Jumping to Conclusions:

An Open Letter to the NAIS Board of Trustees
Regarding John Chubb’s Appointment as President-Elect

 

Chris Thinnes

 


PLEASE NOTE:

The following post represents entirely personal views that should not be associated with the views of my employer, or any other institution with which I am affiliated.

This post was followed by “More Questions Still for the NAIS Board.”


 

It has been 48 hours since your announcement that your “extensive and rigorous search…has resulted in the selection of John Chubb as the new president of the National Association of Independent Schools.”  Presumably the intent of such a notice was not only to communicate the outcome of your search but, strategically, to invite NAIS members — and, perhaps, the broader public — to appreciate its value. Notwithstanding declarations of Dr. Chubb’s “talent,” “determination,” “dedication,” or “understanding” and descriptions of “his numerous honors, distinctions, and achievements” — none of which I would presume to doubt or to discredit, but none of which help me to understand the significance of his selection — I and others have been provided precious little to understand the intent, or the potential impact, of his selection for the leadership of our organization.

Oddly, precious little has been written on the internet about your choice. There is little public comment about it on Twitter. Just behind the stream of passive retweets of your announcement, and a few expressions of general concern, however, you should know by now that growing number of employees of NAIS member schools are expressing grave reservations about your decision in more private channels: by email,  direct messages on Twitter, text messages, and phone calls. That many have confessed they don’t feel “safe” making public comments about their concerns suggests to me that they aren’t.

I have tried, myself, to resist jumping to conclusions in recent days, and I’ve been warned emphatically by others that I shouldn’t. I do not pretend to know Dr. Chubb, and it’s not my intent to be disrespectful. But it is not as easy as it should be to give Dr. Chubb or his views the benefit of the doubt. For example, some colleagues have confessed their general concern that Dr. Chubb has never worked in an NAIS school — or any school, for that matter — or led a regional organization. But I suppose it’s possible you intend for us to understand his leadership of Edison charter schools as a reasonable proxy for that experience, however sweeping the differences between the organizations, and their charters, might be. Others have wondered if Dr. Chubb has ever taught a class of K-12 students. Though nothing in the public record suggests it, I suppose it might be possible. Some quieter conversations, still, have explored why NAIS would select yet another white man to lead the organization, despite its explicit commitments to diversity, inclusion, equity, and social justice in its schools. But we know it’s possible that Dr. Chubb harbors such commitments as those Pat Bassett has overtly inspired and supported for so many years. The problem is that absolutely nothing in Dr. Chubb’s available work suggests that this is so.

The essential question for those of us struggling to understand this decision, then — regardless of our personal or political biases, and faced by a dearth of available information but for the fait accompli of your decision — is this: what significance does this bear for the direction of our organization and our schools?

POLITICS

We know, for example, that Dr. Chubb has been a fellow at the famously conservative Brookings and Hoover Institutions. We know, as well, that Dr. Chubb was initially a member of Mitt Romney’s educational advisory team. Some of us might worry that Dr. Chubb’s agenda is politicized. And we might see Dr. Chubb’s declaration that he “stepped aside” from Romney’s team “to avoid any appearance of analytical bias” in different ways, depending on whether you choose to italicize ‘appearance’ as I do, or not. But we don’t know. And we don’t want to jump to conclusions.

POLICY

Perhaps the safest route to develop an understanding of Chubb’s value to NAIS, given that his bona fides suggest his prominence as a policy expert, would be to explore the merits of the policies he has created or defended. We should, moreover, look to ‘the data’ rather than ‘our feelings’ about it: that would be the fairest measure of an ‘accountability’ advocate’s success or failure. Dr. Chubb is known — not only because he has defined himself throughout his oeuvre, but because others have taken him at his word — as a fierce defender of No Child Left Behind. Against all evidence and reasoning, Dr. Chubb has claimed that “NCLB… has provided a very fair and flexible definition of what constitutes 100% proficiency.” Regarding the impact of NCLB, Diane Ravitch and so many others have demonstrated that, in a dazzling array of subject areas and grade levels, “the gains preceding the adoption of NCLB were larger than those posted after NCLB.” As for Chubb’s not-so-data driven defense of NCLB after the first seven years of its failure, Chubb insisted that “NCLB is based on sound principles and should with time improve the achievement of all American children.” I don’t mention any of this to pick a fight about NCLB. I mention this to beg a reasonable question about a policy expert’s reliability as a independent, unbiased reasoner. This seems an important hallmark of an organizational leader.

