In Part 1 of this series, we focused on how the 50-year NAIS governance experiment around mission failed to build constituency alignment. The resulting landscape is one of schools fragmented into siloes operating tactically because there is no alignment of strategy to the mission.
In Part 2, we examine how the resulting strategic vacuum gravitates toward extrinsic motivators instead of productive and aligned use of the mission. The evidence we see comes from an unusual source, many of those who have led and still lead NAIS.
This is important because in Part 3 we explain what needs to be done to avoid these extrinsic temptations and pitfalls on the road to achieving sustainability.
A Lost Opportunity
Over the last decade, a solution appeared that could have helped schools shift away from the focus on vague missions and instead, tune into pursuing missions that could be evaluated in a measurable way. Independent school parents had become increasingly fixated with grades in the narrowing zero-sum game for college and future success. It was almost impossible for high school principals and heads to manage this, particularly when donors and Boards were at their heels to deliver results.
The late John Chubb, former President of NAIS, proposed mastery or competency as a solution to this problem: with a mastery approach students would have more time to master learning, and teachers could offer more intervention and personalize teaching. Many of the founding schools of the Mastery Transcript Consortium (MTC), including its Founding Board, several of whom served on the NAIS Board with John Chubb, saw this as the magic-bullet strategy for independent schools. Grades were cast as the villain of all education ills and thus by removing grades and replacing them with accomplishment by competency on a transcript (no grades at all but proficiency levels up to mastery), they thought the whole system (including curriculum, pedagogy, and student health) would change.
At OESIS, we initially supported the MTC effort, offering our conferences for messaging on the Mastery Transcript. Because we quickly had fundamental problems with the approach, we declined to participate any further. Here is why. The MTC Founders suggested that their approach could be implemented by a school immediately (see slides below shared at OESIS L.A. in February 2017) with one track for students who were being evaluated with grades and another track for students who were being evaluated on “mastery” with credits for accomplishment and validation.
The teacher could essentially be running dual-track assessments with no change in curriculum or pedagogy. A slide of a math test that showed exactly how this would work (below) was used. Parents could choose which track they wanted. The students on the mastery track could take the tests as many times as they liked and at their own pace.
In their euphoria over a solution that could eliminate grades, the audience and many of the schools that jumped on the bandwagon had overlooked something fundamental: there was a difference between Standards (of content/discipline skills) and Competencies. We wondered if the E.E Ford Foundation had seen what we viewed as a flaw in this roll-out strategy because they had made the largest gift in their foundation’s history to back the venture with $2 million. As venture capitalists to independent schools, they must have known that the market entry strategy was key.
The distinctions between standards and competencies matter deeply. “Standards,” as conventionally used in education, offer specific statements of what students will learn at various stages in their subjects. Standards relate to content scope and sequence, and discipline-specific skills. They are sequential and directly related to the curriculum (“curriculum” is derived from Latin, progressing in little steps).
Competencies are broader, cross-disciplinary skills like collaboration, empathy, and communication. They require the curriculum to provide opportunities for students to master them and that meant making space for cross-curricular projects and student pathways. It also suggested a wholesale change in pedagogy with teachers allowing students to pursue their own inquiry rather than listening to lectures and completing assigned readings. Finally, it meant coming up with age or developmentally appropriate indicators of proficiency/competency with rubrics around these larger skills (not discipline-specific skills as in the Math slide). This had to be done before any meaningful mastery transcript could be produced. Unless the Mastery Transcript could show these cross-disciplinary competencies, the purported transcript would simply be a lengthy list of discipline-specific standards that colleges would quickly average and translate into traditional grades (as they do now for public schools in states that report performance on standards).
The Chair of the MTC, who seemed to be genuinely interested in fostering student’s unique strengths and interests, was actually not advancing the cause at all. The conceptual confusion quickly became evident when he merged standards and competencies into mastery. That hybrid concept came from the charter school world of John Chubb, where standards and competencies were interchangeable. Incidentally, this provided an additional method of evaluating teacher performance rather than student capability, a tactic that would create a very chilly climate among the faculty in independent schools.
The confusion between standards and competencies appeared to us, therefore, as more of a strategy to buy time for colleges to endorse and accept the Mastery Transcript, and thereby exert extrinsic pressure on schools to change. How did that meet the MTC purpose of having students’ “unique strengths, abilities, interests, and histories fostered, understood, and celebrated?” It did not seem to ask schools to evaluate students differently (intrinsically). It was the equivalent of removing the white frosting from the cake and replacing it with chocolate and then claiming that you had baked a new cake. It was an extrinsic change that left the intrinsic core untouched. To test this claim, it would be interesting to know how many of the MTC Founding Schools provide today, five years after the MTC started, at least one cross-disciplinary competency on their regular high school transcripts sent to Colleges.
