From Principal and Superintendent To Independent-School Head
In 1966, having taught history for two years in an independent day school, I became a public-school teacher. I saw public schools then--at least the "lighthouse" suburban district in which I chose to work--as an exciting, stimulating, and democratic environment. The best teachers worked there, curriculum reform was healthy, all children were served, and money was available.
My career through the early 1970's as a public-school principal largely bore out these expectations. I earned my doctorate in educational administration and looked forward to the challenges of being a public-school superintendent. Then things began to change.
I became at first vaguely and then acutely aware that administrators and school-board members were starting to focus on concerns peripheral to the education of youth. My awareness may have been heightened when I became an assistant superintendent, further removed from teachers and students. But new forces were also beginning to affect public education adversely.
Perhaps the most striking change was the injection of personal and partisan politics into educational policy-making. Whereas debate among board members, teachers, and administrators had usually been reasoned, focused on common ends, and private, it now became polarized, political, and public.
Some of this was the result of well-intentioned "sunshine" laws. Some was the result of partisan local politics that spilled senselessly over into the field of education. And some was the inevitable result of collective-bargaining laws that forced teachers into adversary relations with board members and administrators--and even pitted administrators against one another. Whatever the cause, the outcome was demeaning to all.
Another change--in teacher attitude and morale--arose from the negative effect of collective bargaining on public education. Improved pay and benefits have been achieved at a steep price. While many excellent public-school teachers still see students as their first priority, too many others have become preoccupied with benefits anticipated or already won.
A third change, equalizing per-pupil expenditures across a state, has had a particular effect on the "lighthouse" districts in which I worked. Well-intentioned legislation and court rulings appear destined to extinguish the lighthouse districts, which by definition spend more per pupil and provide higher-quality programs than others. No wonder many parents, who live in and who themselves were educated in these districts, are seeking alternatives in private schools. I meet at least one every day.
Related to this specific change is a broader one, the growth of control over local education by state and federal bureaucracies. Again, the motives are well-meant. Who can argue that the handicapped are not entitled to their rights, or that young people should not be helped to deal with drugs, sex, death, and career choices? At the same time, this doesn't mean creating a mandated "education" to meet each need. No school, public or private, can do everything.
One of the ironies facing enlightened public schools that are recommitting themselves to basic subjects is that, in certain states, funds for some mandated programs, such as health education and special education, are sacrosanct, while discretion can be exercised in funding such areas as the arts, music, and foreign languages. When resources are scarce, it is easy to see which programs will suffer.
So, by the mid-1970's, I decided I would have to look outside public education to find the educational climate I was seeking--the one I thought I had found in 1966--one in which the daily education of young people was foremost.
Becoming the head of an independent day school that serves primarily upper-middle- and upper-class students was an adjustment for me. Although our school offers substantial financial aid and works hard at recruiting minority students, we are unabashedly elitist. We simply have to acknowledge that our school's mission is not to serve all youth. But we do have an advantage, in that our school can have a workable, if narrower, vision.
My hope that the changes affecting public education would be absent from independent schools was largely, but not entirely, borne out. What I found present in these schools is more significant, however.
Most important, in independent schools, is the presence and constant pursuit of quality. It is represented in the pride teachers, students, and parents take in the high standards and programs of their schools. They feel privileged to be a part of an organization that has a clear sense of purpose.
In 1972, in American Nonpublic Schools: Patterns of Diversity (The Johns Hopkins University Press), Otto Kraushaar reported on his extensive study of the reasons parents choose a private-school education for their children. The reasons given by more than 70 percent of the independent-school parents polled were better training in diligence and study habits, better teachers, smaller classes, greater likelihood of admission to the college of one's choice, and a more academically challenging curriculum. My conversations with the parents who choose our school over the local public schools reinforce my belief that those perceptions are equally true today.
One of those perceptions, however, requires elaboration. I am not convinced that private schools have better teachers. I have encountered an equally broad range of competence in both the public and private sectors. It is more nearly accurate to say that private-school teachers are different.
What makes them different? First, in most states, independent-school teachers are unencumbered by certification requirements. They are able to concentrate professional study on their academic disciplines. At the same time, however, they are often deficient in their knowledge of child development and teaching techniques.
Second, most independent-school teachers are poorly paid, an unfortunate situation that most schools are struggling to overcome. Although it is unfair to assume that they teach for the love of it, it is true that many teachers are willing to work for less than their public-school counterparts in exchange for a more stimulating teaching experience and more highly motivated students.
Finally, most independent schools do not offer tenure, and many have merit pay systems. This is apt to create insecurity within the faculty and high turnover from year to year. On the other hand, incompetence is usually not tolerated, and excellence is rewarded.
Thus I think that independent-school teachers are not necessarily better than their public-school colleagues, but they do have more freedom to teach and more opportunity to excel--and to be rewarded for their excellence. This accountability is refreshing.
I have also found, to my surprise and delight, that independent schools themselves are far more accountable to their constituencies than public schools. The reason is simple because, in nonpublic schools, the measures are simple. Is the school attracting and holding sufficient students to support its programs? Is the yearly balance sheet in the red or the black? Independent schools operate in the free marketplace and are subject to the same general laws that govern the production and sale of any product. If the product is a good one, it will be in demand and the organization offering it will prosper, provided it operates efficiently. It's really that simple.
To me, however, the most important quality present in independent schools today is the opportunity for dedicated people to exercise educational leadership. It was largely for this reason that I accepted the narrower focus and elitism of the independent day school.
In saying this, I am espousing a somewhat narrower view of what educational leadership is. I do not mean the skills of managing a large bureaucracy, surviving in the public political arena, or collective bargaining and public finance--all required of today's public-school superintendent. I am talking about leadership in instructional matters: curriculum and staff development, working effectively and closely with students, parents, and teachers.
Independent-school heads have a unique opportunity, for their delegated authority far surpasses that of most public-school superintendents and encompasses all aspects of school operation. Most boards of trustees make every effort to afford their heads great latitude in all educational matters. Their main functions, in relation to heads, are to hire good ones, to monitor their performance with diligence and support, and to fire them when necessary.
Most heads, like public-school principals, are intimately involved in the day-to-day management of the school, working directly with teachers, parents, and students. Many of them teach regularly. This singular combination of the traditional responsibilities of the public-school superintendent and principal in one office is the key to the success of most independent schools. Public-school policy-makers would do well to examine the independent-school headship from a management perspective alone, for it holds promise as a model for positive change.
My position as head of an independent school currently gives me a means of fulfilling my own professional goals that is fast disappearing from public education. I can exercise my own brand of educational leadership, knowing that the impact of my style and decisions will be relatively immediate, very visible, and most important, will have a clear effect on instruction.
I still have mixed feelings about abandoning public education. Should some things change fundamentally, I may return. For now, I find more intellectual challenge, more psychic rewards, and more opportunities to do what I was trained to do--teach and lead--in independent schools.
Not long ago, two teachers at our school told me they sometimes can't believe they are actually paid to do what they do. I share their exhilaration. To us, and no doubt to many others, independent schools offer what Robert Frost sought: "My object in living is to unite/My avocation and my vocation/As my two eyes make one in sight."
Vol. 01, Issue 12, Page 24