August 16, 2022
Note from the editor: Most of our readers know that NAIS is searching for a new President. We would like the search to be a more open process, therefore subject to questions from independent school constituents. Consequently, we are publishing a series of articles with one question each to candidates for the next NAIS President. This series includes: 1. Next NAIS President Question Series | Part 1: On Curriculum & Knowledge | Sanje Ratnavale 2. Next NAIS President Series | Part 2: Supporting Teacher Voices | Alden Blodget
Today’s question: What is your definition of equity in the context of independent schools? Should independent schools be concerned about equity? If so, what are the challenges and solutions for independent schools in delivering equity? If not, why not?
In addressing this question, in addition to the broader question of how the school should act in a broader context, we would encourage future candidates for NAIS President to consider the matter from multiple perspectives:
- The school as a developer of students
- The school as an employer of faculty
- The school as the focal point of the alumni and the broader mission
In each of these roles, and from each of these perspectives, the questions of “what constitutes equity” and “what constitutes the pursuit of equity” will have different, layered answers. The question of how leadership can best operate in the context of academia has long produced a variety of answers. The most iconic is probably that of Clark Kerr, the great former Chancellor of the University of California, who when asked in the late 1960s what the duties of a college president were, memorably said there were three: Parking for the faculty, sports for the alumni, and sex for the undergraduates. Presidents of colleges these days clearly have shown different priorities as any of these three constituencies would attest.
Before launching into this analysis we would also encourage any prospective President to start a discussion of equity by addressing the inherent conflict between the notion of equity as a broad social goal, and the exclusivity (the opposite of inclusivity) that is a fundamental feature of the typical independent school. Historically the flight to non-public schools has been as much about the desire to escape the inadequate equity of insufficiency for the abundance attainable by limiting access as it has been about the desire to be part of a voluntary community. Whether the perceived need for more time and attention from faculty (smaller class sizes), better facilities, or more opportunities in general, broad equity appears to be exactly what people are trying to escape from, even if they subsequently become vocal proponents for equity once they are within the walled garden of the independent school. It does not need to be this way as there is a long history of non-public schools providing excellent education in communities of poverty, but as most of these non-public schools have not, historically, been members of NAIS, the question remains.
Part A: What is the role of equity in the school’s development of students?
This question can be answered in two parts: What is the role equity should play in the creation of the student body? And what is the role equity should play in the experience of that student body? The former question is the more challenging as it requires one to be clear about how considerations of fairness should come into play during the admissions process. The latter question is more operational, but it impacts the students more directly, and thus it is the one that parents of schools are more likely to care about. The real question for the next President is what sort of guidance should you give schools on this matter?
In constituting a student body, a head needs to reconcile numerous conflicting wants and desires ranging from athletics to academics, to the development office. A school will already be assembling a diverse group of students if only to meet this diverse set of needs. How should broader issues of equity enter into this conversation? It will depend on how one conceives of equity. A traditional view might be to establish as objective a process as possible for the evaluation of applicants, possibly featuring blind reviews and using multiple reviewers. A more modern approach might be to pick a target location (community, city, state, country) and work to ensure that the demographics of the entering class closely approximate the demographics of the target. A pragmatic approach might be to read the applications in the context of the desired roles the students or families will play, and then select for those roles, using the role divisions as a way to shift what might otherwise be a skewed demographic distribution. Regardless of the process, at the end of the day, the demographics of the entering class are all that will be seen, and many of the underlying reasons for decisions will not be apparent from the demographics list. Any school head will need to know how to navigate these shoals, while also knowing how rating agencies like Niche allocate their grades for diversity—after all, it is not enough to do good; one must look good while doing good. The President of the NAIS should be ready to guide on this, as well as to worry whether the NAIS itself should encourage schools to achieve demographic objectives individually or on a portfolio basis.
Once the students are admitted, the head must address the question of how issues of equity factor into the cultivation of student abilities and talents. If one starts with the assumption that talent is normally distributed in the population, then a school committed to seeking the best talent should expect to see diversity as an emergent property. If diversity does not emerge there is either a problem in the admissions pipeline or the talent development pipeline. Given that students will be starting from different points with varied backgrounds and underlying capabilities, should one measure the equity of one’s program in terms of outcomes? And if so, which outcomes? The ultimate satisfaction measure for many parents is the list of colleges their child is admitted to. Should this be the benchmark? Or should success be measured in terms of academic performance or academic growth? Learner-centered growth outcomes and other student-centric objectives help to shift the focus away from matters of scarcity (seats at Ivy+ colleges) to matters of abundance (best-fit colleges and careers). However, shifting parents from a zero-sum attitude after they have made the effort to reposition their child in the zero-sum battle requires a serious commitment.
