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The current demands placed on public schools and on public school teachers make comparisons between public and independent schools somewhat unfair. Independent school students arrive at school emotionally and socially "ready to learn" and are almost always supported by actively involved parents or guardians. However, there are some conditions in independent schools—both in program and in school culture that are adaptable to all schools. These are time-honored “best practices,” which have become increasingly marginalized by the public school model that now elevates success on multiple-choice, machine-scored tests above all other forms of student competency—often at the expense of a stimulating learning experience and a joyful school culture.

Twenty years ago I left a tenured position as superintendent of schools in one of America’s most affluent and successful public school districts. Increasing and questionably relevant regulations from state officials convinced me that critical decisions in public education would ultimately be removed from educators and assumed by legislators. That opinion now seems positively clairvoyant. One stunning example: in the design of the Common Core, America’s national curriculum standards, not one of the 29 members of the Standards Development Work Group was a K-12 teacher. So who were the people charged with determining the future of America’s public school standards? The Standards developers were employees of testing companies and included a few members of “think tanks.”

The damage done to public school teacher engagement by 20 years of test-based incentives and sanctions was made starkly clear in the Gallup Organization’s most comprehensive study of education (The State of America’s Schools, products.gallup.com/168380/state-education-report-main-page.aspx), released in March 2014.


Among many troubling findings is one that should alarm parents and legisla- tors: 69 percent of public school teachers reported that they are not “engaged in their work.”
A likely reason for that disengagement may be revealed in Gallup’s 2012 daily tracking research that found K-12 pub- lic school teachers are the least likely among 12 occupational groups studied to agree with the statement, “At work, my opinions seem to count." A 2009 Gallup study found that teachers’ engagement levels are directly related to those of their students—and thereby to student achievement outcomes. Of the 600,000 public school students polled in The State of America’s Schools, almost half reported that they are not engaged in their schoolwork. That statistic spells trouble for all. A high percentage of disengaged students in a school poisons the climate and is a root cause of bullying. And school climate seems to have an impact on teachers. One study found that teachers in 40 of America’s largest school districts missed, on average, 11 school days. A recent CT State Report Card lists the average number of missed days by teachers to be nine. Those numbers are three to four times the average of missed school days by independent school teachers. 
Independent schools have historically been similar to public schools but have often enjoyed advantages in resources, student-teacher ratios and in the ability to select students. The last twenty years, however, have widened the differences between public and independent schools, with public schools becoming more traditional and compliance-driven and independent schools becoming more 21st century focused and innovative. Parents choosing a school for their children are wise to look for indications of the following best practices. These are common features in Connecticut’s independent schools: 
■ A school that respects (or reveres) its teachers. Attracting and retaining great teachers means ensuring they have a voice in school-level decisions that affect them and their programs. 
■ A school design that fosters relationships and attachments and requires pro-social behavior (manners, respect for others, honesty, personal responsibility).
■ Teachers who can and will mediate the social environment in the school.
 Opportunities for students to work independently and opportunities for students to work in collaboration with others.
■ Frequent practice in both oral and written communication; class presentations, debates, dramatic productions, poetry readings, public speaking exercises or competitions. Writing, lots of it—assignments that are varied in form, purpose, audience, length; each effort receiving a critical review by the teacher.
■ Arts programs that enjoy the same stature as science programs.
■ An extra-curriculum that is not viewed as “extra” but as an opportunity for students to experience real world challenges and triumphs.
■ Homework that is appropriate to the age and grade level of the child and is not exclusively a reinforcement of low-level cognitive skills.
School assessment instruments that measure what the school values most, including and especially high level, creative competencies that elude simple paper and pencil scoring.
Independent schools have a variety of missions but there is a universal commitment to ensuring that students will care about learning and learn about caring. The ultimate hope for graduates is not merely a resume well- developed but a life well-lived—and a firm understanding of the difference between a standard of living and a purpose in life. ■  


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