American Promise

Educators and parents everywhere should take the time to watch and discuss American Promise, a documentary that tracks the lives of two African-American boys, Idris Brewster and Seun Summers, over a twelve-year period including shared years at The Dalton School. The filmmakers are Idris’ parents, Michèle Stephenson and Joe Brewster.

Both provocative and intimate, the film stirs thinking about many topics, among them: the experience of African-American boys in independent and public schools, parental anxiety, attention and motivation, the college placement process, and dealing with family tragedy.

Most profound, from my perspective, was the illustration of the impact of the key or (to use Robert Brooks’ term) “charismatic” adult in a child’s life. In this case, the role of charismatic adult is filled for Seun by his public school advisor or guidance counselor. Applause for her! We should wish such a presence for every child in every school setting.

Kudos to Connecticut Association of Independent Schools Commission on Professional Development for leading the way in facilitating shared viewing and discussion in their region.

You’ll find American Promise live-streaming on POV on PBS through March 6.


Is the Independent School Parent Your Customer?

About ten years ago, during my tenure as head of school, a parent said to me, “I hope you don’t mind that I am complaining. After all, when I’m unhappy at my dry cleaners, I speak up.” At the time, this sent me into quiet paroxysms. Did she really think that paying tuition was like buying a dry-cleaning service?  Did she not see the responsibility for a child’s well being and the pastoral role the school embraces as more a relationship than a purchase?

At the same time, my Board was nudging me to do a parent satisfaction survey. I resisted. Wouldn’t that further the growing consumer mentality I was working to keep at bay?

A decade later, and no longer in that role, I’ve begun to see these questions in a different light. Parent surveys are now common. Much is written about the value of collecting and leveraging data, particularly where our Gen X constituents are concerned. And we know that word-of-mouth marketing is our most powerful enrollment tool.

Several consulting firms now offer data collection and interpretation services to independent schools. The Independent Schools Association of the Central States offers a constituent survey through Bob Dicus of Marketing Research Technologies and Chris Everett of The Kensington Group and is showcasing the work of another firm, Measuring Success, at its upcoming Heads of School Conference.

ultimate queston

Fred Reichheld’s development of the Net Promoter System is a particularly interesting approach to gauging customer satisfaction. I’d give it high marks for its simplicity, a tone that does not promote a sense of consumer-oriented entitlement, and clear emphasis on behavior. Originally implemented in the for-profit sector, NPS is growing in its application to nonprofits including independent schools guided by Reichheld’s firm, Bain & Co.

Applying the NPS to parents in the school setting, the questions are:

  • On a scale of 0-10 (10 high), how likely are you to recommend School X?
  • Why did you give School X that rating?

Arnie Zar-Kessler, Head of School at Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Boston, explored the use of the NPS in Jewish day schools in a presentation at the RAVSAK/PARDES Jewish Day School Leadership Conference on January 19: Forget the Marketing, Dump the Branding — It’s All About Loyalty Now: An NPS Primer for JDS’s.

Steve Hinds, Headmaster at Meadowbrook School (MA), and his colleague Lisa Lebovitz will be joined by Melissa Artabane of Bain & Co. at the NAIS Annual Conference on February 28 in the presentation of The Ultimate Question: Does Your School Ask It?, an overview of their use of NPS for an annual parent survey and related administrative goal setting.

Reichheld’s book (with Rob Markey), The Ultimate Question 2.0: How Net Promoter Companies Thrive in a Customer Driven World (Harvard Business Press Books, 2011), is worth a look.

Prediction & Response: Engaging Learners

Two articles about pedagogy caught my attention on Twitter* last week.

In What’s Your Best Guess? Predicting Answers Leads to Deeper Learning (Mind/Shift, 2/24/12), author and journalist Annie Murphy Paul emphasizes the power of engaging learners by asking them to make a prediction before offering them information. While many teachers use this strategy, it may not be a staple of the repertoire. And perhaps it should be!

Inspired, my colleagues and I restructured our presentation at the CASE/NAIS Annual Conference this week, asking participants in our session to predict data before we shared it. You can guess the effect. Our hour together seemed more interactive, participants seemed to have a greater vested interest in hearing what we had to say, and an element of fun was interjected. The session had a good discussion dynamic, and I suspect that Annie Murphy Paul deserves some credit.


Photo: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

In Sticking with Students, Responding Effectively to Incorrect Answers (EdWeek, 1/6/14), Riverdale Country School reading specialist Brooke McCaffrey acknowledges teachers’ inclination to move on swiftly when a student offers on off-the-mark response or expresses confusion in front of classmates. She nudges us to instead use a variety of strategies to help that student reach the right answer, including validating any parts of the response that were correct, offering a cue, restating the question, and giving the student additional time. She points out that this approach conveys to the student both high expectations and belief in that student’s ability to learn. Perhaps more important, McCaffrey offers us some strategies for avoiding these potentially awkward moments: providing wait time before expecting a response and asking students to process a response first with a partner before bringing it to the group.

