Sunday, February 22, 2009

No Man's Land, or The Trench?

These are frightening times in many independent schools, and many of us are in a period of uncertainty that will only end when re-enrollment and admissions yield numbers are posted in April. In some parts of the country the mood is particularly grim, and schools are preparing to make cuts in staff and programs as they scale back in the face of drooping demand. In every school, administrators are going to be looking long and hard at matters of curriculum and instruction and associated issues of faculty size, pay, and professional support programs.

I worry that fear is going to drive many schools to make poor choices about sustaining their teachers. Some staff cuts and small or nonexistent raises seem inevitable here and there, but the mentality that grows around the need to do such things can also be one of retrenchment in other areas: Things are bad, so let's not rock the boat by making any changes. We're known for a particular kind of program, so we'll hunker down and do just that.

Without rolling out any of the cliches about repeating what hasn't worked, let me say that I think that hunkering down is a dangerous idea.

Even if the school can easily point to a vortex of external forces that are causing problems for enrollment and fundraising--"It's not our fault, it's the economy, stupid!"--the duck-and-cover plan is missed opportunity. The school may even have to cut some positions in the short term, but for the long term every independent school had better be considering not retrenchment but innovation as the best strategy for survival and growth.

Even schools that have a long and proud traditional heritage and that may be "the only show in town" in their particular markets will need in the next four to five years to develop thoughtful, mission-based innovations in their programs and policies that will clearly differentiate them, both from other private schools and from public ones.

It's time for schools to look at their mission statements and dig into the language that is most idealistic and then figure out how to realize those ideals in ways that will be exciting and compelling to students and families in years to come. Instead of continuing to trade on even the most well-earned reputation for staid, predictable classroom instruction, schools will have to begin finding ways of crossing what seems like a No Man's Land toward their future.

But it's not a No Man's Land at all. Plenty of schools have undertaken initiatives into the unknown with considerable success, and these schools can be resources for others that decide that going green, going global, expanding service-learning programs, committing to 1:1 laptop learning, or even dropping Advanced Placement courses can play to their strengths and capitalize on opportunities yet to materialize.

Consider what may look like the most daring of these ideas, bidding farewell to AP-designated courses. Assuming for a moment that your teachers are trained in their subject matter and well-versed in curriculum and assessment design, then why shouldn't they be able to create outstanding, challenging high-level courses that will serve your students particularly well? As far as other issues go--admission, college placement--a number of other schools have already done the heavy lifting there; check out the new Independent Curriculum Group website to see how they have done it and how it has worked out.

Those "only show in town" schools, it seems to me, are especially well positioned to innovate; by building their programs and the case for them well among existing constituencies, they can leverage their strong reputations to build tremendous support for new programs in the community--their market--as a whole, turning innovation into a whole new set of strengths that will attract students and donor dollars for years to come. Instead of holding onto the mantra, "2 - 4 - 6 - 8, We don't want to innovate!," those schools should be looking for ways to stay on top of the market by finding new paths to educational excellence.

Innovation will require time and money, and the crisis is urgent. But schools need to take a deep breath, look hard at their missions and priorities, and then figure out how best to pursue their own ideals toward new and better ways of doing their work. Hunkering down won't suffice--it's going to mean going over the top, toward a more secure future.

The best part is that innovation will pay off directly and quickly for students. The excitement and challenge of new ways of thinking and learning based on 21st-century understandings will improve their educational experience and at the same time prepare them even more effectively for their own next adventures.


David Colon said...

Peter, I couldn't agree with you more on this topic. My school, like so many others, is facing the same sort of pressures. We have, however, decided to move ahead with a lot of fundamental reexamination of how we "do" education.

A large number of our faculty are visiting innovative schools, colleges, and universites (both in the US and abroad); researching the latest developments in education (and in the larger world); researching and analyzing our current practices, and a host of other things. At the end of the year, we're going to convert our newly-acquired knowledge into specific ways we can be innovative and not just tread water.

There's a risk in all this, I guess, but I'd argue that the bigger risk is entrenching ourselves during these hard times and then trying to make up for lost time when it's all over.

Peter Gow said...

I really admire the courage and foresight that your school is showing, and I wish you the best in your efforts. If you can, please keep us posted on how things go--PG

Anonymous said...

Hi Peter:

There you go with those Great War references again!

Great post though.

This is not a time to retrench or retreat from doing what matters most. And not all innovation comes with a price tag.

Maybe - when it comes to doing the right things - it's a time for going over the top. Or perhaps - digging in, holding ground and laying down a creeping barrage.

Watch out for wiring parties, minnies, aerial surveillance and sniper fire. But keep moving forward.

- Josie

Peter Gow said...

Those who hunker down will be shell-shock victims in a couple of years, I think. There's a world of risk out there, and stationary targets are the most vulnerable--PG