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The End of Independent Schools

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By the end of the first decade of the new millennium, the demise of independent schools was nearly complete. What had been as recently as the end of the 1990s a system of a thousand blooms, all of differing varieties but with common roots, had been sufficiently extirpated or grafted onto new hosts that the original species had all but become extinct. There were the occasional outcroppings of the old independent schools, a few extant oases where the schools had refused all government monies, fought politicization of their faculties, and resisted transformations of their boards into quasi-democracies run by parent councils, but these oases were increasingly seen as anti-egalitarian at best and anti-democratic or elitist at worst. The fact that the students who graduated from the few remaining independent schools still outperformed their counterparts in the state and for-profit chain schools on standardized tests was basically dismissed as an aberration by all but the devotees.

As far back as the early 1990s, institutional analysts were predicting the radical transformation of independent schools, and all other institutions for that matter, transformations to more inclusive, more democratic models of structure and governance. Pundits in the Harvard Business Review had predicted that the public's deep cynicism about institutions and their leaders would eventually cause debilitating unrest. Critics noted that this cynicism was rooted in the expos‚s of abuse by a handful of high-visibility nonprofit organizations' leaders; in the increasing evidence that institutions were not responding with flexibility, vision, and competitiveness to a rapidly changing world; and in the growing recognition that institutions were made up of powerful stakeholders who could revolt and take over operations, given enough entry and momentum. Institutional consultants were at first predicting the disappearance of boundaries between an institution's leadership and its constituency, then actually advocating the blurring of boundaries via the "re-engineering" of governance. The ideal was to empower, to convene the entire community, to co-determine the agenda, to restructure decisionmaking and governance to include all the powerful stakeholders. In effect, to democratize institutions fully.

In retrospect, these rumblings should have been heard at the time for what they were by the independent school world. Clearly, the noise and cacophonous chorus were apparent in the following:

  • Parents who saw themselves as "stockholders" entitled to voice and vote in the decisionmaking process of their schools, forming "political-action committees" to influence boards, storming board meetings with demands to be heard, subverting administrative decisions with letter-writing campaigns, and other activities.
  • Faculty members who in formal or informal groupings began to resist change and negotiate collectively for their personal benefit, sometimes putting self-interest before the interests of the child, sometimes resisting, refusing to recognize the legitimate opinions of parents.
  • Headmasters and headmistresses who by the nature of the changes in the demands of the job became increasingly focused externally rather than internally and whose initial educational leadership and institutional vision were sublimated or extinguished by the exigencies of day-to-day wildfire control.
  • "Attack constituents," following the lead of those on college campuses, forming shadow alumni or interest groups to orchestrate the continuous review and subversion of institutional decisions and directions.
  • Boards which failed to distinguish between their proper role in determining policy and their inclination to administer it, micro-managing the school.
  • An intrusive outside world of government and media whose scrutiny transcended the boundary of asserting appropriate guidelines for health and safety into the domain of meddlesome regulation and unnecessary public disclosure.

As in all paradigmatic shifts in the culture of institutions, however, there were holdouts, the antediluvian few whose flat-earth views became increasingly unpopular. The resistance, like many such lunatic-fringe groups, held quaintly archaic views about independent schools and their leadership and governance. They believed, for example, that:

  • Parents should see their roles as "stakeholders," not "stockholders," with responsibility to support and advance the school in its current operation, so that the stake they held--the education of their child--could be maximized. Generally, such a belief dictated that parents respected the professionalism of school authorities, teachers, and coaches, saw themselves as partners with the school and not adversaries, and sought to resolve any problems at the most immediate and appropriate level (for example, talking directly with the teacher or coach, rather than calling up a neighbor on the board of trustees).
  • Boards should see their roles as trustees in the true sense of holding the school in trust, of focusing on the future, planning for their children's children's school, and leading by doing the strategic planning and fund raising required to effect that future. Boards, rather than blurring boundaries, should help to educate other constituencies on the virtue of defining respective roles and boundaries and vigilantly censor that future.
  • Heads of schools should see their roles as educational leaders, headmasters in the original etymological sense of lead master (teacher), one who functions as the teacher of many, the visionary spokesperson, the honest broker among the other powerful constituencies of the school.
  • Faculty members should see their roles as the mentors of children, focusing their time and talk and energies on teaching and learning, seeing parents as allies not enemies, respecting and responding to the school's leadership and playing an important role in that leadership, especially in the domain of leading by example of professional growth and development and curricular experimentation.

In retrospect, the demise of independent schools seems now to have been almost inevitable, given the suddenly developing late-20th-century unpopularity of the ideas upon which they were originally founded and actually ran in America for the first 300 years of their existence. Notable among the ideas that became increasingly unpopular were these:

  • That independent schools were independent, in that both their governance and finance were separate from the state, and that accordingly these schools could and should resist any attempts by the state to dictate program and personnel.
  • That this independence encouraged freedoms that formed the basis of the strengths of these schools, namely the freedom to define their own mission, the freedom to admit and retain only those students whom the school's mission indicated they could best serve, the freedom to hire (and fire, when necessary) whomever they wanted, and the freedom to teach what their faculty determined was the truth.
  • That board members were chosen not to represent various constituents and interests, but because they had the expertise, skills, and resources to lead the school into a stronger future.
  • That the head of school was not only everyone's advocate and colleague but also the boss, since although many desire the power of decisionmaking, in schools as elsewhere, accountability for decisions (or the absence of decisions) is inevitably laid at the door of a single person.
  • That matters of administration should be left to the administration, rather than having the faculty, board, and parent bodies, deliberate ad infinitum at cross-purposes every schedule and calendar change, every budgetary refinement, every personnel shift.
  • That faculty members actually are experts in teaching content and pedagogy, people whose judgment we might respect.
  • That the parents actually are experts about their own kids, adults whose judgment a school should pay some attention to when it comes to strategies that might work to make school a more successful experience for an individual child.
  • That schools are academies first, but businesses as well, with customers whose needs are to be met if the institution is to prosper in the future.
  • That the lessons that independent schools especially teach well to kids, the lessons about the need for clear definitions and respected boundaries, also apply to adults, and that in fact we all behave better and feel better once we articulate the definitions and live within the boundaries.
  • That independent schools work not as quasi-democracies but as corporate hierarchies, almost benevolent dictatorships, where goal-setting and monitoring, refinement of the services, and meeting the standards of the marketplace take precedence over devolution of decisionmaking to the largest circle of constituencies.
  • That since the patrons and clients of independent schools can "vote with their feet," governance should be focused at least as much on product as on process, and performance of the students, the faculty, the administration, and the institution can and should be the test of success.

Just the cataloging of such repugnant ideas, of course, evidences the reason for the demise of independent schools in the late 20th century. Only devotees of the horror genre of literature believed that the blending of roles and identities was a destructive and confusing goal. Only monarchists doubted that full democracy should govern all schools in a free society. Only lunatics countered the growing popular wisdom within the independent school world that everyone's job was everyone else's business.

And it was only the lunatics who recalled, as these events were unfolding, Dylan Thomas' admonition to his dying father: "Rage, rage against the dying of the light."

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