New Heads of School Institute (Part II)

We are half-way through the Institute for New Heads of Schools.  (This is the second of two posts on this topic; the earlier post is here.)  I’ve been looking forward to the first session this morning, led by James P. Honan, senior lecturer on education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.  I’ve been an admirer of Jim’s for a long time; he is a great teacher and leader, including a lot of service on school boards and trusted advisor to heads of school (including BB&N and Dana Hall).

* Stewardship and Sustainability.  Jim’s session is on “Strategic Financial Management: Stewardship and Sustainability.”  Unlike the other sessions at the institute, Jim teaches his using the case method, and he’s a fine case teacher.  Every one of us as new heads has been asked by our boards, I suspect, to focus on “sustainability” and to take a hard look at the financial model of our respective schools.  Jim frames the session with a good, hard question: “what do you want your financial legacy to be once you leave as the CEO of the school?”  You want to have managed with strong controls and with sound compliance; to have aligned the resources well with the strategic priorities; and to be able to show that your management of financial resources led to the school being better by the end of your time there.  Most schools have their money in roughly four buckets: 1) general, 2) plant, 3) endowment, and 4) grants.  Most for-profits, Jim notes, have just one such bucket; the nature of the accounting in schools is different in this important way.  There are three types of money: 3) permanently restricted (e.g., many endowed funds); 2) temporarily restricted (e.g., grants and other “use-it-or-lose-it money”); and 3) unrestricted (within reason; the board can still constrain its usage somewhat, if needed).  Jim emphasized the importance for heads of institutions to be the “translator” of the financial issues related to the school for the community at large.  He cites to Herzlinger’s four questions that we (as leaders and trustees) should ask about the financials regularly: 1) are the organization’s goals consistent with its resources?; 2) are the sources and uses of resources matched?; 3) is there intergenerational equity?; and, 4) are present resources sustainable?  “High performing organizations aren’t just lucky,” Jim tells us.  Another good line: in education, “you can’t cut your way to prosperity.”

* Creating a Culture of Philanthropy.  The job of a head of any academic institution is, in part, about development, institutional advancement, fundraising — whatever we call it.  Our sessions on philanthropy, (led by Denise Martin of the Center for Early Education with Reveta Bowers), are focused on the people involved: staff in the development office, the alumni and other potential/actual donors, the faculty (who often ought to be more involved; I always liked talking with donors as a faculty member; I’m told it is rare that faculty are really involved in development in schools), the students (around whom everything needs to revolve).  The role of the head of school seems to vary a lot in terms of what role we play in fundraising.  I’ve always enjoyed this part of my job, especially as executive director of the Berkman Center, since I just thought about it as talking with smart people about work that I’m excited about.  I realize it can be hard work, but it’s rewarding and think it will be a great way to channel passion about the mission of the school.

* Trusting Relationship with the School’s Staff.  The executive director, Dallas Joseph, and board chair, Jeff Shields, of the National Business Officers Association (NBOA) came to talk about the importance of the business officer’s role in the success of a school.  I spoke at NBOA’s annual symposium a few years ago (about Born Digital), and I was highly impressed by the organization and its members.  So I’ve been looking forward to this session.  The speakers emphasized the importance of a trusting relationship between the head of school and the CFO/business officer.  That seems, of course, quite right.  It occurs to me that much of the messaging from this camp is about building trusting relationships with staff (and faculty and other constituencies) across the school, starting from the very beginning.  Simple and obvious, but worth focusing on.

* A First Year as Head of School.  Vince Watchorn, who just recently completed his first year as head of Providence Country Day, took us through his own experiences and teed up what one can expect in the first year.  The most important thing (and I agree with this, ex ante), he says, is to spend the first year devoted to observing, to listening, and to learning from what one takes in.  He talked also about helping to lead a conversation, to inspire other people to talk in public about big, important topics that may not have been discussed recently at the school.   He also talked very helpfully about the balance between the internal and external demands of the job.  It is crucial to balance the two, but achieving that balance is always a challenge — in the first year and throughout one’s time as head of school.  In Vince’s case, he toggled between an internal focus and an external focus during different periods during the year as a way to manage both demands.  Everything is connected, as in a complex system, Vince argues (which I also agree with; see Interop, which Urs Gasser and I just published.)  One nice nugget: in response to a question from my friend Zachary Lehman, new head at the Hill School (who is going to be completely amazing), Vince said that “the best new traditions are old traditions that have been forgotten.”

New Heads of School Institute (Part I)

Last week was my first as head of school at Phillips Academy, Andover.  This week, I’m off campus with about 70 (yes, to my surprise: seven-zero) newly minted heads of independent schools for an institute (I am thinking about it as “camp” for new heads) hosted by the NAIS.  It’s very well-organized and well-staffed — and is a useful time to reflect on this new role we’re all taking on.

