coherent strategy.
If you need further evidence, beyond the curriculum and student health, that school communities are mission-misaligned (and consequently tactical rather than strategic), let’s look at some of the silent but pervasive practices that confirm this at a teacher level: the lack of using admissions and year-end standardized test data. Why have math teachers often ignored the SSAT and ISEE scores that are meant to help schools find mission-appropriate students for the school, and administered their own placement tests? These tests provide similar performance information. They are telling us that there was no such thing as a mission-appropriate family when the school was accepting virtually every student, making an admissions farce of exclusivity and demand. Or, due to misalignment with the school mission, the teachers created placement tests to meet their own departmental tactical needs for sorting and ranking students, implicitly countering the newly adopted principles of equity and inclusion. The same analysis could be made for the battery of standardized tests like the year-end ERB. Nevertheless, these are established practices that enrollment management associations and accreditors have for decades argued are very much in line with mission policy, but the social realities indicate something very different.
The Timing Could Not be Worse
What is worse, this is all coming at a time when schools are facing existential challenges from the outside. There are strong societal undercurrents that will counteract advantages independent schools have counted on:
- The oversized share of elite college admissions from independent schools has become an embarrassment for colleges at a time of heightened equity concerns. This same story has a direct parallel in the UK, where top colleges stopped giving legacy preferences and have scaled back heavily on independent school admits. What happens when going to a good public school or charter school becomes a more likely ticket on the “elite college magic carpet”?
- Inflation, particularly in suburban areas where house prices and rents have been rising fastest, will make teacher salaries inadequate and recruitment even more difficult for a supply base already at peak stress. This, at the same time as a fundamental shift appears to be taking place about people’s views on employment in general. With national surveys indicating upwards of 40% of adults considering job changes during the pandemic, the prevailing mindset of teachers has become “when will all this disruption end?”
- The polarization of politics has blossomed at schools with communities divided over political culture wars; even the national associations feature regularly in the tabloids, as this article describes. We are hearing alarming reports that new financial aid requests at many independent schools are dropping significantly, and we only hope that this is not an indicator that families of color are shying away because of what they are reading in newspapers about DEI blow ups at independent schools (despite their DEI statements). Black families are even starting to shy away from public schools and opting in huge numbers for homeschooling.
Will our mission statements, DEI statements, curriculum tweaks, recruitment tactics, and enrollment “best practices” help?
The essential question then becomes this. How are Heads of Schools able to manage when there is little alignment between school constituencies and the mission serves no specific purpose? Realizing this dilemma, most of them have done the same thing as their colleagues and innovate at the margins to create the appearance of change while they try to reconcile the school as it is with the school they might like it to be. The result is that the tensile strength of schools is past the breaking point. We see one outcome in the elevated levels of Head of School firings in the last 18 months. Interim Heads are appointed at a pace never seen before.
One common theme emerges from our conversations on what transpired with these Heads that have recently lost their jobs. They found out that they were squeezed between the direction of their board and the programs of the school. Those programs were not aligned with the committed support of their leadership teams. What was said to the Head publicly did not ultimately match the school’s strategy and goals. What were, for example, the real guideposts to define what equity and inclusion or a 21st-century curriculum meant?
This lack of alignment at the senior and middle leadership levels is consistent with what the research has revealed about the impact of social pressure on stated attitudes and the discrepancy with actual behavior. Emotional and cultural buy-in had not taken place. What has disappeared in the bureaucratic mission statement and dictated ideology of consent is the glue that binds those who are tasked with the execution of the services. Schools need the capacity for cultural change. These are bonds of emotional and social trust secured through strategic alignment.
One of our OESIS Member Schools reinforced that need for strategic alignment by making a startling discovery when they started going through a process of defining and embedding student competencies. The administrator leading the exercise noted, “when the faculty had defined the student competencies, we realized that we had defined the mission; essentially it was the competencies.” Here was something systemic and functional that could tie mission to evidence, that could be measured and used to align the evolving school with a set of principles that everybody would remember and honor. It was a vastly improved solution compared with a high-level statement that could be posted on the website and checked off on a compliance-based accreditation protocol. Competencies can provide those clear “mission objectives” but only if they are measurable.
In Part 2 (Avoiding Extrinsic Motivators) we look at what schools should avoid, with specific examples of initiatives that did not materialize, the stalled revolution in mastery grading and transcripts that have illustrated the tail wagging the dog, and the weaknesses of association-required DEI statements resulting in our schools becoming ground zero in the anti-racism culture wars.
In Part 3, Josh Freedman, CEO of the global EQ non-profit, Six Seconds, which advises schools and large companies on culture change, explains how we can build the platform of capacity, readiness, and alignment. These are the deep social and emotional processes of strategic alignment that some of our schools are now engaged in. We focus on this topic at OESIS Boston on Oct. 21 and 22.
It’s time for School Leaders and Boards to clearly define reality. Ten years ago at a California Heads conference, I heard that the average age of a school that failed was more than 80 years old. Many schools have become brittle organizations that are hard to manage and even harder to change. This sonnet by Percy Shelley, writing about the broken statue of Rameses II (Greek name Ozymandias) found in Thebes, captures the danger succinctly:
“I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
Editor’s Note in accordance with our editorial standards: This article series is written by the President of OESIS Network, Inc., which is the publisher of Intrepid Ed News: parties referenced in this article may represent competitors of the OESIS Network and its partners.