On Monday you will become the president of the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS). This makes you the presumptive leader of an established and respected sector of the American educational system, and it will give you a bully pulpit to use however you see fit.
Independent schools are at a crossroads; NAIS is at a crossroads, I think, and, John, you’re going to play a big role in determining which way we will go.
It’s not just our crossroads, you see. It’s about where the education conversation and the education system in this country are headed. It is an over-used truism in the independent school community that “unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required.” Independent schools have been given a great deal, indeed, and our society has a right to expect a great deal back. But the general social expectation for independent schools should be a small thing in comparison to what we must expect from ourselves as you lead us forward.
Independent schools have their challenges, John, and I hope that you will continue the recent work of NAIS toward both encouraging and providing support for schools’ efforts to modernize and upgrade their practices. To remain viable, our schools must fulfill their missions in ways that truly benefit their communities as parts of society as a whole and that are worthy of the regulatory privileges and high social and cultural esteem they currently enjoy. In the past decade Pat Bassett and the NAIS leadership team have progressed well beyond simply providing excellent service to members--they have planted the living seeds of authentic and much-needed change.
But the great opportunity, perhaps even the great imperative, for independent schools over the next five years will be to establish ourselves as a legitimate and positive voice in the national and indeed global conversation on education. Although many far-sighted and even courageous individual schools and school leaders have sought engagement with the larger, primarily public school community, as a body we have taken only baby steps. We are viewed from the outside with misunderstanding and oftentimes a sort of hollow envy. At worst, some regard us as merely an effete body of selective, affluent schools that offer children an undemocratic refuge from the vagaries of public school life and a convenient excuse for hundreds of thousands of parents--many of them individuals of influence--to ignore the needs of the many.
Independent schools are and must be better than that. It does not help the rest of American education when exceptionalist claims are made that independent schools are somehow “doing it right,” with the implication that the rest are flailing and failing. If we can demonstrate effective practices, we need to share these with the world of education as a whole. If we are discovering and implementing new and promising approaches to teaching and learning, we need to make this knowledge available. If we find ourselves pursuing dead ends, we are obliged to acknowledge this, too.
You are no doubt aware that some NAIS members are concerned about your appointment, worried lest your background in educational arenas not associated with independent schools might in some way distort or prejudice your understanding of our aims and hopes. Not all members are comfortable with your past affiliations with for-profit educational enterprises and with organizations and ideologies that appear at odds with the mainstream of American public education.
The challenge for you as a leader, John, will be to find balanced, temperate language and a clear narrative to express independent schools’ collective commitment to playing a vital, contributing role in American education as it also conveys a generous and humble openness to entering into dialogue with other sectors. We may indeed have things to teach, but, oh, do we have things to learn! Public schools perform feats each day that put the most vaunted efforts of our best-regarded schools to shame, and they do it with smaller budgets, larger classes, and student bodies that are not hand-picked. If our schools truly aspire, as so many of their mission statements suggest, to create global citizens for a diverse world, let’s find ways to learn from the best.
I’ve spent my entire life, more or less, in independent schools, and I’m not ready to give up on them, not ready to suggest that we scrap our whole industry as an exercise in obsolete elitism. I am proud of the best work we do in our schools: proud of our caring teachers, proud of our most forward-thinking leaders, and proud of our students and the positive difference so many of them have made and are making in the world.
Independent schools have worthy students to educate, John, and a body of great schools to do the work. But we also have a world to help save, and fine minds and rich resources with which to save it. I hope and pray--and I’m not often a praying man--that you will see your task, and our collective task, as not simply to build up and extol ourselves but to exalt the very highest goals for human improvement, social justice, and educational opportunity and excellence for every child.
You have my very best wishes for success in your NAIS presidency.
Lifelong Independent School Educator
Engage with Peter on Twitter: @pgow
The opinions expressed in Independent Schools, Common Perspectives are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.