Elementary Schools Can’t Change Because We Need to Prepare them for High School and College

When I speak about new models of education and the opportunity to change how we design our learning communities, I hear a frequent reaction. We would love to change but we can’t until the next level of school changes. I don’t agree and here is why.

I know that people like to point out the challenge of preparing for the next level (high school or college), but I taught at a University during my sabbatical where incredibly bright students from many alternative school models come and thrive. These students are the most curious and engaged that I’ve ever seen in my 20+ years of teaching. We might not be aware of them, but there are many different types of high schools and colleges for all types of students. Yet, I realize the concern. Those might not be local for every family. And yet, look at how well the Montessori schools are doing around the country. They are thriving and there is good research to show that those students transition fine into other schools and develop some habits of independence that carry on for life.

Some will point to anecdotes of specific students who went to a Montessori school and didn’t transition well but those are just anecdotal. In fact, one study of students in Milwaukee who attended Montessori school from age 4-11 (it was a longitudinal study) showed that these students got much higher standardized test scores in math and science than students who did not attend Montessori school. There are real concerns that people have, I know, but hardly any of them are actually tested out with even modest reviews of the literature or direct research. We like to turn back to our personal experience, opinions, and feelings; but this topic is perhaps best addressed by getting a group together to test our assumptions. We can do this by reviewing the existing research directly or maybe even doing some research of our own.

Leaders of highly innovative and effective schools tend to do this. They do their homework, which equips them to clearly communicate and defend the vision while also identifying people who can join in making that vision a reality. Others are satisfied with the status quo or their fears prevent them from even exploring the alternatives with any depth.

My direct advice is not simple, but I am convinced that we would all be better off with this approach. Also, as a disclaimer, I offer this advice to myself as much as anyone else. I’m far from perfect in this regard.

  1. Stop focusing up preparing students for the game of school. Start creating rich, challenging, deep, substantive, formative, compassionate, meaning-rich, creative learning communities that have value for students in the present while also preparing them for a rich and rewarding life.
  2. Learn from other learning communities but refuse to join in the “keeping up with the Joneses” nonsense. Figure out what you value and what you want to be as a community. Run with that.
  3. Engage your community in co-creating and co-designing your community around a set of shared values. Do not let the values of other organizations rob you and your community of your own core values.
  4. Take that that fear and re-invest the energy into clearly communicating the value of what you do and why you do it.
  5. Put a reasonable but modest amount of effort into making sure that your school offers a valid pathway to future learning communities, but do not be controlled by the outdated or dysfunctional practices of the next level.
  6. Crave candid feedback on what you are doing and learn from it, but ignore the feedback of those outside of the community who just want to pull you back into the dysfunction models of other learning communities.
  7. Share your story with others.

There are schools that do these seven and they are inspiring learning communities, the type that I want for my own children. I am confident that our larger education ecosystem would be better off with such an approach, and maybe the next level of education will learn a little something. If not, then we will just have to create alternatives on those levels as well (which is happening…not fast enough, but it is happening.).

Does Sweet Briar College Need to Close? Lessons & Reflections

I’ve been following the conversation about the board’s recent announcement to close Sweet Briar College at the end of the school year, despite a significant endowment (close to 100 million) and an increase in applications from the previous year. As the news spread, I’m inspired by the movement of alumni gathering to save their beloved school, as representing by the following Tweet.

As I’ve reviewed various articles about the closing, there are a small number of consistent reasons listed.

  • They are rural, focused exclusively on the liberal arts, and they are a women’s college.
  • They are on a downward trend, and there is no obvious way to reverse that trend.
  • As such, the wanted to close in time to have the financial resources to help current students transition to new schools.
  • They did not want to abandon or compromise the University’s longstanding mission. They would rather close than do that.

This is not a well-researched piece of journalism. It isn’t journalism at all. It is just the musings of a person who has devoted much of the last two decades to educational innovation and entrepreneurship. I have not looked deeply into the Sweet Briar’s unique situation. Instead, I am using this news to reflect more generally on why colleges, schools or any organizations close or adapt to survive. I’m convinced that there are important lessons to learn from this case.

I must admit that I am confused by the decision, which is likely because I struggle to deeply understand the ethos, mission and vision for a school like this. Out of the dozens of options available to them, why would they rather close than imagine new ways to adapt that are consistent with their historic mission and vision? Other women’s colleges have recovered from decreasing numbers by accepting men. This is not an option for Sweet Briar based upon the last will and testament of a founding benefactor. Even apart from that, I can understand why they might choose to closer and not change something so central to their identity, especially if their entirely philosophy is grounded in a women only context.

Other women’s colleges have added new majors and areas of study that allowed them to reach new prospective students. It seems to me that Sweet Briar could keep the liberal arts focus while venturing into new areas, even more professional programs. In fact, the programs that they offer today are not the same as they were when the college first opened. I appreciate concerns about moving into professional programs to keep their doors open. Yet, while I admit that I have limited insight into what was or was not explored amid this decision, what I do not understand is why they do not seem interested in deeply examining these many other options. Or again, perhaps they did so and I am missing something.

While I know this may not be popular, could they revisit their percentage of full-time versus adjunct faculty, create a new fund-raising campaign to stabilize the school, or maybe even seek third source funding.  How about a “Save Sweet Briar College” Kickstarter campaign? Okay, so maybe that one is overdoing it, but my point is that this is a time of crisis. That usually calls for some outside-the-box thinking, doing things in new ways with the hopes of new results. It seems to me that this calls for some creative problem solving.

This could start with a substantive conversation around a single question. “What rules can we break to save our school without compromising its mission?” I’m not talking about legal issues, but rather the norms, practices, ways of thinking, strategies, methods and models. As a University administrator, and consultant for companies & learning organization, I’ve often seen leadership, educators and board members stuck with a problem because they limited themselves to only a small number of potential or acceptable solutions. They might have institutionalized an approach that only welcomes options within a narrow scope. In some ways, it reminds me of this classic scene from The Jerk.

Yet, I find it hard to believe that there are no viable options that remain true to a core set of values that inform the historic mission and vision of the college. Perhaps as some challenge the legality of the closing along with the millions raised by alumni to save the school, that will be enough to prompt further strategies. Let the record show that I am happy to help.

Regardless, this case serves as an opportunity for reflection about our own organizations. What are we willing to change to ensure the longevity and health of our schools? Where are we unwilling to compromise…so much so that we would rather close than change? A simple exercise is to create three lists. The first list consists of everything that is essential to our organization, so much so that, if we were to change one of these elements, our organization would cease to exist in any real sense? The second list entails those elements that are important. They could change, but those changes will have significant implications for the organization. It might still be essentially the same organization, but it would look pretty different. Third, what are the elements that are merely present? We can change them and, in the big picture, it doesn’t change that much about the core mission, vision, values and goals of the organization. The first list consists of our non-negotiables. The second and third lists, depending upon the severity of the challenge, are up for revision. Regardless of the status of an organization, this exercise can be a telling and helpful way to clarify the convictions of an organization’s key stakeholders, allowing them/us to chart a course through even some of the most tumultuous times.