Monday, August 7, 2017

The Real Secret to Independent School Success

       On August 1, 2017, Education Week posted an article by Dr. Stephanie Hull titled "Six Secrets to Private Schools' Success, and How Public Schools Can Steal Them." A former head of an independent school, Dr. Hull highlights six key practices that are fairly common in that world (actually a subset of private school in general). We could debate their effectiveness. As with most things, that depends on implementation and the people involved. I also suspect that private schools could learn quite a bit from public schools. Or, more specifically, I suspect all educators could learn something from quality educators no matter the sector in which they work. Yet I'm digressing a bit, and my point is not to pick a fight with Dr. Hull, as she presents strong suggestions.
       I must wonder, though, whether public schools really can steal them given the politicking and bureaucracy--often being mandated by government officials with no real background in education--that rules that system. Furthermore, the emphasis on standardization and objective testing puts forth the wrong goals. Plus the issue is more than certain policies and programs.
       The real secret to great independent schools' success is not really a secret. It's right there in the name: our independence. That status allows us to focus on our missions. On the ideals of education and what it can accomplish.
       An exceptional independent school helps each student steadily become a grander version of his or her unique, best possible self.
       Ultimately, meaningful education cannot not determined by data, benchmarks, college placement, or exit exams. Instead, it’s about less quantifiable ideals—the soul of the matter. Connections in a caring community. The courage to take risks in search of understanding. Discovery of one’s talents and growing to fulfill them. Development of a supple mind, a healthy body, and a kind heart. The realization of a purpose beyond oneself.
       Each independent school should exercise its freedom to create a unique culture with such an ethos. The richness of the atmosphere prompts people to explore and to plumb the depths of themselves. Diverse experiences and perspectives provoke the deep reflection integral to true learning. Meanwhile, the teachers truly care if they have succeeded, but often do not know for sure. Then, out of the blue, we hear from an alum who is doing wonderfully. Ideally, that person is contributing positively to the world.
       The opportunities and hard work—the rewards and the joys—lie in fostering such an environment. It includes dynamic tensions that challenge our values. For example, how does one balance individuality and community? Do we encourage specialization or generalism? How can teachers cover material yet prod students into thinking as deeply as possible? In a society that stresses quick tangible success, how do we foster perseverance and intrinsic rewards? Schools should struggle continually with such questions, which should drive more immediate decisions such as schedule, policy, and program.
       Similarly, several years ago I participated in an exercise called The Picture of the Graduate. Since then I have led many others through it. Small groups brainstorm the essential knowledge, skills, and attitudes they wish to see in their graduates, eventually paring the list to the three most desired items. No one picks any particular area of knowledge. Instead, every group—school leaders, teachers, students, parents—selects certain attitudes and skills as the most desirable qualities. Synthesized, they reflect the traits of life-long learners; of good citizens; and of well-rounded, balanced individuals.
       Ultimately, education should be about how we live together—about reaffirming a social compact in which we willingly exchange some natural rights for social rights and responsibilities. When Jefferson included the pursuit of happiness as an individual right in the Declaration of Independence, he meant it as a moral claim entailing a reciprocal obligation: that it can happen only in conjunction with others’ happiness.  It’s like the paradoxical benefit of being on a successful team.  As an individual adjusts to the group, the result can be a stronger sense of self
       The best independent schools thus are places where great lives begin. It should be true for all schools.


Paul Baker said...

Brilliant as usual, Mark. Thanks for this!

Mark Crotty said...

Thank you much, Paul.

Josie Holford said...

Another terrific post Mark. "Ultimately, education should be about how we live together ...." Yes, indeed.