On My Mind: Helping Schools Reclaim Their Why

Winter 2020

By Donna Orem

In “The Great Enrollment Crash,” a recent article in The Chronicle Review, author Bill Conley writes, “Higher education has fully entered a new structural reality. You’d be na├»ve to believe that most colleges will be able to ride out this unexpected wave as we have previous swells.”
We are entering a time of unprecedented change in education. We’ve already seen many colleges close their doors, with many more predicted to do so over the coming months. What does this mean for K–12 education? Is our long-term sustainability threatened in the same way? Certainly, our sector faces some of the same dangers as those in higher education, but there may be more opportunities for us if we take a disciplined approach to understanding the unfolding landscape and our role in it.
In his book How the Mighty Fall: And Why Some Companies Never Give In, Jim Collins explores how long-standing businesses fail, laying out a five-stage framework to describe the various stages of decline. One of my key takeaways from the book was how he portrayed the thinking that precipitated the decline. That process is driven by “we’re successful because we do specific things,” instead of “we’re successful because we understand why we do these specific things and under what conditions they would no longer work.” When we lose our “why,” we can lose our way.
To stem the enrollment declines following the Great Recession, many schools branched out in new directions focusing on the “what,” adding more features and programs—many of them unsustainable. This “undisciplined pursuit of more,” as Collins describes it, can quickly move organizations away from their why. If our industry is to thrive in the long run, we need to return to our core—the why for each individual school—and translate that why in the context of current market conditions.

Opportunity Knocks 

NAIS’s work using the Jobs-to-Be-Done (JTBD) methodology is an attempt to help schools reclaim their why—to help them find that sweet spot between a school’s why and what current parents are looking to accomplish. Over the past year, through the NAIS Strategy Lab program, we have introduced participating schools to several tools and frameworks they can use to create alignment around school systems and processes and identify levers that will help them innovate for their current context.
In their 2008 Harvard Business Review article, “Reinventing Your Business Model,” authors Mark Johnson, Clayton Christensen, and Henning Kagermann explored using JTBD to reinvigorate a failing business model. They note four common barriers that keep people from getting a particular job done. Each of these barriers offers a unique opportunity for schools to rethink what is needed to keep their why relevant.
Insufficient wealth. Many forecasters speculate that millennials—who in the next decade will become the predominant parent group in our schools—may have less wealth than the generations that came before them. The latest research states that, although the leading edge of the millennials may be struggling financially, those born later may be better off. And, while individuals may have less wealth, a study from the Pew Research Center uncovered that millennial households may have more wealth than the Gen Xers and baby boomers at a similar stage in life. However, this generation also faces higher costs in nearly everything—housing, food, health care, education, and so on. Many also are caring for aging family members, so overall, they may have far less disposable income.
Independent schools can innovate around price, which some are already doing through indexed tuition programs, while others have lowered price to attract middle-class families who have all but disappeared from private schools.
Access. With teleworking and virtual organizations giving rise to a more mobile workforce, we need to consider that families may want to access schools in different ways. For example, there’s an increasing trend for families to live in different countries while children are young to have them experience other cultures. These families may increasingly be looking for virtual connections to their current school.
Access also can be an issue because of demographic changes. The cost of housing in many major metropolitan areas is pushing families to move to less expensive neighborhoods, often where there are fewer school options. Families may be less inclined to travel long distances to school and instead look for viable options closer to home. To innovate around access, satellite or microschools in emerging communities may be worthy of consideration. Given the right pricing structure, such a venture can also address the barriers of wealth and time.
Skill. With the Fourth Industrial Revolution upon us, ushering in a time of smart machines, educators will need to rethink teaching and learning to address the needs of students in a world where knowledge may become obsolete. As Alvin Toffler wrote in the book Future Shock in 1970, “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”
Futurist Bernard Marr, writing in Forbes, highlighted eight opportunities for education in these transforming times:
1. Redefine the purpose of education. As we move further into the future, education will need to support children to develop the skill set and mindset to do anything in their future rather than a particular something.
2. Improve STEM education. Training in the intersection between STEM and the humanities will be particularly necessary in the decades ahead. According to “The Future of Jobs Report 2018” from the World Economic Forum, executives desire employees with critical thinking and collaboration skills even more than those with tech skills.
3. Develop human potential. The educational system of the future needs to equip humans to partner with machines rather than compete with them.
4. Adapt to lifelong learning
Education will become a lifelong endeavor. People will no longer start a career path and only grow with one role, so nurturing competent lifelong learners becomes essential.
5. Alter educator training. Teachers will need to become guides to help students facilitate their own learning and lines of inquiry.
6. Make schools makerspaces. Schools need to provide learning environments that will allow students to practice their curiosity, problem-solving skills, inquisitiveness, and the iterations of failure.
7. Develop international mindfulness. In a digital, interconnected world, employees of the future will need to have a global mindset.  
8. Change higher education. College qualifications will become shorter and more focused, and colleges will provide more lifelong education with modular post-grad qualifications throughout the working lives of individuals.

Time. On the higher-education level, we have already seen how competency-based education puts control of time in the hands of the consumer, allowing students to advance based on their ability to master a skill or competency at their own pace. Whether it be the schedule, the school year, or the school day, independent schools have an opportunity to innovate around time. Personalized learning allows for innovation around pace.
Sustainability is the ability to endure. I have faith that independent schools will not only endure but they will be critical societal partners in creating a better tomorrow. We need to begin this journey by being clear about our why.

What I’m Reading

The “Varsity Blues” scandal has made headlines around the world, sparking conversation about the value of college, the admission process, and the role that wealth and status play in our society. Reading one story after the other with horror and shame, I wondered about what we are doing to our children. We must find a better way to help young people make the right choices for themselves after high school. A new book by Michael Horn and Bob Moesta is attempting to do that. Choosing College: How to Make Better Learning Decisions Throughout Your Life helps students get rid of all of the noise around them and identify what they are trying to accomplish. The book is a must-read for students, parents, and anyone working in education. I know both authors, and they are two of the brightest stars writing about the education landscape today.
Donna Orem

Donna Orem is NAIS President.