At the February 28, Annual Meeting of the membership (NAIS Annual Conference in Philadelphia), I presented the following observations about the “state of the union” of the NAIS independent school body politic.
State of the Industry
2012 was, for our sector, “the year of turning the corner,” where our dashboard of indicators (our “vital signs”) for the average NAIS school showed us off the respirator and breathing almost normally, although not without a massive infusion of morphine.
Not included, however, were a significant proportion of schools below the average benchmarks (typically small schools in weaker markets) where serious challenges remain. These schools must innovate themselves out of perpetual jeopardy by creating more demand and finding new markets: lower price, more value, 21st century teaching and learning that replaces and doesn’t compete with other schools, and the like.
2013 will be “the year of consolidation of efficiencies” achieved in the new normal. Like industry, “We’re not hiring,” and “We’re not buying or expanding.” While that’s not a good thing for the economy, it is a good thing for producing a more sustainable model for independent schools. Following this trajectory allows us to be in a period of “cautious optimism,” even for those schools struggling in still weak markets.
2014 will be the “year of educational innovation,” where NAIS schools reassert their historic obligation to be at the leading edge of educational innovation. For the last few years, we’ve watched the early adopter schools, pubic, charter, and private (the change-adept 20 percent) transform teaching and learning in many ways. As I’ve said in the past, “The twilight of schooling as we know it is the prelude to the dawn of education as students need it.” 2014, I believe, is when the 60 percent on the sidelines will jump on the train. The “next 60 percent” of schools will do so by…
- Reallocating resources, not necessarily adding resources;
- Adopting a “growth mindset” about change and experimentation, eschewing and overcoming “immunity to change;” and
- Empowering change agency leadership at the faculty level, cultivating the risk-adept and the “first followers.”
As I recently tweeted, “There is so much innovation now in independent and charter schools, it’s more risky to avoid change (typical thinking) than to embrace it (big thinking).”
Change in the Cultural and Psychological Landscape
As a student of film, with a particular interest in the aesthetics of film and the cultural anthropology of what’s popular as a reflection of the times, I’d comment that one could build a case for identifying the “national state of mind” by what Americans deem by their pocketbooks to be the most popular films to see. At a time of economic stagnation, the demise of the middle class, the growing insecurity of the retirement generation, catastrophic political gridlock in DC, growing destabilization globally, and increasing natural calamities, Americans are enthralled with…
- Silver Linings Playbook: about a manic-depressive;
- Les Miserables: about class warfare and the greed of the 1 percent;
- Lincoln: about a divided congress and country, forced into acting on what’s right by a strong deal-making president (about to be martyred); and
- The Twilight Saga: about vampires (half human/half beast, “shape-shifters”), a film series easily more successful than any of the Oscar winners, with $2 billion in worldwide sales to date.
As always, the popular media reflect a cultural and psychological landscape. The fifties, for example, birthed the TV series, giving us Father Knows Best, Bonanza, Ozzie and Harriet, I Love Lucy, The Honeymooners, The Bill Cosby Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show, and the like, all projections and reinforcements of an America that was characterized by strong, intact families, effective and positive authority figures, and a promise of prosperity that cut across all classes. Contrast that landscape and the generation of films above (and many corresponding TV series now) projecting a very different and much more disturbing landscape, one that is dangerous, schizophrenic, and punishing. Now we see that we are absorbed by stories not about heroes but about impotent and conflicted authorities on the one hand or stories embracing nostalgia for heroic but doomed leaders on the other. Our films project and reinforce the psychological angst and uncertainty of the culture. What does it feel like to all of us, after all, as we consider the probability that our children and grandchildren are unlikely to exceed our generation’s affluence and success? For the first time in our history, that prediction seems depressingly certain.
At some level, we all feel as if we are…
…hung out to dry, with no help in sight.
In such a climate, people seek for themselves and especially for their kids…
- Physical safety;
- Psychological security;
- Emotional support; and
- Certainty: a trajectory that is predictable and preferable.
In such a climate, schools should reinforce and promote the physical, social, psychological, and emotional safety of their environment and climate. (Our current customers know that, and it is the reason they stuck with us after the crash of 2008, giving up anything and everything, as needed, except paying tuition).
In such a climate, schools must document student and school outcomes, so parents can better anticipate a “success trajectory” for their own children.
In such a climate, schools must project confidence that innovation will be the path to better serve the needs of children since “more of the same” is not working in any sector.
So dear reader, which section of the change agenda pie chart will your school find itself in next year, 2013-14, the 20 percent of early adopters well along the road to reinventing schools, the 60 percent of onlookers ready to lean into change, or the 20 percent confident their niche will remain secure by being the traditionalist contrarians? Each section is a bet on the future: Where are you placing your bet?