Nevertheless, we at OESIS still thought identifying the distinction between standards masquerading as competencies and true cross-disciplinary competencies would shine a light. We hoped that the MTC would find a way to pivot (the test of any entrepreneur) to help the cause of the real competencies we had been advocating for: frequently known as 21st-century or life skills, habits of mind, and social-emotional skills. We sent the MTC this 2016 article on the difference. They had options that would honor true student mastery and their stated purpose on the MTC home page.
Our own work with OESIS member schools and our survey results sent a clear message. Few, if any schools, had the capacity to repurpose and refocus academic and co-curricular programs from top to bottom with competencies at their core. By capacity, we mean alignment with strategy, cultural readiness, and internal support. While schools might have wished to adopt a real competency-based program, they frequently were stalled after the initial steps of “portrait of a graduate” and identification of core competencies.
Furthermore, once the fundamentals of the program were peeled back, there was resistance at every level. Boards were not convinced that colleges would give equal weight to a transcript with performance levels as one with course grades and a GPA (despite the claims of numerous colleges). Many teachers supported eliminating grades, but there was no plan for maintaining challenging learning experiences and continuing to motivate students addicted to extrinsic motivators. Would it be okay if students did not complete as much of the curriculum, they asked, particularly if they now could do projects independently and at their own pace? School Heads wanted both grades and competencies but despaired over students not completing as much of the schedule. Department Heads wanted grades as pre-requisites or wanted to eliminate honors designations as well. College Counselors considered it a non-starter. Technology Directors asked how two grade books would work, one for mastery and one for grades. Admissions Directors pointed out that schools would continue to accept students based on standardized tests and traditional criteria with no portfolios of learning evidence while claiming to support mastery. The tactical silos quickly kicked into gear and quashed any hope of strategic alignment.
As a result, very few MTC independent schools did much more than develop a Portrait of a Graduate. As an isolated document, the Portrait of a Graduate could also, therefore, be hung up in the Hall of Extrinsic High-Level Accreditation Statements alongside the Mission, Statement of Character, Statement of Philosophy, and DEI Statement. At the same time, the MTC membership fees could be justified on the basis that these were schools being active cheerleaders for education reform. Their membership made them charter members of the extrinsic innovation club, a showroom of shiny and elegant cars with no engines. Perhaps that is why the MTC CEO left earlier this year.
The Governance Implications
What are the governance lessons from this? If school mission statements resulted in a clear set of measurable goals, objectives, and competencies, then the process of mission alignment with school practices like the production of meaningful student transcripts could have begun. But they are missing from the governance ideology of NAIS and its accreditation associations. Accreditation is currently input-based, not outcomes-based. Today there is no evidence of student outcomes required other than the purely anecdotal that holds schools accountable to what is claimed in high-level mission or other broad school statements. We repeat the chart used in Part 1 below:
The founders of the MTC knew of the lack of measurable goals or competencies based on missions because many of them serve or have served on the NAIS Board. It appears that they did not see the mission as a conduit to these measurable mastery competencies. If they did, their influence with NAIS, the accreditation agencies, or partner consortia would have required schools to make their missions and transcripts connect to student competencies.
Could not the Global Online Academy (GOA), whose member schools have been very heavily represented on the NAIS Board and as NAIS officers in the last 10 years, help move this needle for the MTC? They could, for example, require GOA member schools to report student competencies earned in the GOA courses, ultimately landing on their own high school transcripts? After all, GOA is a competency advocate, very much behind the founding of the MTC concept. Its leader, the current NAIS Governance Chair, was listed as an inventor on the MTC patent applications for a mastery transcript. We heard no mandate to that effect from NAIS or to GOA member schools.
There was not even one mention of the school mission in the 120-slide presentation by the MTC at our OESIS conferences.
The default assumption of the MTC and its founding school consortia, therefore, seemed to be that if Colleges increasingly accepted mastery transcripts based on standards, then there would be extrinsic pressure on participating schools and associations to buy into the competency-based approach. The Founders estimated publicly at our conferences that “it would take fifteen years” to reengineer an education program that was driven by cross-curricular competencies: a roll-out philosophy that would never have even secured seed funding. It was an accurate estimate for a typical school environment that lacked capacity due to misalignment between mission and program. Consequently, there was no visible strategy for MTC success that centered around using the north star of 50 years of NAIS governance, the school mission, the supposed historic source of sustainability, and school change.