TECHNOLOGY & INNOVATION

One can only assume that Dr. Chubb’s selection correlates with NAIS interests as they pertain to instructional technology, online/blended learning, and ‘virtual schools’ that have started to develop in fits and starts before the coming paroxysms. Interestingly enough, we can confirm that Dr. Chubb is a vocal advocate of the integration of technology in schools. The questions emerge from the value he identifies in such cultural shifts — particularly when he asks us to “use technology more, teachers less” and he boasts that “more technology and fewer teachers would…allow us to boost teacher pay by 50%.” Does the integration of technology in education represent for Dr. Chubb an opportunity to inform and improve student learning, or does it represent an efficient means towards a markedly less innovative policy goal? One wouldn’t want to jump to conclusions.

TEACHER TRAINING

Dr. Chubb has also made it clear that the United States will never produce a generation of students who earns higher test results than everyone else in the world — which, naturally, is our collective goal as educators — unless we improve teacher preparation programs that “regularly produce mediocre teachers.” In order to improve those programs, he suggests that we “measure the effectiveness of teacher training programs,” presumably through the use of the kinds of standardized tests on which we hope those teachers will help students to be fruitful and prosper. Should we yearn for shining examples of effective teacher preparation programs, we know that Dr. Chubb finds Teach for America and KIPP to represent dynamic and admirable alternatives. Those of us who find these approaches, their intent, or their transparency to be matters fraught with controversy might find it especially difficult not to jump to conclusions. But we will soldier on.

PUBLIC SCHOOLS

There is one thing we know for sure: despite Dr. Chubb’s career as a self-styled advocate for public policies that lead to effective teaching (avoiding such distracting topics as policies that might lead to effective learning), he has reserved his express and unequivocal contempt for the potential beneficiaries of his magnanimity in the U.S. education system. In this case we needn’t worry about jumping to conclusions, because we can simply read them ourselves:

In effect, our public schools are asking teachers to help students reach standards that are far above the standards that they have achieved themselves.

How could one voice so arrogant a claim? Well, the answer happens to be something like this: based on a misrepresentation of research on the average SAT scores of incoming students in teacher education programs, squeezed through an algorithm Chubb himself disavows when interpreting NCLB test data in his effort to defend it. But that’s the subject for someone else’s exploration, on someone else’s time. The question at hand is what such views, and what such misappropriation of data, demonstrate about John Chubb’s contempt for American public school teachers — and, perhaps, for teachers in our organization as well.

WHAT THIS MEANS FOR NAIS

The agenda of NAIS, and the ethos of its member schools, for these last twelve years has been inextricably intertwined with the extraordinary leadership of Pat Bassett. In my experience, his devotion to school improvement hinged on improving the relevance of the student’s experience; Chubb’s depends on improving the ‘excellence’ of teachers. Bassett extolled the virtues of the professional learning community and a flatter hierarchical structure; Chubb wants to “give principals more authority and responsibility.” Bassett explored assessment in the 21st century as an opportunity for more individualized and deeper learning; Chubb advocates for one-size-fits-all standards and trumpets the virtues of ‘achievement.’ Bassett understood the value of great public school models, and promoted respectful collaboration with their constituents; Chubb explicitly articulates his contempt and disdain. Bassett recognized that private schools serve an unjustly narrow segment of our national population; Chubb demonstrates no such awareness or concern. Bassett actively promoted diversity, inclusion, equity, and social justice in our policies and programs; Chubb shows no interest in the matter. Bassett heralded the opportunities of global education to collaborate and connect; Chubb eggs us on to demonstrate our dominance of our international competitors.

Some uncertainty remains, specifically among members of NAIS school communities, that you might help to resolve. It would be helpful for the NAIS board explicitly to affirm its commitments — and, by proxy, our organization’s commitments — in those many cases that Dr. Chubb’s appointment calls them into question. In those cases that his appointment does, in fact, trumpet a change in course, you owe it to us to let us know.

