More than 25 years ago I had a strange experience. It started on a professional day.
Well, say you, what’s interesting about that? We’ve all had those experiences, generally out-of-body moments as we imagine ourselves anywhere but in a dining hall crowded with our colleagues being not very entertained by a strategically overdressed person with an easel.
The setting of my experience was just this. There we were, not knowing quite what to expect, with the added mystery of a box of colored markers and a sheet of poster paper on our table. Easel guy was introduced, and then the strange thing happened—and its effects inspire me to this day.
Our facilitator was David Grant, then a colleague of the late Grant Wiggins. Wiggins had introduced the independent school world to the counterintuitive but paradigm-changing idea of “backwards” curriculum and assessment design. “Understanding By Design” was not quite yet a book, but our head of school and a few explorers had found it a compelling concept. (David Grant was already a personage on his own as one of the founders of The Mountain School, and his fame lives on in his 2015 work, The Social Profit Handbook, an essential text for anyone managing a mission-driven nonprofit and looking for ways to better set organizational goals and assess progress toward them.)
The morning began with a review of the school’s mission statement, which was a model of its time, circa 1993: unexceptional and unexceptionable, although as I recall (having been a small part of the drafting process) the “lifelong learner” advocates hadn’t managed to insert their pet phrase.
The next thing we knew, we had a sheet of simple instructions in front of us and instructions: draw a picture of the graduate of our school (coed, day, grades 6–12) as we might idealize this person. Give as much indication as we could of what this graduate believed in, aspired to, cared about, found interesting, found meaningful.... The exercise was titled, “Picture the Graduate.”
A few of us approached the exercise as if we were creating a yearbook page for this gender-neutralized, de-racialized eighteen-year-old. How could we possibly represent the manifold diversities of our community in one imaginary kid? David’s suggestion: What did that mission statement offer by way of guidance? What about the school’s other professed values and beliefs? Did our history offer any help?
By the time of our lunchtime gallery walk, the walls were festooned with a dozen or more portraits, representing degrees of artistic talent and depth of analysis. Many of the pictures were illuminated with text—favorite quotes, “greatest accomplishments,” “things I care about,” and more. But they had us talking over whatever lunch might have been. Really talking.
Well, the markers were collected, and we reconvened. What implications, David asked us, did these idealized (or whatever they were) figures and their lives as we hoped they might turn out have for the work we were doing in our classrooms? What would a truly mission-and values-aligned curriculum look like at our school, if we were to work backwards from these pictures and the texts and beliefs that had informed them to reassess, realign, and rebuild our school’s academic program so that we would actually be practicing in our work what our institution preached?
That school, from which I am now thrice retired, has been working on that very proposition since that day. The curriculum review we had only just begun that day became in time the keystone of the school’s professional culture and inspired my own ongoing passion for this work. As an educator who has occasionally found my opinion being sought (and who has not been shy about offering it, anyhow), I have continued to evangelize for the idea that independent schools—the world with which I am familiar—, as mission-driven organizations, must build every aspect of their programs, practices, and policies around the beliefs they present to the world in their statements of mission and values.
Recently in these pages my colleague Sarah Hanawald mentioned the Pictures of the Graduates (perhaps more commonly called Portraits of the Graduate) that schools often create to drive identity and messaging initiatives. These have their value, but I believe that the old-school “Picture the Graduate” exercise of the kind we did all those years ago, followed by a focused, intentional, and open-ended program of curriculum analysis is the key not only to improving the learning experience of our students but also to building the voice and perspective of teachers into the essential work of planning and executing the school’s programs.
And of course the exercise and a subsequent and ongoing review can also help a school to discover itself, to see how mission and values—made manifest in academic and other programs—could inform its identity in ways that might truly differentiate the school and the experiences of its students in ways that “pay off” in instrumental and material ways for the institution, for those it serves, and even for its faculty and staff.
Markers and poster sheets are relatively inexpensive. We’re happy to talk to anyone about how to make a “Picture the Graduate” exercise the first step in a process of program evolution and improvement for your mission-and-values-driven school.
It really works.
