Monday, October 13, 2008

Tough times: "Professional Development as R&D"

It's been a few too many days since last I posted here, and in the meantime the economic news has gone from bad to worse to worse still; one presumes that sooner or later we'll hit rock bottom so that we can all begin to figure out how we will be living over the next few years.

One large probability is that independent schools will be hit hard by tough times. The New York Times is already writing about the effects on teenagers as families cut back, and for some families it seems likely that the tens of thousands of dollars they have been spending on independent schools will begin to look like an unaffordable luxury. We hope this doesn't happen--that the "valued added" of being taught by admirable faculties is compelling as a reason to stay put--but we would be naive to think that it might not.

In straitened circumstances, schools themselves are likely to be doing some cutting back. But I urge school administrations to take a lesson from the American automobile industry, itself now teetering once again on a brink that has become their position of choice since the 1970s.

American car manufacturers have consistently blown it when it comes to research and development--"R&D," the thing for which America has been most renowned, has been more about marketing for car companies than about improving the quality of their product. In the early 1970s Ford, GM, Chrysler, and AMC (remember them?) were committed to rapid model change with minimal technical improvement even as the rest of the world (= Japan and Europe) had begun to focus on quality, innovation, and economy. Nearly 40 years later, most American car models still lag behind their non-U.S. rivals in quality, reliability, and economy. Last week there was talk of GM and Ford looking at bankruptcy. Coincidence? Of course not.

For independent schools R&D is embedded largely in work each school does in two areas: curriculum development and professional development; the two are clearly interlinked. Great schools develop and keep great faculties by making certain that the best thinking and the most engaging, provocative ideas about curriculum and instruction are a part of the school's daily conversation. These schools go to great lengths to make sure that their faculties are deeply aware of how best practices can be applied in the classroom and how those best practices are evolving in the light of new understandings about teaching and learning.

The great advantage independent schools can have in this area is that they are mission driven, and as such they can be smart and thoughtful about how, when, and whether new practices are incorporated into their school's programs. The mandate schools have to figure out how to be better and then to be so comes not from state legislatures (except in the cases of a couple of states) or Federal agencies but from their understandings of their own purposes. Independent schools, in other words, have the privilege of determining the precise nature of the value they add to the educational experiences of their students.

Schools worried about enrollment or annual giving may feel the need to make some anticipatory cutbacks, but curriculum development and professional development are core activities that sustain the "value added" (and I admit to overusing this annoying term, which smacks of "education as commodity" rather than education as experience) and more importantly the missions of their schools. Schools can only maintain program quality by keeping up the R&D that brings new ideas into classrooms and faculty rooms for mission-informed professional analysis, review, and implementation or rejection. In the great scale of things, the cost of professional memberships and publications and even specialized training for faculty is more than likely to be returned in the future if schools understand that these expenditures are investments to improve what they do and so sustain their position as attractive and worthy educational alternatives for families cautious about their spending.

"Professional development as R&D" ought to be schools' mantra as we enter an era of tough times.

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