The late Stephen M. R. Covey, in his 2006 book The Speed of Trust, notes that in a high-trust ethos, everything is more efficient. Covey builds this theme throughout the book with the idea that leaders of organizations have the power, the responsibility and the ability to engender high trust. Covey defines trust in its simplest form as confidence (p. 5). He further notes that there are five waves of trust: self-trust, relationship trust, organizational trust, market trust and societal trust (pp. 34-35). Private schools must have high trust to continue to exist.
Trust is integral to an environment where there is an accountability norm. James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner in The Leadership Challenge propose that it is a crucial task of leadership to foster an environment of accountability. They note, “Individual accountability is a critical element of every collaborative effort,” and “leaders know that part of their job is to set up conditions that enable each and every team member to feel a sense of ownership for the whole job” (2007, p. 258). Schools, at least the effective ones, operate as high-trust organizations and foster individual and collective accountability that is crucial to sustaining credibility.
In the private school world, parents choose a school to educate their children. Parents choose a private school for a variety of reasons, but in essence it is about the best school, given their goals for their children. These schools are sectarian or nonsectarian, parochial or independent, proprietary or not-for-profit, but in all cases there is a tuition cost to the parents. This is a highly significant accountability factor for the private school sector. Parents have an annual opportunity to rethink the “value proposition” for the education that their children are receiving.
At a meeting (in May 2012) of the California Private School Organization colloquium on private school accountability, the following was noted in the program background document:
In truth, nowhere is educational accountability greater than in America’s K–12 private schools, where every student is enrolled by choice, where a free alternative exists just down the street or around the corner in the form of the local public school, and where schools that fail, cease to exist. Every private school leader is cognizant of these realities. But, in today’s climate, private school leaders must be equipped to answer questions from an ever-more-demanding public concerning curriculum, personnel and assessment, with clarity, sophistication and conviction. (p. 1)
According to an annual survey of over 3,000 U.S. member schools in the Association of Christian Schools International, tuition accounts for about 80 percent of school income. Hence, enrollment is critical to the economic life and sustainability of private schools. This stakeholder accountability is part of the daily life of private schooling. It creates an accountability tension that wise school leaders distribute across the scope of the school. Everyone has an enrollment management position. The reasons that parents choose a private school vary greatly as do the types of private schools that they choose. In the religious school community, it is often a particular theological tradition or faith emphasis that attracts parents. In other cases the choice is based on a school’s reputation for academic quality, or issues of convenience or safety. There is little doubt, given the state of the U.S. economy in the last few years, that the price point of school tuition is a factor in private school choice. Private school leaders face the daunting task of meeting the expectations that ripple out from these choices while also seeking to build enrollment around the mission, culture, vision and ethos of independent schools.
The school’s reputation is a critical drawing factor in attracting mission-appropriate families. This is the marketing metric for school sustainability. Schools develop a reputation for quality by consistently delivering on the promises that they make in their advertising: cultivating a culture that is attractive from the first moment a prospective family steps foot on the campus and by demonstrating each day that the school is very good at caring for, well educating and inspiring children. Schools must build an increasingly positive reputation as an organization that delivers. One of the reputation building blocks is the quality of the school’s graduates and their reflections on the value of their past school experience. Schools are wise to keep longitudinal data on both students and graduates. The data can be compared to studies of outcomes by similar types of schools.
Meeting Stakeholder Expectations
The 2011 Cardus Education Survey looked at the motivations for private and religious Catholic and Protestant education in North America (in the United States and Canada) and if those motivations align with graduate outcomes. The study compared Catholic and Protestant schools with each other and with public schools. Cardus interviewed religious schools’ graduates between the ages of 24 and 39 and measured them across three outcomes: spiritual formation, cultural engagement and academic development. The “Executive Summary” of the study notes:
In many cases, the difference in outcomes between Catholic and Protestant Christian schools is striking. Catholic schools provide superior academic outcomes, an experience that translates into graduates’ enrollment in more prestigious colleges and universities, more advanced degrees, and higher household income. In Catholic schools, administrators put a higher value on university than their Protestant Christian peers, and Catholic schools’ academic programs consist of more rigorous course offerings across the board….
….Compared to their public school, Catholic school, and non-religious private school peers, Protestant Christian school graduates have been found to be uniquely compliant, generous individuals who stabilize their communities by their uncommon and distinctive commitment to their families, their churches and their communities, and by their unique hope and optimism about their lives and the future. (p. 13)
This study indicates, in segmented fashion, a level of accountability that is fairly unique to the private school as part of the education universe. Parents come with checkbook in hand and enroll their children in the school with a particular set of expectations, and in the high-expectations and low-loyalty culture of today, unmet expectations result in disenrollment, and often in short order. Parents have expectations of the school that are academic, social, perhaps religious and relational. The school has its mission, but student enrollment, particularly initial enrollment, may only be tangentially related to that mission. An accountability tension exists for private school leadership among the competing expectations of enrolling families and the organization’s ability to maintain a missional emphasis while substantially meeting a variety of stakeholder demands.
An accountability tension exists for private school leadership among the competing expectations of enrolling families and the organization’s ability to maintain a missional emphasis while substantially meeting a variety of stakeholder demands.
While results that are missional are important to all schools, parents are primarily focused on the core schooling aspects of child development and academic achievement. Whether the school has a maturational, sociological or theological philosophy, the parents are strongly interested in the child’s personal well-being at school. These relational components are critical for the child and to the parents, and they are a key index of whether the family remains a school constituent. Private schools measure this by re-enrollment data, a metric of the percentage of students enrolled the previous year who return to the school. In the accreditation process by the Association of Christian Schools International, the school profile is expected to demonstrate an average reenrollment that is about the 90 percent level.
The academic expectations of enrolling private school families are significant. These expectations seem to parallel upward with the cost of tuition. These expectations include the scope (width) of the program in both the curricular and co-curricular areas and the quality (depth) of the instruction, the instructor and the results. Enrolling families want to know the results the school produces on standardized tests as well as College Board or American College Testing scores. The list of colleges where students gain admission is another selecting metric for private schools. Parents want data on how many students get into their first choice of schools, and they want to know what the ranking is for those colleges and universities.
The accountability metrics of reputation, re-enrollment and results are in constant play in every private school. These metrics provide a daily tension to be managed by private school leaders. They are a reality that serves both the general public and private schools well, sometimes painfully well.
Bassett. P. F. (2005, March). Remarks on accountability by NAIS President Patrick F. Bassett at CAPE’s meeting with U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings. CAPE Issue Paper.
California Association of Private Schools Organizations (CAPSO). (2012). CAPSO colloquium on private school accountability.
Council for American Private Education. (2004, March). Educational accountability. CAPE Issue Paper.
Covey, S. M. R. (2006). The speed of trust. New York, NY: Free Press.
Kouzes, J. M., & Posner, B. Z. (2007). The leadership challenge. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons.
Pennings, R., et al. (2011). Cardus education survey. Hamilton, Ontario: Cardus.