Independent schools are nonprofit private schools that are governed by an independent board of trustees and are supported primarily through tuition and contributions. There are more than 1,500 independent private K-12 schools in the United States, including some of the country’s best known, including Sidwell Friends School in Washington, where several presidents sent their children.
It is commonly thought that many of these private schools provide a better education than public schools — and data published recently by the National Association of Independent Schools and Gallup find that their graduates may have better long-term outcomes.
But data can be misleading, and there is a legitimate question of how much sense it makes to compare private and public school performance when the populations of students are different.
In this post, Alden S. Blodget — an educator who spent decades in independent schools — writes that the NAIS-Gallup report, “Seeking Critical Collegiate Experiences and Consistent Progression in Higher Education,” could have “unintended consequences, the most dangerous of which is confirming a tendency to believe that education in independent schools must be better than what happens in public schools.”
Blodget was both a student of independent schools and a teacher of English and drama, as well as an administrator in five different schools in several states during his nearly four-decade academic career. He has published numerous pieces about education. And from 2000 until 2014, he worked with University of Southern California neuroscientist Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, offering workshops for teachers to explore the implications of her research and that of Harvard University’s Kurt W. Fischer.
Immordino-Yang researches the psychological and neurobiological bases of social emotion, self-awareness and culture, and their implications for learning; Fisher has been a leader in researching how neuroscience, cognitive science and psychology tell us about learning and the cognitive and emotional development of young people.
Blodget published a short book based on these workshops: “Learning, Schooling and the Brain: New Research vs. Old Assumptions.” He has retired from teaching and is the editor of ParentsAssociation.com, a free online resource and idea exchange for parents, students and teachers.
By Alden S. Blodget
“We have built a cult of data, and we are now enclosed within.”
— Nicolas Sarkozy
We live in the age of Big Data. People no longer seem to trust intuition, experience or observation, and anecdotal evidence causes the eyes to glaze over. If you have a thought, chances are good that few will take it seriously unless some sort of research supports it. Conclusions and evidence based on research-produced numbers increasingly determine not only the direction of decisions but whether a new idea is even considered.
Research and data can certainly be important tools in assessing claims and effectiveness and in guiding people as they explore new initiatives, but the elevation of data to a sort of monotheism is dangerous. Numbers offer only one view of reality. Experience offers another. The worship of numbers, especially when those numbers present a reality sharply at odds with the reality that people actually live, can limit or stifle change and innovation.
In his foreword to “Mis-Measuring Our Lives: Why GDP Doesn’t Add Up,” Nicolas Sarkozy wrote about a “gulf of incomprehension between the expert certain in his knowledge and the citizen whose experience of life is completely out of sync with the story told by the data. . . . We wound up mistaking our representations of wealth for the wealth itself and our representations of reality for the reality itself.”
Sarkozy’s observations apply to areas other than the economy.
Recently, the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) partnered with Gallup to compare the college experiences of NAIS graduates with those of graduates of other high schools. Not surprisingly, its report (NAIS-Gallup Report on NAIS Graduates) showed that NAIS graduates fared better in college and in life after college.
Although the survey claims only to look at factors that contribute to a future sense of well-being (good job, good life) rather than how well educated students are, there is a tacit invitation for people to draw conclusions about the superior quality of an NAIS education. As a result, the report could have unintended consequences, the most dangerous of which is confirming a tendency to believe that education in independent schools must be better than what happens in public schools.
Comparing NAIS students to students in non-NAIS schools might produce nice marketing fliers, but it can also solidify comfortable self-satisfaction and complacency, lulling independent schools into thinking that they are some sort of model of excellence in learning outcomes.
The data from this study are certainly being used in new marketing tools to claim that NAIS schools are superior to public schools. After all, just look at the numbers used in the NAIS fliers: “77 percent of NAIS grads complete college on time, compared to 64 percent of public school grads,” and about the same percentages enjoy academic challenges.
So why mess with success? Resistance to change has long dominated independent schools, especially those that send large numbers of graduates to Ivy League colleges, and this report offers support to those who prefer to keep things as they are. Data are good; parents are happy. Why rock the boat?
I have no doubt that a higher percentage of independent school graduates feel more positive about the categories that the NAIS-Gallup poll measured — though I wonder how these percentages are skewed by other variables such as the population of wealthy, motivated students attracted to independent schools vs. the greater range of abilities and resources in the even larger number who go to college from non-NAIS schools.
