Proving Them Wrong

Winter 2012

By Nicholas Thacher

Wow! Suddenly the importance of elementary education has entered the golden Rolodex of the media and the national consciousness. Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman has declared early education one of the nation’s best investments. The latest round of federal education grants is targeting $500 million at the early years. And dozens of foundations and nonprofits have come together as the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading to emphasize early literacy as the key to closing achievement gaps and raising graduation rates.

Heretofore, generating support for social and educational intervention in the early years has been a relentlessly uphill battle. Fifty years ago, it took LBJ and Ed Zigler, now the Sterling Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Yale University, an unimaginable amount of human effort and political capital to launch Head Start, and the subsequent battles inside the Beltway to maintain the program’s funding have been as bloody as they have been shameful. (Dr. Zigler’s legendary testimony before Congress, decrying the fact that our nation’s day-care providers were paid less than zookeepers, still rings in my conscience!)

But now, all at once, early intervention — especially for economically disadvantaged children — isn’t just on the national and political radar screen; it’s the flavor of the month. Everyone is talking about what can be done to reverse “summer slide” for the millions of young children who suffer in poverty. In a 2010 cover story, Time magazine heralded summer vacation as “among the most pernicious, if least acknowledged, causes of achievement gaps in America’s schools.” A RAND report released in June 2011 found that the loss of knowledge and educational skills during the summer months is cumulative over the course of a student’s academic career and further widens the achievement gap between poor children and their more affluent peers. Huge grants are being awarded from both the public and private sectors to organizations focused on providing summer learning for elementary children. Last summer, the Walmart Foundation announced an $11.5 million grant spread among summer learning programs in 10 cities, and the Wallace Foundation launched a six-city effort to study what works — the latest phase in a multi-year, $50 million summer learning initiative.

In the independent school world, the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) has been vigorously pushing its member schools to underscore, heighten, and celebrate their “public purpose.” Last spring’s issue of Independent School and last year’s NAIS Annual Conference — both focused on schools and the common good — were among the most significant in NAIS’s long history, and particularly heartening to someone like myself who has enjoyed the luxury of helping shape independent schools for more than 40 years. It’s no secret that the early stages of a child’s education are the most important. Nor is it a secret — at least not among those who are paying attention to such matters — that the “achievement gap” for children in poverty is six months when a child enters kindergarten and — unless there is summer intervention — grows to an appalling three-year lag by the end of fifth grade! But what a pleasure it has been recently to see the media, the politicians, and the foundation executives begin to grasp these obvious truths. 

Thirty years ago, when I was a relatively naïve head of an independent school (I’m embarrassed to confess my naïveté, since it was the third school I had led), I stumbled upon David Hicks’ Norms and Nobility: A Treatise on Education, in which, while describing the national landscape of American education, he drew an important distinction between “utilitarian schools” and “normative schools.” 

In his dichotomy, “utilitarian schools” were those that had “tried so assiduously to tailor their programs and purposes to the demands of their diversified constituencies that, by standing for nothing, they have fallen for anything. By trying to fit everyone’s demands, they end up suiting nobody’s needs.” 

“Normative schools,” by contrast, stood for something. In Hicks’ view: “The good school does not just offer what the student or the parent or the state desires, but it says something about what these three ought to desire. A school is fundamentally a normative, not a utilitarian institution, governed (one hopes) by the wise, not by the many.”

In the intervening three decades, I have been privileged to observe the warp and woof of numerous independent schools, as well as to pry into the far-off galaxy of public education by volunteering to work with the U.S. Department of Education’s Exemplary Schools program; and Hicks’ distinction and his accompanying cry for independent school leaders to play a normative role in the educational landscape has pursued and haunted me every step of the way. I use the word “haunted” because, I am sorry to admit, it strikes me that until very recently, in comprehensive and deeply rooted ways, the contributions of independent schools to American education has been meager, to say the least. Frankly, there’s not much to suggest that, for all of our obvious advantages (not least being our beneficial position as nonprofit organizations), we have been anything more than utilitarian, generally self-serving institutions.

That’s why I found it so encouraging to gather with independent school colleagues for last year’s NAIS Annual Conference in the shadows of our befuddled nation’s capital under the rubric of “Advancing Our Public Purpose.” Advancing our public purpose! To make matters even better, the accompanying spring issue of Independent School sounded the call for “Schools and the Common Good.” It may have taken Michelle Rhee to waken us from our somnolent complacency, but who cares? At last, it appears we’re seriously reflecting on ways in which our privileged independent schools can more effectively serve the commonweal and “give back” to the increasingly needy communities and society in which we are embedded. Concomitantly, we’re thinking about the very best ways to help our students build great foundations in their early years.

How might we best proceed? I’ll offer (and tout) one highly effective possibility: Join the network of Horizons National summer programs, now annually serving thousands of underserved children — starting in kindergarten and continuing through eighth grade — on independent school and college campuses around the nation. 

There are many ways to transform a utilitarian school into a normative one — last spring’s issue of Independent School outlined numerous other possibilities for our consideration — but my focus is on Horizons because Horizons programs across the nation boast an average student retention rate of 90 percent and because I have lived that option for more than 30 years. For 21 years, I ran a school in Connecticut that developed and pioneered (with Dr. Zigler’s advice and counsel) the Horizons model. It was, in every sense of the word, a “baby” (fathered by my predecessor, George Stevens) that I watched grow up. More recently, I helped launch another Horizons program in the Massachusetts school I currently head — becoming, in essence, a Horizons “grandfather.” I offer my observations from a dual perspective: Having previously benefited from a lengthy, transformational relationship between a host school and a thriving, well-established, year-round program for disadvantaged children, I am now in the throes of learning all the lessons of a Horizons start-up, which has been embraced with the ambition of transforming my current host school’s image and identity in its surrounding communities.

