September 17, 2017
by Peter Gow, ICG Executive Director

In my podcast conversation last week with Elizabeth Clayton of Charles River School, the conversation touched how Charles River, like many schools that are offering novel, even innovative approaches to teaching and learning, is at pains to stay in close communication with families about what is going on its classrooms—and why. Explaining the curriculum on a continuous basis is the best way for schools to reassure parents and guardians that their children are receiving the best possible education.

It occurred to me, in medias res, that this is actually a tough and even distracting situation for a school to be in. As an industry we work very hard to help schools see and embrace the importance of communicating about their practice—why, for example, project-based or inter-age or problem-based or experiential or collaborative or you-name-it curricula and assessments are effective and “good for” their students. But as an industry we have left this critical work up to each individual school in a marketplace characterized not only by differentiation but also, of course, by competition—competition that creates real anxiety among schools but also, and I would argue perniciously, among families and even students.

If your school is offering a superb educational program based on “21st-century” principles, to use the tired catch phrase, but you’re not talking about it very well, you will be at a competitive disadvantage relative to another school whose program may be just fine but who have figured out how to make their case particularly effectively. Families at your school will inevitably worry about the choice they have made, and students themselves are likely, when they consider their situation vis-à-vis peers when it comes to say, college admissibility, to feel disadvantaged.

The problem, as I see it, is not so much the range of quality among schools—and show me a school that does not have justifiably passionate adherents among alums, current families, and students—as the general incapacity of “the industry,” though its spokes-organizations and through its use of the media, to present a strong and unified case for what is generally regarded within schools these days as contemporary best practice. We have allowed a competitive marketplace to thrive even as within this marketplaces not all schools will thrive—and as an individual school falters, the experience of its students may suffer. Instead of a unified voice trumpeting the new ideas and practices we are embracing as “good for all kids,” we invite each school to make its own case, for better or for worse.

The Independent Curriculum Group, for example, has not undertaken to make a strong public case for “independent curriculum,” probably on the somewhat ironic principle that each school’s mission, values, and actual student body should drive its own curriculum and pedagogical practices in a free marketplace in which each school’s autonomy should be respected as we once enshrined each teacher’s autonomy—“private” schools, indeed. I “get” that not every school is the right school for every student and that not every version of, say, design thinking is going to work effectively for every student. But if the average parent or guardian contemplating their child’s education understood in general what design thinking is and what’s “good” about it, schools could focus on implementation without the distraction of having to explain at least some basic aspects of what they are doing, 24/7/365.

It’s not that the media aren’t interested or that there haven’t been initiatives designed to generate broader understanding of what we’re up to in forward-thinking schools. There was a great article in The Economist over the summer that made the case for teaching with technology, and the public roll-out of The Mastery Transcript Consortium and the “Turning the Tide” report from Harvard a year or so ago received some good ink in the moment. There is even an Education Writers Association that is actively devoted to telling the story of what’s going on in schools.

I admit to being somewhat little daunted by the idea of ICG as speaking for all of our Partner Schools and Organizations not just to our own community and in our own industry but to the world at large. The scary world of ugly internet trolls and professional nay-sayers is large and active, and I’m an educator first and not a skilled marketeer. But that said, it’s time for all of us to start figuring out how we can convince all families (and kids, too) that the Principles of Independent Curriculum, put into practice in each school’s own thoughtful and strategic way, are about educational and human success—fulfillment of potential in meaningful, tangible ways—and not about how School X can beat out School Y in the marketplace or how School District A is “better” than District B.

This is what our professional associations could be doing. As our Partner TABS is working to make a national, public case for the boarding school experience through the North American Boarding Initiative, the ICG and other organizations like it need to be developing strategies to make a national, public case for educational experiences that don’t look and feel like the schools that mom and dad and the grandparents went to. It’s a huge challenge, and doing it will be a huge undertaking, but it’s sure better than leaving each school to its own devices and own resources to tell a story that hundreds of schools and a vast army of thoughtful educators believe in.

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