Education Opinion

Q&A With John Chubb, New Independent Schools Association President (Part 1 of 2)

By Peter Gow — July 29, 2013 5 min read
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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.

QUESTION: In your recent blog post for NAIS you wrote of your experiences at several NAIS leadership events this summer. You wrote that “leadership is about bringing people together in the service of children.” As the new leader of NAIS, what are the biggest needs, opportunities, and challenges you see in bringing educators together, both within the NAIS community and in the education sector as a whole? What role can NAIS leadership play in facilitating this?


Having worked in and with schools all over the country--and I mean all over, Honolulu to Boston, Minneapolis to Miami--and in every major sector--public, public charter, Catholic, and independent--I know that all educators want essentially the same things for children. They want them to develop the knowledge and skills to lead productive lives, they want them to grow into good, healthy, and happy adults. They want them to become contributing citizens of their communities and the nation. They want them to fulfill their potential, whatever that may be--academic, artistic, athletic, and more. Shared aspirations provide the common ground on which leaders can bring differences together.

As educators we have our differences. Resources are increasingly scarce. This is true in public schools, where taxpayers are mostly strapped, and in independent schools, where family incomes have not kept pace with the expenses or tuitions of our schools. The toughest issue we all face may be how we allocate resources within our schools in the future.

Teachers make the biggest difference for student success, and we won’t attract and retain the very best without decent compensation. Teacher pay has fallen relative to other professions over the last forty years, and that has driven talent from the profession, especially young women. Schools may need to pay teachers more to succeed.

At the same time, the student population is becoming more diverse and presenting more needs--academic, social, and emotional. Schools may need to invest more in differentiated programming, specialized supports, and other interventions. Technology may offer some solutions, providing multiple ways for students to learn and achieve, and taking some of the didactic load off of teachers. But technology also costs money--and this is the tougher part--promises new roles and responsibilities for educators and administrators, which require major changes in how we do our work.

All of this is to say that the challenges before us will ask us to reconsider, fundamentally, how we go about educating children. Our answers will surely differ, perhaps school by school. That is the beauty of independent schools, the freedom to meet common challenges in different ways. But the process of arriving at answers need not be fraught with conflict. NAIS can be helpful to its schools, and to schools more broadly, by providing leadership--and leadership of the type that I described at the recent heads institutes.

Schools all over the country are innovating, trying out new models of instruction and organization, evaluating new ways of helping students of all types succeed. In my research, I have been watching the innovative use of technology and teachers particularly closely. Schools are doing amazing things. But one school tends not to know a lot about what others innovators are up to. Being a national organization, NAIS can and should be a clearinghouse for information about schools of the future, soup to nuts. NAIS can and should bring together innovators in independent schools and all types of schools to understand better what innovation works. No school is an island. But with the everyday demands of serving students, it is hard to find time to look over the horizon. Communication and information work wonders on conflict.

I’m not a Pollyanna about the process. Change is hard. But when we agree upon the ends--and I believe we fundamentally do--we can come together around the means that will serve our respective communities best.

QUESTION: In the few short weeks since you started at NAIS, what are the messages you’ve been receiving from NAIS member schools about their most urgent needs?


It has been a few short weeks, so I want to be clear about my sample size--which is small. I have spent most of my time on the road, getting to know our members. I’ve been attending NAIS’s summer institutes, for new and aspiring heads and for diversity and justice. I also had the pleasure of meeting a large class of emerging school leaders at the Klingenstein Center’s Master’s program at Columbia University.

Let’s also remember that it is summer and school has not yet reopened. This is a time of year when pragmatic or tactical concerns loom large. Is my fall enrollment secure? How will I find the replacement for a last-minute teacher resignation? How do I launch or help launch a successful new school year? How do I work effectively with my board--the newest challenge for any rising school leader? I know from many summers spent helping school leaders start new schools or turn around struggling ones that addressing these practical concerns is not just good tactics. It is also good strategy. The best thing that any school can do to secure its future is to keep the main thing the main thing--guaranteeing students the best possible education experience from the first day of school to the last.

I was very encouraged watching school leaders at various stages of development, sweating the details of opening strong and pleased by what NAIS and extraordinary faculty from member schools are doing to support them. I know from my fall and winter travel schedule, which has me visiting scores of schools and meeting with school leaders in associations all around the country, that strategic questions lie ahead: financial sustainability, the value proposition, resource allocation, the competitive landscape, changing student demographics, talent, technology and new school models, and the public purpose of independent education.

(Part 2 will of the interview will appear here on Wednesday, July 31.)

Engage with Peter on Twitter: @pgow

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