Many elite independent schools teach via the Harkness method, as seen above. This is a seminar style of teaching in which all members gather around an oval wood Harkness table, as seen by the picture from Phillips Exeter. I do not have a Harkness table, but I have been able to create a similiar setting for my instructional style. Sitting at one of these tables while on the campus of Phillips Exeter or Andover will be a nice experience. Read here for more on Harkness from the Exeter Schools Admissions Office.
I will be traveling to visit a number of independent (private) day and boarding schools in the New England states as part of a research and writing project. I am a big believer in independent schools. I like the social and intellectual freedom given to both students and faculty at the most elite schools. Moreover, the focus of my visit is to gain an understanding of elite academic culture, the development of diversity over time, and their purpose toward educating elite students. Of course, those factors are only secondary. My writing will focus on the day to day impact elite schools have on African American students and how it compares to lower tier independent schools. There is a bigger goal for this work that I am not at liberty to address now; it is too early. Three years ago I wrote a paper entitled Teachers of Color and Independent Schools. Although I wanted to present this at the National Association of Independent School’s People of Color Conference, my abstract was accepted at a College Board regional forum. This project is a very distant continuation of that….A far more complex task as I look at race, independent schools, and elite and mass culture in America.
I asked a few leaders of elite schools what makes their institution different from that of others, here are a few sample responses:
- Unlike many private schools in America, we do not try to be like every other public and private school. Too many private schools are not really independent schools because they work too hard to attract students from public schools. Now, according to this response, when independent schools work to attract public school students, they usually try to conform with many state mandated legislation. Thus, in doing so, students are able to transfer or matriculate to a private school easier without credit issues. This is not the job of an independent school. Independent schools should focus on an elite education with a unique academic goal. I like the idea that many NAIS schools do not require teacher certification. Although I have one, I think they are silly. Elite schools are interested in content knowledge and the ability to communicate that knowledge to bright students. So, if you majored in history and did not certify to teach, there are a number of really good jobs out there.
- Diversity: Intellectual, religious, racial, and economic diversity of faculty and students make a school elite. Allowing ideas to flow in exchange without fear of suppression is crucial to the advancement of an academic community.
- Resources: I got a ton of information here. I am not going to address the endowment issue, but institutional wealth is clearly important.
- Tradition: Faculty and students must believe in the school and its purpose. If the faculty does not see the purpose and goals of a school, tradition will never be established nor will it last. Examples: Having an academic and social honor code should be the core of any school, but this is always the case at many elite schools.
- Empowering the Faculty: Elite schools should empower its faculty. One administrator told me that the key to school leadership is providing its faculty with a voice. I am amazed at the number of schools that have a faculty senate in place. This allows the faculty to have a stronger voice on matters such as program direction, facility issues, directional planning, earnings, etc. I suspect that many private schools operate under the superintendent mentality. The board tells the headmaster who tells the dean of faculty who then tells the faculty. This is the classic model of Taylorism: Chain of command hierarchy — not the democratic model found with a faculty senate.
- Students: The assistant headmaster at Houston’s St. John’s School is a friend and a person I respect greatly. He is thought to be one of the best leaders amongst independent schools. As an African American, Mark Reed and others told me that the key to being an elite school is found within the student population. I call it the 1200 mark. All elite schools have an SAT average of at least 1200, many such as St. John’s are over 1400.
I believe the elites are elites for a reason, and it is up to the rest to look to them for direction and leadership. Too often schools try to reinvent the wheel without looking to emulate the best. My visit to the New England states is about learning more about established elite school culture, but it is also about looking at this culture through the lens of an African American. If I stick to this purpose, this project will not only have true meaning and purpose, but it will have value. Hey, there is nothing better than reading old documents from a school’s archives. I am already making arrangements to return during the spring term when more students are on campus.