Most independent schools began their history surrounded by a wall. For many schools, the wall was literal, but even schools without a brick or stone wall had a metaphorical one. Both served as boundaries, and far too many independent schools systemically excluded students of color, poor and working class students, gender-nonconforming students, and many more without privilege. The walls served a second function, too: they kept the practices of the institution private. Even as schools began to tackle histories of exclusion and bias, they still attempted to keep their culture and practices behind a boundary, setting the terms of accountability only within the rules and norms of the institution.
In analog times, this insularity was made possible not only by the wall, but also by the role of the gatekeeper, who sits at the intersection of the private and public, deciding what people, concepts, and issues are allowed to permeate the private world of the institution, and what news of the institution is appropriate to share in the public sphere. All too often, the only information allowed to flow outward was in the service of burnishing the school’s reputation, and the information that came in propped up the systems of privilege that maintained both the material and cognitive comfort of the predominantly white and wealthy institution.
In the digital age, the walls have tumbled and the gatekeepers are gone. This isn’t just true for schools--self-publishing, citizen journalism, and social media platforms all disrupt the traditional structures that mass media was founded upon. What would have once been an internal matter at a school now becomes a news story. At the same time, in this era of increased political polarization, school policies and syllabi are being scrutinized for partisan implications.
Most independent schools aren’t used to this expansive visibility. In response, they’ve attempted to rebuild those walls. Sometimes that’s seen in how schools interact on social media, and how they attempt to control and restrict the impact of these platforms in the community. Others have handled larger conflicts with settlements and non-disclosure agreements in an attempt to control the narrative.
The only ethical response to transparency, however, is to embrace it. This visibility doesn’t make the work of leading a school easier. When everything is on display, your community sees the messiness that process requires, and even after the process concludes, leaders’ choices are questioned. In the end, however, transparency requires leaders to be accountable to the values of their institution.
Independent schools have long held aspirational values--to be good, to do good, to serve, and to lead. Whenever a community strives towards goals like these, there will be times they fall short. Those shortcomings are not well served by secrecy. Transparency and accountability are essential to becoming better schools.
Last week, our Head of School, Brad Rathgeber, warned that institutional loyalty is eroding. He challenged school leaders to consider “whether families will continue to see the value of the independent school experience” when they make their enrollment decisions in the future. The question of value, in the end, boils down to families asking the question, “What can I expect my child to gain from attending an independent school?” When faced with that inquiry, Academic Leaders need to have the information available to provide a persuasive answer.
The good news is that many independent schools are well on their way to answering the question. Independent schools have spent time developing documents they call “pictures of the graduate” in order to inspire the work of the school. These provide Academic Leaders and faculty with a shared vision of who their students will be in the future, and help guide curricular and pedagogical decisions. Communications teams share the vision with alumni, potential families, and donors. These pictures, however, are qualitative and aspirational. Is there a way to respond with more than anecdotal data?
Academic Leaders need to be confident that the aspirations and visions of their graduates are able to come to fruition in the lived experiences of their alumni. One way to answer the question of what students will gain is to become more outcomes based, not only in its vision, but also in the assessing and reporting of individual and collective student growth.
An essential step is to define the observable and measurable markers that indicate students are growing in the areas identified as important by the school. At its best, this work involves backwards design, interdisciplinary rubrics, and a high level of collaboration. Then Academic Leaders, instructional coaches, and faculty plan the classroom practices that deliver the types of learning experiences that, according to both research and classroom expertise, will lead to the outcomes the school has chosen. Transparency means that the outcomes are published openly and referenced widely in assignments and reporting to parents.
Once assessment is aligned with the outcomes, the next step is to determine how to communicate the achievement of school-wide outcomes in a better way than just publishing the college acceptance list or a list of students’ honors. How can schools share concretely that graduates are prepared for life beyond school?
Traditional GPAs and standardized test scores, meant to be a shorthand for achievement, can fall woefully short in communicating what students know and can do. Indeed, this is why many independent schools have long relied on a narrative reporting structure to accompany the numerical grade. Academic Leaders are increasingly re-thinking grading practices with their faculty, with good reason. Research on the relationship between grades and long-term outcomes shows that grades are actually a pretty dismal indicator of future accomplishments within a field. Study after study demonstrates that grades are not a good predictor of future understanding in a discipline. This NYU study even found that high grades were inversely correlated with innovation and creative thought!
