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

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!

20 thoughts on “Borrowing wise words from those truly market-based, Private Independent schools…

  1. It is too obvious for our leaders to learn from it. I agree brilliant.

    I spent a week at one of Mallory’s Westtown Seminars (for independent school leaders) when I was a principal of a public high school. It was there that I learned many of the skills that helped make my school successful.

    Thank you for bringing light to it.

  2. I imagine an analogy to sports. The hugely expensive and privileged private schools of which you’re speaking might be analogous to an NBA team, whereas many schools are dealing with students who are closer to the level of junior high basketball players, some of whom have never played before at all. Clearly the NBA team spends more. But does that give us any reason to think that if the junior high team has a fancy new bus or more expensive shoes it will play any better? Does it even give us reason to think that if we paid a million dollars and hired an NBA coach, the junior high players would improve?

    In addition, what if it turns out that some of the junior high kids have been playing basketball, at least supposedly so, for several years, but some of them can’t even dribble three times without dribbling on their feet, can’t do a layup, don’t know where the half-court line is, etc. I imagine it might become popular to have some quasi-accountablity policies for the junior high basketball coaches — some minimal standards for what basketball skills must be taught.

    In such a circumstance, it wouldn’t necessarily be all that relevant to respond, “But look at NBA coaches — they don’t spend time on drill and kill, and think and how insulted they would feel if their players had to take skills tests!” Well, yes, but that’s precisely because their players have already been drilled for many years on basic skills, which is what frees them to be able to spend time thinking about higher-level stuff without having to worry, “But wait, half the team doesn’t even know what a pick-and-roll is.”

    If the private rich schools you’re talking about started graduating kids who were illiterate or who couldn’t identify the Civil War or FDR — hence causing Ivy League colleges to stop admitting such students — parents would impose an even more onerous kind of accountability: sending their kids elsewhere.

    1. While kids entering these schools may certainly have a head start over their 4 year old peers in urban public schools, it’s hardly analogous to the differential you present above between NBA players and junior high players. Private independent schools serve kids from pk to 12. And the teaching environment in the lower schools is often as autonomous as in the upper schools, with very little attention to standardization/testing, etc. Rather, there’s an environment of professional respect with strong leadership, which I would argue exists in many good public (and charter) schools in both higher and lower income neighborhoods. These schools have a lot of basic skills teaching to do as well, albeit with the aid of ample home and school resources and generally involved parent population. I would argue that the current batch of policies would certainly be unhelpful if thrust upon these schools, and are arguably equally unhelpful when dumped on poor urban schools, without appropriate resources, facilities, etc.

      Besides, look at the strategies that are supposedly leading to successes in “no excuses” charters. They are hardly groundbreaking innovations… and there’s nothing wrong with that… and they are hardly inexpensive (see my breakdown of Fryer… with much more to come on this topic). Rather, they require money (substantially more than similar public schools in the same district), hard work and extra time. And these types of schools are among those asking to be kept out of these absurd teacher evaluation mandates. They didn’t choose to do it when they established themselves, and don’t want to do it now.

      On a separate note, that certainly doesn’t mean I have no use for data – reasonable use of data as a diagnostic tool, for system monitoring…with appropriately sparse/dense sampling… as opposed to a systemwide – everyone sampled all the time (data universe) tool. But more on that another day.

  3. I ran across this essay on twitter. It is excellent.

    I have more than two decades of experience as a member of boards of trustees of several schools.

    There’s another point: while market-driven, the independent-school sector does not expect to be profitable. Yes, independent schools have to balance the budget but to have excess profits to return to investors? It’s a laughable idea.

    1. You make a great and irrefutable point. To expand upon it a bit, It’s clear that NO educational purpose is served by the extraction of funds in the form of profit for the share holders and CEO’s of multinational testing companies and other profit driven entities. That money was meant to be used in educating students and that should be the only way it is used.

  4. This post reminds me of comments made by Geoffrey Canada at the 2012 NCSS convention. Slightly tongue-in-cheek, but he said one of his guiding philosophies is “when in doubt, do what the rich people do.”

