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August 02
Bassett Blog, 2009/08: Seven Myths About Independent Schools
NAIS President Patrick F. Bassett
NAIS President Patrick F. Bassett
We know why families choose independent schools. They value what Tony Jarvis, past-head of Roxbury Latin School, called environments where students "are known and loved," and they believe what the research documents, that independent schools' intimacy, manageable size, and universally high expectations for behavior and achievement produce graduates who succeed in college and life.

We know as well why families who can afford independent schools don't choose them (aside from the "confirmation bias" we all have of preferring what we have chosen to other alternatives). Families who reject independent schools tend to believe in one or more myths about independent schools.

Myth #1: Independent schools are only for the rich.
Fact:
While it's true that independent schools are chosen more often by families from higher income brackets, it's also true that a significant proportion of independent schools' population is comprised of the three lowest socioeconomic quintiles (students who often receive financial aid) and the fourth quintile, the middle to upper middle class families who find a way (including grandparent contributions) to afford a quality education for their children, seeing it as the best investment they can make in their children's future, whatever the cost and sacrifice.

Myth #2: Independent Schools are "not the real world."
Fact:
Of course they are not, thank God. The real world is, sad to say, unsafe, unstructured, and — worse than values-neutral — values bereft. The independent school culture is, ironically, counter-cultural in the sense of establishing a values matrix that runs counter to the child-toxic values of the popular culture and amorality and immorality that surrounds us.

While independent schools are "not the real world" themselves, they prepare students exceedingly well for the real world(s) of college, the workplace, and life in general, as the National Education Longitudinal Study from NCES demonstrates: independent school graduates in disproportionate numbers earn college and graduate degrees, report high career satisfaction, vote and engage in civic activities, exercise, and generally contribute to make the real world a better place.

Myth #3: Independent schools are unaffordable.
Fact:
Independent schools are expensive but not unaffordable. It's expensive to hire and support high quality teachers, maintain relatively small classes, offer intimate advisor/advisee counseling groups, provide a full-range of sports and arts programs and activities (and expect everyone to participate, unlike large public schools where only elite athletes and artists are served). With the financial aid packages independent schools offer, the "sticker price" is discounted for a significant proportion of families so that they can afford to send their children to a high quality independent school. Families of even relatively high incomes often qualify for some financial aid.

Myth #4: Independent schools lack diversity.
Fact:
To belong to NAIS, an independent school must agree to abide by "Principles of Good Practice," one of which is related to "equity and justice" practices to assure that NAIS schools commit resources and energy to advancing inclusivity and diversity of all kinds in our schools. These principles are grounded in the knowledge that all students benefit from more diverse environments and that, once they leave school for college and the workplace thereafter, the comfort students have with diversity will serve them well. Because public schools are tied to specific neighborhoods and independent schools are not, the facts belie this myth: Most independent schools tend to be more, rather than less, diverse than local public schools, since too often residential housing patterns remain largely segregated by race and ethnicity.

Myth #5: Independent schools (especially boarding schools) are for kids with social problems.
Fact:
In large urban areas throughout the United States and on the East and West Coasts, there are large concentrations of families that send their children to independent day schools or boarding schools, so the practice is seen as normal. For more suburban areas and throughout the Midwest and Southwest, however, there is far less density of independent schools (thought this is changing as new schools emerge). Sometimes those not familiar with independent schools assume "something is wrong" if a family chooses anything other than the local public schools. While there are very good private therapeutic schools for students with very serious problems (schools that serve that specific population well), none of those schools belong to NAIS, because our schools are all "college-prep" (even the elementary schools, since all families see them as the first step in the journey to being well-prepared for college).

Myth #6: Independent schools are only for really smart kids.
Fact:
It's true that "really smart" kids graduate from independent schools, but they don't all come to us that way, and even the ones that do have much "value added" from their experience. Fundamentally, NAIS schools believe in the "growth mindset" research that indicates that success comes largely from hard work and optimal conditions; and that emphasizing one's "native intelligence" is often counter-productive. So independent schools create the optimal conditions for what Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, describes as formative for highly successful people: they have the capacity for hard work and find themselves in situations that demand hard work. Truth be known, the typical independent school student has average-to-above-average ability, but becomes exceptional from hard work and opportunities to develop multiple intelligences, not just academic and intellectual ones. Truth be known, there is a segment of students with learning differences in many independent schools (and some independent schools whose mission is to specifically serve LD children): LD kids in independent schools are virtually all college-bound.

Myth #7: Independent schools are not part of the community.
Fact:
Independent schools are very conscious of "community impact" issues and opportunities, especially given the commitment as charitable enterprises to demonstrate "the public purpose of private education." On the most obvious surface level, independent schools have multi-million dollar budgets and employ local citizens, so the multiplier effect is a significant contributor to the local economy. On a programmatic level, virtually every independent school's programming includes community service, where students and faculty contribute "sweat equity" in the local community, tutoring in schools, assisting at hospitals and nursing homes, cleaning up parks and rivers, and the like. These programs tend to have a "service learning" dimension where the work in the field becomes the subject of classroom research and discussion towards the end of producing lifelong civic engagement. Finally, independent schools are defining being "part of the community" very broadly, seeking to address global challenges by implementing local solutions.

For too long, independent school marketing materials (viewbooks and webpages) have emphasized "features": facilities, programs, options. Savvy school marketing efforts in the future will emphasize outcomes: How do graduates do at the next level of schooling? What kinds of "grades" do they earn in life's tests? (The answers to these questions can be documented by using NAIS's online alumni surveys.)

So independent school marketing needs to reinforce the positives that current families experience, and validate them with outcomes data. Additionally, marketing needs to debunk the myths about independent schools, by sharing the data about one's school: its diversity; its commitment to financial aid; its civic engagement; the successes of its students, teachers, and graduates.

Anyone doing all of that now?

Editor's Note: A flyer based on this blog is now available in the NAIS bookstore, downloadable, distributable, and free to NAIS members.
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