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What Private Schools Can Learn from College for America

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“Nobody has a monopoly on good ideas. Independent schools can learn from public and charter schools. Public schools can learn from charter and independent schools. What I would like to see is a conversation that involves all of the sectors.” 

So said John Chubb when I first interviewed him in the summer of 2013, shortly after he had assumed the role of NAIS president. His words continue to have a profound impact on my thinking about independent schools—and what our community could and perhaps should learn from different educational models. In fact, for a 2015 story I wrote on this topic for The Atlantic, I once again reached out to Chubb, who told me that often all types of teachers from all types of schools are “organized to be insular.” 

Chubb believed in the benefits of sharing data across educational sectors. Unfortunately, he passed away before I could ask him about how K-12 education could also learn from innovative models in higher education. From attending an Education Technology and Blended Learning Summit, hosted by NAIS in the spring of 2014, though, I would like to think I have some idea of what he might have said to me.  

At that summit, which Chubb moderated, attendees discussed why a $5-, $15-, $20-, $30- or $40-thousand tuition is worth it when there are free public and charter school options. From my impression, Chubb believed that with enhanced flexibility, independent schools are not only uniquely positioned to experiment with blended and online learning models to distinguish themselves and possibly reduce costs, but also that they have a duty to do so. This calls for an uncomfortable task of rethinking the value of daily face-to-face instruction (at least in certain courses). I imagine Chubb would have favored the idea of looking toward higher education for deeper insight as well.  

LOOKING AT CFA FOR WAYS  TO LOWER COSTS 

Along these lines, I don’t presume to have the answer, nor do I feel that only one answer exists. But I do feel strongly that independent schools could glean useful insight from College For America (CFA) at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU). 

CFA has no teachers, no courses, and charges $2,500 a year toward an accredited associate’s or bachelor’s degree. Moreover, 70 percent of students graduate debt-free.  

Launched in 2012, CFA allows students to demonstrate mastery of 120 competencies rather than earn class credit. Much of the learning happens online, via information CFA curates from the Internet. Students complete tasks and show competency in quantitative skills. Along the way, they also benefit from access to learning coaches to help them navigate the program and set their own pace, accountability partners to provide motivation, and mentors to foster career development. Once students feel ready to submit a task for review, adjunct faculty provide timely feedback. 

In 2014, I first interviewed SNHU President Paul LeBlanc, who told me that CFA students are presented with real-world hypotheticals. “They’re not exams; they’re not the kind of isolated assignments you might get in a college class. They’re meant to be hypotheticals, which mimic more closely how that competency is used in the real world,” he said.  

Independent schools should follow CFA, jettison grades, and embrace competency-based learning to allow students to progress at their own pace. More than ever, technology allows students to decide how and what they learn, and, in both respects, schools must do a better job of giving students choice. Teachers must also rethink their traditional sage-on-the-stage role. They should embrace the role of “coach”or “mentor,”directing students to quality information and online learning programs. 

I reconnected with Leblanc this December, curious to gainfurther insight from him as to whether independent schools are fostering uniqueness, not only to offer a better education, but also to distinguish themselves from public and charter schools.“It's very hard to justify that high price tag if you don't have distinct value added, something that's quite different,”Leblanc tells me. 

LeBlanc, also a former trustee of the Derryfield School in Manchester, NH, which his daughter attended, admits that he doesn’t have a magic solution to lowering independent school tuition and costs. More still, while he says some lessons are transferable, like investing in online learning to prepare students for where higher ed is certainly headed, when it comes to creating a more nurturing environment, with more meaningful engagement from adults, “technology doesn’t touch that stuff.” 

Still, LeBlanc imagines that independent schools could unbundle a “set of coming-of-age experiences,”while also giving thought to what types of experiences could be offered online, and what should remain face-to-face. He says, “Your two biggest expenses are people and buildings. If you could lower your cost, could you enroll more students because you would be using your facilities differently? That’s an interesting question.” 

Independent schools are uniquely positioned to experiment with unbundling, and trying out models of learning for self-motivated, creative thinkers to thrive in an entrepreneurial, technology-driven economy.“You have a lot more ways of learning you can bring to bear,”LeBlanc says, referring to independent schools. “You’re not locked into that expensive brick-and-mortar, full-time teacher model. That doesn't mean your teachers go away. It just means you deploy them differently.” 

DEPLOYING TEACHERS DIFFERENTLY  

Here, Leblanc hits upon an important and often misunderstood point. It’s not so much that teachers will disappear, but that their role will change. 

Curtis J. Bonk, Professor of Instructional Systems Technology at Indiana University, agrees: “I think kids in 20 years are going to walk into school and pick their peers for the day,”Bonk, author of The World is Open: How Technology Is Revolutionizing Education, told me when we first spoke two years ago. “And they’ll be coming from all over the world. They’ll just hit a little map and they might even pick their teachers for the day coming from Philippines and Singapore and other places.” 

We reconnected in December to chat more about what needs to occur for that predication to become a reality. “There have to be certain systems in place,”he says. “One part of it has to be technological, one part has to be cultural, and one part has to be familiarity.”Bonk and I have chatted often about what this mean for educators, and if they should fear for their jobs. 

“If you take even a modest interest in integrating technology, I don’tthink you need to be afraid,”Bonk says. “I don’t think you need to have it be your heart and soul and blood running through you, but you have to be aware of it, adapt to it and make good use of it and share it. And if you do that, you don’t have to worry about your job. The number-one thing you’re going to have to worry about is having too many kids to teach.” 

I agree wholeheartedly. For example, it should be common and routine for an independent school in Hawaii, which offers a popular course on marine science, also to 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 develop, and students from various schools would benefit from the best teachers in the independent school world, at no additional cost.  

Consortia wouldn’t necessarily make independent school tuition more affordable, but they would definitely make independent schools more attractive, all by tapping into a wealth of exciting offerings from the most talented professionals. Here, Bonk hits upon another crucial point. 

“There's probably no more important topic than the issue of diversity and understanding differences among people,”he says, noting that in addition to student exchanges and face-to-face collaborations, schools should invest in online labs in chemistry, physics, and other subjects—all to cater to greater diversity in learning.

Moreover, to help retain a vibrant and supportive extended school community, Bonk and I floated the idea of offering free-of-charge online courses. For instance, why shouldn’t a fascinating economics teacher illuminate curious alumni about the 2008 housing crisis, or a beloved government teacher moderate discussion of the 2016 presidential election? As adults, we often treasure and recount memories of influential teachers. As I see it, independent schools only stand to gain—culturally and financially—from wisely tapping into technology to engage a wider audience. 

While writing this piece, I often returned to something else Chubb told me during our first chat: “When it comes to technological innovation, independent schools have an advantage. There aren’t rules that structure the school day, the classroom, and all of these other things. There’s no political process to go through. We ought to see the most innovation in the independent school sector. One of the reasons I joined is because of that.”

I encourage all independent schools to consider Chubb’s words. I know I do. 

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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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Guest Sunday, 04 December 2016