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Where Independent School Voices Can Matter

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From time to time I've tried here to articulate my thoughts on the various "reform" movements that have rocked public education over the last couple of decades. I've voiced my ambivalence over charter schools (good concept, inconsistent execution and too much room for profiteering), the Common Core (worthy idea, but is it a Trojan horse for other things?), and the whole idea of using standardized tests as a single weapon to punish teachers, schools, and students. No Child Left Behind seemed like a bad idea to me in 2001, and I can't get behind the Race To The Top (and races, in my experience, tend to leave people behind).

I have detailed my public school experience--pretty idyllic and rich in good practices--and I fervently wish that every child could have something like it today. I understand that the issue appears to be money, but as with so many other things the issue isn't that at all: it's the way the voting public perceives the system, particularly the way the voting public perceives the system in a few large, high-profile urban districts where scary statistics indicate large-scale failure. Toss in a few high-profile and often misunderstood "statistics" on U.S. students' performance on "international tests," and what you have is a sector sorely in need of real cheerleaders and real support. Our society has the money, but the public needs to be persuaded to spend it on schools--just another part of the infrastructure that isn't sexy enough--as drones and high-tech eavesdropping seem to be--to warrant big spending.

In independent schools we have been insulated from most of the fallout from NCLB and R2T. Except in a very few places, we've been excused from the piling up of standardized tests and wholesale judgments against teachers and children based on their results. We've gone our merry way, benefiting from the increasing affluence of our customer base and able to put into place all kinds of educationally promising practices--one-to-one programs, design-thinking labs, community engagement programs--that many beleaguered public school districts can't begin to afford. To many outsiders we probably look uncomfortably like Rich Uncle Pennybags, the cigar-smoking Monopoly man. No wonder even people within our world think it might be better if we went away.

But many of us hate this image, and there are plenty of independent school educators who agonize over our role in this stratified system. Many have tried to find ways to express our solidarity with public schools and their teachers. Our society will rise and fall on its educational system, and if independent schools choose to style themselves as innovators and "leaders" in that system, we've got to act like leaders, taking an active role rather than separating ourselves.

This morning one of my Google Alerts brought me to a guest op-ed on a local(ish) site by one Isaiah J. Poole. Mr. Poole lays out with more clarity than ever I could the case against test-driven and punitive reform à la Michelle Rhee (an independent school graduate, it must be acknowledged). Minutes later I had found the site of the Education Opportunity Network and signed their "Education Declaration to Rebuild America." The primary signatories include a lot of people for whom I have enormous respect and some with whom I don't always agree. The primary signatories don't, incidentally, include anyone I know from Independent School Land.

For a while now I have also been on the mailing list of the Network for Public Education, of which I am also a very modestly donating member and, by registration as a blogger, an "ally." It isn't much, but it's a start.

There isn't one solution to all the educational ills that beset our country, but I believe that there is a single strategy that can help: to do all we can to redeem the reputation and image of public schools--all public schools, and all of their teachers and students--and of education as a whole.

A society cannot thrive in which education is dismissed as nothing more than years of busywork ending in a job and in which teaching is seen as a second-rate profession. A great educational system acknowledges and supports the hopes and dreams of children and parents--every child, every parent--not just for better employment but for a better world. A great educational system in a great society values schools as places where hopes and dreams are strengthened and refined and where children acquire the knowledge, skills, and habits of mind to achieve them. It values teachers as key actors in making this happen.

As independent school educators we really need to start clearing our throats and figuring out how--as individuals, as schools, and as associations--we can make sure that our voices are heard, not just to protect our privileged sector but as part of a vast chorus of concerned citizens crying out for a better experience for every child through the same kinds of focused, personalized, committed work that we try to do in our own schools every day.

Engage with Peter on Twitter: @pgow

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