Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Too Much? Not Enough? Musing on Tuition

     As head of an independent school, when I hear certain types of complaints, I've come to expect some variation on a theme: this is not what we are paying for. One common twist is that parents pay "too much" for whatever the issue is. Sometimes parts are in all caps, just to drive home the point.
     As a parent with two children at a very expensive school (not the one I head), I completely understand. I readily admit I have felt the same sentiment. It's driven largely by the fact that we trust independent schools with our two more precious resources--our kids and our cash.Sometimes the parental concerns are fully justified, making the reaction even more understandable. So what follows is not really a rant against such expressions, though it may come across that way in places. I hope this gives people some more to think about in the entire value-added conversation.I also think this raises important notions for families to consider during re-enrollment season. Too often that can become an automatic action. Given how much and how quickly kids change, particularly at certain points in their development, a once-good fit may no longer be the best place for a student. Even if there are no reasons to question the fit, parents should reflect on what drew them to the school in the first place. I would hope it comes back to issues of mission, values, culture, et cetera. That's not to say parents shouldn't feel outraged when particular experiences fall short of their expectations. They should. And I share the feelings. But I also don't think of the problem in the same way.
     The truly meaningful parts of an education aren't commodities and thus cannot be monetized. Even if they could, throwing more money at something doesn't guarantee better. For example, Finland--currently the hot educational system in the world--spends much less per student than the United States, about $7800 versus $11,300. Meanwhile, another nation with very high rankings, Estonia, spends roughly the same percentage of GDP per capita as the United States. Meanwhile, their systems function in different ways in different cultures with different aims. Therefore, the stats and the finances can prove misleading and fail to provide accurate, insightful comparisons.
     That's why, to me, many of the issues which most irk parents--that is, when they are rightly upset--are matters of professionalism and shirking of responsibility. For me, they become not a failure to deliver on a business transaction but more of an ethical transgression. I see education as a truly sacred trust, especially in independent schools, which hold forth mission as the ideal to which we aspire. Not doing the work which honors that is an ethical violation.
     But for the sake of argument, let's return to the gambit cited in the opening: the notion of "paying too much for something." It's a real sentiment based on a genuine emotion, so I won't dismiss it. Plus tuition at most independent schools is high. Still, the contention of paying too much for certain behaviors can fairly be flipped. Given the relative level of the average teacher's salary* and the importance of the work, are there certain things for which people don't pay enough?
     Consider:
  • Independent schools are filled with talented, quality people who could be making much more money elsewhere; but they chose to live a life of service...and your kids get to spend a great deal of time with them.
  • Many of these people drain themselves during the day--imagine yourself surrounded by dozens of children all day--then give even more at night. Besides planning lessons, many of them are searching the web or engaging in Twitter chats or doing other things to improve their craft.
  • They stand outside in freezing cold or driving rain, making sure kids are safe during carpool.
  • A teacher may have to discipline a child one moment, then gives that child a special task to show that all is forgiven.
  • They know how to comfort a child when parents are fighting or a friend is mean or a pet had died, because school is a warm blanket.
  • When children are crowded into safe areas taking shelter for two hours because tornadoes are racing through the area, teachers help them pass the time while feeling secure.
  • A teacher might spend well over an hour on a single letter of recommendation, determined to present that student in the best possible light.
  • Teachers who are willing to share realistic but hard news about a child, doing so with empathy and reassurance, in a way that makes a parent believe it all will be okay.
  • The advisor who brings a thermos of hot chocolate when his or her group has carpool duty on chilly mornings.
  • The teacher who is determined to help a student understand a concept, and keeps finding news ways to explain it, until it clicks.
  • Receiving a phone call or an email not when your child has done something wrong, but when he or she has been great.
  • The adult who remembers what it's like when the insecurities of middle school hit and helps a student keep imagining that sense of a magnificent self, along with the confidence he or she can become just that. In fact, is already that.
  • The person who gives your child someone worth emulating.
At a great school, a quality classroom experience is simply a given. An expectation which should be the norm. This list--and I've see each one of these things, often several times--are the lagniappe. More than that, they are, to play off the old MasterCard commercial, that which makes the experience priceless.

*I am not making an argument that teacher's should be paid more, although I could. I recognize supply-and-demand and other economic factors playing into this. Anyway, for my point here, the reality makes for a better argument.

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