New Heads of School Institute (Part I)

Last week was my first as head of school at Phillips Academy, Andover.  This week, I’m off campus with about 70 (yes, to my surprise: seven-zero) newly minted heads of independent schools for an institute (I am thinking about it as “camp” for new heads) hosted by the NAIS.  It’s very well-organized and well-staffed — and is a useful time to reflect on this new role we’re all taking on.

Over the course of the week, I’ll update this blog entry with the high-level points that seem to gain the traction among members of the group and which seem highly relevant to me.  The things I’ll pull out from the conversations and post here may not be the most important to everyone at the institute, but rather the topics that are most useful (selfishly) to me as I think about leading Andover.  I will try to limit myself to no more than one topic per session, lest the blog post get too long; they’re not in order of importance, necessarily, but in order of the sessions at the institute.  And I’m live-blogging as sessions go, so please excuse typos and shorthand.  Other participants would no doubt come up with quite a different list.

*  Assessment.  No small question: How do we define, measure, and achieve success as a school?  In the opening session, led by NAIS president Pat Bassett (blog, @Pat Bassett on Twitter), part of the discussion centered around ways of assessing the success of a school.  There seems to be little disagreement with the core premise: it should be child-centered.  The primary definition of success for a school should be how well the kids are prepared to succeed, in a broad range of ways (academically but also ethically, socially/emotionally, artistically, athletically, and so forth), after they graduate.  Also, it seems straightforward that assessment should be “formative” rather than “normative.”  How do we assess these varying kinds of “success” of, and for, our kids?  (I am a believer in Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences theory and framework, FWIW.)  For instance, some people think we should go beyond grades and test scores and college admissions (as important as those things are, in their way), and instead should look to alternate modes of assessment.  One suggestion we discussed: should we be creating a digital portfolio for our kids from pre-school through the end of their time in school?  A related topic: a good portfolio would be far from standardized, but rather student-driven — which would cut against ease of analysis across large numbers of applications.  This general topic of assessment is one of enormous interest to me; there’s an important national (and, in fact, global) conversation on this topic that we should all be a part of.  I’ll be staying in touch, for instance, with the work of my former colleagues at HILT, who are doing great things in this area in higher ed.  I’m also puzzling about how success can relate also to kids enjoying and benefitting from their time at Andover while they are there — not just in the sense of “preparing” for what comes afterwards.

*  Data can be our friend.  There’s a growing movement in the education field, including in secondary education, toward using data more effectively than we’ve done in the past.  (This second point, on data, is related to the first, with respect to assessment, but it is also more capacious.)  Some schools report that there’s a basic commitment to using data to drive a certain level of accountability.  That’s crucial, as a matter of basic management and governance.  More broadly we ought to strive for greater sophistication with respect to how we analyze data (it’s not just about the collection and collation of data, but about what we do with it, what kinds of decisions we make); how we think about both qualitative and quantitative sources of data; and how we incorporate and understand data from other fields (say, the increasingly important and revealing science of learning).

*  Diversity and Inclusiveness.  Every school has its own story, and (one hopes) its own pathway, toward becoming genuinely diverse and inclusive.  These issues are essential for every school to acknowledge, understand, and ultimately get right.  Diversity and inclusiveness relate directly to access — access to success at the school, in education more extensively, and in professional and personal life.  The NAIS board has put in place a set of new “principles of good practice for equity and justice.”  The presenter, Gene Batiste, VP at NAIS (see a brief speech of his here), notes that these new principles serve to support the diversity practitioners in schools by putting the responsibility of diversity and inclusiveness work in the ambit of heads of school and trustees.  As a side note, related to this and other points: each of the institute’s teachers is emphasizing the importance of modeling on the part of the head of school, which is true in the context of inclusiveness as well.  For Andover, as a need-blind school, this work is especially crucial.  In my mind, the work around access, equity, and justice are directly about making good on the promise of the school’s commitment to need-blind admissions.  I am extremely eager to work on these issues with the very strong team at Andover.

* Governance.  I’m especially interested in issues of governance and how decisions are made at schools.  That might have something to do with being a lawyer by training.  The faculty member leading this session, Reveta Bowers, the head of school at the Center for Early Education at West Hollywood, CA, is completely amazing and inspiring.  She’s been a head of school for 42 years, and that’s the least amazing thing about her.  Reveta led a captivating discussion about the governance of schools, focused initially on the relationship between the head of school and the Board of Trustees.  There’s a wide range of board sizes, cultures, and issues in the room of 70 of us, but many commonalities, too, across these differences. The key shared topic is the distinction between governance (the role of the Board) and management (the role of the head of school and her/his team) — and what that means.  Newly minted heads of school spent the session at the front of our seats throughout her presentation.

* Messaging and Social Media.  If you ever have the chance to take a workshop by Andy Watson, (very experienced) head of school at Albuquerque Academy, do it!  (Find him @atwatson2 on Twitter.)  He’s a great teacher — of writing and otherwise.  We also got a bit into social media strategy by the end of the session.  Most schools seem to agree: no friending of current students on Facebook, but Twitter following back and forth is fine.  Seems about right to me, and is consistent with my past practice at HLS.