Education Opinion

The Right Question From Independent Schools

By Peter Gow — December 09, 2013 4 min read
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The other day John Chubb, president of the National Association of Independent Schools, a previous interviewee here (and here), and the object of some gentle prodding from this quarter back in June, blogged about a visit he and NAIS vice-president for government and community relations Jefferson Burnett recently made to meet with Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

Apparently cabinet secretaries are accustomed to importunate callers; by Chubb’s account, the meeting started with Duncan’s people more or less asking, “So, what do you guys want?”

I suppose there’s still plenty that the independent school industry could ask for. But NAIS schools operate largely outside of federal educational regulation and benefit from tax laws that support charitable giving to educational non-profits (which all NAIS member schools are and must be), so any request at the cabinet level beyond a continuation of these privileges might smack of excess.

The NAIS delegation, however, turned the tables on Duncan and responded with a paraphrase of JFK’s famous line regarding what citizens can do for our country: “We’re here to ask what we can do for you.”

Here and there in this blog I’ve suggested that there are positive goods that independent schools might offer up as contributions to the national conversation on and maybe even the direction of educational practice. We’ve been busy developing new approaches to curriculum and assessment while many public schools have been hugely distracted by No Child Left Behind-inspired standardized testing regimes. We’ve been developing our own academic standards, mostly at the school level, that seem to satisfy colleges and universities without need for a common core. Our teachers are generally pretty happy and our students largely engaged. Research from The Association of Boarding Schools, another group of independent schools, suggests that by and large its member schools, against stereotype, are actually more racially and culturally diverse, on a school-by-school basis, than many public schools, which have been settling back into de facto segregation as communities and neighborhoods stratify as a manifestation of the increasing socioeconomic stratification of which our president recently spoke.

We also have resources that are being deployed to support professional and community development in the public sector. Parts of many of our campuses are regularly used as community resources. We know there’s more we can offer, and groups like the National Network of Schools in Partnership are helping schools find ways to offer it.

So what Chubb & Company had to say to Secretary Duncan was definitely the right question. “What can we do to help?” is exactly what the independent school sector should be asking, and I am pleased and even proud that our industry chiefs have asked it.

I wasn’t quite as impressed by the Secretary’s reported wish list; there is some good stuff, like “help with education technology” and “blended learning models that provide documented academic benefits,” but at the same time there seems to be an unsurprising but tiresome focus on the business side. “They want to leverage online and other technology businesses. They are looking for a group of schools that might agree on the specifications of a comprehensive platform for the full range of school technologies and lure firms to develop to that platform--increasing quality and reducing price.” I’m suspicious enough of this kind of talk to see in such ambitions the specter of corporatization and perhaps even privatization.

The Secretary is also interested in boarding schools as models for “affective” education for students “in the most disadvantaged circumstances.” There are a handful of great models here--Milton Hershey School, Christina Seix Academy--but I’d hate to see us as a nation try to scale these up in ways that don’t, like Seix Academy, engage families and communities as part of their model. We’ve already tried separating disadvantaged children from their communities in failed experiments we call “Native American boarding schools,” “reform schools,” and “prisons.”

But I was happy to read that Chubb’s post ends with some conversation with Duncan about things that independent schools do well and that, properly resourced, could scale well--namely, offering programs and pedagogical models that truly engage students. This is a centerpiece of most independent school programs, and schools with a wide range of missions successfully engage students with an equally great range of backgrounds, capacities, and interests.

Some independent school folks may worry that an NAIS exec who offers the D of E a helping hand might not be sufficiently tending his own shop, but I think that Dr. Chubb’s offer contains opportunities for schools not only to dig in and do our work even more effectively but also, as a side benefit, to strengthen our industry’s position in the national mind and even in the marketplace--just what NAIS needs.

Supporting the public sector ought to be an important industry goal in whatever ways we can accomplish it; as Americans we’ve got the future of millions of kids besides those in our own schools to worry about. By doing well by them, by asking what we can do for our country and then doing it, we’ll be okay.

And, by the way, I tip my hat to John Chubb.

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.