Borrowing wise words from those truly market-based, Private Independent schools…

Posted on February 17, 2012

Lately it seems that public policy and the reformy rhetoric that drives it are hardly influenced by the vast body of empirical work and insights from leading academic scholars which suggests that such practices as using value-added metrics to rate teacher quality, or dramatically increasing test-based accountability and pushing for common core standards and tests to go with them are unlikely to lead to substantial improvements in education quality, or equity.

Rather than review relevant empirical evidence or provide new empirical illustrations in this post, I’ll do as I’ve done before on this blog and refer to the wisdom and practices of private independent schools – perhaps the most market driven segment and most elite segment of elementary and secondary schooling in the United States.

Really… if running a school like a ‘business’ (or more precisely running a school as we like to pretend that ‘businesses’ are run… even though ‘most’ businesses aren’t really run the way we pretend they are) was such an awesome idea for elementary and secondary schools, wouldn’t we expect to see that our most elite, market oriented schools would be the ones pushing the envelope on such strategies?

If rating teachers based on standardized test scores was such a brilliant revelation for improving the quality of the teacher workforce, if getting rid of tenure and firing more teachers was clearly the road to excellence, and if standardizing our curriculum and designing tests for each and every component of it were really the way forward, we’d expect to see these strategies all over the home pages of web sites of leading private independent schools, and we’d certainly expect to see these issues addressed throughout the pages of journals geared toward innovative school leaders, like Independent School Magazine.  In fact, they must have been talking about this kind of stuff for at least a decade. You know, how and why merit pay for teachers is the obvious answer for enhancing teacher productivity, and why we need more standardization… more tests… in order to improve curricular rigor? 

So, I went back and did a little browsing through recent, and less recent issues of Independent School Magazine and collected the following few words of wisdom:

From Winter 2003, when the school where I used to teach decided to drop Advanced Placement courses:

A little philosophy, first. Independent schools are privileged. We do not have to respond to the whims of the state, nor to every or any educational trend. We can maximize our time attuned to students and how they learn, and to the development of curriculum that enriches them and encourages the skills and attitudes of independent thinkers. Our founding charters and missions established independence for a range of reasons, but they now give all of us relative curricular autonomy, the ability to bring together a faculty of scholars and thinkers who are equipped to develop rich, developmentally sound programs of study. As Fred Calder, the executive director of New York State Association of Independent Schools, wrote in a letter to member schools a few years ago: “If we cannot design our programs according to our best lights and the needs of our communities, then let the monolith prevail and give up the enterprise. Standardized testing in subject areas essentially smothers original thought, more fatally, because of the irresistible pressure on teachers to teach to the tests.”

Blasphemy? Or simply good education!

And from way, way back in 2000, in a particularly thoughtful piece on “business” strategies applied to schools:

Educators do not respond to the same incentives as businesspeople and school heads have much less clout than their corporate counterparts to foster improvement. Most teachers want higher salaries but react badly to offers of money for performance. Merit pay, so routine in the corporate world, has a miserable track record in education. It almost never improves outcomes and almost always damages morale, sowing dissension and distrust, for three excellent reasons, among others: (1) teachers are driven to help their own students, not to outperform other teachers, which violates the ethic of service and the norms of collegiality; (2) as artisans engaged in idiosyncratic work with students whose performance can vary due to factors beyond school control, teachers often feel that there is no rational, fair basis for comparison; and (3) in schools where all faculty feel underpaid, offering a special sum to a few sparks intense resentment. At the same time, school leaders have limited leverage over poor performers. Although few independent schools have unionized staff and formal tenure, all are increasingly vulnerable to legal action for wrongful dismissal; it can take a long time and a large expense to dismiss a teacher. Moreover, the cost of firing is often prohibitive in terms of its damage to morale. Given teachers’ desire for security, the personal nature of their work, and their comparative lack of worldliness, the dismissal of a colleague sends shock waves through a faculty, raising anxiety even among the most talented.

Unheard of! Isn’t firing the bad teacher supposed to make all of those (statistically) great teachers feel better about themselves? Improve the profession? [that said, we have little evidence one way or the other]

How can we allow our leading private, independent, market-based schools to promote such gobbledygook? Why do they do it? Are they a threat to our national security or our global economic competitiveness because they were not then, nor are they now (see recent issues: fast-tracking the latest reformy fads? Testing out the latest and greatest educational improvement strategies on their own students, before those strategies get tested on low income children in overcrowded urban classrooms? Why aren’t the boards of directors of these schools – many of whom are leaders in “business” – demanding that they change their outmoded ways? Why? Why? Why? Because what they are doing works! At least in terms of their success in continuing to attract students and produce successful graduates.

Now, that’s not to say that these schools are completely stagnant, never adopting new strategies or reforms. They do new stuff all the time (technology integration, etc.) – just not the absurd reformy stuff being dumped upon public schools by policymakers who in many cases choose to send their own children to private independent schools.

In my repeated pleas to private school leaders to provide insights into current movements in teacher evaluation and compensation, I’ve actually found little change from these core principles of nearly a decade ago.  Private independent schools don’t just fire at will and fire often and teacher compensation remains very predictable and traditionally structured. I’d love to know, from my private school readers, how many of their schools have adopted state mandated tests?

Private independent schools pride themselves on offering small class sizes   (see also here) and a diverse array of curricular opportunities, as well as arts, sports and other enrichment – the full package.  And, as I’ve shown in my previous research, private independent schools charge tuition and spend on a per pupil basis at levels much higher than traditional public school districts operating in the same labor market. They also pay their headmasters well! More blasphemy indeed.

In fact, aside from “no excuses” charter schools whose innovative programs consist primarily of rigid discipline coupled with longer hours and small group tutoring (not rocket science), and higher teacher salaries (here, here & here) to compensate the additional work, private independent schools may just be among the least reformy elementary and secondary education options out there.

That’s not to say they are anything like “no excuses” charter schools. They are not in many ways. But they are equally non-reformy.  In fact, the average school year in private independent schools is shorter not longer than in traditional public schools – about 165 days.  And the average student load of teachers working in private independent schools (course sections x class size) is much lower in the typical private independent school than in traditional public schools. But that ain’t reformy stuff at all, any more than trying to improve outcomes of low income kids by adding hours and providing tutoring.

None-the-less, for some reason, well educated people with the available resources, keep choosing these non-reformy and expensive schools. Some of these schools have been around for a while too! Maybe, just maybe, it’s because they are doing the right things – providing good, well rounded educational opportunities as many of them have for centuries, adapting along the way (see: .  Perhaps they’ve not gone down the road of substantially increased testing and curriculum standardization, test-based teacher evaluation – firing their way to Finland – because they understand that these policy initiatives offer little to improve school quality, and much potential damage.

Perhaps there are some lessons to be learned from market based systems. But perhaps we should be looking to those market based systems that have successfully provided high quality schooling for centuries to our nation’s most demanding, affluent and well educated leaders, rather than basing our policy proposals on some make-believe highly productive private sector industry where new technologies reduce production costs to near $0 and where complex statistical models are used to annually deselect non-productive employees.

Just pondering the possibilities, and still waiting for Zuck (an Exeter alum) to invest in Harkness Tables for Newark Public Schools and class sizes of 12 across the board!

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