Nimbleness, Responsiveness, Innovation, Accountability: How Independent Schools Meet 21st Century Demands

In his book, “Creating Innovators:  The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World,” Harvard education specialist Tony Wagner asserts that our current K-12 education systems are not “teaching the skills that matter most in the market place.” In an interview with Thomas Friedman, he explains, “Today, because knowledge is available on every internet-connected device, what you know matters far less that what you can do with what you know.”

We all know the world is changing; and changing more rapidly than ever in the history of man.  Schools today must pay attention to those changes and respond accordingly.  Unfortunately most of our schools are not nimble enough to respond appropriately to the changing landscape.  Large, bureaucratic state-run systems are hampered by their sheer size as well as an inordinate emphasis on content and a single standardized state test.  America’s bi-cameral political system is intentionally designed for change to be slow, which helps keep our government from following cultural fads rather than leading the culture.  But this plodding, monetized political process is not conducive to making the necessary adjustments in education that today’s student deserves.

This is the great value and purpose of independent schools.  Independent schools, which are locally run and funded, can be nimble, responsive, and innovative while being truly accountable to results.

Nimbleness: Independent school can respond to changing conditions in thoughtful, incremental ways that keep the students’ needs central.  For instance, because they have site-control of budgets, they can make sensitive and sensible adjustments in economic downturns without resorting to draconian measures – such a reducing services, eliminating critical programs, or reducing teaching days — that impact students and learning.

Responsiveness: Independent school communities are small by design and engage parents and the larger community with intention.  Independent schools are student-centered and have as their mission the individual growth of individual students. This allows for appropriate responses to individual student and family needs, as is mission appropriate for the school.  Most importantly, independent schools can focus time, energy, resources and instruction around what Thomas Friedman calls the vital “soft skills,” such as resilience, creative problem solving, collaboration, cultural competency, and ethical values.

Innovation: Again, because the governance is located at the school, Independent schools have a greater ability to be innovative, to quickly implement good ideas and new technologies, to run pilot programs, and sample curricular changes.

Accountability:  Independence does not mean freedom from accountability. In fact, the best independent schools use a variety of assessment tools and data to evaluate their performance and outcomes – both academic and “soft” skills — including multiple nationally standardized tests, competitive high school and college placement, teacher observation and assessment, and tracking alumni performance in school and beyond.

Tony Wagner says, “We teach and test things most students have no interest in and will never need, and facts that they can Google and will forget as soon as the test is over.” By contrast, a good independent school’s mission is to exercise nimbleness, responsiveness, innovation, and accountability in ways that take into account the development of the whole person with the skills and attributes necessary to lead meaningful, productive, and satisfying lives in the 21stcentury.