Swapping Places

Fall 2015

By Mary Francis Bisselle, Trudy Hall, and Karen Gross

The criticism of America’s educational system is abundant and comes as no surprise to anyone involved in this endeavor. The complaints range from concerns about the absence of quality pre-K education to the misalignment between high school and college to college students failing to complete four-degrees despite incurring substantial debt.  Above all else, critics bemoan the growing disparity in educational access and worry about our inability to compete effectively with our international counterparts.

It is in this context that we — three leaders of independent educational institutions — started meeting several years ago to discuss our respective experiences. We wanted to share the issues and concerns we were encountering and think collectively and more broadly about the pre-K through college educational pipeline. Eventually, our conversations led us to an intriguing question: What if we swapped schools for a day? What might this teach us about each other’s work, and how might it help us in our schools?

In time, we felt compelled to move from this thought experiment to actually swapping jobs for a day — believing it would offer each of us a greater insight into the American educational system and our own work in it.  And, it might lead us to other concrete steps we could take together and/or separately.

Some Background

To understand this decision, it helps to understand a bit about our institutions and experiences.

One of us (Fran Bisselle) is the head of the Maple Street School in Manchester, Vermont. Maple Street, founded in 1998, is an independent K–8 school with 120 students, 20 faculty and staff, and a limited endowment. Twenty-five percent of the students are on free or reduced lunch, and 40 percent of the families receive some form of financial aid. Maple Street’s motto is: “There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.” Fran has taught at both the high school and collegiate levels. She has been a dorm parent in a residential school and currently serves on regional and national educational boards involving accreditation and educational advancement.

Another of us (Trudy Hall) is the leader of Emma Willard School, in Troy, New York. Founded in 1814, Emma Willard is an independent residential and day school for girls from grades 9–12, with 359 students, a faculty and staff of 138, and a sizable endowment. Fifty percent of the families receive scholarship aid. Deeply rooted in tradition, Emma Willard supports the development of young women as leaders, recognizing the independent strengths they each bring to the table. Trudy has taught at the high school level across the U.S. and abroad. She, too, serves on numerous regional and national boards involving education and community development.

At the time of the swap, one of us (Karen Gross) led Southern Vermont College, a residential, career-launching, independent college founded in 1926 in Bennington, Vermont. Southern Vermont College serves 500 students of whom 65 percent are first generation college students, 50 percent are Pell Grant eligible, and 21 percent are diverse. With a faculty and staff of 140, the college is tuition-dependent and has a small endowment. Karen, a lawyer and law professor by training, has taught at the middle school, high school, college, and graduate levels and attended and has served as a class parent in an independent school. She, too, has served on state, regional, and national boards focused on educational opportunity.

Through our conversations, we recognized the strengths and insights we each brought to the proverbial table, despite being leaders at very different points along the educational pipeline. But we also realized that we could learn more if we swapped places for a day. This was no small undertaking in terms of planning and execution. The ground rules were straightforward: The schedule had to be authentic — filled with the events, issues, and interactions that would make up an ordinary day. We each had to actually lead the institution, following its traditions, holding meetings, visiting classes, attending to issues, whether they be with faculty, staff, or students. In short, this was not a “show” day; it was real. Faculty and staff had to be prepared in advance. So did students.

For example, the visiting head of Maple Street School (Trudy) had to shake hands with each student as they arrived at 7:30 a.m. at the school’s entrance and engage in conversation with the parents who were dropping off their children. At Emma Willard, the visiting head (Karen) had to give an inspirational speech to the student body, a tradition that launches each new school week. At the college, the visiting leader (Fran) needed to address issues related to NCAA and Division III athletics, an altogether foreign set of concerns to those outside the higher education arena.

We found a date that worked (no small achievement itself), swapped drafts of schedules (Swapping Places ISMfall2015.pdf), and asked each other clarifying questions. We prepared our institutions — then took the plunge.

