From The Yield, Spring 2014
Tell us about yourself and your work experience prior to joining NAIS.
I began my career as a teacher, and like many people who work in education, I’ll probably always be a teacher at heart. I taught at a number of colleges and universities, including Stanford, Princeton, and Johns Hopkins. In the 1980s, I worked for an education think tank, the Brookings Institution. A lot of my research at Brookings was on private schools, so I got to know independent schools very well during that time. I loved working on education policy, but after a number of years, I really wanted to be back in the classroom. I began working with Edison Schools, Inc. because it gave me the opportunity to work in schools. For fifteen years, I worked with teachers and principals to improve student learning. After Edison, I worked for a global education consultancy and then headed up another think tank, Education Sector.
As someone who has worked in public education policy, what was your motivation to apply for the NAIS job?
Independent schools have the unique freedom to try out new ideas and to pioneer new models of education. While the industry faces some challenges, this is also a time of remarkable opportunity. Leading NAIS is a great way to be part of a great thing. I’ve actually worked with independent schools for many years – including research initiatives during my time at Brookings and then partnering with independent schools when I worked with Edison. These experiences, and my experience as a parent at several independent schools, have reinforced for me the great things that our schools are capable of doing. Independent schools really are a vital part of the American educational landscape.
As in all education sectors, the retirement of the baby boomers is a critical leadership challenge. How do you feel about the future leadership of our schools given the large number of people retiring? What can independent schools and NAIS do to ensure the sustainability of the leadership pipeline?
At NAIS, we’ve instituted a number of professional development programs to help nurture emerging leaders, such as the School Leadership Institute, the Aspiring Heads Fellowship, and the Institute for New Heads. By thinking intentionally about leadership development, independent schools can also grow the pipeline and improve their schools in the process. Schools need to think holistically about the career development of each staff member. Professional learning communities, formal professional development events, and mentoring can greatly enhance staff development. Equally important, what can independent schools and NAIS do to ensure diversity (gender, ethnic, and racial) in our leadership ranks? One of the most important steps is to ensure that our faculties and staffs are diverse so that we can nurture leadership from within and be assured that our leaders are representative of our larger society. Many schools also look for candidates who have already led another independent school. This can unnecessarily limit the pool of talented, qualified candidates. Because headships are overwhelmingly composed of white men, this strategy can also limit the diversity of the pool. Another important step is to increase the diversity of boards and hiring committees, since boards often hire heads who look like them or who have similar life experiences.
Having personally visited a number of schools, what is your impression of independent schools? Has your perception of the culture, academic programs, models, etc. changed as a result of these visits?
Over my first eight months, I visited 61 schools and met many other school leaders at 40 association events. My overarching view of our industry is that it is ripe with opportunity. I certainly hear a lot about the challenges schools are facing every day, but we have many distinctive schools that are providing a high-quality education for their students. I am optimistic that we are poised for growth!
You recently convened a summit of educational and economic leaders to address the economics of independent schools. What did you hope to gain? What were some of the key lessons learned about the market trends affecting independent schools?
The summit was designed to help NAIS shape its research agenda. We hoped to hear diverse perspectives on the issues and to learn about the research that others are doing. Among the topics we discussed were the market for independent schools, the business and education model, and the value proposition and outcome measures. In the spring, NAIS will host a series of conversations, called Deep Dives, that will help our entire community dig more deeply into the issues. We hope that these Deep Dives will help us all learn from one another.
What new business models can you recommend for independent schools to drive growth?
There isn’t one model that is the panacea for our entire community. We know that ever-increasing costs and tuitions are limiting dramatically the number of students who can afford to attend our schools. What we hope to do through research is to test different models, and then share them broadly, so that schools can pilot test different approaches in their own local markets.
What new methods need to be developed and implemented to measure and articulate the benefits of independent school education?
One of the new requirements for accreditation is that schools measure their success in meeting their missions. NAIS has been investigating different assessment instruments which schools can use that are more aligned with independent schools than many standardized achievement tests. While it is certainly true that many parents expect more data to help them make informed admission decisions, assessment shouldn’t be driven by the need to market the school. Assessment can improve the nature of the school’s program dramatically and can help teachers better tailor their instruction. The good news is that this work to improve our schools can also be used to demonstrate the value-added of an independent school education to parents.
Affordability is one of the major barriers of entry into independent schools. What strategies do NAIS and SSS hope to enact in an effort to educate the public about this concern, and more importantly, how will you work with member schools to address this issue in an effort to grow enrollment? What other barriers of entry will NAIS address with its membership?
Affordability is a major concern for independent schools. That’s one of the reasons we are exploring the economics of independent schools in our research. We will focus on financial models, class size, and cost containment, among other topics. We’ve also been working to provide better tools for admission and financial aid professionals to help them do their jobs more effectively. Our new statistical service, DASL — which stands for Data and Statistics for School Leaders — makes it much easier for schools to identify trends, benchmark their performance against other schools, and communicate the data to others. We’ve also been improving our professional development offerings to help school administrators think through the tough issues at their schools and network with other leaders who are dealing with similar challenges. Cost is not the only barrier. One of the most oft-mentioned issues is the perception that independent schools are not part of the “real world.” This is often the phrase people use when they are concerned that there isn’t enough diversity in our schools. Sometimes, this is a problem of perception. Often, though, it’s not just perception. We need to help our schools realize that increasing diversity is not optional, it’s mission critical.
Given the demographic changes in this country, we will not continue to exist unless we do a dramatically better job of attracting a more diverse student body and serving all students well. Equity is a core value of NAIS, just as it is at many of our schools. We need to focus our energies to make meaningful change.
What is next for NAIS?
We have just gone through a strategic visioning exercise to ensure that the work of the association is focused and that our resources are allocated wisely. Soon, we will embark on a series of conversations that we’re calling “Deep Dives.” These are opportunities to convene the whole independent school community in discussions around the most pressing issues of our time. Our first Deep Dive will focus on the economics of independent schools. Through the Deep Dive, we will share research and resources on the topic and then ask our members how these issues play out at their schools. We hope that the wisdom and experiences of our members will provide a more nuanced view of complex topics. We also hope that it will help connect people who are interested in experimenting with new or innovative approaches. This will also help shape NAIS research so that we can best serve members.