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Independent School Responsibilities: 'Test Kitchens' and Sustaining a Nation

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The other day the New York Times ran a long-ish piece on the sometimes troubled relationship between charter and traditional public schools. This is a hot-button issue in all kinds of ways, but the article focused on what constitutional scholars might call original intent: the idea that the charter school movement began largely in the spirit of "let a hundred flowers bloom"--to provide, in the rather apt phrase of the Times, a "test kitchen" for new educational and pedagogical practices that would, if found to be successful, become regular new items on public school menus.

Like plenty of other educators, twenty years ago I found the charter idea intriguing, provocative, even downright excellent--and slightly familiar. In the independent school community a pretty wide range of doing things has been part of our culture for a century or more, sometimes based on deep intent and at others based on some founder or other leader's strongly held idiosyncratic notions on how this or that educational work might best be done. Sometimes, it is true, the weight of mere tradition has come to be the determinant of a school's destiny, but dig into the history of most independent schools and you are likely to find something interesting and unique in its founding impulses.

Unlike the origin of charter schools, in the independent school world there doesn't ever seem to have been anything like an expectation of idea flow back toward the public sector. In general, independent schools have tended to represent a kind of brain drain in which both teachers and students have either never participated in or in some way disappeared from public education. Along with this drain there has been, let's face it, an inevitable diminution in the interest of these educators and their students' families in the overall state of their communities' public schools. (Of course a handful of these people have lately reappeared in the public sector as advocates for corporate-style reforms that don't much reflect their independent school experiences, but that is a subject for another day.)

But in independent schools, some interesting things have been going on, some for a very long time and others quite brand new. Independent schools have always been free to be their very own test kitchens, and they have cooked up some pretty savory and successful recipes for their own consumption, although lately there has been a trend toward a bit more intra-sector sharing. Keeping in mind that these schools do serve a fairly wide range of students (although generally less wide than most public systems when taken school by school) and operate with a broad range of missions (although preparation for secondary education and college tend to be at the center of their work), we would expect to find a rich variety of educational practices in all areas: pedagogy, curriculum and assessment, "character education," program design, and even professional development.

I've called here and elsewhere for more inter-sector dialogue, because despite my career path, I am a believe in the traditional model of public education. I've even been a part of a tiny, nascent effort to build this dialogue, the bi-weekly #PubPriBridge Twitter chat, along with my sometime offerings in this space. It's a core belief for me that independent school educators have much to learn from our public school counterparts, and I always search for signs of real balance and reciprocity whenever I hear about independent school-public school "partnerships." The echoes of noblesse-oblige I still occasionally hear give me hives.

But in matters of teaching and learning, independent schools may have real things to share. If independent schools are test kitchens, do they (we) have an obligation to put our successful practices out there, in the spirit of the original charter idea, for the rest of the educational world to consider and perhaps incorporate? If the original charter model was rather independent school-like--building-level governance, relatively regulation-free--couldn't it even be argued that the educational reformers behind the first charters missed a bet? Why not have started by putting some responsibilities on existing "test kitchens," a thousand and more independent schools, to share what they know?

I've been saying this in other ways for a while, but the charter analogy and the test kitchen metaphor have further clarified for me the idea that independent schools might have an actual responsibility to share what we know as a kind of quid pro quo for our other liberties. Independent school students and their families may have absented themselves from public schools, but there is no reason that our practices need to do so. In return for tax-exemptions and public acquiescence to our relatively unregulated existence, why not give back by sharing what we know best: our own experiences related to teaching and learning?

Sharing what we know about educational practice does not and should not, of course, excuse independent schools and their people from listening to and otherwise engaging with public school educators as peers. An independent school-led professional development program for public school educators (and there are a few of these around the country, good and earnest ones that can be models for the kind of sharing I'm talking about) cannot be exclusively a one-way presentation but indeed must be an authentic conversation among equals--just the kind of conversation most independent school educators happily discover themselves to be in on those rare occasions when teachers from both sectors find themselves learning together in a room.

Independent school test kitchens, to stretch this metaphor to its final millimeter, have been cranking out a variety of good ideas for a while; it's time we figured out how to add what we know to the urgent task of nourishing and sustaining a whole nation of learners and schools.

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