Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Biggest Change in Last 30 Years of Independent Education?

                I woke up today and realized that this past year marked the completion of my 30th year in education. (It also happens to be my 19th wedding anniversary!) 30 years! That’s rather astounding since I planned to do it for just a couple of years and then move on. At times I have contemplated changing careers. Now I can’t really imagine working in any other field, and I have no dreams of retirement.
                I started wondering about a pretty basic question: What has been the biggest change you’ve seen in independent school education during your career? (I’m focusing on independent education because that is where I have spent my entire career.)
                The knee-jerk response is, of course, digital technology. That’s obviously huge, and it’s an underlying factor in some of examples I will give to support my point. But it’s not my answer.
                My answer: how much more schools are expected to do.
                In no particular order, and knowing I will forget some examples in my brain dump,  I’ll simply provide a bullet-ed list of items that provide the evidence for my case:

·         The expectations for facilities. Frequently I have had people visit independent school campuses and remark how they are so much nicer than anything they had in college. I don’t see any signs of the facilities race of the 90s slowing.
·         There are so many curricular items I’m going to use sub-bullets:
o   Offer a greater variety of world languages.
o   In English, the notion of the canon has exploded.
o   Character education programs in all their forms.
o   Programming/coding.
o   The expanding concept of literacy beyond the three R’s.
o   Courses and units that are more global and diverse.
o   Service learning.
o   More athletics, often with more pressure.
·         The demand for more frequent and more detailed communications, including a regularly updated website.
·         The profusion of digital technology.
·         Nurture diverse communities.
·         Data, data, and more data to be used in…well, just about everything.
·         A variety of travel and exchange experiences, particularly abroad.
·         More professionalization of teaching, with greater accountability.
·         Increased expectations for individualization and accommodations, particularly for learning differences.
·         Authentic assessment and results on standardized testing.
·         Project-based learning.
·         Foster creativity, innovative thinking, leadership.
·         After-school care.
·         Summer programs.
·         More contests and more awards.
·         Louder cries for proof of return on investment.

Please notice that I have offered this list without judgment. I’m simply illustrating. If pushed, I’d argue that each of them is good to some degree. But when you look at such a compilation—and I’m sure I’ve left out some things—it’s pretty staggering.
                There are many positives to such developments. For years many independent schools fit the stereotype of being stodgy institutions resistant to change. The ivy and the hedges protected them from real scrutiny and gates held the undesirables at bay. But we’ve modernized in the best sense of the word. We hold on to some of our finest traditions and human values, we better reflect the world as it currently is, and we look towards the future world in which our students will be living.
                This comes at a cost, though, even beyond the obvious financial implications.  The additions can feel more like piling on, and it can wear people out. They begin to wonder what’s next. Yesterday we were to look to Singapore; today we must emulate Finland; looks like tomorrow it will be Scotland. Smaller, less affluent schools simply can’t fulfill all the wishes. Another cost is unknown and variable, in that something must give way for the new. When so much happens so fast, I wonder how much really sticks. I wonder about depth. I wonder about cohesiveness.
                That last point speaks to a significant challenge of this last three decades. In such an environment, with so many constituents yanking and pushing in myriad directions, a school can try to be all things to all people and thus forget who it is at its core.

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