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What Do Independent School Educators Think About?

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Every industry has its convention, its Gathering of the Clans, and the independent school sector--that is, self-governing, self-funding schools operating free of external control--has its own every year in late February. This year the National Association of Independent Schools Annual Conference (hashtag #NAISAC13) is in Philadelphia. About five thousand people will attend, representing most of NAIS's 1400 or so member (accredited, non-profit, and non-discriminatory) schools.

What's on the menu? Is this a festival of tweeds and bow ties, participants wreathed in pipe smoke as they compare college lists and endowment performance? There may be some of that, but whatever Old Boy and Old Girl networking still goes on is hugely overshadowed by conversations around the things that independent schools need to be doing to survive and thrive in the 21st century. NAIS's organizing team works hard to make the event a relevant, compelling learning experience. While not every session is provocative or a smash hit, most are well attended, and on occasion past keynotes--Sir Ken Robinson, Daniel Pink--have had a transformational influence. Some, of course, have been controversial; Michelle Rhee didn't seem to attract many converts, and Bill Gates mercifully kept to technology rather than school policy. Both, incidentally, are independent school graduates, and I always enjoy noting that Gates, whose foundation seems not to be too concerned about large class sizes, went off to Harvard from a school whose website proclaims, just two clicks deep, that its average class size is 16. What's sauce for the goose ought to be sauce for the gander, my grandmother might have said.

To give readers unfamiliar with this world, perhaps a quick look at the keynotes and some of the session threads--as identified by the organizers--will offer a sense of the issues currently inspiring or troubling the sleep of independent school leaders. (The conference is largely aimed at administrators, although one day is featured as offering more programming for classroom teachers.)

This year's keynotes are business guru Jim Collins (whose attention to the non-profit sector gives him some authentic cred for this audience); poetry slammer Sekou Andrews, social media experts Danah Boyd, Soumitra Dutta, and Alexis Madrigal; human rights leader Tererai Trent; and brain science evangelist Cathy Davidson. Other "featured workshop speakers," are generally thought leaders with particular expertise. I'm hoping to catch NPR's Claudio Sanchez. Sure to be the hottest back-channel topic is NAIS's newly named president-designate, John Chubb--a think-tanker whose background as a right-leaning (he was briefly an educational advisor for the Mitt Romney campaign) for-profit and charter school advocate has many members scratching their heads.

The scores of workshops are clustered under five umbrella categories: Communications and Advancement (that's also marketing, fundraising, and admissions, key functions in schools that must sing for their suppers); Governance (the "political" control of the school, which is usually in the hands of a board of volunteer trustees who set each school's mission, set tuitions, hire and evaluate the head of school, and meet regularly to oversee the management of the school); Leadership Development (like every other educational sector, independent schools need thoughtful, prepared people to run them); Management (daily operations, practices, and policies); and The Classroom Experience (what it says). The business managers' organization has its own conference in the days before.

On the first day of the conference, when most attendees are arriving, there are a handful of longer workshops whose subjects are often a good indication of current trends in independent schools. This year design thinking, online learning and the flipped classroom, experiential education, problem-based learning, and public-independent school partnerships are among these; more on the partnership issue in a later post.

I'll be doing a workshop with two far-flung(ish) colleagues on a topic of great interest to me: how schools can deliver on the promises embedded in their missions and values. If we're going to claim the privilege of independence and charge a pretty penny, I think we're obliged to work to a very, very high standard.

So this is what independent schools and their leaders are thinking about--at least this week, when we have the chance to step away and think beyond our own campuses.

Engage with Peter on Twitter: @pgow

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