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.
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Brad Rathgeber (he/him/his)