Like Paul’s points, McCaffrey’s words have applicability to our work with adults. I remember learning in those undergraduate education classes (in the Dark Ages) to count to ten to allow for response time. In the moment, this can seem like an eternity, but it works. In a class of fourth graders, in a faculty meeting, in a conference workshop, as soon as participants realize you’re going to wait for them to process, the energy and dynamic in the room shifts.

*Thanks to Twitter colleagues @MindShiftKQED and @granadosmaggie for enriching my reading diet.

Catalytic Questioning

Hal Gregersen describes himself as a “catalytic questioner.” INSEAD Professor of Innovation and Leadership and co-author of The Innovator’s DNA with Clay Christensen and Jeff Dyer, Gregersen challenges organizations to develop innovative cultures.

Gergersen wowed the audience at the Independent Schools Association of the Central States (ISACS) Annual Conference on November 8. He relates his work to the future of learning and to our work in independent schools, noting both the essential need for questioning to stimulate creative solutions and these dismal facts about classroom life:

  • the average child, age 6-18, asks only one question per one-hour class per month;
  • the average teacher asks students 291 questions per day and waits an average of one second for a reply.

Watch the video below for a bit of inspiration. Then share with your teacher colleagues the just-published article, Hal Gregersen: “Teachers should reward questions, not just answers” (Wired/UK, 11/08/13). 

The Value of Networking

Sinek 10-21-13

The value of networking is not measured by the number of people we meet but by the number of people we introduce to others. — Simon Sinek

On the eve of the final day of the 2013 ESHA Annual Conference, as I thought about meaningful words to close the event, I came across this comment in Simon Sinek’s Tweeter stream. It strikes me as hitting just the right chord on the nature of generative relationships, stewardship, and colleague connections.

I had the privilege of hearing Sinek speak at a U.S. Bank event in St. Louis earlier this year. His TEDTalk at TEDxPuget Sound, “How Great Leaders Inspire Action,” is worth watching. This puts his book, Start With Why (Penguin, 2011), on my reading list!

Anticipating Change

All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave behind us is a part of ourselves. — Anatole France

I have been given a wonderful new professional opportunity: to serve as the President of the Independent Schools Association of the Central States beginning in July 2014. I look forward with enthusiasm to the increased breadth this will bring for me, as I dig into issues of independent school accreditation and supporting the needs of all members of independent school communities along with facilitating the work of school leaders. I look forward to working with a new Board of Trustees to chart the direction of one of the largest regional independent school associations in the country and with the ISACS administrative team to realize the association’s goals.

ESHA_logoBut first, this means leaving an organization that I have known and served for 15 years — first as member, then as Board member and volunteer conference planner, and, from 2008-2014, as Executive Director. I made the first of my good-byes to members of the Elementary School Heads Association (ESHA) yesterday as my transition was announced to members present at the ESHA Annual Conference.  This was a room of my colleagues, the folks now doing the work that I did from 1995-2006 — heading independent elementary/middle schools. My friends, you will be missed!

5 Trending Topics No Elementary School Leader Should Miss: Private Schools in a Public Context

Five trends no elementary school head should miss: this is the assignment my colleague Mary Menacho gave me for my remarks to Elementary School Heads Association (ESHA) members and prospective members at a gathering earlier this month at Trinity School in Menlo Park, CA. I tweaked the focus from “trends” to “trending topics” to give myself the latitude to address issues on which there’s buzz, even if we’re not yet seeing considerable traction. I’ve given you the big five from where I sit. Here’s that sixth topic promised — the one that I believe we need to kindle.

#6, for kindling: Private schools in a public context

You’ll find “public purpose” and “public partnership” in current and recent issues of Independent School magazine, in the indy schools Twitter realm, and — a harbinger of progress, perhaps — in a recent publication from the U.S. Department of Education. Search “public partnership” on the National Association of Independent Schools website, and you’ll generate more than 50 relevant links.

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Harth’s “glocal” illustration, NAES Biennial Conference, 11/20/10 (Photo: Claudia Daggett)

I’d like to push us to re-frame this conversation in a subtle but important way. Much like our shift in thinking from community service to service learning, I believe we need to take the next step and begin to think about our work in connection to our communities (no matter how largely defined) as reciprocal and in context. Let’s throw out any semblance of the noblesse oblige attitude that we get involved in order to serve those less fortunate. Instead, we get involved because shared endeavors benefit us all, “raise us all up,” if you will.

