Can a School Control its Value?

Peter Gow

Naturally we tend to quantify “worth it” in monetary terms, but we know perfectly well that the investment a family makes in our school is greater than the size of the check they must write, especially when measured in anticipation and emotional commitment.

Former National Association of Independent Schools president Pat Bassett gave currency to the term “value proposition,” which encompasses all of the tangible and intangible aspects of the school experience and which he famously, and accurately, reduced to a simple equation:

I think, though, that schools have an obligation to dig even more deeply into the notion of value proposition, beginning with a consideration of what, exactly, a family’s decision to enroll a child actually means.

The Covenant

A family seeking a new school experience for a child is looking for many little things and one big thing. The “little” things, which of course comprise almost the whole of the day-to-day operations of the school, include the nature and quality of the curriculum, the quality of the teaching, the experience of the school’s physical facilities, the quality of the extracurricular programs, the school’s record in college or next-school placement, and (in varying degrees) the school’s perceived “prestige factor” in the family’s community.

The big thing, by contrast, generally lies outside the scope of things that the school can control at the outset. It is just this: Each family has a dream, a vision, of what and who their child might become, and they choose a particular school out of a belief that it offers the environment and the program in which this development will take place. Whether its form is specific—“We want her to become a prima ballerina or a doctor”—or more fuzzy and open—“We want him to become the best possible version of himself and develop his mind and heart and body to the fullest possible extent”—this dream is not just at the heart of a family’s school choice but at the center of human parenthood. It’s so obvious, we often forget to note it.

The parent or guardian signing an enrollment contract, then, is freighting this agreement with enormous emotional content. While an admission office may be excited they have a “great kid” and a “great family” as they tally another member of the class, the parent enters the relationship with a jumble of hopes and expectations. These will sort themselves out in time, and we have a huge role in the sorting.

It is critical that schools, no matter how much affection and respect they hold for their students and how hard they work to provide exceptional programs, teaching and support for them, acknowledge the emotional asymmetry of this relationship. A school may “love” a student and hold the highest of hopes for his or her success, but it can never love and experience the growth of a child quite the way a parent or guardian does.

This relationship, deep and extremely meaningful, is nothing less than a covenant, with great expectations on each side.

Why, exactly, are we working so hard?

Each day we arrive at school determined to provide a great educational experience. We strive to enact our schools’ missions and values, but we are often stuck focusing on the operational side of our work, on quality control as an aversive response to potential or real “problems.” We need to hold in our minds—a sometimes difficult task when helicopter parents are hovering and snowplow parents clearing obstacles and filling our hours with their anxieties—what the school experience means to our students’ families.

To go back to Pat Bassett’s equation, the key element is outcomes. But schools need to understand not just the nature of those outcomes—whether we use traditional measures or seek newer, “Big Data” measurements—but exactly what these outcomes look like and mean to our families and our students.

It’s really quite simple, at least when viewed from 30,000 feet: what students and families experience at the school, and how the child develops there, must remain in alignment with the family’s dream. This dream will necessarily evolve as the child grows and makes new discoveries about life and displays new interests or strengths or weaknesses, but all along the way the school experience must be felt at the very least as providing an academic and emotional framework capable of supporting the student as he or she moves toward the dream’s fulfillment.

Our schools wax poetic on the quality of the relationships that develop between faculty and students and between students and students, but we need to understand the real nature of our relationships with families. These are not simply about “customer service” but about holding up our end of the covenant.

Building and sustaining value

There is no magic to understanding the ways in which schools must provide excellent programs and positive cultures, but there are several principles that need to be front and center as we make decisions about our schools and our work.

If we are devoted to helping families’ dreams come true, the first step is to be emphatic and lucid in describing and communicating who we are and what we do as a school, from our mission and values statements to the nature of the teaching we offer and of the school “society” in which students will live. This requires excellent communication, but it starts with self-knowledge and a continuous process of honest self-appraisal. If we say we do something, we need to be doing it. If we say we eschew a particular practice or approach, it had better be absent from our campus. We cannot make promises anywhere in our culture with our fingers crossed behind us.

This clarity of purpose and practice must be accompanied by a clear internal understanding of what kinds of students and families we are best suited to serve—and of those who we cannot serve well. The temptation in a weak market is to be all things to all people, and the real danger is that we can convince ourselves that this is true. It almost never is, and schools that kid families and themselves into thinking they are will have a difficult time making the “perceived outcome” part of Pat Bassett’s equation work.

