Private- and Public-School Independence Day

Mark Milliron Catalytic Conversations Civitas Learning Space

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Monday of this week was Independence Day . . . well, sort of. I spent the day with leaders, school heads and directors from the Pacific Northwest Association of Independent Schools (PNAIS). We talked learning, technology, leadership, educational trends, and more with representatives from independent K-12 institutions of all shapes and sizes. We’re not just talking about private schools serving “elite” kids who would do well in any context. Many of these institutions are designed to serve at risk, developmentally disabled, and special-needs children. Several provide specialized education outreach. For example, one school was run through a social service agency and focused on educating the children of the homeless. What struck me when I talked with these leaders—some of whom actually founded their schools—is the passion and purpose they bring to their focus on student learning. Moreover, many expressed a common challenge of leveraging creative and innovative educational strategies, while being laser focused on documenting and advancing educational quality. Indeed, a major part of this meeting involved their dialogue about learning outcomes and accreditation strategies. Of course, public schools are wrestling with many of these same challenges; however, their contexts are radically different. Public schools in the US are more often than not swimming in funding challenges, testing trauma, school-board sagas, leadership transitions, and teacher turnover. Those who fight for focused learning conversations in the public school arena report feeling like voices in the wilderness. Ironically, its business leaders that sometimes end up driving learning dialogues in the public school arena. The State Scholars Initiative is one such business-partnership endeavor—focusing on inspiring rigor-, relevance-, and relationship-based learning strategies in public K-12. The independent school conversations, on the other hand, don’t seem to need the external push to bring learning to the center of the debate. The drive seems internal and independent of requirements. I wonder how we can bring this sense of independence, ownership, and passion back into our public schools? Some turn to charter schools and key innovators to find the recipe for this independence—for example, see the Mavericks in Education D-Wade schools for some unique ideas on serving the at-risk students in the public arena. But the larger questions of scale, scope, and significance loom as we vision transforming the larger all-important public school system that serves millions and builds the foundation for our economy on the road ahead. There are no easy answers here. And there are PLENTY of showcase examples of individuals, programs, schools, and districts that do amazing work with a learning-centered focus in our public schools. However, the daily dialogue of our public schools is all-too-often dominated by so many other things besides high-quality learning. Budgets, buildings, and boards capture the conversation—and most of the energy and effort of the leadership. Here’s hoping for an Independence Day for public schools somewhere in the near future—a day when the passion, promise, and purpose of our teachers and students can be unleashed in the creative quest toward more inspiring, deep, and relevant learning.