The Swap

The overt and original goals were clear: We wanted to live in someone else’s shoes to demonstrate and then communicate the value of respectful engagement across the educational pipeline and how increased communications can help improve how we think through the transitions students experience as they move through each stage of their education. We also wanted to learn more about the issues students, faculty, and staff (and in some cases parents) encounter as they participate in the life of a school, proactively reflecting on and then sharing strategies that can ameliorate difficulties throughout a person’s educational journey.

In retrospect, each of us admitted to being nervous. To be sure, we were in a new environment and wanted to do well, meeting the challenges of the day with grace and wisdom. We also wanted to do well for each other, knowing how precious and in some sense fragile institutions are in terms of culture and “feel.” We wanted to remain open to learning and sharing the good and the less good, proceeding with eyes and ears wide open. And, we wanted to help — to develop ideas that would benefit the institution we were temporarily leading but also to find ways to benefit other institutions across the educational pipeline. No small challenge.

We prepared diligently. We read about each other’s institutions more fully than we had before. Karen worked hard on the “inspirational speech” at Emma Willard, checking topics with Trudy to make sure she was not touching on issues that were too sensitive or not age-appropriate. Trudy was concerned about a presentation she had to do on the importance of manners for third graders, so she checked in more than once with Fran about exactly how to approach that topic. Fran read many of Karen’s blogs and thought about the need to see all parts of the Southern Vermont College campus, not just the usual stop in the president’s office.

Overarching Conclusions

Along with specific lessons learned, we have two overarching conclusions from the swap. First, it enriched our lives as both leaders and people and forged a new level of friendship. In the world of education, too full of competition and strife, we learned to help each other. If there were magic dust that could replicate this experience for others across the nation, we would all be better leaders, and we could all help each other improve our educational system.

Second, we were able to surface new questions regarding institutional improvement and accreditation. For example, we now tug at the common notion that “peers” coming to evaluate us must be similar to us — from the same educational level and type of institution (i.e., the same relative size and stature). We wonder, based on the swap, whether there is additional learning to be garnered from different kinds of peers — assuming mutual respect, broad vistas, and trust. If accreditation is about more than merely meeting prescribed standards and is, in addition, about institutional improvement, then a wider definition of “peers” could have remarkable value, expanding the lens. And the “peer” definition would include individuals from both up and down the educational pipeline. More on this later.

Lessons Learned for All

We have identified four concrete, replicable, and scalable suggestions based on our swap. These are derived from a series of “debriefing” sessions that followed the swap, the first of which occurred the evening after the swap. Since then, we have had opportunities to reflect and share other insights.

We hope that these ideas will, at least in part, address some of the raging criticisms of education and provide meaningful ways to improve education for all students — from pre-K though college.

Students Learning from Each Other — Across Institutions

While prior to our swap we experimented with the engagement of students across institutional levels in limited fashion, we now believe more strongly that learners across the educational pipeline can enrich the experiences of students both older and younger than themselves. We realized this by seeing students other than our own in action and observing their needs, capacities, interests, concerns, and strengths.

At all levels, we want our students to become lifelong learners, skillful collaborators, innovative thinkers, and competent problem solvers. The three of us agreed that we shared these goals for our institutions, despite students of different ages. We want our students to value diversity, including working with students of different age groups, levels of education, and ethic and racial backgrounds. We now know for sure that creating opportunities for authentic K–16 interactions will enhance our students’ experiences and thus our communities’ cultures.

What might such activities look like in practice? Instinctually, Trudy invited one of her high school seniors to join her as part of the swap day experience. This senior was interested in pursuing a degree in education in college, and a day partnering with her head of school in an elementary environment helped to broaden her understanding of leadership at this level. The student requested an authentic schedule as well, and spoke with administrators, students, and teachers about goals, aspirations, and connections. This led to a conversation about setting up visits between elementary and high school math teachers and how we can better coordinate curricula. Trudy also asked one of her students to accompany Karen at Emma Willard for the day, an experience that led to both Karen and the student having a deeper understanding of each other, with the student commenting on how much she learned about her own institution, despite having been there for three-plus years.