But what do these categories and percentages have to do with education, with meaningful learning? Nothing, and although the report does not claim that they do, the tendency to conflate one with the other is irresistible.
What is the reality of independent school? Does it merit this lavish self-congratulation?
Finishing college on time, having higher SAT scores, being active in extracurricular activities and feeling prepared for college or enjoying academic challenge are mis-measures of deep learning. Yet the implication seems strong that these categories offer legitimate insight into the overall quality of an NAIS education, which implicitly includes learning. In fact, schools generally do not use assessment tools that measure deep learning. The SAT and ACT provide no insight into students’ level of skill (what they can do) or complexity of conceptual understanding (what they really know, as opposed to what they have memorized).
As a citizen who lives in the gap between the NAIS-Gallup data and my years of experience in independent schools, I see a different reality “completely out of sync with the story told by the data.” And I know that many of my colleagues share this perception of reality, which comes from faculty rooms and meetings filled with voices ranting about kids who can’t think, can’t write, aren’t curious, don’t listen, know nothing, remember nothing, can’t read and don’t care.
Teachers in NAIS schools, as well as public schools, complain about the steady decline in focus and attention span as students become more addicted to social media and smartphones: “I can’t give the same assignments or tests to these kids that I could give them 15 years ago.”
At the same time, everyone worries about a reality that produces an increasing number of depressed and anxious students, the kids who can’t cope with the pressures to get the grades they need to attend “a highly ranked college,” where they arrive already burned out. And this reality is reflected, too, in an earlier Gallup poll that identified the two words students most frequently used to describe their experience of school: “bored” and “tired.” Their words resonate with my own lifetime of experiences and observations of students in many classrooms in different independent schools. Given this reality, does it really matter whether someone finishes college on time?
My reality also comes from years of reading books and articles written by others who think about and work in education. The most recent is education philosopher Zachary Stein, who writes:
The recent economic crisis has involved the best graduates from our most prestigious schools. The key players were our greatest test-takers, our academic overachievers, and those who leveraged Ivy League success to land (unconscionably) high paying jobs in the financial sector. Their greed, incompetence, and narcissistic irreverence speak eloquently to the failure of our educational systems.” (Education in a Time Between Worlds)
Stein is not alone in a belief that the complexity of the problems we face today, from the degradation of our planet to the failure of our economic system, far exceed the capacity of our schools, as currently designed, to help students develop the skills or understanding to solve them. This is the reality that the data produced by the NAIS-Gallup report not only fail to capture but actually hide by implying that learning in NAIS schools must be superior to learning in public schools.
One problem with comparing graduates from NAIS schools with those from other schools is that schools are still schools. With a few exceptions, they all, public and private, rest on the same flawed assumptions about how people learn: teaching, telling and learning are synonyms; single skills can be learned in a linear fashion; natural and necessary regression of a skill is failure; emotion interferes with rational thinking and learning; brains come in two forms — normal or disabled; performance can be judged independent of context; recall is evidence of learning. We have a system badly in need of rethinking and redesign.
One of the reasons so many educators, even in NAIS schools, might perceive that students are not learning in deep, meaningful ways is that students are not learning in deep, meaningful ways. The last thing we need is a poll that assures those of us who work in independent schools that all is well.
Unlike most public schools, independent schools have the freedom and resources to rethink education, yet reports like the NAIS-Gallup study are likely to prevent deeper self-examination. After all, the data percentages that the study produced are in our favor. We must be doing something right.
Sarkozy warns that “treating these [statistics] as objective data, as if they are external to us, beyond question or dispute, is undoubtedly reassuring and comfortable, but it’s dangerous. It’s dangerous because we get to the point where we stop asking ourselves about the purpose of what we are doing, what we are actually measuring, and what lessons we need to draw. That is how the mind begins to close . …”
We need to focus on more profound questions about the purpose of education and make sure that what we are measuring will allow us to learn the lessons required to improve our schools. Formulating these questions depends on understanding a complex reality.
The point is not that data should be ignored. The point is that intuition based on experience and deep knowledge should not be relegated to its current inferior status. Anecdotal evidence can be useful. Data and intuition can be equally valid (or invalid) tools for gaining insight into reality. Intuition can serve as a meaningful check on data; data can serve as a meaningful check on intuition. People need an accurate and complete sense of reality from as many perspectives as possible to improve the actual lives of people — those of our students.