Why is it important to do something like this? Because eleemosynary organizations that enjoy all the institutional advantages of not-for-profit status have a moral obligation to “give back.” And what better way can we give back than to serve the least advantaged children in our communities in their early years, transforming their lives by giving them an equitable opportunity to receive a good education?

Here are eight institutionally self-serving reasons for an independent school to embrace a “public purpose” program focused on the elementary years:

You will be modeling public purpose institutionally — walking the walk, without the rhetoric. Your school’s students, parents, teachers, and trustees will “get it”; and you won’t have to say a word.

Over time — indeed, quite rapidly — your school’s external reputation will shift significantly. The “elitist” connotations that fasten onto all of our independent schools will diminish. Equally important, the perception of your school among the socioeconomically less advantaged segments of your surrounding communities will be drastically altered. Your school will become known as a safer, more welcoming place; your applicant pool will shift significantly; and interest will increase not only among the least economically advantaged families but also from the lower-middle class (traditionally the hardest segment for our schools to reach).

You will have an altered (read “easier”) relationship with your local public schools. In Dedham, Massachusetts, our local public school superintendent now sits on our Horizons board; the principals of the local elementary schools and guidance counselors visit our campus; our own teachers have an opportunity to work closely in the summer with their public school counterparts. (One cautionary note: You will need to be clear — in your own mind and in your communications with your public school counterparts — that the purpose of your program is not to “skim the cream” — i.e., identify and attract admissions candidates. In fact, however, over an extended period of time, some outstanding candidates for admission will materialize.)

4 You will generate summer employment opportunities not only for your own faculty but also for your recent (virtually unemployable) young graduates. Summer work in a Horizons program isn’t well paid, but it’s powerfully meaningful for adults and, most especially, for adolescents. Teaching a population of economically disadvantaged young children can be particularly eye-opening and stimulating for veteran members of an independent school faculty. Turns out you can teach old dogs new tricks.

5 Perhaps counterintuitively, you will broaden your school’s donor base, because much, if not all, of the funding for your program will derive from sources that are almost impossible for independent schools to tap: local foundations, corporations, church and civic groups, small businesses, even the United Way. The great fear, of course, is that the host school’s philanthropic support will be cannibalized. In practice, over time, the reverse is true, largely because most donors — especially those in the enviable position of “making a difference,” as we say — understand the distinction between giving to our schools and supporting public-purpose initiatives.

6 You will inevitably enhance whatever efforts towards diversity and multiculturalism you have already chosen to embrace. In time, for example, you will discover outstanding candidates of color for your own school faculty, candidates unlikely to have been identified in the predictable employment pursuits in which most of us engage vigorously — and, too often, fruitlessly.

7 Ultimately, everyone associated with leading your school will sleep better at night, understanding that you have found a substantive form of institutional “community outreach” that delivers a profound impact on the growth, development, and lives of the youngsters it serves. And the nagging wisdom of David Hicks won’t haunt your conscience, asking if you’ve made a substantive effort to transform your school from a utilitarian to a normative institution.

8 When all is said and done, whether or not we enjoy our current moment in the sunshine of the golden Rolodex, we ought to be in the business of building great foundations — for our children and our embattled republic. Committing to a Horizons program — or something similar — is a moral obligation. Imagine what independent schools could accomplish if every independent school in America made a long-term commitment to 100 underserved youngsters in their local communities. Talk about “public purpose” and “building great foundations”: The lives of 150,000 children would be transformed in their educational journey between kindergarten and enrollment in high school. 

Make no mistake: the Horizons model works. In 1981, at my request, Dr. Zigler, then head of Yale’s Center for Child Development and Social Policy, conducted a formal evaluation of the effectiveness of the first Horizons program. That first objective study, 30 years ago, found (among other impacts):

• Horizons positively affects children’s attitudes about learning;

• Horizons positively affects attendance rates during the school year;

• Horizons prevents a “summer slide” in mathematics, an advantage retained throughout the subsequent school year;

• Students enrolled in Horizons need and use less special services in school.

Three decades later, the data on Horizons’ impact is more comprehensive — and more compelling:

• Horizons students now demonstrate a gain of two to three months in reading and math skills compared to their peers (who lose two to three months of skills each summer). You do the math: a net gain of four to six months for the thousands of children currently enrolled.

• Horizons students and their families learn the importance of participation in school; nationally, the daily attendance rate of Horizons children during the regular school year has increased to 93 percent across the K–8 spectrum.

And perhaps most compelling, though anecdotal, are the personal stories of Horizons children we gather over the summers, over the years. Two former Horizons children now sit, as adults, on the Horizons National Board, shaping the strategic direction of the programs. They, like so many others, are unabashed cheerleaders. One, to whom I taught English 30 years ago, recently founded a Horizons program in metropolitan New York. His explanation is simple: “Horizons had a huge impact on my life. It allowed me to dream, to think big, to aspire. It let me see beyond my everyday world.”

I’ll conclude with an appeal to your sense of social justice, a point brilliantly summarized in Roger Weaver’s article in last spring’s Independent School. The words are his, not mine: “Independent schools cannot undo all the social, economic, and political reasons that education is failing so many of our young people, but we do not have to be part of the problem. Quality education is a social justice issue, and we all need to take measure of our institutions and ask ourselves what we can do to be part of the solution. The schools around you probably won’t reach out to you. They assume you don’t care. Prove them wrong.”
Nicholas Thacher

Nicholas S. Thacher is head of Dedham Country Day School (Massachusetts).