Over the course of the week, I’ll update this blog entry with the high-level points that seem to gain the traction among members of the group and which seem highly relevant to me.  The things I’ll pull out from the conversations and post here may not be the most important to everyone at the institute, but rather the topics that are most useful (selfishly) to me as I think about leading Andover.  I will try to limit myself to no more than one topic per session, lest the blog post get too long; they’re not in order of importance, necessarily, but in order of the sessions at the institute.  And I’m live-blogging as sessions go, so please excuse typos and shorthand.  Other participants would no doubt come up with quite a different list.

*  Assessment.  No small question: How do we define, measure, and achieve success as a school?  In the opening session, led by NAIS president Pat Bassett (blog, @Pat Bassett on Twitter), part of the discussion centered around ways of assessing the success of a school.  There seems to be little disagreement with the core premise: it should be child-centered.  The primary definition of success for a school should be how well the kids are prepared to succeed, in a broad range of ways (academically but also ethically, socially/emotionally, artistically, athletically, and so forth), after they graduate.  Also, it seems straightforward that assessment should be “formative” rather than “normative.”  How do we assess these varying kinds of “success” of, and for, our kids?  (I am a believer in Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences theory and framework, FWIW.)  For instance, some people think we should go beyond grades and test scores and college admissions (as important as those things are, in their way), and instead should look to alternate modes of assessment.  One suggestion we discussed: should we be creating a digital portfolio for our kids from pre-school through the end of their time in school?  A related topic: a good portfolio would be far from standardized, but rather student-driven — which would cut against ease of analysis across large numbers of applications.  This general topic of assessment is one of enormous interest to me; there’s an important national (and, in fact, global) conversation on this topic that we should all be a part of.  I’ll be staying in touch, for instance, with the work of my former colleagues at HILT, who are doing great things in this area in higher ed.  I’m also puzzling about how success can relate also to kids enjoying and benefitting from their time at Andover while they are there — not just in the sense of “preparing” for what comes afterwards.

*  Data can be our friend.  There’s a growing movement in the education field, including in secondary education, toward using data more effectively than we’ve done in the past.  (This second point, on data, is related to the first, with respect to assessment, but it is also more capacious.)  Some schools report that there’s a basic commitment to using data to drive a certain level of accountability.  That’s crucial, as a matter of basic management and governance.  More broadly we ought to strive for greater sophistication with respect to how we analyze data (it’s not just about the collection and collation of data, but about what we do with it, what kinds of decisions we make); how we think about both qualitative and quantitative sources of data; and how we incorporate and understand data from other fields (say, the increasingly important and revealing science of learning).

*  Diversity and Inclusiveness.  Every school has its own story, and (one hopes) its own pathway, toward becoming genuinely diverse and inclusive.  These issues are essential for every school to acknowledge, understand, and ultimately get right.  Diversity and inclusiveness relate directly to access — access to success at the school, in education more extensively, and in professional and personal life.  The NAIS board has put in place a set of new “principles of good practice for equity and justice.”  The presenter, Gene Batiste, VP at NAIS (see a brief speech of his here), notes that these new principles serve to support the diversity practitioners in schools by putting the responsibility of diversity and inclusiveness work in the ambit of heads of school and trustees.  As a side note, related to this and other points: each of the institute’s teachers is emphasizing the importance of modeling on the part of the head of school, which is true in the context of inclusiveness as well.  For Andover, as a need-blind school, this work is especially crucial.  In my mind, the work around access, equity, and justice are directly about making good on the promise of the school’s commitment to need-blind admissions.  I am extremely eager to work on these issues with the very strong team at Andover.

* Governance.  I’m especially interested in issues of governance and how decisions are made at schools.  That might have something to do with being a lawyer by training.  The faculty member leading this session, Reveta Bowers, the head of school at the Center for Early Education at West Hollywood, CA, is completely amazing and inspiring.  She’s been a head of school for 42 years, and that’s the least amazing thing about her.  Reveta led a captivating discussion about the governance of schools, focused initially on the relationship between the head of school and the Board of Trustees.  There’s a wide range of board sizes, cultures, and issues in the room of 70 of us, but many commonalities, too, across these differences. The key shared topic is the distinction between governance (the role of the Board) and management (the role of the head of school and her/his team) — and what that means.  Newly minted heads of school spent the session at the front of our seats throughout her presentation.

* Messaging and Social Media.  If you ever have the chance to take a workshop by Andy Watson, (very experienced) head of school at Albuquerque Academy, do it!  (Find him @atwatson2 on Twitter.)  He’s a great teacher — of writing and otherwise.  We also got a bit into social media strategy by the end of the session.  Most schools seem to agree: no friending of current students on Facebook, but Twitter following back and forth is fine.  Seems about right to me, and is consistent with my past practice at HLS.