Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Educational Reform Thoughts: An Independent Model for Public Schools?

The topic of education reform does not necessarily come up much as part of my role as an independent school administrator.  Because we exist to serve our own mission, such reform efforts do not necessarily make a significant impact on how we operate our school.  Educational reform does, however, provide a wonderful backdrop for creative thinking and the discussion of ideas.  As such, and because I believe that any improvement in education (private or public) is beneficial to all educators, I would like to propose an idea for public school reform that is based on the independent school model – one that has shown to be quite successful in preparing students for life outside of school.  This idea is not without some merit as Vermont considers a similar idea for some schools.

Independent schools are governed by a Board of Trustees who hire the school’s Headmaster to run the operation of the institution.  Boards are basically responsible for a few items (a more complete list of Board functions can be found here).

  1. Make sure the school is operating according to its stated mission.
  2. Secure the financial stability and future of the school.
  3. Hire the Headmaster.

The key element for this structure is that each school is allowed to craft its own mission.  This brings me to my first reform: 

Allow public schools to craft their own mission based on the communities they are set up to serve.

Now, what about standards?  In the current climate, public schools are all basically held to the same standards, and these standards are mostly based on student performance on standardized tests.  At independent schools, accreditation is performed by visiting committees with whom a set of guidelines are used to evaluate whether or not the school is upholding its own mission.  In other words, does the school do what it says it does?  My school is accredited by the VAIS (Virginia Association of Independent Schools).  We went through a rigorous review of all our operations during our accreditation visit.  The results of which point out a number of commendations, but also recommendations which will be checked for progress during the next visit.

This works well because in place of student outcomes as a measure of operational value, the school is held accountable to a set of operational guidelines.  In other words, there is an assumption that if the school is mission focused and operates according to a set of proven operational principles, then student outcomes will be consistent with the mission of the school and generally satisfactory.  This is a contrast to the standard of institutional value being solely based on student scores. 

Therefore my next suggestion:

Government agencies should get out of the governing of schools and begin accrediting schools based on operational principles instead of student test scores.

I am aware of the fact that these thoughts, if at all credible, require refining and a willingness to shift the paradigm of public education away from results based evaluations and more towards developmental based criteria.  There are also a number of logistical issues that would need to work themselves out, but I believe that if we are going to discuss real reform that has potential to make real changes, nothing should be automatically discounted – even the idea of shifting towards a more independent model for public schools. 

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