Academic Leaders could consider publishing a profile of a graduate that truly represented achievement, not just aspirations. A term such as “life long learner”could be accompanied by statistics on the number of books checked out of the library prior to a holiday weekend. Perhaps a total number of hours spent in internships for seniors would represent real-world experiences. Surveys of recent alumni experiences in study abroad could inform inquiries about the success of a global citizenship initiative.
Outcomes that aren’t aligned with your school’s mission run the risk of devolving into a list of GPAs and college acceptances--important information, to be sure, but information that only captures a small part of what students gain from attending your school. By collecting data that affirms and supports your mission, your outcomes emphasize the values and unique experiences that define your school.
Our recent meet-up to discuss the competencies academic leaders need in our time sparkled. My colleague Sarah Hanawald shared some competency models and then invited participants to share their own thoughts and reflections in break-out rooms. Conversation didn’t exactly lag.
There has been a relative dearth of focused thinking in the independent school world around how best to develop the skills and capacities of academic administrators and other faculty charged with planning and leading schools’ programs of teaching, learning, and professional development. Great resources and professional organizations have come into being to support business and advancement functions as well as senior leadership and governance. But, in contrast, the work of supporting academic functions has been mostly done by smaller, often regional, and sometimes for-profit entities.
When the Independent Curriculum Group began to organize periodic Academic Leaders Retreats some years ago, we sensed and uncovered a hunger for connection. Our gatherings of a couple of dozen people at a time were joyful and productive, but they weren’t quite enough to spark a “culture of collaboration” across the national and global community of academic leaders.
Over the years I have had the chance to explore many aspects of independent school operations and leadership, but my own heart has always been with the learning programs—which are, after all, what independent schools are about. As a long-time school-based “academic leader” myself, as a department chair, dean of faculty, academic dean, and director of college counseling, I believe that what and how and why schools teach is what matters. Academics first!
In these roles I’ve been part of plenty of meetings and projects involving the “administrative team,” board committees, strategic-thinking initiatives, and the like—where senior leadership and governors have laid out the agendas. I have then experienced the marketing and communication of what we were doing, and I have sometimes seen academic programs tweaked and even reworked to fit a “marketing message”—even after the academic folks had turned themselves inside-out to create something innovative, mission-aligned, and student-focused.
When I later found myself engaged in helping schools to develop their marketing and communications programs, I had to bring my understanding of the relationship between academics and messaging and identity into congruence with my belief in Academics first! What I realized was that silos do not exist in independent schools only to separate academic departments.
For reasons historical and unintentional, there has been a de facto ensiling of operational functions in schools—between academic leadership teams, advancement functions, heads’ offices, and business offices. Probably always and certainly in our time, such separation stands firmly in the way of schools’ efforts to truly define and present themselves as integral entities, where the same missions, values, and strategic priorities define not just what is being done but how it is understood and communicated both within and without the institution.
This unfortunate situation manifests itself especially when academic leaders—at all levels—undertake work that is novel. In the past forty years much has been learned about the nature of learning itself, new technologies have inundated us all, and we are at last beginning to fully appreciate the role of education in creating or impeding the development of a just and equitable world. These things are new and unfamiliar not just to the general public but also to many school people who do not have the privilege of working directly with students. We started hearing the mantra “innovate or wither” from NAIS early in this century, when “21st-century learning” and then “innovation” became essential parts of every school’s self-presentation.
But alas, and through no fault of the people involved, these terms were not always—or even often, in my experience—fully understood by the advancement (admission, development, and marketing–communications) or business functions. Nor were they well understood by board members, whose interaction with the academic leadership in many schools is funneled through narrow channels controlled by senior leadership lest the board folks be “interfering” in unwanted ways. Academic leadership teams have designed novel programs and practices, convinced those “higher up” to let them go forward—sometimes, to be sure, in conformity with “strategic plans”—but too often without full understanding or even buy-in from the offices charged with supporting and promoting them. Too many academic leaders have had to defend unfamiliar ideas—like moving “beyond” standardized advanced curriculum or incorporating more online learning—within their own communities because these practices were not fully understood or endorsed even by administrative colleagues.