In addition, Fran and Karen have partnered to develop a public-speaking contest for middle schoolers. As an integrated part of a then required public speaking course (and now part of a mandatory first-year experience course), the college students designed a contest for seventh-graders with prompts, examples, rubrics, and processes for judging. They invited seventh-grade students from local schools to participate, creating a meaningful experience on a college campus for these students and their families who attended the final event. This accomplished several goals. It gave the seventh-graders insight into the college experience at an important stage in the development of their academic aspirations. It created an opportunity for college students to lead and serve and to understand the importance of the skills they were acquiring by assessing and evaluating other students. And it gave parents an opportunity to see their own children excelling and college students actively engaging. This type of collaboration can easily be replicated.

Another opportunity that emerged through this partnership involved students at Maple Street tracking Southern Vermont College student-athlete statistics in men’s basketball (as part of an extracurricular math program) while those same college athletes came to Maple Street to mentor students on sportsmanship. This project integrated technology, math, research, and important character education lesson — a cross-curricular and cross-K–16 experience — and clearly enhanced each community involved.

The swap day reinforced for us what many educational leaders believe: that academic rigor is made more relevant through relationships. Creating meaningful K–16 partnerships help energize and engage students, furthering our schools’ missions while also nurturing each person’s spirit, giving meaning to intellectual pursuits.

Improved Pedagogy and Psycho-Social Readiness

In comparing notes at the end of our day, we realized how important it was to understand how the youngest students were learning because, for both Trudy and Karen, the Maple Street students were their future students. As Trudy expressed, she is more at home in the hallways of a secondary school, but she visited classrooms with elementary students and was intrigued by the implementation of technology into even the youngest grades. Kindergarteners were happily and comfortably doing math manipulative work on iPads, fifth-graders were annotating PDFs, and the sixth-grade lead teacher was on a mission to go paperless in the classroom.

The effective ways in which technology was being used by elementary students indicated to Trudy that the secondary environment would need more substantive shifts in pedagogy to be ready for these learners. In fact, she connected her math department chair to the curriculum specialist at Maple Street to discuss how best to prepare seventh- and eighth-graders for ninth-grade math — a challenging transition for many middle schoolers. Given that the Emma Willard faculty was working on  blended learning as a yearlong focus, its work would now be informed by how younger learners were using and adapting to technology, better enabling a smooth transition from eighth grade into high school.

Karen, upon hearing of the quality use of technology in the K–8 environs, suggested that her faculty, struggling with how to integrate technology into the classroom, needed to visit the elementary school classes and meet with the teachers. The college faculty were already debating the role of online learning and the role of technology (from clickers to PowerPoints to online research). They had just reflected on how much technology is too much, as pointed out so bluntly by Jose Antonio Bowen in his book Teaching Naked. Clearly, Karen thought, it was time for her faculty to learn about and experience firsthand the changing nature of the learners of the future.

There was another set of experiences that suggested that all three of us could do more to help our students transition from one part of the educational pipeline to another. Karen was especially concerned by the level of anxiety she heard from Emma Willard’s high school seniors about their upcoming college selection process and the costs of navigating higher education. While aware that this intersection on the educational pipeline was particularly competitive for academically motivated students seeking admission to elite colleges, she was struck by the intensity of their emotions and their perceived lack of control. There had to be ways to decrease anxiety and help them take greater control of the process. To this end, she recognized the need for better conversations across the divide to ensure the high school seniors were better  prepared for the whole college admissions process, demystifying what appeared to be a dark hole. In particular, she saw the stress-inducing impact of athletic engagement on the college application process and was chagrinned by the high school students’ lack of understanding of collegiate athletics. Was there a reason Southern Vermont College could not send an admissions director and athletic director to Emma Willard to provide insights — not to recruit, but inform?

We also began to consider the possibility of the psychological counselors at each institution sharing their experiences, exploring strategies to address mental health issues, and developing a better sense of what triggers and indicators exist at each educative level. Perhaps through such an effort there could be better continuity of support, early intervention, and improved strategies.  We appreciated the rising need to address mental health concerns across all age groups.

