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The Sky Isn't Falling on Independent Schools

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The dust seems to have died down on Chester E. Finn Jr.'s revelation in The Atlantic a couple of weeks back that the sky is falling on private schools.

The juiciest part of Finn's argument, replete with sinister references to Potemkin villages and the Wizard of Oz's curtain, is that private schools are keeping this terrible news a secret lest Chicken Littles and Chickens Big "create the educational equivalent of a run on the bank, with clients fleeing for fear of being abandoned after a sudden collapse." He ventures that he wouldn't even wager a year's tuition on private schools' ability to change, pretty much suggesting that he has already made his final withdrawal. Yikes!

Finn does acknowledge that leading independent schools--he rattles off a few familiar names--will survive, a crème de la crème who will no doubt market their curricula as MOOCs (which I'm not entirely sure he fully understands; he seems to conflate them in some vague way with K-12 charter schools) and live on, puffing their fat cat cigars as chaos reigns around them.

I think he's missing the boat, at least on independent schools, which remain pretty healthy across the board. If there ever was a golden age when every independent school had waiting lists a mile long and limousines stacked up in the carpool lane, I missed it. Nevertheless, I see a pretty healthy sector, with plenty of schools (perhaps more at the modest end of the prestige scale, because these have the most to gain from innovation) doing a great deal to "reboot," to "brighten their own futures," in Finn's doubtful words.

By the numbers, the roughly 1400 member schools of the National Association of Independent Schools are doing okay. Enrollments are up 2.6 percent since 2002-03, within a few thousand (out of nearly 350,000) of the peak just before the 2008 Crash; giving is also up. (The Crash itself had a silver lining for many schools, in that those accustomed to drawing on sumptuous endowments had to learn to live closer to their earned--as it were--income; many less affluent, tuition-driven schools weathered the storm with somewhat less stress). Financial aid, which is primarily need-based at NAIS schools, has stayed pretty much constant, with even a bit of an upsurge in percentages of students receiving aid and budget dollars spent. As a body, then, independent schools are not headed down the tubes.

Most independent schools have figured out that what they actually offer matters more than who they are; images of smiling lads in neckties and cheery girls with field hockey sticks aren't quite enough to solidify a brand any more. This means that the motivations that Finn doesn't see are in fact significant drivers, with momentum rising. It's not the courses alone that make a school (so the commodified "St. Paul's math" and "Dalton literature" of which Finn writes would miss the boat entirely on the St. Paul's or Dalton experiences) but rather the whole immersive world of the school--the whole-child experience, which includes mission-driven extracurriculars and strong personal relationships forged in line with schools' values.

In other words, independent schools are working to ramp up not only the quality and the contemporary qualities of their classroom experiences--see what I have written elsewhere about design thinking, for example, or the incorporation of technology--but also the entire Gestalt of their being and brand.

"Engagement" and "connectedness" are the words of the moment. A great example would be Winchester-Thurston School's "City As Our Campus" concept, not so much a program as a cultural manifesto that has students connecting with the Pittsburgh community in a myriad of ways, or any of the private-public collaborations that fall under the aegis of the National Network of Schools in Partnership. Early data suggests that these efforts are paying off:

The 2008 High School Survey of Student Engagement (HSSSE) found that more than twice as many students at NAIS independent schools received helpful feedback from teachers on assignments, compared to students at all other types of schools. Students ... were more than twice as likely as students at other schools to say that the school contributed "very much" to their growth in critical thinking. (Source: NAIS)

The Freshman Survey Trends Report, an annual study conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute, found that NAIS school graduates felt more prepared for the academic demands of college than their public school counterparts. As college freshman, NAIS graduates reported that they were more likely to ask questions in class and explore topics on their own, even though it was not required for a class. (Source: NAIS statement, based on information from the Higher Education Research Institute)

Like many diverse school communities, independent schools are constantly working to ensure that their programs serve all students equally well. With justifiable pride, NAIS also notes in a report based on College Board research that

average SAT scores for independent school students are higher than students from other types of schools [as would be expected in selected student bodies--author], the differential increases significantly for students from lower income brackets. Independent school students whose families make under $30,000 per year, for instance, scored 23 percent higher on the SAT than their peers from other types of schools. (Source: "2011-2012 SAT Test Scores: National Averages and NAIS Schools," NAIS)

Independent schools have long ways to go in many areas; they face continuing financial hurdles and the greater challenge of responding quickly and well to the disruptive forces now acting on school programs and the educational system as a whole; equity and affordability remain serious issues. Not every independent school delivers in full on its aspirations, and not every student experience is ideal. Nonetheless, as a subset of the private schools on which Chester Finn is unwilling to bet, they're doing pretty well, facing forward and sailing ahead on the winds of change.

If I sound like I'm cheerleading, I'll admit I am cautiously proud (especially so of my own school, which I think does excellent work). But I also want to make it clear that my purpose is not just to correct the impression left by Finn's essay. Far more, it is once again to remind independent schools to hew to the path of continuing development and continuing acknowledgment of their obligation to live up to their loftiest ideals and their highest purpose.

Engage with Peter on Twitter: @pgow

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