Back to our academic leaders meet-up: It was clear, especially in the time of COVID where health and safety planning has added to the stew of priorities with which school leaders in all areas must cope—that there must be a more concerted effort made in all schools to ensure that academic leaders are in regular communication and collaboration with, especially, advancement offices and more generally business offices. My advice to schools contemplating anything new and unfamiliar, like creating a program of home-grown advanced curricula, is to get admission and marketing-communications in the room from the get-go so that they fully understand, believe in, and can effectively talk about the new programs.
The issue isn’t about academic leaders or those with whom they work. It’s a structural thing, but something that, once recognized, can be fixed. Yup, there will be more meeting times for more people, but the point is for the school to be able to BE, to understand itself, and to talk about itself as a coherent, mission- and values-driven place of learning where programs, practices, and policies make sense together.
It just starts with bringing the people and the ideas together in conversation and collaboration. You know, like a schoolhouse functioning as one!
Prior to the COVID pandemic, researchers had begun to see that institutional loyalty was changing. Practically, within independent schools, this meant a greater focus on retention of two particular types: enrollment and employment. Enrollment offices and Academic Leaders became as focused on retention as they were on new enrollees, which required more interaction across offices. At the same time, Academic Leaders saw greater turnover within their own ranks and among the faculty than in previous generations.
Let’s take a look at studies during the COVID pandemic that note shifts in the ways that people interact with organizations. First, let’s take a look at a survey done by the global consulting firm McKinsey and think about the future impact that this might have on enrollment. McKinsey notes that 73% of Americans changed their behavior toward brand or institutional loyalty during the pandemic, with more shifts occurring in areas that were most greatly impacted by the pandemic. Importantly, they note three drivers for reasons consumers changed brands (in order of importance): value, availability, and quality. Independent schools certainly had an advantage in two of those areas during the COVID pandemic last year. In-person learning tended to be more available in independent schools, and families understood the high quality of their children’s experience, whether on- or off-campus.
That trend has continued this year, as NAIS notes in their recent survey on admissions. The question remains open as to whether families will continue to see the value of the independent school experience once families can again depend on in-person public school options, and whether independent schools can offer more flexibility than local school systems can provide. This may signal a new role for online learning and hybrid options in the coming years. Families are coming to expect schools to adjust to the demands of daily life, rather than re-arranging their lives around school. Schools that focus on retention and building capacity for flexibility will continue to thrive.
Before 2020, schools expected a regular annual cycle for faculty and administrative hiring, with a fairly predictable rate of turnover. At that time, summer hirings were sometimes necessary, but not typical. This year, however, summer hiring exploded. We saw this in real-time in our Pulse survey from late July: only 21% of Academic Leaders reported no unexpected faculty departures this summer, and a whopping 42% reported unexpected hiring for three or positions. Overall, the hiring season was busier, too. Recent NAIS research notes that 28% of schools had significantly more openings this year compared to last and another 30% had slightly more openings. (Remember that this compares to the uneasiness heading into a full year with COVID.) NAIS also notes that administrative turnover is expected to increase in coming years, with 61% of administrators reporting that they expect to leave their current job within five years, with many transitioning away from independent schools.
This fits with national trends. The media dubbed this summer “The Big Quit” or “Great Resignation.” 11.5 million workers quit their jobs in May-July 2021. Gallup reports that 48% of workers are actively looking for new jobs. People are looking for positions that offer greater flexibility and greater meaning. Workplaces that traditionally had little to no flexibility (including schools) became more flexible during COVID, demonstrating that at least some parts of most jobs could be completed remotely. And, employees continue to search for real meaning in their work. As a recent Harvard Business Review article stated, employees “need to be seen for who they are and what they are contributing.” Independent schools have an advantage over most workplaces in the impact and meaning that is inherent in our work, but our schools have traditionally offered little flexibility. Schools that thrive in the future will think creatively about how they can change that.
Take these together, and we can see that independent schools have an unprecedented opportunity to attract families and faculty. At the same time, those families and faculty members are likely to have a more tenuous commitment to our schools than we would have seen in past generations. Our culture is shifting to demand that institutions provide meaning and flexibility. Independent schools aren’t insulated by these shifts; contending with them will require resilience and the courage to change.
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Brad Rathgeber (he/him/his)