The Search for True Innovation

Spring 2017

By John Gulla

Almost daily, some independent school magazine arrives in my office screaming “innovation” from the cover. I know that this is happening not just in schools but throughout our society now that the global zeitgeist has embraced innovation as a universal good, a panacea to our many modern challenges. Powered by the “knowledge” revolution that is accelerating the pace of change in the 21st century, our cognitive powers of divergent thinking are thought to be best harnessed in search and service of innovative approaches to almost any problem.

We have always made sense of complicated concepts through shortcuts allowed by certain choices of language. The use of simplifying, summative words, however, can easily give rise to imprecision, if not outright confusion. Such has come to be the case with innovation in the world of independent schools. To take nothing away from the value of “makerspaces” or “fab labs,” I would like to reclaim some sense of the term innovation for change that is truly transformative. Adding coding as an elective or as a substitute for a foreign language requirement, or creating partnerships with local entities, as important as these connections can be, are not, in and of themselves, innovative changes. We should reserve the term for a breakthrough, an upheaval, a metamorphosis, or even a revolution in how we approach education, not for these more minor alterations. It is the root of innovation — drawn from its Latin origin, novus, or new — that really interests me as we consider the current state of independent education.

In his book, Being Mortal, Atul Gawande — considering a transformation of society’s approach to care for the aged, specifically the organizational logic of nursing homes — writes, “Culture strangles innovation in the crib.” I believe this to be especially true in the world of schools, particularly in independent schools that rely heavily on the strength of their individualized cultures to accomplish their goals.

A few years after I became a school head, I was with Pat Bassett, then executive director of the Independent Schools Association of the Central States, when he outlined the limitations of the financial model of nearly every independent school. Bassett helped me see that, though there could be great variation in the details of each school, much of what independent schools did— and what they could do — depended on three inescapable factors at the heart of their financial model: what they charge (the published tuition), what they pay (dominated by teacher compensation), and their average class size. Any independent school could make almost any change it wanted in any one of these three elements of the fundamental, underlying formula of its operation if it was willing to live with the necessary and commensurate change required in at least one of the other two factors. Want to lower the rate of tuition increases? Lower the rate of compensation increases or raise average class size, and so on.

In my current work for The Edward E. Ford Foundation, I travel the country visiting schools that have requested foundation funding. The projects, practices, and proposals that I think most deserve the label of being truly innovative are often those that experiment with one of these three, fundamental factors in a significant way.

Class Size

Traceable to ancient China (in the East) and to classical Greece (in the West), the essential school structure has long been a group of students and, usually, a single teacher. This has been the unaltered quanta of schools for centuries. Historically, independent schools have staked at least part of their distinction, in comparison to public schools, on lower average class sizes. I see the slightest, thin green shoots of true innovation sprouting up in the way in which some independent schools are altering their daily schedules and the novel ways some are organizing their students and teachers that make it difficult to use that well-established, quantized measure of average class size in the usual meaningful manner.

One example is a school that took full advantage of the construction of a new building to design and reconfigure its sixth grade. The school has 80 students in one capacious, well-equipped room with several adults who rotate in and out, though all the adults work as a team. Sometimes, all 80 students work together in a coordinated fashion; often, they are arranged in smaller “project units.” Is this the same as four classes of 20 or five classes of 16 students? Though I came to understand how the teachers were deployed, I couldn’t easily come up with a single, simple student–teacher ratio.

What if a school arranges its schedule so that the entire 10th grade meets as a whole for half of the class meetings and then in smaller discussion groups the other half (in something of a college lecture/preceptor group format) as one academically high-powered school I saw last spring does? How do you count the average class size in this arrangement? What about a lower school I know well, inspired by principles of a Reggio Emilia approach, that provides, like the sixth-grade arrangement above, a large, enriched environment of an outsized room with perhaps as many as 30 or even 50 young children, all seemingly in Brownian motion? The class is assigned one “master” teacher who is the equivalent of the orchestra conductor, several assistants, the equivalent of the first violin chair, etc. — all of whom are directing student activity along with several apprentice coaches in the room. How do I assign a number to this average class size?