Trudy saw anxiety among eighth-graders at Maple Street as they imagined their transition to high school, and understood that they would benefit from more information, more discussion, and more awareness of their capacity to make informed choices. How valuable to have Emma Willard students speak to their eighth-graders about their own transitions and how they navigated them. The point of such gatherings would not be to get Maple Street students to attend Emma Willard (although perhaps some would); the goal would be to give the eighth-graders an opportunity to learn from the experiences of older students. For the Emma Willard students, the opportunity for self-reflection and helping others not only enables them to see how far they have come in their lives but also understand the value of giving back to others.

Fiscal Constraints and Priorities

Each of us feels fiscal constraints; all of our institutions are tuition-dependent and even when we increase enrollment, there are concomitant costs.

In our meetings, we acknowledged and bemoaned the difficulty of prioritizing the number of things that needed doing in a world of scarce resources. No matter the amount of the endowment, the needs of small institutions exceed their economic capacity. Helping others understand those priorities is hard. For starters, educational constituencies do not always have the same goals and thus perceive needs differently. Unless one is actually “inside” an institution with real knowledge of the choices on the table, the cost of the options, the value of the options in the near and longer term, and the capacity to execute effectively on the options timely, it is almost impossible to prioritize. And this does not even touch on the issue of riskier options with potentially higher rewards — decisions that could be costly and fail. Consider adding a new college major? A new grade level? New sports or new art programs or internships?

Case in point: As Karen walked around the high school campus at Emma Willard and noted a number of areas where a capital investments could be made, she questioned whether the upcoming and expensive bathroom renovation seemed out of sync with her sensibilities as an educator. Yet, as she toured the actual dormitory bathrooms that had not been renovated in 30 years, she quickly came to understand why bathroom upgrades simply had to be a priority if Emma were to attract new students more accustomed to privacy, space, and modern sinks, toilets, and showers/tubs.

Trudy was perplexed that the elementary school was operating without a director of the physical plant with various administrators taking turns mowing the lawn, changing light bulbs, or fixing the heating system. As she interviewed the members of the administrative team throughout the day, she learned that this was a collaborative decision, permitting administrators to channel the saved dollars to other student-centered expenses.

Too often educators and boards of trustees make judgments about priorities expressed by an institutional leader without an insider’s understanding of the culture, needs, or the values of a school community. It is easy to second-guess from a distance. Understanding and making priorities requires attending to details, asking good questions, and being observant about a culture’s institutional challenges.

Changing Professional Development

All of us saw the value of the swap as we reflected on existing professional development opportunities for leaders, teachers, technology specialists, learning difference specialists, and staff psychologists/psychiatrists. Schools tend to do professional development in silos. College leaders meet with other college leaders. High school guidance counselors meet with each other. And so on.

But consider what would happen if leaders across the educational pipeline would meet and work on issues. Technologists from elementary schools would meet with college professors and online learning specialists. This could happen if we saw the value of these cross-pipeline opportunities and if there were mutual respect across the educational levels. An elementary school teacher would need to be respected by the well-published college professor. The college president would need to respect the wisdom of the head of an elementary school. Silos and hierarchies would be thrown to the wind and true engagement could occur.

Imagine the reflection opportunity if educators visited other schools along the educational pipeline and simply asked questions that came to mind as they witnessed the new landscape in which they found themselves? What about using panels of students to educate faculty across the pipeline? What might it be like to have a panel of high school students speak frankly about the college process to college admissions personnel and administrators, or have a panel of middle schoolers speak to ninth-grade teachers about their fears? What if kindergarteners or third-graders spoke to college professors about how they use technology to solve problems or run school elections — which is what the eighth-graders at Maple Street School were doing the day Trudy visited?

This approach could be especially valuable for aspiring administrators at every level. Could panels of educational leaders at various institutions along the educational pipeline offer varying fiscal priorities in a case-study format so that new administrators could see how the complexities of culture might influence decision-making for the better?

Hard, yes. But imagine the benefits for the students of today and tomorrow.

