What’s Missing from School Responses to our Black Students and Alums? | 4 Min Read

Ask a recent graduate of a school what they are good at when they leave, and how they know? They will likely respond that they were good at this subject or content area and received good grades. But what about those personal attributes often touted in a school’s portrait of a graduate, mission statements, and admission brochures? Compassionate? Culturally Competent? A Critical Thinker? You know the ones that are assumed to be part of the culture and community, and the ones that Ms. XYZ, founder of said school, embraced and celebrated. The Black Lives Matter protests (and the Black@[school name] hashtags that accompanied them particularly in independent schools) have exposed the awful experiences of black students and should be a reminder for educators that nothing can be assumed when we are dealing with developing minds.

I have been reading the responses of independent schools to the Instagram and Facebook shaming by black alums and current students (for the racist experiences they have had at their schools), and there is one key word missing from administrators: lots of mentions of re-examining and improving policies, procedures, admissions, financial aid, curriculum, training, student support, college advising, and hiring. Not one mention of assessment. Not one mention of competency-based assessment. Independent schools are known for devising strategies that allow themselves to appear as if they are embracing something, but not holding themselves accountable: examples include joining one of the many consortia or coalitions that represent “excellence by association” or by adding an elective or advisory discussion or assembly speaker or a club, and of course, the easiest avenue of all, attending a Conference for People of Color on Diversity or Racism. If real change is to come to schools, then not just curriculum and co-curriculum have to be targeted, but students need to understand that competencies are assessed and appear on a transcript and a list of graduation requirements. Cognitive and non-cognitive competencies can, in our view, be assessed.

Anabel Jensen, Founder of the EQ/SEL non-profit network, Six Seconds, long-time independent school educator, and current Board Chair, puts it this way:

“We get what we measure. This was the reason for creating assessment tools for social/emotional learning competencies. If we are going to grow our emotional intelligence, we need to know the baseline.”

It takes ownership to get there and it does not mean that you proceed immediately to the extremes, such as eliminating all traditional grading, as some approaches advocate. If a school is dedicated to a set of competencies, then teachers can map opportunities across their sequences where students have an opportunity to display their skills and be assessed on their level of mastery or competency using well-designed rubrics. The sum total of these opportunities can build towards a set of competencies that accumulate on a transcript along with more traditional requirements. The following example is exactly one such approach by the Great School Partnership, which leads a league of innovative public schools in New England. To get there, a school has to go through a one- to three-year process: mapping their high-level portrait of graduate aspirations into key competencies. These competencies become assessable through performance indicators; they need to be understandable to adults and kids, they must be faithful to the challenges such as the equity issues we face, they must be transferable and inter-disciplinary, and they must touch every area of student learning and interaction from classes to sports to co-curriculars.

Roxanne Stansbury, Head of School, Alexander Dawson School (NV), an independent K-8 school pursuing competency-based learning, put it this way:

“Now more than ever, competencies are essential and can serve as the foundation for anti-bias/anti-racist education. It is time for schools to move past reliance on the diversity statement and live the words they profess by equipping students with the tools needed to enter into conversations about change. Consistent modeling and accountability of competencies are the key to modern learning.”

Roxanne Stansbury, Head of School, Alexander Dawson School (NV)

The second sine qua non is true assessment of professional development by holding teachers accountable and establishing a measurable level of consistency and buy-in across the faculty base. Professional development at independent schools has often been a loose, do-what-you-think-you-need approach; for years the standards for professional development have gravitated to the lowest possible bar, a checklist, not helped by the ever-lowered bar of accreditation. This low accreditation standard on PD has led some schools to discover during COVID-19 when they most needed project-based learning, that they were really doing summative projects (that helped little with asynchronous delivery). Now we realize that whatever we thought we were doing in terms of providing an inclusive and culturally embracing environment, was far from reality. If schools are to take the demands of black students seriously, they should abandon patting themselves on the back for toothless standards of accreditation they do every 6-10 years.

For independent schools, in particular, to survive and address the challenges ahead, we need to abandon crutches of excellence. We are not excellent “by association” nor “by accreditation” nor “by consortium membership”. We are excellent by how we hold our faculty and our students accountable, and the outcomes we can demonstrate, rather than the inputs we tout. What could be a better priority for the post-COVID world than starting to transform your Portrait of a Graduate into outcomes you measure?

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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