Why is this important? Rethinking the fundamental quanta of school— average class size — allows much greater creativity in the way we arrange schools. Altering this long-established organizational model creates degrees of independence of this factor — average class size — from tuition charged and levels of compensation of faculty. I am not suggesting, as I’ve tried to show above, that this must necessarily involve increasing class size or “student-load,” but rather I’m interested in the whole-scale reconception of how schools could be staffed, which I see as deeply innovative.


Historically, each independent school has had its published tuition (“sticker”) price and, to the extent its mission, enrollment circumstances, and resources might allow, has discounted that price with need-based and/or merit awards. A few schools in a small number of markets with excessive demand have begun to experiment with promising alternatives. Why just one published price? What about the truly innovative idea of “indexed tuitions”?

One such well-positioned school I know is looking at a much higher tuition than that currently established and would consider financial aid applications from all those who are willing to file their family’s financial information, thereby accommodating a much broader range of need-based awards. This approach isn’t based on a single “family contribution” number, but allows for a more multidimensional, nuanced analysis of “ability to pay” and “need.”

Traditionally, our pre-collegiate day schools have had three distinct price points. There are the public schools, which too often are referred to as the “free” option, but, of course, are not free given that they are paid for through a mechanism based largely on property taxes. There are the religious schools, mostly Catholic, which charge in the range of $X. Finally, there are the independent schools that charge approximately $2X for day schools (and as much as $3X for boarding).

An examination of the rate of change of these ratios over time suggests that one of the phenomena that some newer options in the educational marketplace have sought to exploit is the widening gap between the tuitions charged by religious schools and independent schools. They are doing this by offering a somewhat stripped-down program and a price of $1.5X. Think AltSchool, for example (see article on page 54). This challenge for independent schools has been exacerbated by an absence of more flexible and varied means of calculating need and providing “affordability.” Some independent schools seeking the holy grail of a “sustainable financial model” have begun to see some variation of indexed tuition as a promising innovation.

Consider even a simpler model, such as one at a 9–12 independent school in California that attracts each incoming class of new students with a single tuition that does not change over the four years of upper school and thereby allows a family to know its full expense over the period of enrollment.

I know situations in which families who did not qualify for need-based aid but who were unwilling to make the sacrifices required to afford their desired school have begun to raise the question about partial pricing. What if my child goes to the library and takes online language and math courses— demonstrating, as a school might require, the necessary mastery at certain points along the course of study— but enrolls only in the school’s humanities, arts, and science classes and participates in athletics, service programs, etc.? Since the student is not consuming the school’s resources in two of the major academic disciplines, might that family be charged a reduced tuition?

Immediately, many readers may think of the challenges and imperfections of such dramatic changes in such long-established practices in the independent school world. I don’t want to be understood as advocating for any of these specific ideas. What makes sense for one school might be a disaster for another. What I am suggesting is that genuine innovation in one of these three basic elements, in this case what we charge as tuition, might benefit the larger world of independent schools by introducing many more models from which families could choose.

I’m trying to remember the first time I understood that when I boarded a plane it was likely my fellow passengers paid a dozen or more different ticket prices. I am hard-pressed to think of some other area of 21st-century pricing practice that is an equivalent to what we do with a single tuition and our approach to financial aid/tuition discounting.

This is an area ripe for true innovation. Perhaps more to the point, I see cultural forces aligning to push independent schools in this direction of deeper transformation.

Faculty Compensation

There are logical reasons why independent schools developed their current models of faculty compensation, essentially the same model that we see throughout the world of education, but what is illogical is that these reasons don’t always seem to be based on what is good for students. The step/lane model that traces its roots back to public schools in an era when most teachers were female (usually because other professional opportunities at the time were limited) typically bases increases in compensation on years of experience and degrees earned or hours of professional development undertaken. The volumes of often contradictory research I have read on this topic over the last 35 years have led me to conclude that experience does matter during the first six, or maybe even ten, years of a teacher’s career. However, I’ve yet to see evidence that convinces me that throughout a 30- or 40-year career, a teacher always becomes better, more effective, with more experience. Many do. Some do not. Yet this is one of the two factors most often used to determine levels of faculty compensation. Why? This is an area that cries out for innovation.

