At the risk of making this post my “Jerry Maguire” manifesto, I feel fortunate to be living and working in a school community that is asking big questions about its future and how it will educate students: What do we want from our curriculum? How do we make the best use of our schedule, even if it is a major departure from its current configuration? How do we create genuine opportunities for students to do, make, direct and participate in their education as a normal course of operation? How can we create the time and space for innovative work from students and faculty? When I compare notes with colleagues at other schools, I think we’re taking on fantastic issues and making good progress.
In the midst of the day-to-day work in one’s own school, however, it is easy to lose track of what is happening across the greater educational landscape. I suspect that this myopic viewpoint is more limiting in New England, where many of the schools have a long tradition and we tend to see the region as the “home” of independent schools in the US (especially when you narrow “independent schools” down further to “boarding schools”). In short, these schools are not faced with the imperative to innovate…or are they/we?
Absolutely…we must! Seth Godin blogged about innovation in non-profits recently and it caught my attention. Seth argues – and I agree – that non-profits have a mandate to innovate. And guess what…independent schools are non-profit organizations. When I look at the constraints that public school colleagues operate under, I am often left to wonder why we (as in the VAST majority of independent schools) fail to innovate as easily within our own programs and towards our own ends. Aren’t we INDEPENDENT schools? Over the lifetime of creating these institutions, many have become stable entities that move forward under their own weight. The oldest of them have weathered storms, wars, and economic challenges. And while longevity and stability are hugely important (a school wants to be around from year to year), I believe we are in the midst of a watershed moment in education where the rinse and repeat model of our programs will not best serve students, nor will it attract savvy families to our expensive product.
Of course, there ARE schools that are innovating in just this way. Some are the name-brand schools you may know, but many of them are lesser known. Over the course of this year Grant Lichtman, a California-based independent school educator, has been on a cross-country journey during his sabbatical. Grant recently wrapped up his trip and he blogged about the experience the whole time. He focused on and visited schools with approaches and programs that may very well define the educational landscape moving forward. These are the schools that the establishment independent schools will fall behind if they are not strategic in their next steps. When I look at Grant’s blog, I see schools – many of whom are not the name brand institutions of our market – really moving the needle on innovation.
My take away from all of this: schools need to be able to define the value added of their program AND make the case as to how they are adapting their program to a rapidly changing world. The days of being able to trade on a name and a reputation may be quickly passing us by.