NAIS: 25 or 62?

Cary Potter

Fall 1987

A feature of the 1987 annual conference of NAIS in Boston was the luncheon on February 26 to celebrate the founding of the organization 25 years earlier. 25 years? The record would certainly substantiate that on March 1, 1962, delegates from the Independent Schools Education Board (ISEB) and the National Council of Independent Schools (NCIS) voted at a meeting in New York to establish an entity with the name National Association of Independent Schools. The word “founding,” however, suggests the start of something brand new— “the dawn of history,” so to speak. In the case of NAIS, except for its name, the dawn of its history did not start 25 years ago but, in fact, 62, when the elder of its predecessors, ISEB, was founded. 

For the official origins of ISEB one needs to go back to 1925, or, unofficially, to two years before that, when a handful of private school people (“independent” not yet having come into general usage) had begun a series of informal meetings at The Fessenden School, in West Newton, Massachusetts. They had convened at the invitation of Frederick J. Fessenden, head of the elementary boys’ boarding school that bore his name, for a specific purpose—to see if it would be possible to bring some degree of standardization in the requirements for admission to the lower grades of secondary schools. Objective testing, then in its infancy, had not yet made its appearance in the school world; there was no such thing as an SSAT; each secondary school specified its own requirements and set its own examinations for admission applicants. For the elementary school and its faculty seeking to prepare students appropriately for different schools at the next level the situation was chaotic.

As a result of these exploratory Fessenden meetings, sufficient agreement emerged to enable those in attendance from both levels of schools to draw up common requirements in four basic subjects — English, mathematics, Latin, and French — and to appoint a temporary committee to design examinations based on them. In the spring of 1924 the schools in the group experimented with the examinations as part of their admission process for the school year 1924-25. So pleased were they with the experience that they agreed to meet in October 1924, again at the Fessenden School, to decide formally "whether a permanent Board would be worth while, and, if so, to take steps to organize it."


Attending this meeting were twenty-one representatives from eighteen schools located in eight states in the New England and Middle Atlantic areas. All but one were men, most of them teachers but a few school heads as well. Nine secondary boys' boarding schools were represented, three elementary, three secondary day (of which one was a girls' school), and two secondary institutions enrolling boys and girls in separate schools. The delegates had no difficulty in answering the central question on the agenda with a strong "Yes" and promptly voted to establish a permanent board entitled the Secondary Entrance Examination Board (SEEB)[1] and to elect an executive committee to direct its affairs. Frederick H. Osgood, head of the modern language department at Milton Academy, in Massachusetts, was chosen as chairman. By the spring of 1925 word had been sent out to the larger school community of the existence of the board and of the availability of its now published "Definition of Requirements" and examinations. In short order nineteen schools officially adopted the examinations for admission, and some eighty schools in sixteen states responded with requests for further information and samples of materials. The board had found a fertile field of interest.
The first annual conference of the SEEB, on October 31, 1925, can be said to mark the official starting date of the new organization, when twenty-four of the 25 schools that had joined SEEB sent thirty-four delegates to a meeting at the Harvard Club of Boston. Dr. Lewis Perry, principal of Phillips Exeter Academy, in New Hampshire, presided. The members approved bylaws, set dues ($50), reviewed and endorsed the actions of the executive committee, laid plans for the next year's examinations, and discussed possible additional activities that the board might undertake.
The informal preliminary work done by Mr. Fessenden and his colleagues between 1923 and 1925 was important in introducing a degree of order into the secondary school admission process, and the formal sanctioning of that effort by the now duly constituted SEEB ensured that the work would be continued. Valuable as that accomplishment was, it pales in significance for independent schools when compared to what the experience had demonstrated about the capacity of a diverse group of often jealously independent institutions to tackle collectively a troublesome common problem, not only for their own benefit but as well for that of their constituencies and the public. How exciting the potential of this experience was is evident from the remarkably foresighted conclusion of Mr. Osgood's chairman's report. After noting the enthusiastic reception given the board and its work in the first year, and stating his conviction that the board's success was assured, he went on to outline what he envisaged for its future. 
The Board should be a truly cooperative organization serving as an intermediary through which individual and collective experience may effectively contribute to individual and collective progress. It should function as a sort of educational clearing house, established not only to bring preparatory and secondary schools into closer relationship, but also to promote a greater spirit of unity among secondary schools, and thus to help its members, individually and collectively, through the common effort of all, to solve the problems and improve the standards of elementary and secondary education in America.
Although this definition of mission for the board was surprisingly expanded from the narrowly focused objective that had brought the original group together, in the years that followed it would prove thoroughly valid. Over the course of the next thirty-seven years of the board's independent existence, its history was one of growth — growth in membership, in scope and diversity of program, in influence — and this despite the fifteen years from 1930 to 1945, which embraced both the Great Depression and World War II.
As early as 1930 the board's membership numbered 100, and by 1962 over 500. An elaborate substructure of committees dealing with every aspect of the curriculum and not a few extracurricular questions was gradually built. The Junior Scholastic Aptitude Test and later the School Scholarship Service were conceived and put in operation. Special surveys and studies of school practice were undertaken periodically by the board's bureau of research. Hundreds of school personnel participated regularly in the broad spectrum of activities. The annual conference expanded each year until it would extend over two days and draw as many as 1,000 participants from several hundred schools. A quarterly magazine, The Independent School Bulletin, the Definition of Requirements and series of examinations, as well as special reports and publications flowed from the board's permanent office, which had been established in the early 1930s at Milton Academy, and staffed by an executive secretary and supporting clerical help. (For all but the first few years of the board's entire span of years the post of executive secretary was filled with skill, diligence, and unfailing good humor by Miss Esther Osgood, the daughter of the founding chairman.) Although the organization's basic nature and structure were not materially altered during this period, the board underwent two changes in name to reflect its enlarged scope of activity — once in 1928, when it became the Secondary Education Board (SEB), and again in 1958, when it took its final name, Independent Schools Education Board (ISEB). By any standard of measurement, Mr. Osgood's prediction in 1925 that the future of the board was assured proved to have been entirely warranted.