The other main factors often used to determine or adjust faculty compensation, advanced degrees and/or “clock hours” are of the great travesties of the profession. Can such focused, formal study lead to increased effectiveness in a teacher? Of course it can. The question is, does it necessarily? I see a number of schools undertaking the very difficult challenge of rethinking their model of faculty compensation —whether it be “broad-banding” (defining a small number of explicit ranges for compensation), some performance-based components of compensation, or another model. This is the third area where true innovation could take place.

I would never advocate for a return to the widespread practice “back in the day” that had heads of school individually determining salaries. That practice tends toward unjustifiable inequities and a lack of transparency that can be corrosive. However, it has never made any sense to me that the only way for a teacher to be paid at the highest level a given school can afford is to have reached her or his 30th or 35th year of teaching. For anyone paying attention, such a system makes even less sense to those known as millennials.

To those who argue that any differentiated model of compensation is too complicated, too onerous, and too expensive to implement successfully (and I’m only thinking here of holistic assessment of a teacher’s performance, certainly nothing based on normative test scores, which have been the undoing of this approach in the public school world), I say that there is nothing more important to a school than creating a model of compensation that will improve teaching. That it isn’t easy or cheap aren’t reasons not to do it.

Going Bold

Over the three-and-a-half years that I have been working at the E.E. Ford Foundation, I have visited more than 200 NAIS member schools in 45 states. I have tried to understand the specific circumstances of each of the unique schools requesting funding. There are many proposals that we have funded that claimed to be innovative but weren’t. That is not to say that they weren’t great proposals. It is to say that one of the reasons this 60-year-old foundation now also makes what we call “Leadership Grants” is to encourage bolder, more truly innovative experiments than we were seeing with our “traditional” grants.

Over these last few years, I have had a number of conversations with the very few others who do what I do in visiting a large number of independent schools around the country. Several of us have concluded that the future of independent schools may sort itself into three broad categories.

There are schools for which reputational strength, endowment, demand for admission, and other specific institutional characteristics may insulate them from any of the forces now challenging a large number of independent schools. Ironically, some of these schools include those in the very best position to truly innovate, but which face the hurdle of a community or a board that feels “it ain’t broke.” There are certainly many exceptions, but I’m confident in saying that the healthiest independent school markets, those experiencing sustained, strong admission demand, are inversely correlated with the levels of overall innovation in the schools. I generally see more innovation happening where it is necessary for survival.

There is a second category of schools that seem stuck in certain traditions and unwilling to change. I’m not sure I see a bright future for them. Although independent schools are hardy plants and seem to be able to survive in greatly changed climates for long periods of time, that is not to say they’ll thrive.

The third category of independent schools includes those that are willing to differentiate, that are willing to try something truly innovative. These are the schools to which we should pay more attention.

The future I hope to see is one of thousands of varied flowers blooming in the garden of independent schools. I think that more courageous, even radical, experimentation with pricing, compensation, and class size, along with creative use of the essential building blocks of time (schedule) and space (facilities), could lead to accelerating differentiation among independent schools that might be worthy of the innovation label.

For now, in my sample size of 200+, I see most day schools in a given market charging essentially the same tuition, and all boarding schools doing about the same. I see nearly all independent schools advertising average class sizes of around 15. I see nearly all schools paying on the low end for full-time faculty $Y and on the high end $2Y. In short, I see a far too undifferentiated landscape of interchangeable schools.

The good news is that things are starting to shift.

The biggest and most important question facing a school — especially those that may be uninsulated by reason of finances, reputation, or demand— is how and in what direction to innovate? What path should a school pursue to differentiate itself?

There are more than a few schools making programmatic adjustments. Some are committing to a specialty in particular area (such as endurance athletics — cross-country running, crew, and Nordic skiing — which I saw at one school). Others are focusing on project-based learning. Still others are helping students develop cross-cultural competencies. These are all fine, but I do not think they count as innovative.

I encourage schools to think more boldly, more courageously, about these “fixed” elements of our financial models — about our pricing, our compensation, and our classroom quantization. There are other elements (how we measure student progress, what we consider to be success, the demilitarized zone between secondary school and higher education) that are also ripe for true innovation.

At the moment, very few schools are striking out along new paths. I think more should join them. This can be a good thing for all of us and for the children we serve.

John Gulla

John Gulla is executive director of the Edward E. Ford Foundation. Prior to that, he served as head of school for 14 years at The Blake School in Minneapolis, Minnesota.