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  • Writer's pictureMike Vachow

Chameleon's Dish

Updated: Jun 24, 2021

Just how promise-crammed is the pandemic crisis for independent schools? In the abundance crowd, one finds educational technology mavens, school reformers and innovation prophets. In the paucity crowd, one finds the abjectly fearful and paralyzed. Count me somewhere in the middle.

It's important to note first that the groups named above contain enormous variety. Educational technology, for instance, is surrounded by many ethical, smart people genuinely interested in learning how digital tools can enhance learning and expand students' access to great teachers. It is no coincidence that independent schools, driven by collaboration rather than shareholders, have bred many of these efforts--from Global Online Academy, to One Schoolhouse, to Stanford Online High School. Conversely, the exploding profits to be made in educational technology have attracted profiteers and charlatans flying under the colors of innovation, a word that used to be inspiring, if ill-defined, but now exudes regular whiffs of P.T. Barnum's elephant stable--from the perfect fraud of Theranos, to the Alt School and WeWork sandcastles, to the Groundhog Day suckerhood we experience every time we learn that our latest gadgets and apps are spying on us.

Similarly, school reform in independent schools resides on a narrow segment of the spectrum. Unburdened by federal and state mandates and the too-frequent, astonishing absurdities of public school bureaucracy, independent schools' clear missions, agile size and ample resources situate the reform conversation around topics like pedagogy, assessment and curricular inclusion.

So what opportunities might exist inside this surreal sojourn? And, what are the limits this crisis has compelled us to face?

  • The forced adoption of remote teaching strategies has accelerated the exploration of the promise that digital tools hold for learning. Millions of outstanding minds are applying themselves to these strategies, iterating quickly, and once we've had a chance to curate this work, we will find gold. And (not but), the crisis has re-established the primacy of in-person schooling. All humans, and especially children, learn best in an environment steeped in meaningful relationships, and those relationships flourish best when people are together in person.

  • Unlike the Great Recession, the pandemic has had a universal impact forcing all industries to examine their essential pillars, exposing some of these "truths" as ossifications, quirky lore, nostalgia. And, the crisis has reminded us of the essential inefficiency of education done right. Digital tools cannot provide education with the radical cost-saving efficiencies they have made in manufacturing, nor does the nature of teaching lend itself to the transformation into cheap scab labor that logistics technology has made of some service industries. Education, done well, is by its very nature an expensive, messy and inefficient enterprise.

  • The crisis has rusticated us from the places and routines of our work, giving us daily opportunities to ask ourselves the question, why have I been doing that? What value does it have for my students? How could this be done differently? And, we've had the chance to contemplate the conservative nature of our enterprise. It is our duty to usher our students into certain essential truths--the social contract, the mechanics of scientific analysis, the unalloyed spiritual joy of making art. We did some things very, very well inside the educational model we left behind a month ago. How can we do it better?

  • And finally, the most sobering duality of this time: the crisis has and will continue to have a devastating effect on independent school finances and force all but the wealthiest and most selective independent schools to confront their viability. Some schools will muster creative, bold leadership and find ways to build a new future, through mergers and re-calibrations of their core strengths. And, some schools will simply not have the resources to make themselves desirable partners for a potential merger (or make the ill-fated choice of merging with another gasping school), nor the psychological and work-flow bandwidth to re-make themselves, nor the market to succeed despite their best efforts. They will discover that they're doomed and probably have been for some time.

So count me starkly realistic, very conservatively optimistic when it comes to the opportunities for independent schools inherent in this crisis. We'll get better at our work with kids. Some of our current families will gain a deeper appreciation of our work, and we'll gain some new prospective families for the same reason. The colleges and universities to which our students aspire will be similarly transformed and shift some of the requirements that have driven elements of our curricula. But we'll also face some stony realities, including many of the old ones: there's a great chance that the SAT and ACT will be a thing again in 2021 and that your core constituents will still aspire to highly selective schools, many of which are not missing a beat on their yields this spring. And, there will be the new brutal realities: reductions in force, elimination of programs, closings, and the caretaking of a school community that will arrive on campus this fall (we hope) in desperate need of connection.

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