The impact of this decision on the broader public, however, is nearly certain. There is damage from which you, and we, will not recover. Dr. Chubb has already — and you have now, as well, by proxy, though probably not by intent — helped further to divide a nation of educators, parents, and students from each other. Rampant misconceptions about the virtues of American public schools, about the elitism of private schools, about the meaning of ‘excellence’ and ‘learning,’ and more, will take still more years to deconstruct.

Because there is only one conclusion to which the general public will ‘jump’ from this appointment. What Chubb stands for, we must stand for.

I, for one, do not.

#      #      #

 


NB 01.18.13:

Subsequent to posting this open letter, I was referred to further information about John Chubb posted on the NAIS site and dated prior to the composition of this letter. Nothing in the information posted on that page alters any of the questions or concerns I have articulated, or any of the views I have stated or implied, in this letter. The board provides further details about Chubb’s resume, above another copy of Chubb’s declaration of his interest in such “timeless commitments” as “values, character, love, security, [and] direction” — but nothing substantially addresses the implications of his appointment for our schools’ futures. Nothing.

One could misinterpret certain rueful statements from Dr. Chubb as so ironic as to border on contempt for the intelligence of his readers:

In recent years—well, actually much longer—we have become accustomed to thinking of our schools almost exclusively as places that impart knowledge and skills, boost student achievement, raise test scores, and help us compete in the international economy.

We might wonder whether Chubb’s pioneering efforts to promote these very goals in recent years–well, actually much longer–have themselves inspired policies and practices that are incompatible with learning. But we don’t want to jump to conclusions.

NB 01.21.13:

Fred Bartels posted these anchors for continuing reflection on the ISENET forum that has opened for continued discussion:

I received an email about the John Chubb decision from a wise elder of the independent school world. In the letter some interesting points were made which I’ll share here.

1. It’s quite possible the members of the NAIS board were not fully aware of some of the information that has come out about Dr. Chubb’s past affiliations and activities.

2. “There is a “L Street myopia” slowly enveloping NAIS that focuses on Beltway fixations (read: money, politics, influence, power connections) more than schools/students/teachers…” This is a direct quote from the email.

3. If the decision is to be reversed (as, for example, the UVA board reversed its decision to fire Teresa Sullivan) then NAIS board members will need support from their communities.

I’ve learned over the past 60 years that it’s almost always a mistake not to speak up when you feel those in power have made an error. We all can and do flub decisions. To err is human. To help fix an error is divine. Please help fix this flub.

Fred’s last statement articulates my own position(s) with a lucidity, integrity, and decency for which I found myself searching.

NB 02.10.13:

Also please see “More Questions Still for the NAIS Board: Another Open Letter…”

 


You can follow Chris Thinnes on Twitter at @ChrisThinnes

 
  • David Bryan

    Once again, Thinnes is insightful, lucid and eloquent… tongue firmly lodged in cheek. Bravo!

    • ChrisThinnes

      :) Thanks Dave.

  • Steve Taffee

    Thank you for speaking what is on your mind – and the mind of many – in such a logical, elegant manner. I was one advocating that there not be a rush to judgment about the motives behind the NAIS’ appointment of Mr. Chubb. The organization does “some ‘splainin to do,” and I trust they will at the Conference. Should make for great theater.

    • ChrisThinnes

      I too am eager to know what could possibly be behind this.

  • http://twitter.com/merskine107 Martha Erskine

    Thank you for your eloquent articulation of my concerns.

    • ChrisThinnes

      Thanks for your support, Martha.

  • http://twitter.com/michgutierrez Michele Gutierrez

    Thank you for you insightful letter. You have put so many of our fears into one place.

    • ChrisThinnes

      Thanks, Michele. I hope this helps elicit some responses.

  • Bill Ivey

    Having written and rejected about a dozen drafts in response to your blog, let me simply thank you for your eloquence, tell you I agree with you in respecting and admiring Pat Bassett and his work, tell you I share your concerns for what we can discern of Dr. Chubb’s views on education from his writings, and tell you I also share your concerns both for the future direction of NAIS and for the effect this appointment will have on the public image of the independent school world. I await further clarification by the NAIS Board, and in the meantime find comfort in the knowledge that many independent school people are thinking along these lines as well.