Chris Harth’s model of “glocal” citizenship inspires me here. I first read of Harth’s model for wedding global and local service learning in “Going Glocal: Adaptive Education for Local and Global Citizenship,” in the Fall 2010 issue of Independent School magazine. Since then, I’ve had the privilege to hear him speak three times. He has me in his grips as soon as he brings out his Russian nesting dolls and places the school inside the town, the state, the U.S., and the world. He makes the case that we need to think of and teach about students’ multiple levels of belongingness, about citizenship in a new and broader way.

My hope is that our institutional self-images evolve, as well, to include school as citizen — of its local community, its region, and the world.

Why is this a good idea?

  1. We should do the right thing.  Let’s begin with the moral imperative. We live in this world and have a responsibility to be a part of it.
  2. We should offer a breadth of experiences and perspectives. Approached thoughtfully, widening our arc is good for students, parents, and faculty — making our experiences more diverse and richer as a result.
  3. We should pay it forward. Community awareness of your school can improve your position in the admissions market, attract new benefactors, engender a general feeling of support from neighbors and town that — in addition to its “feel good” qualities — can be helpful down the line.
  4. We should bproactive. Reinforcing the charitable aspect of your organization helps to secure your non-profit status.

What might this look like?

  • Reciprocal partnerships with public schools and other public-oriented non-profits.  Especially impressive in this department are the student-to-student programs in which both populations are in a position to both give and receive. The recently-established National Network of Schools in Partnership offers several good examples. The NAIS video library offers four interviews with representatives of schools doing good work in this area, a collection compiled by Matthew Bradley of East Woods School in conjunction with Whitney Work, NAIS Director of Legislative Affairs, Jefferson Burnett, NAIS VP, Government and Community Relations, and ESHA.
  • Relationships with local and state legislators and government officials, particularly in order to further the common good. An impressive example: William Penn Charter School saw it as their civic responsibility to participate in a Philadelphia School Reform Commission hearing in March 2013, protesting the potential closing of their local public elementary school. Meet your local public school superintendent for coffee. Invite your state representative to tour your school.
  • A campus periodically open to the surrounding community. During my tenure as Head of School at Friends Academy, we offered the community a free summer concert on the grounds and garnered foundation support to fund high-quality professional children’s entertainment as a draw. Old Trail School hosts a farmers’ market.

Let’s consider our sense of place in new ways. Let’s think of ourselves as part of the fabric: in context.

Recommended reading:

Bassett, P. Avoiding the tragedy of the commons. Independent School (NAIS), Spring 2011.

Drinkwater, D., & Smethurst, J. Partnership now: A paradigm shift in education. Independent School (NAIS), Spring 2011.

Gow, P. Defining the public purpose of independent schools. Independent Schools: Common Perspectives, EdWeek, 4/12/13.

5 Trending Topics No Elementary School Leader Should Miss: Generational Shift

Five trends no elementary school head should miss: this is the assignment my colleague Mary Menacho gave me for my remarks to Elementary School Heads Association (ESHA) members and prospective members at a gathering last week at Trinity School in Menlo Park, CA. I’ve tweaked the focus from “trends” to “trending topics” to give myself the latitude to address issues on which there’s buzz, even if we’re not yet seeing considerable traction. So, one at a time, here are the big five from where I sit, along with a sixth topic that I believe we need to kindle.

#4: Generational Shift

Twenty years ago, I heard heads of schools lamenting that the faculty population was changing. Compared to the past, young teachers were not so interested in the “triple threat” assignments of teaching, coaching, and “after hours” duties and more willing to set limits and ask for what they wanted and needed. This crop of teachers was also more attuned to work-life balance and more likely to appreciate and do well with autonomy.

Ten years ago, I heard teachers lamenting that the parent population was changing. Compared to the past, parents were less deferential to school authority and less interested or able to volunteer their time. They were also more keenly attentive to their children’s needs, desires, and comfort.


Today, association directors are taking note: the needs and preferences of our members are changing. As a group, members are less enthusiastic about meetings, prefer their communication in digital form, and want to know how their involvement in a group or project will benefit them directly. They’re more self-sufficient and also more open to new ideas.

Sounding familiar? This, of course, is the transition from Baby Boomers, born from 1946-1964, to their Gen X counterparts born from 1965 to 1981. And a new change is coming, as the next generation, the Y’s, reach our teaching population in a few years.

If we’re going to serve our constituents well, we need to pay attention and to develop what Sarah Sladek calls “generational intelligence.” Two very good resources from Sladek, offering research and reflections on the characteristics of recent generations are:

Our theme song for this post? Cue Bob Dylan, iconic member of The Silent Generation, with The Times They Are A-Changin.’