One day last week, I had breakfast while reading the latest Substack post by Undercover Mother (UM). For those who are not familiar with the group, here is their “About” statement:
“We are a Mom Collective with children in independent schools. We circle our young to protect them from the abuse being inflicted by schools and the cartels of the regional and National Association of Independent Schools.”
Having read their posts for several months, it was clear they have an audience and are influencing the views of a segment of families during one of the most critical times in the history of independent schools. This week, they’ve chosen to associate school COVID responses with enrollment contracts and censorship, concluding with a brief action plan for parents. That’s a broad range of topics (grievances), indicating that they have made their overall position clear in earlier posts and are now providing continuing evidence of that position. At the end of the day, I ask myself whether their writing, exposing the foibles of prestigious independent schools, might result in purposeful change.
Regarding the first topic of the post, COVID responses in January, there is little to say that has not already been said. Private day school COVID policies are generally designed to keep students in school if appropriate safety policies can be maintained. Of course, there is never agreement on what policies are safest if one considers the overall well-being of the students offset by the corresponding risks for both students and adults. As a result, nothing conclusive can come from the disputes, even though UM is framing the responses as an example of schools not listening to parents and a means of synthesizing the famous school enrollment contract with the broader question of censorship at schools. So rather than revisiting the virus disputes, let’s begin with the enrollment contract and then move to the related topic of censorship. Applying a narrative to both will help to understand whether Undercover Mother can play a constructive role for our schools, despite the veracity of their criticism.
In the 1973 film, “The Paper Chase,” Professor Kingsfield (John Houseman) explains to his contract law class that a contract is an agreement that is mutually beneficial to both parties. Surely the attorneys for most independent schools missed that film. Essentially, the enrollment contract tells families what schools expect of them. There is little language about the performance of the school. Families are told that the rights provided by the U.S. Constitution either do not apply or may at times, but are superseded by the policies of the school. If the family does not comply, their child will be separated from the school without recourse. UM writes, “Oh, the all too vague and overbroad Enrollment Contract.” On a typical late afternoon school day years ago, I witnessed the seemingly single-party contract in action. A man that appeared to be a lawyer standing outside the Dean of Students office was pacing and exasperated so I asked him if I could help. He shook his head and said, “I’ve been practicing the law for over 25 years, and I’ve never encountered anything like this post-disciplinary hearing. These people understand nothing about the law.” I replied, “Oh, but they do. They understand private school law, and unfortunately for you, it may have little to do with constitutional or civil law.”
The message of the enrollment contract is clear, and for years, it was an effective instrument that forced paying customers (most of them) to forfeit their position if they did not comply with community expectations. Since these communities were often “little utopias,” or so it seemed, the thinking was that some kids and families just didn’t fit, and therefore lost their privilege to be members of the school community. What UM seems to be saying is that the culture has changed and schools have changed, producing rising tensions between the school and the parents who are defining that culture to a great degree. Many of these parents still respect the enrollment contract and therefore remain quiet because they don’t want to jeopardize their child’s position at the school. But some parents are fed up, suggests the Undercover Mother. They have seen independent schools held accountable for a variety of transgressions, some of which have just come to light in the past few years. Having fallen somewhat from their pedestals of character and wisdom, schools are now fair game for criticism, and enrollment contracts are functioning more as protection from the outside than a membership card. Perhaps they should either be rewritten to account for the current environment or be renamed agreements that are not necessarily mutually beneficial. And that narrative is the segue to censorship in the UM blog post.
The censorship piece is related to the enrollment contract because an unhappy parent might make statements that the school finds inappropriate and therefore violates the enrollment contract, jeopardizing their child’s place at the school. UM writes, “Censorship is always cause for celebration. It is always an opportunity because it reveals fear of reform. It means that the power position is so weak that you have got to care what people think.” The suggestion that schools generally don’t care what people think is a bold and complicated statement, one that requires dissection. The enrollment contract would suggest that schools don’t care about their primary constituents, but more about the institution. That might explain why when school leaders are asked, “Who is your customer?” they often struggle to find an answer. Are parents customers or are they agents (financial and other) for their children, who are the parties that benefit most from the work of the school? The answer is nuanced and might reveal that both parents and students are customers to varying extents. The barometer of that response is the degree to which schools partner with parents to support the education of their children.
