America’s Elite Independent Schools


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.


9 thoughts on “America’s Elite Independent Schools

  1. Jen,

    Carson is a snob. I have had a number of lunch and dinner conversations with him while at professional meetings. He is very serious. This is why I continue to try to hire him and refuses my offers. Have a good visit. We will get together for coffee at the OC when you return.

  2. Eddie, this is fascinating me. I have much to ask you but may do it at our blog so as not to hijack this one.

    My wife and I are torn with a desire to give our daughters “the best education” (that we can afford) and a sense of social conscience that we should participate with, serve and join public schools in an effort to raise capacity for poorer kids. Down here, of course, those poor kids are predominantly black, making the public schools, as you know, mostly black as well.

    Is providing serious education to our children not also bound up with their experience among diverse experiences as well as academic training?

    My question to you today, as a black student from Montgomery who ended up at ACA, Harding, now onto your current work, what’s a white, upper-middle class, Christian family to do?

    As we do not want our children to be in a bad school, in physical danger or to receive a weak education, we likewise want them to know (or be exposed to) more than an affluent, privileged and bourgeois world. Should we not eschew “elite” schools upon that ethic?

  3. I am interested in your response to JRB’s points as well. What are your thoughts on the private schools in Houston? Can you rank them. I am a parent living in the area with students approaching a point that we are looking at private education. I love your blog. I came across it playing on Houston Christian’s web page. You make your school sound so smart. I look forward to meeting you in the future. My daughter and I are planning to take a tour and visit. I will be sure to ask about you and have someone point me in your direction.

    Sherry Johnson

  4. Jeff,

    It took me a while to adjust to ACA seeing that I grew up in a poorer urban community. I was only one of two black students to graduate in my class. It was clear that ACA needed more diversity to eliminate the degree of racism that existed. With more black families emerging to middle class status, ACA has become increasingly more diverse. Montgomery has one of the highest percentages of families placing students in private schools. This has a lot to do with the economic position of Montgomery’s public schools. I was thankful to receive a scholarship there. I would not feel guilty for wanting to place your kids in such a school. Black families are looking to do the same.

    I would put your kids in the best school regardless. Schools such as ACA and Montgomery Academy have started addressing matters of race and diversity. The head of ACA is a great person. He gave me my very first teaching job under the assumption that I would break an all white faculty with a perspective that only a black educator coud do. He gave me the freedom to challenge established white students with a perspective greatly missing in their lives. I am thankful for the oppertunities ACA gave me.

    I will look for such a discussion on your blog.

  5. Sherry,

    I am not sure I can rank Houston’s private schools. You do have a number of choices but none better than Houston Christian. We are a young school that is growing fast. Our board and headmaster just launched a very good campaign for construction. Our students are getting stronger as we have become more selective. We are not elite like St. John’s, John Cooper, or Kinkaid. They tend to only accept students at the very top; however, we do have a lot of very bright students that display a range of talents.

    The best thing about HCHS is its faculty….I think we are the best and brightest in Houston. Taking my courses puts a student in pretty elite company. I would love to tell you more. Send me an e-mail so that we can workout a time to chat.

  6. If you were a prart of the YouTube debate, would you have told the audience that you support private schools over public? It sounds like it. You do realize that you are killing any shot at a political future. Plus, you are too smart for Texas anyway. You would have to move to a state that would give a liberal black man a chance at winning. Not in Bush country, unless you became a Rebublican. That would make you J.C. Watts or Clerance Thomas.

  7. Your research here sounds really interesting, and I have a number of anecdotes relevant to your project I can share when we chat over coffee. Love to talk more about the Harkness method, too.

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