I recently had an opportunity to speak directly to John Chubb, who earlier this month became president of the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS). Prior to his starting the job, I had posted an “Open Letter” to John in this space, which he graciously answered. He went further still, offering to respond here to some direct questions. I’m extremely grateful to John for his thoughtful, thorough responses and for his time just as he is undertaking this new leadership role. The first part of this interview appeared here on Monday, July 29.
QUESTION: As our society becomes more stratified along socioeconomic lines, what case can you make for independent schools as being a contributing part of American education rather than a privileged drain on the system as a whole? How can independent schools really prove their worth as members of the education community?
JOHN:Having spent most of my career in public school reform, I would not have joined NAIS had I not believed that independent schools have a major role to play in American education writ large. I have argued for a long time (over 25 years--whew!) that independent schools have important lessons to teach all schools. I used independent schools as exemplars as I researched and wrote about the benefits of autonomy. Charter schools were conceived applying the principles of independent schools to public education. Today 2 million students attend 5,000 charter schools. Without the examples of independent and other private schools, charter schools would never have been authorized.
Today, the nation is looking for the schools of the future, the schools that will help students thrive in the 21st century that is already well upon us, the schools that will enable students to learn through technology and traditional means alike, the schools that may operate according to new business models. The freedom that has enabled independent schools to succeed for so long should enable independent schools to be leaders in the development of new school models. We have no monopoly on good ideas, and we must pay close attention to innovations in every sector. But independent schools are better positioned than any to help point all of America’s schools in promising directions.
This role will be played more effectively if independent schools are able to serve student populations that look more like America’s public schools. Independent schools are ready serve remarkably diverse populations racially and ethnically. But we are less diverse by far socio-economically. This is inevitable being dependent on tuition. Independent schools already have substantial portions of their students on financial aid. It may not be possible to advance socio-economic diversity much further. But as we look to new school and business models, I think it important that we try to serve as representative student population as possible. It is good for our students. It enhances the value that we can add to American education both directly and as a possible model for others.
QUESTION: When you walk into a school for the first time, what are some of the things you look for right away? Why these?
JOHN:I look immediately at the students. Are they engaged, are they thinking, are they being challenged and responding? Our schools exist for our students, it’s that simple. If students are not learning, nothing else matters. I like spending time in schools because I love teaching myself. The best part of my work over the last 20 or so years has been working with principals and teachers, seeing what they are doing to help students and occasionally contributing an idea of my own. I’ve had the privilege of watching some amazing educators in action. I’m in awe of inner city principals and teachers who I’ve watched bring hope to students for whom there was little or none. Inspired students required no special software or technology, no fancy physical plant, no particular curriculum.
One of the things that I admire most about independent schools is the remarkable range of approaches that work. In May I visited three independent schools on the north side of Chicago, one large, well-resourced, longstanding, and dazzling in the sciences, another tiny, scrappy, inhabiting a century-old parochial school, exalting the arts, and yet another recently founded, modestly priced and exuding enthusiasm for teaching and learning. In each school students were engaged, excited about whatever they were doing. The schools could not have been more different in their physical attributes or in their pedagogy, but for the students the experience was the same--learning, really learning.
QUESTION: Would you be willing to share anything about your or your family’s own educational experiences?
JOHN:One story. I have noted before that my wife and I have six children. They have attended every type of school--public, charter, independent, and Catholic. We’ve experienced personally what we each happen to believe professionally (my wife is a former principal), that different schools are right for different students, and families ought to have the right to choose. We have tried to find the schools that will serve our very different children best. When the oldest was in elementary school--a public school, to remain nameless--he struggled to read and to manage ADHD, with which he was eventually diagnosed. By fifth grade he was a couple years behind in reading with little hope in sight. We sought another school for him, but he was so far behind that no one wanted to take the risk of failing him further.
But one independent school stepped up. The head offered us a deal. Have our son repeat fifth grade, and he would be admitted. The school provided no special services--though it would have. It provided a traditional, highly scaffolded curriculum, it taught study skills, it was highly structured day by day, hour by hour. More than anything it taught our son how to be a student. In one year’s time he improved his core reading and math skills dramatically. His standardized test scores rose to age-appropriate levels. Sadly, we had to move from the city after that remarkable year. At his next school, our son tested into the seventh grade and was placed back where he belonged.
This transformation might have happened in any school--but it didn’t. It happened in an independent school. I like to think of myself as a researcher, but I must confess that my passion for independent schools owes much to what one school did for my son.
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.