Clarity of purpose and practice also creates certain imperatives for a school’s strategic priorities: new academic approaches, new forms of organizing time or space or people, and even planning for new facilities need to be perceived as flowing clearly from mission and values and from the clear needs and best interests of students.

The school narrative and “outcomes”

Every school is a story, as is every student, teacher, alum and parent. The ineffable but arguably most important aspects of “perceived outcome” have to do with how this story unfolds as it tells of the school’s heritage, of the current school culture, and of the school’s (and each student’s) future. With the exception of a handful of schools so venerable that their very names are bywords—Andover, Exeter, Eton—the narrative of successful schools is a narrative of student and family experience. Students go to school, they do things there, they grow and change, and in the end they move forward to something new. Happy families can describe this process in often moving detail, and happy alums can do the same. Happy students evidence this in multiple ways and on multiple occasions.

These stories, not placement lists or “data,” are the outcomes that matter most to a school’s value proposition and that provide the answer to the “Is our school worth it?” question. Placement lists are a kind of outcome proxy, and data is just data, but how people respond to a school experience matters. Remember, our task—as odd and even scary as it might be to phrase it this way—is to help facilitate dreams.

Assessing value

The idea that narratives are a school’s primary outcome will sound awfully nebulous and feel-goody. We put (or should put) a great deal of effort into gathering data to evaluate the efficacy of our programs, and we are lately told that data is the key to understanding our present and our future. Of course on some levels it is, and yet I firmly believe that there are effective ways to gather and organize stories into a kind of table that gives us even deeper understanding of aspects of our work and that we can use to discern and adjust the alignment of our words and our deeds—and the effect of both on our communities and our cultures.

As part of some work I have done on messaging and branding, I have adopted the use of what Patti Crane of Crane MetaMarketing calls a “promise statement.” A promise statement, generated at the end of a rigorous process of self-examination involving focus groups and extensive program and document analysis, is nothing more than a rather effusive, even florid description of what it is, exactly, that the school promises.

The promise statement is an enumeration of what the school is and does, what it intends its outcomes to be, and what the experience of the school is like for various constituencies. The format might include separate paragraphs talking about a school’s values, its faculty, its students, what its graduates are intended to “be like.” Here is a sample paragraph from a promise statement:

Trusted and encouraged to be the best versions of themselves, our students become independent and original thinkers, loyal friends and forthright allies, and compassionate and self-assured participants in their communities and in their own lives. Prepared to thrive in the most demanding educational environments and in the world, our graduates are passionate learners with a developed capacity for ethical leadership, seeing multiple perspectives, setting appropriate life priorities and goals, and creative and effective action. Above all, our students are prepared to take their parts in stewarding a shared and precious planet.

Some schools are tempted to adopt the promise statement as a marketing tool or even a mission statement, but the language is really much too rich and even highfalutin for public consumption. What I believe the promise statement can do best is to serve as a kind of touchstone, phrase by phrase, for assertions about the school: Is this phrase or assertion true, and what evidence can we bring forward to “prove it”?

Can we adduce, in the case of the sample, stories or examples that demonstrate original thinking among the school’s students, or evidence that they can lead ethically and act creatively? The easy part of this one, in fact, is to find out whether students “thrive in the most demanding educational environments” after graduation.

Piece by piece, assertion by assertion, a school can collect and organize a body of evidence—qualitative data, if you will—that suggests in aggregate that the school keeps its promise; that is, that it upholds its end of the covenant it makes with families and students.

Does the promise statement by itself “prove” value? Of course not, any more than any other single page of information about the school. But the creation of a promise statement (by objective outside professionals trained in the methods of listening, observation, and drafting that are required to do the work well, please) can be a first step toward understanding the elements of a school’s program and culture that bring about the outcomes, real and perceived, that make up the crucial numerator of Bassett’s value proposition equation.

In the end, a school has only so much control, year by year, in the dollar figure at the core of “perceived cost.” What a school can control, by self-reflection, honesty, and an enormous amount of hard work to be who it says it is and do what it says it does, is the perceived outcome. Not every student will be admitted to the Ivy League, but every family can be well satisfied, even elated, that their child has been happy and challenged and that their collective dream for their child has come, in whatever way, true.

Peter Gow is executive director of the Independent Curriculum Group and writes and consults on independent school teaching, programs, marketing, and strategic issues. [email protected]

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HaYidion Money Matters Winter 2014
Money Matters
Winter 2014