Still, UM might be on to something by setting up the enrollment contract/censorship connection. Traditionally, negative parent statements about schools are borne from misunderstandings that have emanated from a lack of direct involvement with the school or inaccurate/agenda-charged reports from their children. What most parents know is a result of family nights, attendance at athletic and other programmatic events, and in a few cases, volunteer work at the school. These are limited snapshots of school life, often out of context. This is the ground on which UM can be challenged. Alternatively, where there is smoke, there is fire, and schools have traditionally been good firefighters. Social media has presented a few challenges for schools because they are no longer completely in control of the message. Even if they enforce the enrollment contract, the damage has already been done. Censorship was thought to be a deterrent to public relations nightmares, but the existence of the UM blog, an anonymous group of mothers, is a perfect example of why censorship of parent statements is a waste of time. If our schools are being forthright and transparent with the parent community, the need for censorship is minimized.
Transparency still comes with risk if it exposes leadership gaps since independent school parents are known to be experts at running and giving advice to organizations, particularly when their child’s future is at stake. We are great at supporting policies and programs that have been in place and functioned reasonably well (institutional), but are not as good at making decisions about new programs or changes in programmatic direction or policy. There are two reasons. One has been written about extensively in Intrepid Ed News: a lack of strategic alignment to build capacity for change. The second is more about the ground game. Most school leaders are teachers at heart, and great teachers know how to pivot on a dime when something is not working (tactics); they make great split-second decisions based on the conditions at the moment. But an assault from the parent population about the amount of CRT in the curriculum requires strategic consideration, strong SEL skills, and a very long view of the potential results of one’s actions. Those are the strategic skills that most school leaders don’t have, not because they are incapable of learning them, but because they have had little practice based on experience. UM has exposed some real work that has to be done at the senior and governance levels of our schools.
The UM post does not put their topic of the week to bed without a parting shot at NAIS through the eyes of an “enlightened trustee.” They conclude in their recommendations that schools should disassociate themselves from the organization. The trustee characterizes NAIS as being an activist organization. That sounds like a compliment for an organization leading the traditional independent school world. In this case, the activist reference is to their DEI agenda with the suggestion that the education of our kids has taken a back seat to contemporary liberal politics. Now we have come full circle. According to UM, if you are opposed to or concerned about the heavy doses of DEI and CRT in your child’s school, you cannot speak up about it because you will be violating the terms of the school enrollment contract. It’s difficult to know how common this practice is, but again, there may be lessons to be learned from UM.
The first question to ask is why a national association is telling member schools what should be part of a core program, and to hold schools accountable for the implementation of that program in the accreditation process. Some schools don’t offer economics courses, even though economics would help students understand the income inequality gap that impacts their school in a myriad of ways and influences DEI. NAIS hasn’t advised schools to teach economics. That inconsistency would make one think that NAIS was caught up in the George Floyd murder protests, saw what corporate America was doing in response, and quickly, like a great tactical teacher in the classroom, pivoted their entire agenda to website statements, three-year DEI plans, and programmatic changes, all outside the context of mission testing and strategic planning. It’s not surprising given that the NAIS Board includes a significant population of school heads that were once classroom teachers with mastery of the quick pivot. In short, the issue is not really what schools choose to teach, but the notion that diversity, equity, inclusion, belonging, and social justice, clearly important practices and understandings, would suddenly overwhelm a curriculum that has been evolving slowly over the past fifty years.
Perhaps what UM is saying is that independent schools have drifted out of their comfort zones on this issue, and that translates into discomfort for a parent population that is accustomed to a “tried and true” curriculum that prepares their children for successful college enrollment and lifelong triumph. The discomfort is significant enough for parents to suggest that they should be “involved” in curriculum development. When the economy tanked during early COVID, parents didn’t call the Federal Reserve and tell them they wanted to be involved in any interest rate changes the Fed might be contemplating. So how is it that schools have left themselves vulnerable to questions about the ability of their teachers to make the best decisions for the children?
It would be easy to dismiss the UM Substack posts as a few crackpot mothers who are trying to micromanage the lives of their children (we used to call them helicopter or lawnmower parents). Doing so allows us to get on with our lives believing there is room for incremental improvement and occasional rapid pivots at the instruction of our local or national associations. Longer-range strategic thinking about whether our schools are meeting the current and future needs of our students is, however, something we don’t have time for (meaning it is a low priority or we lack the tools to do so). If we could convey the message to our constituents that we are communities of learning that will provide the flexibility and open communication (in partnership with parents) to meet the needs of each one of our students, then the UM would have nothing to write about.