Moreover, there are no guarantees that the outcomes of learner-centered growth at a given school will fit the equity goals of that school. For any measure of satisfaction or performance or growth, arguments can be given for why such a measure might be maximized, but there are no processes that can maximize all of them at once. Whichever one is chosen is likely to make some people happier than others. With each of the constituencies likely represented on the board, matters are unlikely to be easily resolved. This is certainly an area where leadership from the NAIS President will be needed. In a world in which independent school presence at Ivy+ schools is trending lower, the zero-sum battle is no longer as winnable as it was 30 years ago. It may be that by connecting concerns over equity while shifting the brand promise from elite college admissions to learner-centered growth, schools can move the narrative to something they have more control over and also provide a more flattering explanation for why they are changing the objective of the game.
Part B: What should the role of equity be in the school as an employer of faculty?
In approaching this question the prospective President of NAIS needs to draw clear lines of distinction between the school and the faculty. With the possible exception of the students, the faculty do more to shape the school than any other constituency. That said, two differences between faculty and students are often overlooked. The first is that the faculty are typically at the school for longer than the students. This gives faculty a sense of deep investment in the community as the place they “live,” rather than as a place they are passing through. The second difference is that the faculty are paid to be at school while the students are paying to be there. Unfortunately, rather than generating a “customer service attitude,” the reaction from the faculty is more often that of the locals against the tourists, or original inhabitants against the forces of gentrification.
Just as with the admission and development of students, any head of school will be faced with questions of faculty composition and development, and with the challenge of determining which of the two make reference to and match the population’s demographics. These questions, just as in the case of students, will be mediated by pragmatic institutional goals. If one inherits a faculty that is wildly out of sync with the demographics of the student body, but where the faculty are happily entrenched, is it sufficient to wait and slowly rebalance as retirements occur, or should one take more drastic measures through early retirement or outright non-renewal? Likewise, if the faculty are off mission, either as regards the ambitions of the parents, or as regards the vision of the head, should the faculty be shown the door? If one wishes to minimize disruption, the focus is more likely to be on achieving equity through development and gradual replacement.
Can one ensure that the emerging pool of leadership talent among the current group of faculty is sufficient to achieve the goals that one has for the school? Anytime one is trying to achieve multiple goals at the same time, e.g. ensuring that someone can teach a particular set of courses and demonstrate leadership, while also being a member of a particular demographic group, one is likely to have to settle, as it is rare that any individual checks off all the possible boxes you might want to be checked. Moreover, given that leadership talent from some demographics may be in shorter supply than others, how does one keep those being developed from taking better offers where such talent is also in demand? [As one can see in the chart below, Heads of Schools see the challenge of recruiting a diverse faculty population to be greater than that of recruiting a diverse set of students.] Differential compensation packages and perquisites are traditional ways of retaining talent, but doing so may run counter to broader messages of equity that the Head is trying to convey to the community, especially given that these numbers will be sitting on the Federal 990 for the world to inspect. The prospective NAIS President should provide clear guidance on best practices to address these challenges.
Part C: What is the role of equity in the school as a focal point of the alumni and the broader mission?
The prospective NAIS President will need to provide a compelling story for the role of equity in the independent school context if they are to capture the support of those with the greatest vested interest in the schools—namely the trustees and alumni. Schools as cultural institutions transcend any of the members of the school. While parents may have narrow agendas, the view of the trustees and alumni is typically on a longer arc of history than the next college admissions cycle. In the face of slowly waning independent school enrollment and increased questioning of the need for independent “college prep” education, there is increasingly a question of whether the relevance of independent schools can be maintained. Considerations of equity and the role that independent schools can have in promoting societal equity have been in focus for the last dozen years. The NAIS catchphrase “private school for public purpose” is emblematic of this attitude.
Should the school be an actor in the world? Or should the school develop students who will be actors in the world? And can the school best accomplish a conception of its larger social mission through its direct action or the actions of its alumni? As has been discussed in Intrepid Ed News over the past year, school missions have become increasingly irrelevant for most schools, and few schools these days could have their missions ascertained by impartial observers. Within the broader discussion of equity in the context of trustees and alumni, there is often the implicit assumption that sufficient attention to this critical topic will help to bridge the gap. Can it? Or is it the start of the slippery slope that ultimately exposes the inherent contradictions of elitist institutions embracing egalitarian ideals? These are the questions the prospective NAIS President must answer.
You may also be interested in reading The Next NAIS President Question Series | Part 1: On Curriculum & Knowledge | Sanje Ratnavale and Next NAIS President Candidates Question #2: Supporting teacher voices | Alden Blodget, as well as more articles written by Ray Ravaglia for Intrepid Ed News.