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Independent Schools: What, Whither, and Why


by John C. Esty Jr. - 1991

Discusses articles in this journal issue on private education. The paper suggests that the future of independent schools lies in how well they perform in the areas where they are unique and that the future of private schools is ultimately connected to the health of public schools. (Source: ERIC)

Thirteen years ago, as one of four finalists in the search for a new president for the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS), I faced the board of directors for a three-hour barrage of questions. The first question was a zinger: If it is true, Mr. Esty, that all of your children are in public schools, how can you be the chief spokesperson for independent schools? I answered that it was true that all four of my children were in public school, and that I felt this helped me gain a perspective on schooling that was not bounded by considerations of public versus private governance.


I went on to say that each of our children began in the local public elementary school for reasons of convenience and cost, and that we reassessed the schooling of each continuously. We used a three-part test (in what must be the all time most simple-minded assessment of schooling): Is our child happy going off to school in the morning? Is he (they are all male) asked to do anything—cut out designs, look for specimens, do homework, interview his parents, almost anything other than passivity? Does he talk animatedly of school at the family evening meal? When positive answers began to erode as high school approached, we resorted to a fundamental choice: We moved to an advantaged suburban community with an excellent public school system. To my astonishment, I discovered that my higher property taxes (65 percent of which went to the local schools) and higher interest on the mortgage of my costlier home were subsidized by tax deductions on my federal income tax return. In fact, the U.S. government helped to finance my migration from a “low-tuition” public school system to a “high-tuition” one. So, parental choice in public education is a common phenomenon, not an abstract or experimental idea—except for people who cannot pay.


I was reminded of this “tuition tax credit” for expensive public schools by a recent exchange in the op-ed pages of the New York Times. Hodding Carter, press aide to President Carter, wrote (June 13, 1990) that there would be no real reform of public education until America’s wealthiest and most influential families sent their children to public schools instead of private schools. I was compelled to respond (July 5, 1990) that the data showed that 80 percent of families with an income above $50,000 send their children to public schools; the same proportion of families with an income above $70,000 whose children have taken the College Board’s Scholastic Aptitude Test send them to public schools.


The point is that there is an immense amount of mythology and misinformation about private schools in America. So when a serious, scholarly journal undertakes to publish a cluster of essays on independent schools, it is especially welcome. The question, then, is whether the cumulative effect of these articles advances our understanding of this special kind of private school and its role in American education. Do they, as Pearl Kane hopes, suggest how independent schools must change to meet new challenges?


Certainly there are connections among the articles published here. As part of her excellent and data-based summary of independent school characteristics and challenges, Pearl Kane notes the increasing commitment to diversity and recruitment of children of color. Yet Signithia Fordham points out that “admission is the least complicated and in some ways the least important of the issues” of the search for diversity. What happens to children who are asked to assimilate a culture that may be hurtful? Diane Ravitch praises the freedom of independent schools to hire teachers of their own choice, yet Susan Lloyd chronicles in grim detail the shakiness of that freedom. Terrence Deal sees the great strength of private schools in their emphasis on “cultural bonds rather than authority and rules,” yet Signithia Fordham suggests that this can be destructive to children who are outside the majority culture. Several authors suggest that independent schools are searching for modes other than the competitiveness extolled by E. M. Swift—and if becoming coeducational helps that search, as suggested by Michael Cary, does it take the edge off the special quality of the all-boys’ school, as celebrated by Richard Hawley?


These questions will continue to be debated, and more research results adduced to shed light on them. For our present purposes, however, it may be more productive to search for any common denominator or convergence among the articles. Is there a glimmering truth that might affirm private educators and help public educators? They could learn a lot from one another if the former were not so preoccupied and the latter so uninterested.1


Perhaps I am predisposed to the discovery of a particular truth (Kepler, after all, “discovered” the planets traveling around the sun because, as a neo-Platonist, he thought they should be there), but it seems to me each of the essays holds in common a special concern for values, the ethical context of the school, the invisible glue that binds the enterprise together. Kane refers to the independent schools’ “self-conception as moral communities,” and sees the critical question as the “tension between moral mission and financial necessity.” For Ravitch, the basic value of the private sector in education is the diversity it provides to nurture the even more basic value of keeping us a free society. Deal emphasizes the importance of “ritual and ceremony as a way of communicating values.” He cites the stories told by Deerfield’s long-time, great head, Frank Boyden, as a way of reinforcing the cultural values of the school. I can vouch personally for Deal’s comments because I myself went to Deerfield for my junior and senior years of high school. I spent most of my junior year resisting the social “deconstructing” that seemed to require me to accept a prevailing ethos of sophistication, athletic worship, and being “cool.” Yet in my senior year, just before graduation, when Mr. Boyden called the class together to tell the story of Tom Ashley, nobody thought it was corny—and even the sophisticates had misty eyes.


Swift’s “four postulates to play by” define the values of many independent schools—learning to live with limits, learning to play by rules, and especially trusting and being trusted by adults. There is enormous power for growth in the bond between the boy and the adult who was both hockey coach and English teacher. The shared joke of the hockey goalie who was like the Ancient Mariner (“he stoppeth one of three”) has a mini-ritual quality that conveys the value that it matters being your best at both sports and studies.


When invited to reflect on the first year of coeducation, Deerfield’s English classes wrote, in what Cary calls a “combination of hopefulness and pointed institutional criticism,” that there was “need for greater tolerance, better communication, improved opportunities for school service, more time for reflection.” Mr. Boyden himself could not have done any better. Hawley rests his case for the boys’ school on the special climate that produced for him, as a young teacher in his twenties, a “sustained infusion of inspiration and hope.”


