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Consortia: A Hedge on Private School Tuition?

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In a still weakened economy, now more than ever the independent school community needs to justify its existence as an attractive alternative to public and charter institutions.

I’ve spent most of my life involved in independent schools, either as a student or teacher. With the smaller class sizes, curricular freedom, and enhanced one-on-one attention, I know I wouldn’t be where I am today without investing in private school education.

With soaring tuition costs, however, I have never been more fearful for the future of independent schools. I know firsthand that the best institutions do the best they can to offer as much financial aid as possible, but we are quickly approaching a point where only so much can be done to attract and retain a diverse, vibrant community.

In New England, many of the finest places of learning charge over $45,000 a year—and that doesn’t include additional expenses like books. “The average private school tuition in the U.S. for a non-sectarian elementary school is $15,945 a year, and $27,302 a year for secondary school,” writes Christine Ryan Jyoti of The Week in a May 15, 2013 article, Is Private School Worth It? “Catholic elementary school will run you on average $4,944 for elementary school and $7,826 for secondary school; other religious schools average $6,576 for elementary and $10,493 for secondary.”

I don’t have the magic solution to lowering tuition costs without diminishing the quality of education offered. However, I do wish to share one developing idea of how to help justify tuition, but it will work only if the independent school world is willing to work together for the benefit of all students.

Independent schools should engage in and promote highly affordable consortias that offer online courses. For instance, I see no reason why an independent school in Hawaii, which offers a popular course on marine science, can’t or shouldn’t also offer an online version of that course to a partner school in Colorado—or wherever else, for that matter. A quid pro quo relationship would form, and students from multiple institutions would benefit from the best and brightest teachers in the independent school world.

Along those lines, I hold great respect for Global Online Academy, whose mission statement speaks to how technology can and should foster a brighter teaching and learning environment: “The mission of the Global Online Academy is to replicate in online classrooms the intellectually rigorous programs and excellent teaching that are hallmarks of its member schools; to foster new and effective ways, through best practices in online education, for students to learn; and to promote students’ global awareness and understanding by creating truly diverse, worldwide, online schoolroom communities.”

But according to a Sept. 25, 2012 Wall Street Journal article, Online Holdouts No More, membership is far from free. “Each member school pays the alliance an annual $30,000 membership fee, and an additional $700 per student per course,” writes reporter Sophia Hollander. “Currently, most of the participating schools are covering the cost for their students. The fees go in part toward compensating the teachers for the extra work of teaching a class online.”

I challenge independent schools to work together to do what Global Online Academy does so well, but at a much lower cost—and ultimately for almost nothing. Starting a consortia would require investment, but mostly in the short term. Schools would need to train teachers, unfamiliar with offering online courses. Consortias would also need to investigate optimal online learning platforms.

But having each participating institution pay only its share would mitigate the cost of starting a consortia, however great. The more schools involved, the lower the cost for each school. As we prepare students to succeed in an increasingly digital world, I see great value in training teachers to make optimal use of educational technology. Teachers who offer an online class should have that count toward their total course load.

In November, I spoke with Michael Nachbar, Director of Global Online Academy. He explained an intricate teacher-training program, which requires intense online coursework for potential hires to learn about and gain experience in managing an online class. At the end of that initial six-week period, successful recruits travel to Seattle, Washington, where the company is based, to experience a week-long summer workshop. “That, I think, is the highlight for many of our faculty because it gives them a space to fit all the pieces of the puzzle together. We get to work alongside them,” Nachbar says.

Independent schools should heed Nachbar’s emphasis on professional development, and equipping teachers with the skills to offer online courses. Once more, I challenge independent schools to encourage teachers to learn how to use increasingly important online teaching and learning tools.

Consortias wouldn’t make independent school tuition more affordable, but they would make independent schools more attractive—all by tapping into an explosion of exciting offerings from talented professionals, who believe strongly in private school education.

I’m not naïve. This would be a gigantic undertaking, but I find solace in one of my favorite addresses by John F. Kennedy: “We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”

As far as creating an online consortia goes, I challenge independent schools to reach for the moon. Make that the stars.

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David Cutler is a dedicated independent school teacher at Brimmer and May School in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, where he teaches United States History, United States Government, and Journalism. He also serves as Assistant Boys Cross Country Coach. Cutler is proud to act as a Teacher of the Future for the National Association of Independent Schools. Occasionally, he also writes about education for Edutopia and The Atlantic. Cutler attended Brandeis University as an undergraduate with a major in History and minors in Latin American Studies and Journalism. He holds an M.A. in Comparative History, also from Brandeis.

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