Take a moment to analyze what this all implied about school missions, from the people who serve and served on the NAIS Board and had created the MTC strategy. It certainly appeared odd that such an evolution of student competencies was not tied to school missions. NAIS requires much of schools, after all, such as a commitment to diversity. An impartial observer could easily conclude that they were signaling that missions could not be tied to student learning outcomes, perhaps because missions tended to look generic and institutional. Was it because of a fear of losing members and endangering membership revenue streams by making schools accountable? Was it because they knew it meant a real change to the curriculum, and current missions did not relate to the curriculum? It seemed like they were saying that schools could not change unless someone else, other than associations or accreditors, forced them to do it. That left the Colleges. Where was the NAIS emphasis on school mission as a tool for change (intrinsic)?
The case of the apparent failure of the MTC efforts to date is an example of the kind of governance mentality of “all things extrinsic always” as if the mission serves no guiding purpose. The MTC missteps rest squarely on both NAIS mission ideology not providing the capacity for governance, and an associated leadership void for accreditation.
DEI Statements without Capacity
To prove that the NAIS-inspired governance does not work for school change, even when extrinsic motivators appear aligned to high-level statements, we offer another example: the DEI statement. This next example is a cultural trigger that might have potentially helped validate or promote DEI statements last year: the death of George Floyd and the Black@Instagram reckoning of elite schools that black students had not been treated well and did not feel a sense of belonging in their school communities. Surely this was an opportunity for schools to move towards assessing a set of associated life skills, perhaps together under the umbrella of something like “Cultural Competency” on a transcript, and embedding such practices and curricular opportunities throughout a school. This would align with and validate DEI standards, competencies, and statements.
I asked the Head of the Latin School of Chicago (the current Board Chair of NAIS, a Founding Board Member of the MTC, and a GOA member school) whether we might see DEI competencies developed at his school and displayed on their transcript. It would certainly fit with his DEI statements and standards. Surely his parent community and Board, having paid for being a Founding MTC school, would not object to having their kids given a Cultural Competency or Social Justice or Anti-Racism proficiency-level credit on their college transcripts? He must surely have done the hard work of building capacity and alignment before launching into DEI programming solutions. Wouldn’t such a program be considered mission-aligned?
He declined to respond. I hope he will respond to this article, because he wrote, “Black Leaders at predominantly white institutions must seize this moment”. And how does that tactic promote equity and inclusion? As we have argued, it will be capacity-building that will result in effective governance and strategy, not a shift in the racial balance of school administrations. Again, we distinguish between extrinsic and intrinsic motivators.
High-level statements on DEI and missions come from a previous era, reminiscent of orders cabled to distant colonies by provincial governors. They are not strategies; they are decrees by fiat. All the schools facing racism backlashes had DEI statements, but the direct feedback they received was that these were hollow statements (like missions), and meant as cover for anti-racism curricular changes. See the chart below from the recent OESIS Survey of 75 independent schools asking them about parent participation: less than 7% said their parents would be able to recall most of the DEI statement.
The schools that are most brittle (and lack capacity) are those that are most likely to rush headlong into such positioning and programming without doing the hard work of pre-strategy capacity building. Many of these are the most elite schools, with waiting lists, because they have no incentive to change (“perhaps this is not the right school for you; we have 50 other families that would like your spot”). Independent school governance by fiat and high-level positioning has bred exactly the wrong kind of mindset and approach to sustainability and evolution: an extrinsic one designed either to preserve what the school knows best or buy time to let some outside influence be the catalyst for change.
From Reality to Capacity, before Strategy
We have sought to define the harsh reality of independent schools. Defining reality must be the starting point for any Board or school leader.
We understand the independent school reality as deep in tactics, short on strategy and alignment, and highly dependent on what other schools do (how did that become known as “best practices”?). We see a corresponding student reality: learning tactics for testing, valuing extrinsic grade outputs over their health and deeper learning, and ultimately aligning less with the competencies that their futures will depend on.
That is the legacy of 50+ years of NAIS mission governance, yet schools are still paying the association dues, with no prospect of a $1 billion refund. The MTC founders, seeing a real opportunity as NAIS Board members, had ostensibly found a way to prove to all of us that NAIS mission-centered governance had outlived any purpose. Instead, they chose extrinsic hopes and solutions to their feckless plans. That may be their real legacy.
At OESIS we have started to help our schools with the hard leadership and community-binding work to build capacity and alignment around inclusion and 21st-century skills. This starts with an openness to truth, reality, and a diversity of opinion. It requires a culture free from fear of reprisals. This work can be tied to missions, or it can replace missions. These schools will be governable and manageable. Success at a student level will be more than sufficient glory for them.
In Part 3, Josh Freedman, CEO of the global EQ non-profit, Six Seconds (founded by independent school educators is the world’s largest community of emotional intelligence experts), explains how we can build the platform of capacity, readiness, and alignment. These are deeply social and emotional processes that OESIS schools in our partnership are now engaged in; we will focus on this topic at OESIS Boston, Oct. 21 and 22.
“Some seed fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants.”The New Testament: Matthew 13:5-7
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.