    • ChrisThinnes

      Thanks for your voice, Bill — here, on Twitter, and on ISEnet.

  • Eileen Steele

    Well said. The division that has been created between educators diminishes us all in our pursuit of serving the youth of our nation. Our mission is one, our dedication is equally strong, our passion for learning and guiding are congruent and we must all question those who would pit us against each other.

    • ChrisThinnes

      +1!

  • http://www.facebook.com/richarde.barbieri Richard Barbieri

    As one who recalls John Chubb’s early entry into the educational world with his study focusing on vouchers, and watched him being bought by Christ Whittle, I was deeply concerned about this choice. Your piece has given substance to those concerns. I share all your concerns: lack of independent school experience, perpetuation of the old boy leadership that has marked NAIS throughout its history, and stated positions at odds with much that NAIS stand for. The DC association appointed just such a think-tanker a few years ago, and had to sever the relationship abruptly when it became apparent that a theorist who followed where his theories led was incompatible with the advocate/diplomat that an association needs. I’m not sure whether I hope Chubb will suffer the same fate, or will steer NAIS wrongly for years.

    • ChrisThinnes

      Your support means a lot to me, Dick. Thank you.

    • http://twitter.com/garystager Gary Stager, Ph.D.

      By any measure, the Edison Schools are a colosal failure.

  • ChrisThinnes

    An additional forum for discussion has been created on ISEnet: http://isenet.ning.com/forum/topics/nais-presidential-appointment

  • ChrisThinnes

    (01.21.13) I received official confirmation that this letter has been forwarded to the membership of the NAIS board.

  • http://twitter.com/garystager Gary Stager, Ph.D.

    I am a veteran educator and teacher educator who believes that a strong, joyous, learner-centered public school system is the foundation of American democracy. That said, I regularly work in public and independent schools around the world.

    The appointment of John Chubb will be bad for independent schools because he is a partisan ideologue who reinforces the elitist class-preserving reputation of private education.

    However, the appointment of Dr. Chubb points to an even more disturbing trend I have observed regarding the trajectory of NAIS. The NAIS annual conference was for many years a well-catered highly intellectual affair with a program filled with Nobel Laureates, poets and dreamers who could inspire the assembled educator to imagine a more just, beautiful or productive world. Those programs focused on big ideas, personal development and were refreshingly free of “school wars” politics. Public education and the sorts of Dickensian policies, standardization fetishes and zero-sum “accountability” advocated by people like Chubb existed outside the walls of NAIS.

    I started to sense that NAIS was in trouble when their keynote address on “creativity” in NYC at Radio City Music Hall featured infomercial pitchman Daniel Pink. Had an art bomb detonated in NYC and killed all of the thousands of qualified actors, dancers, musicians or artists who could have addressed the topic from a perspective of expertise and genuine insight?

    Over the past few years, NAIS has continued to promote keynote speakers who are openly hostile towards public education, including Mary Cullinane, Michelle Rhee, Bill Gates and Michael Horn. Perhaps this coincides with the downturn in the economy and increased competition for students, but independent school educators should be very wary of even a perceived hostility or condescension towards their public education brethren.

    The free market Darwinism of Chubb and his support for vouchers, charters and endless testing will do nothing to enhance the image or efficacy of NAIS.

    • ChrisThinnes

      Thanks, Gary, for your voice. Indeed: in Seattle at the 2012 NAIS conference, Bill Gates was lauded by NAIS leadership in a general session while, quite literally, a protest by public school educators prepared to march on his foundation down the street.

  • http://twitter.com/jimeagen jimeagen

    Great letter, Chris. Thanks for having the courage to post a thoughtful response to a curious appointment. Though charters and ind. schools are both schools of choice, they are not the same organisms. I can only hope that Dr. Chubb will have an opportunity, and a desire, to truly learn about independent schools – from the fundamentals to the more subtle aspects, in order to champion what independent schools do best, in order to model for all schools, what is best in teaching and learning.

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