What values does Lloyd find in the midst of her chronicle of dreary bureaucratic excess in the regulation of private school teachers? She offers the idea that professionals should be debating such value-laden problems as those revealed by literature teachers who find “women (half the world’s population) and people of color (over three-fourths of the world’s population) to be grossly underrepresented in the Hirsch- and Bloom-approved humanities curriculum,” instead of fussing about regulatory red tape and often irrelevant credentialing issues. From that perspective, one understands better Fordham’s dualism—Self versus Other—and her call for schools to convince students of color that the “other is [no longer] totally other.” So while values are at the core, one has also to ask whose values—and for whom.


What do the essayists say about the future of independent schools? What are the challenges facing them and how will the schools deal with them? Kane is very specific. Dealing with the commitment to diversity means increasing financial aid, being sensitive to the needs of students of color already in the school, and developing a multicultural setting. Reform-minded public schools present new challenges by attracting higher caliber teachers with higher salaries and alternate routes to certification, offering more choice in type of school and curriculum, and improving working conditions. According to Kane, the real challenge, and the test of the future, lies with the ability of the independent school to reconcile the “profound self-conception as moral communities striving to institute social change through enhanced ethnic and socioeconomic diversity with . . . the pressures of marketing and the escalation of financial costs.”


For Deal, “private schools must be willing to devote time, energy, and resources to nourish community and tradition,” and yet the dilemma will be that of “balancing innovation and tradition.” For Lloyd—the only independent school teacher on the sixty-four-person National Board for Professional Teaching Standards—a good bit of the future for independent school teachers (and therefore for independent schools) depends on the “professionalization” of all teachers and a future “emphasis on performance over credentials.” For Fordham, the challenge for independent schools’ commitment to diversity is to disentangle “black students’ perceptions of private schools and the dominant society in which they are embedded as embodying ‘assimilation and contamination.’ ”


For me, finally, the future of independent schools lies fully in how well they perform with high quality in the areas where they retain a certain uniqueness, even in the face of public school competition. In my 1988-1989 president’s report, I outlined those unique areas as follows:2


1. Attention to individual learning styles and rates. This is a long-cherished idea in education that works in independent schools, largely due to smaller scale and our tradition of individually helping each child until he or she has learned what is expected.


2. Teaching all the time. Because, as the polls have shown, the adults in independent schools are especially dedicated, teaching goes on all the time—in the halls, in the dining rooms, on the playing fields, in study hall; in early morning, late afternoon, and even on weekends.


3. Athletics for everyone. Again, because of smaller scale and tradition, a much higher percentage of independent school students engage in thorough physical exercise, athletics, and competitive sports. With more medical reports giving new information about the vital importance of physical exercise, this uniqueness is critical.


4. Nurturing a sense of community service. Legislation for national service may turn out to be the second priority of the U.S. Congress, after child care. At several recent conferences of educators interested in promoting greater participation in community service, independent school people have led the way.


5. Partnership and shared values with graduates and parents. Taken almost for granted in independent schools, this kind of partnership is being enlarged in many public schools by administrators and teachers who have discovered that the single most important factor in successful choice programs is expanding the role of parents in the school-selection process.


6. The potential to be truly multicultural communities. This objective is rarely reached in either public or private schools. Simply to juxtapose students of differing backgrounds under one roof does not ensure a multicultural community; in fact, it often works in reverse. Because they are smaller and value the ideal of community in general, independent schools have a unique opportunity to prepare young people for the changing American society of which they will be a part.


7. Teaching, learning, and living in an ethical context. Although it is commonly supposed that the greatest advantage of a private school is that it is free to “teach” religion, this advantage is far more often taken by denominational private schools than by independent schools. Still, as William Sloane Coffin once remarked, “Morals are caught and not taught.” An intentionally and explicitly ethical community is a far more powerful influence than courses in values. I believe there is a yearning in America for more attention to values and the moral dimension of life.


In contemplating the future, independent schools also need to be clear that their health is ultimately connected with the health of public schools. This is what I was trying to say to the NAIS board when they interviewed me and I said that having children in public school gave me a broader perspective. While the eighties were good years for independent schools, partly because of the perceived decline of public schools, there may have developed a complacency that ill prepared independent schools for the enrollment declines caused by demographic change, or a complacency that suggested that tuitions could be raised steadily out of proportion to the rise in the cost of living. Conversely, when the rapidly improving suburban public high schools destroyed their college prep monopoly just after World War II, independent schools responded by broadening their purpose, which greatly enriched their role. The collaboration that developed around the Advanced Placement Program, for example, led to an extraordinarily creative period of improved teaching and course development for both public and independent schools.


So independent schools need the stimulation of creative public schools and vice versa. In fact, American society needs the private sector in education for reasons suggested by Ravitch’s evocation of Thoreau’s “different drummer,” for reasons that may have nothing to do with education, but rather with belief. Lloyd’s tales of bureaucratic power and short-sightedness evoke the specter of a public orthodoxy running roughshod over unpopular belief and dissent.


Independent school educators believe in our free society because they know their independence derives from it. They believe in choice in such matters as schooling; they believe it is more promising to work to reduce the socioeconomic barriers to choice than to suppress it. They believe independence carries a high responsibility for public service and the public values of equality, equity, peace, and justice. They believe that it is precisely because they are independent that they can be effective in these critical matters.



Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 92 Number 3, 1991, p. 485-490
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 315, Date Accessed: 1/23/2022 11:03:59 AM

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