In a 2013 article for Independent School, Rob Evans stated that of the hundreds of independent schools he has consulted with, thirty percent did not have a formal faculty evaluation system. He further maintained that for many of the independent schools that did have a system, the actual implementation of these programs was “spotty.” My work with several independent schools supports these findings. Written standards for teaching are often non-existent, and typically only the teachers about whom parents have complained garner the attention.
We also know that in the last decade, nearly fifty percent of NAIS schools have lost enrollment (2015-16 NAIS Trendbook), and many schools that once had robust waiting lists are enrolling students with a wide range of learning challenges, adding further pressure on budgets as schools try to meet these students’ needs. Regional and national conferences are often dominated by presentations focusing on marketing and financial sustainability. Many schools have included in their strategic plans the establishment of alternative revenue streams, re-branding campaigns and the recruitment of foreign students, even at day schools.
Although the search for alternative revenue is certainly understandable as a means to address financial sustainability questions, I wonder if it ultimately is a dangerous diversion from the more central questions schools should be asking themselves:
- “Is our current value proposition working?”
- “Is the quality of our teaching and the quality of our programs worth the tuition we charge?”
For many schools the marketplace is answering these questions with an emphatic, “No!”
It certainly is true that in some communities tuition has outstripped the ability to pay, but it is equally true that in many communities parents just do not think the cost of independent school education is worth the value. Allocating time, energy and resources on strategies that essentially avoid the value proposition question feels like a game of whack a mole, an endless series of hopeful attempts to survive but with no real long-lasting solution.
Rather than lurching from one panacea to another, independent schools should use the loud and clear message from the marketplace to look inward and challenge the tightly-held assumptions that are rarely questioned but have such a powerful influence over behavior. The first place to start is examining the connection between faculty evaluation/professional growth and a growing softness in the market.
Just imagine if a school jettisons its ineffectual evaluation program that essentially focuses on teachers for whom the school receives complaints and instead, creates a dynamic program, the goal of which is to have seventy-five percent of the faculty identified as A-level instructors and the rest as no less than B-level. Imagine a system of faculty recruitment, evaluation and professional growth that results in the vast majority of the school’s teachers performing at the highest level based on clear standards. Imagine the positive word-of-mouth. If schools are going to charge astronomical tuitions, then it is incumbent on them to move beyond minimum standards for evaluating teachers. Small classes and individual attention are no longer a substitute for a slew of slightly above-average teachers.
This is where leadership matters. One of the most important qualities of a head is to help a school community find the courage to confront the essential strategic challenge of the time. The first step is to examine the assumptions that drive behavior and understand that those deeply held assumptions can place a stranglehold on thinking and actions. Focusing internally instead of externally, many heads need to shine a light on faculty recruitment, evaluation, and professional growth as critical systems that must support schools’ value propositions, especially in an era of high tuitions and rising parental expectations. What was once considered “good” may no longer be good enough.