A More Controversial Concept to Consider

Among the many issues confronting education are questions about the effectiveness of how we assess quality at every rung of the educational ladder and how we encourage quality and sustainable educational leadership in an environment fraught with rapid change and economic stress. For the most part, assessment of public and private schools and colleges rests on a voluntary system of peer-review. While accreditation varies significantly across the nation — including among regional and national accreditors — we generally rely on a process of thoughtful and careful self-study by each institution and onsite peer assessment of the institutions to determine if the self-study is, indeed, a true reflection of the institution and whether the standards required have been met. These are followed by oral and written responses defining how prescribed standards have, in fact, been met and if not, the steps that needed to achieve compliance including ongoing monitoring, reports, and possible subsequent peer visits.

At its heart, the peer review process is intended to level the evaluative playing field because peers know the educational landscape and the challenges institutions face, and they are better able to both understand and evaluate a particular school’s quality. Importantly, accreditors try to match the peer evaluators with the institution being accredited. For example, evaluation of a small independent residential girls’ school would not be evaluated by individuals from large, urban high schools. Similarly, individuals from elite colleges would not be asked to evaluate small private colleges with small enrollments, limited endowments, and career-focused programs such as nursing and criminal justice. In accreditation, we also do not cross education levels.

Based on our swap experience, we think it is worth reflecting on two possible changes that could improve the accreditation process. First, might we consider defining “peer” more broadly to include individuals who are not from similar institutions? Clearly, moving beyond one’s own educative level to identify peers is riskier but has value, as our experiment has shown. Second, accreditation is often not used to foster true institutional improvement because, if and when the required standards are met, there is no need for further intervention or innovation by the visiting team or the accrediting agency. Neither the accreditors nor the visiting team are, in essence, acting as unpaid consultants, although they could, given their own knowledge and the knowledge they gain of the institution they visit. The visiting teams could — if permitted and encouraged — provide remarkable and creative insights and suggestions that would lead to institutional change at the school they are evaluating. That would require a totally different mindset when our peers come to visit, most particularly a wider range of “peers.” Our swap suggests the true power that came from listening to each other, and many of the suggestions given are being or will be implemented to improve our respective institutions.

Next Steps — for Us and Others

Broadly speaking, our experience taught us to look at and think differently about the K–16 world. We had a full day dedicated to thinking about education — not just “doing” education. That in and of itself was beneficial. We had a chance to engage with another institution, its people and its challenges. In short, while the opportunity took valuable time, our horizons have been expanded, pushing us to be better, more thoughtful, and wiser leaders, able to move outside our boxes and consider engagement opportunities beyond their our own walls.

In the current world, the elementary head has the most contact with her teachers and students. The high school head still has contact with teachers and some students, but not with the regularity of an elementary school head. And a college president is often quite removed from the day-to-day academic world of both the faculty and the students, rarely sitting in on classes or critiquing faculty pedagogy.

In our swap, we reverse engineered who spent time with whom. Trudy repeatedly reflected upon the intense engagement she experienced with her elementary charges for the day — from shaking hands at the doorway to casual conversations in the hallway to classroom observations. Recognizing its value, she expects to add more of that into her high school schedule.  Karen, too, spent time in a classroom and with faculty and students and saw the value of this academic “hands on” engagement, something that college presidents need to do more and can do by teaching, visiting classes, or working on pedagogy more directly with faculty and the provost. Fran recognized how little time she spent at 30,000 feet and saw the value of moving out of the trenches to reflect on her institution and K–8 education more broadly. She will change her schedule to allow for more reflective time on educational approaches.

We swapped places and benefitted from the experience — more than we expected. And, we might just do it again. In such a future swap, Karen wants to lead an elementary school; Trudy wants to lead a college; Fran wants to lead a high school. We’re convinced that we can learn even more — as professionals and people. We’ll share that experience too with others — in the hopes that our swaps improve education for all of America’s children.

Mary Francis Bisselle

Mary Francis Bisselle, is head of Maple Street School (Vermont).

Trudy Hall

Trudy Hall is head of Emma Willard School (New York).

Karen Gross

Karen Gross is the former president of Southern Vermont College.