  5. Stuart’s analogy is flawed for many reasons, one being his assumption that pros do not work on the basics. Pros do work on the basics. Ever see a pro basketball player in the summer? They are doing many of the same drills as high school and even junior high kids. Same with football and baseball. What happens when a pro player can;t make a shot, hit a curveball, or throw accurately? They bring in a tutor to return to the basics and mechanics of the action. So stop already with the sill sports analogies.

  6. Thank you for starting this conversation.

    “Isn’t firing the bad teacher supposed to make all of those (statistically) great teachers feel better about themselves? Improve the profession?” Actually, firing a teacher is something school boards seldom do, preferring to intidimidate and humiliate teachers into resigning rather than having charges brought against them. Many teachers just don’t have any idea they’re up for firing until it happens. Then, shocked and surprised, with “their comparative lack of worldliness” hobbling them, most teachers will opt to salvage what they can of their careers rather than take a chance on whether the charges are indeed firing offenses. School boards are so practiced at this scenario, they teach administrators exactly how to set a teacher up for firing from day one of a new school year. There’s a timeline, a script and model documentation to follow.

    When a firing doesn’t go as planned, for example when a teacher doesn’t buckle, the school board may have big problems. Perhaps the charges won’t support firing, or there was no due process for the teacher as required by state law. That’s how it can take so long to fire a teacher, in some instances. In a case that’s pending right now in Gilbert, AZ, the National Board Certified Teacher who is being fired after reporting bullying and racial discrimination has been on admin leave for three months, collecting full pay and benefits, while a substitute teacher runs her classroom.

    Parents of this teacher’s students have made their displeasure known with the way this ham-fisted situation developed because it harms their children. But Gilbert Public Schools has a script to follow, so full steam ahead! [We’ll be posting the firing process online soon.]
    Cross posted at

  7. From someone who has spent 35 years in independent schools your post was somewhat misleading. You failed to point out that private, independent schools have admissions tests and select students who for the most part don’t come with lots of baggage. You failed to point out that private independent schools can expel a student without much fanfare. You failed to point out that private, independent schools can supplement their budget with vast amounts of resources from wealthy donors. You failed to point out that small class sizes are expensive models that most tax payers aren’t interested in. What if property taxes in Cobb County increased from about $3,0000 ($200,000 home) to $7,000 so the class size of Cobb County schools could go from an average of 28 to an average of 16? would taxpayers support a 150% increase. Not likely. You fail to point out that the salaries of private, independent school teachers are usually not much better than their public school colleagues. You fail to point out that ALMOST 100% of the innovative work on PLCs, Assessment, Differentiated Instruction, Technology Integration, Project-based Learning, Integrated Studies, and more is coming out of our public schools, created by public school teachers.

    I just don’t agree with your premise. As someone who works closely with both the public and private school worlds, they both can learn from one another. The problem is that the private, independent school world RARELY admits to the need to explore its “public purpose.”


    1. Actually, we are mostly in agreement here – I think. My point is not so much about what private independent schools are doing… but rather what they clearly are NOT doing. And what they clearly are NOT doing is adopting the current batch of major reform strategies such as merit pay, and arguing for increasing class size (as have many “reformers”). Yet, it is to a large extent parents of privately schooled children and alums of private independent schools who are pushing to have these strategies forced on public schools against the will of teachers/administration and in many cases parents.

      I do point to a detailed report on private school expenditures including models of teacher salaries that show that the salaries of independent school teachers are similar to those of public school teachers, or slightly lower for the academic year. But, note that the academic year is, on average, 20 days shorter, and the number of classes and total students taught per day is less. In my own time teaching in pvt. indep schl. in NYC, I had 16 periods per week with about 18 kids per class (which was large).

