What I Saw When I Looked Up
For the last sixteen years, I’ve had my head down. It takes a lot of one’s attention to get a school going and keep it running. Or maybe the better analogy is driving in heavy traffic—you really need to keep your eyes on the road in front, on the cars around, on the dashboard now and then. There’s not a lot time to take in the scenery.
But all the while, something has been bothering me. That’s why I decided to go to Washington last week. I wasn’t going to go to the annual conference of the National Association of Independent Schools. It’s expensive and time-consuming and—well, I’ve had my head down. But when I saw that the theme was “The Public Purpose of Independent Schools,” I couldn’t resist.
We’ve managed to build a pretty good school in sixteen years. Conferences like NAIS help our schools move from pretty good to pretty great. There was plenty of that at this conference, but I’ve been there and done that before, and I’ll do it again. What was new was an intense focus on the place of independent schools for the public good.
What’s been bothering me, niggling at my conscience, is the realization that for all our good work, the larger story of which we are a part is not a good one. We are managing to do something very worthwhile for 447 students this year. But there are 32,500 students in public schools in Durham County Schools. How are they doing?
And what about the national picture? According to the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), the United States ranks 17th in the world, for the most part right smack in the middle of average. The closing keynote speaker at NAIS was Geoffrey Canada, CEO of the Harlam Children’s Zone, now famous and infamous for his frank-talking, no-nonsense, prophetic voice in the film, “Waiting for Superman.” Says, Canada, “If our nation allows children to fail, we will not remain a great nation. I don’t think people realize the enormity of the problem.”
I thought I was done—or I should say, I thought God was done with me for a while when I left the conference late Friday afternoon. Desiree and I had planned to stay in D.C. for the weekend for a chance to get away after a hard winter. It turned out that my friend, who was recently elected governor of Tennessee, was in town for the National Governors Association meeting, and he invited me to come to the Governors Education Committee meeting on Saturday afternoon. I had the chance to hear from Arnie Duncan, Secretary of Education, and two educational policy experts, both smart, well-informed, and well-spoken: Sir Michael Baker, of McKinsey, and Andreas Schleicher, who oversees PISA for the OECD, the test of cognitive skills administered to fifteen year-olds across the globe. Secretary Duncan spoke passionately about the crisis we are in. He cited a 25% national drop-out rate, in a time when skilled knowledge workers are essential to our economic competitiveness in a global market.
I don't need to pile on the statistics. They are myriad and depressing. But I may need to pile on the reasons we at Trinity and other independent schools need to be paying attention. We all keep our heads down a lot, but we need to look up and see what is going on.
There is the economic argument. This was pre-eminent in the Governors committee meeting: How far behind are we falling? What countries are outstripping us? What can we learn from those who have improved on measures like the PISA over the last decade? What kinds of policies do we need to reverse the trend of decline in US education? Can our economy recover and stay strong if we continue to stay in the average category for the quality of education? What if countries like Chile, Korea, Poland, and Portugal continue to improve and we continue to decline?
These are all important questions, and I think we all need to engage with them. (I was also impressed with the fact that no one, either at the NAIS conference or at the Education Committee, was questioning the fact that we have a problem. This consensus may be depressing, but it’s a starting point. At least we don’t have to start by arguing about whether we have a problem.)
But there is another and, to my mind, greater reason that we all need to pay attention to this challenge: it is our civic duty. And enlightened self-interest might kick us in the pants too, since the survival of our democracy is, to put it mildly, of interest to us all. Elizabeth Coleman, President of Bennington College and one of the most eloquent speakers at NAIS, lamented that there is really no serious dialogue about the importance of education for the health of our democracy. We tend to start with economics and jobs and our competitiveness on a global scale. But the primary value of an educated citizenry is that it helps us to maintain and regulate our freedom in the best of times and the worst of times. Desiree and I visited the Holocaust Museum on Saturday morning. I was bracing myself for the shock of Dachau and Auschwitz. But I wasn’t prepared for the sobering reminder of how a democracy can fall apart quickly and precipitously, how well-intentioned people can be hoodwinked by tyrants. People who live and work in the places where our schools and communities are falling apart, in places which even our Secretary of Education calls “dropout factories”—these people talk as though it’s a hard rain’s a gonna fall if we don't do something quick.
I believe that elevating the conversation to this level of first things and the common good, beyond economics, is one of the great values independent schools can bring to this national problem. The policy makers from OECD, from the Department of Education, and the futurists like Thomas Friedman all argue this from an economic standpoint. I’m not critical of that argument. Economics is a worthy science. Making a living is an essential. But, making a good life is better, and in the end my money is on those who have thought not simply about how to succeed but why.
But we will have to roll up our sleeves and actually do something. Think globally and act locally, as they say. Or, to return to where I started, after you’ve looked around at the horizon and the landscape and studied the maps, look back down at the road and drive on, with a renewed commitment to doing something worthwhile along the way.
I haven’t been called to set educational policy in D.C. or to guide independent schools across the country. But I have this one little school and we can make whatever difference we can make, and not just for our students, but for our community. It would seem to me that Christian schools ought to be out front in this way. Love your neighbor.
So my take homes? Go meet some of the public school principals nearby. Ask them how we can help. (Our Augustine Project Literacy Service Learning class is already doing this in a powerful way.) Read the DPS Strategic Plan and ask myself the question Dr. Becoats asked us all at its unveiling: Find one thing you can do and put your oar in. Surely there is something our school can do to help Durham schools improve.
I'm back at school down, with my head down again. But I don't think I can forget what I saw when I looked up.