In late February, I got word that our community lost of one of its most dedicated advocates, Pearl Rock Kane. Pearl had been the director of the Klingenstein Program at Teacher’s College, Columbia University, for nearly 40 years. At the time the program was established, it was the first university-based program dedicated to the leadership needs of the independent school community. Today, there are more than 4,000 alumni in 65 countries, and the influence of these Klingenstein graduates on the education landscape has been immense.

Pearl’s passing was not only a huge blow to the education community but also a personal blow to me. I first met Pearl in the early 1990s, when I started working as the associate editor of Independent School magazine, published by the National Association of Independent Schools. When I took over as the magazine’s editor in 1996, Pearl was one of the first people to show up in my office to talk about the magazine content, independent schools, and the role of the Klingenstein program. She also proposed an article she wanted to write for an upcoming issue. Being new to my position, I was both grateful for the conversation and her willingness to contribute. Little did I know that this would be the start of a 25-year relationship that I would come to see as one of the most important in my professional life.

A New Vision for School Leadership

Pearl’s passing prompted me to look up the numerous articles she wrote or co-wrote for Independent School during my tenure (1996 to 2017). Here, I focus on an article she wrote in 1998 about the kind of leadership independent schools would need for the coming century. It was fascinating to re-read it and think about how Pearl anticipated, and helped shape, the current generation of school leaders.

In the article, she references a class at the Klingenstein program in which students read and discuss John McPhee’s The Headmaster— a book-long profile of Frank Boyden, the famed head of Deerfield Academy from 1902 to 1968. Pearl, like her students, admired Boyden for his determination to engage students in every way possible, including playing on the football team. But, at the turn of this century, she didn’t see Boyden as a valuable leadership model. Rather, Pearl argued for school leaders with identifiable core competencies, skills, and knowledge. The qualities include integrity, caring, emotional intelligence, and self-awareness. The skills include craft knowledge, team building, collaboration, people management, community involvement, political astuteness, and skills in conflict resolution. She also argued that heads of school need specific attitudes for successful leadership, including commitment, continuous improvement, an understanding of diversity and inclusion, and the ability to build what she called “intraorganizational alliances.”  

Her vision for school leaders was fairly radical at the time. The most radical element, I think, was her understanding that school leadership wasn’t just something one had or didn’t have. It could no longer be a matter of feeling one’s way along. Good leadership had to be consciously developed. 

What struck me in re-reading Pearl’s article is that she was describing a kind of leadership I see in more and more schools. Her insight on intraorganizational alliances was particularly timely. Pearl felt that the independent school leaders of the 1990s were too insular. “To be on the forefront of education,” she wrote, “independent school leaders will need to encourage pooling resources to share knowledge of successful practices and to investigate problems and concerns of common interest.”

Six Trends Highlighting Collaboration

Today, this kind of collaborative leadership is more the norm than the lone, hard-working head. In fact, I’d argue, the willingness of school leaders — as well as teachers — to collaborate with colleagues within their own school and among other schools is a key strength of the evolving independent school community.

Here’s a sample of the collective changes I see happening in schools:

A new view on quality professional development

School administrators and teachers still attend conferences and one-day professional development events. But now they also value ongoing coaching and internal collaboration. Heads are hiring their own leadership coaches and establishing systems for teacher instructional coaching. Teachers are visiting each other’s classes more regularly and embracing the notion that quality teaching requires constant growth. In short, more heads are instilling a collective growth mindset.

A conscious focus on cultural competencies

Independent schools have long embraced the importance of diversity and inclusion. In Independent School, the conversation dates back to the 1940s. But schools also stumbled in the late 20th century and the first decade of this century. Some still are. What’s become clear, however, is that it’s not enough to have a diverse group of students. A school that wants to call itself inclusive must create a more diverse faculty and administration and help all educators develop their cultural competencies to teach well across race, gender, and socioeconomic differences. I’m heartened to see more school leaders and teachers digging deeper into understanding their own identities and blind spots, and developing the skills to create a multicultural curriculum and a support mechanism for all students. 

A new understanding of strategic planning

In the past, strategic planning focused heavily on outcomes. Now school leaders focus more on process. A decade ago, psychologist Rob Evans wrote about this mindset change from strategic planning to strategic thinking. Today heads of school focus less on checking off projects and more on creating a healthy school culture, building leadership capacity, keeping up with the research on learning, engaging the community, and creating an inspired path forward. This shift requires understanding that a plan is only a rough outline of a path that must be continually tweaked to meet the evolving needs of the school and society.

The use of smart data

There’s value in educators intuiting their way forward, but schools have relied too heavily on intuition in the past. Now they are starting to both collect and use more hard data to shape and reshape their programs. Data is being leveraged to wisely examine core business questions: Is our tuition priced right? Do we have too many or too few faculty and staff members? What are some nontuition revenue streams we can tap into? Are there ways to spread our mission by partnering with schools nationally and internationally? But school leaders are now asking essential education questions: What are our best predictors of student academic success? Are there different outcomes in the school based on gender, race, and socioeconomics? Can we measure our commitment to social-emotional learning? How can we keep our teachers on the cutting edge of their fields? 

Balancing academics and life skills

On the academic front, independent schools have long aimed to help students gather the information and academic skills they’ll need for college and beyond. The difference today is that schools more clearly see, on the one hand, the dangers of overloading students with information, and, on the other hand, the growing need to interconnect knowledge across disciplines. The academic elements are becoming more interdisciplinary, focusing on depth over breadth, and reflecting the world in which the students live. 

At the same time, schools are no longer paying lip service to the value of life skills. For example, the California Association of Independent Schools has undertaken a pilot project to measure school success in this area. The clearest manifestation of this change: Schools are giving students far more agency in what and how they learn.

A shift toward mastery learning

By now, most independent schools know of the Mastery Transcript Consortium. This is the first time a group of schools has not only pushed for alternatives to the classic report card and grading system, but are making deep in-roads — focusing on mastery of academic knowledge and skills and working with colleges and universities to get their support. 

An Essential Element

These are all impressive signs of a community evolving in positive ways. I often think back to my full-time teaching days when I was thrust into an English classroom with little to no guidance or professional support. Back then, the thought was that, as a teacher, I had the autonomy to create the curriculum and run the class as I saw fit. Autonomy is wonderful, but only if you know what you’re doing and understand how to get support when needed. At the time, I knew something about my subject, but little about classroom practices that would bring out the best in my students. I also knew almost nothing about regional and state associations, or the National Council of Teachers of English — organizations that support and connect educators globally. 

We’ve come a long way. I know sometimes it doesn’t feel that way. I often hear critics describe schools as backward-looking institutions that don’t change easily. That’s partly true — and there is value in examining where you have been to understand where you need to go. But I’m seeing something new and exciting now: schools that are not only evolving but that see such evolution as an essential element of a quality school. 

There will always be challenges in education — and in certain markets, I suppose schools feel as if they are in a competition for students. But this shift toward coalitions of schools and educators, toward collaboration within and among schools, is heartening. Schools need to evolve with the fast-changing world. The good news is that each year brings us new insights into how we learn and how we should teach and mentor the young. Even better, school leaders increasingly embrace this truth — and are more willing than ever to share what they know and to learn from others.