      As to the point about selectivity, etc. That is, indeed a rather obvious difference, but not that relevant to the issue at hand. Is merit pay for teachers necessarily a better policy for non-selective schools than for selective ones? Does it somehow make more sense to tie teacher pay, and eventual dismissal to student assessment scores in a setting where students are compelled to attend and teachers and administrators obligated to serve them? Actually, that might work the other way around. Yet still, the private independent school sector seems to have found little use for high stakes, student test score base, merit compensation of teachers. Perhaps because it’s simply a dumb idea, regardless of sector.

      I agree with your point that the general public/taxpayers on average might not support the level of expenditure of elite private independent schools, but would also point out that at the local level most do support significant increases in spending on their own schools (based on a combination of polling data and passage rates of local referenda especially in communities of high fiscal capacity).

      I also totally agree with your point that many innovations that find their way into independent schools do so out of public schooling – including the great list you provide above about differentiated instruction, tech integration, project based learning, etc. BUT… I would point out that those innovative strategies found their way into public education not by mandate from on high – not by programs like Race to the Top. In fact, NCLB and now, even more disturbingly, the preferred policies under RTTT are likely to squelch such innovations. There will be little room for integrated curriculum where teacher compensation is tied to dis-integrated measures of student outcomes reliant on isolating the specific relationship between 1 teacher and his/her group of statistically linked students. Project based learning (my focus, coming out the UCONN “Teaching the Talented” MA program in the late 1980s) will be increasingly rare and technology integration only emphasized where it can simultaneously increase narrowly measured academic outcomes while reducing instructional costs (permitting larger student loads).

      I hope this all clarifies my position. Thanks for the comment.

      1. I appreciate your elaboration on many of your points. Private, independent schools don’t adopt much of what is going on in the public sector because there is no reason to (we agree on that). With parents who can afford $20,000+ tuition, give more $$$ to annual funds & fancy capital campaigns, with really nice facilities and good working conditions, and with selective admissions that bring in a majority of students who score between the 80-99th percentile in ITBS, there is really no reason to look further. I think corporate leaders, politicians and other folks wanting change in public education should send their children to public schools. President Obama sends his children to Sidwell Friends, a fancy independent school in DC. Race To the Top is not in the conversation at Sidwell Friends.


      2. I don’t begrudge their personal preference for elite independent schools. Their preference is mine as well. I do begrudge the absurd inconsistencies of their message. Their argument that “I want one thing for my kids, and something entirely different for the children of others.” And to present that ideology with such arrogance as so many “reformers” do drives me up the wall. No acknowledgment whatsoever that as a parent, the last thing they’d likely want for their own children’s school is having the entire curriculum revolve around tested material in reading and math, and having teachers of their children compensated on how well their children do on state assessments.

        I have written about this topic here:

        As an aside, it has occurred to me that part of what let’s elite prep schools off the hook on test prep obsession is that in many cases, parents are paying for test prep as an entirely separate endeavor, through competitive SAT/ACT prep courses outside of school, and in many cases, elite schools are providing themselves – as a totally separate endeavor – sometimes with additional fees attached – competitive test prep. That keeps the test prep out of the curriculum/classroom.

      3. You raise a good point about test prep, as well as the inconsistencies in the way parents approach their views of public vs private schools. The other point that is interesting in this conversation is that parents at elite private schools are really unable to exert much influence over what the school does in terms of the curriculum, teacher evaluation and compensation, and other school matters. While a Board of Trustees of a school will often have significant parent representation, the overall parent community really has a minimal influence on day-to-day school matters. Maybe that is because for the most part they have significant TRUST in the school, its faculty and administrators. I must say I have been at a number of schools were a small vocal minority tries to influence academic issues, but generally they don’t have much voice. “The last thing they’d likely want for their own children’s school is having the entire curriculum revolve around tested material in reading and math…” When I think of independent schools I have been involved with, their is a GREAT deal of testing, drilling, and mundane assessment around reading and math. While not high-stakes tests that can make or break a school or teacher, they environment around testing is still pretty intense.

        The other point would be if a parent at an elite private school is combative or argumentative to the point of being pain, they probably will be asked to leave.


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