10 June 2012

Creating a School of Excellence: Admissions vs. Demissions

An effective student selection process is central to creating a great private school environment, but not sufficient. When the atmosphere or social dynamics of the student body deteriorate, it is easy to point fingers at admissions, blaming them for accepting unqualified students. While admissions can make mistakes, or even take unsuccessful gambles on marginal applicants, it is imperative to have a clear process for identifying students who don’t belong and counseling them out.

Many schools count exclusively on the admissions filtering to manage the student body, excepting extreme cases like felonies on campus. When, inevitably, a few students prove themselves a nefarious influence on the student body, they must be exit, both to eliminate their influence on others and to set a clear example that such behavior is not tolerated. A school must maintain clear academic and behavioral standards and apply them consistently.

Parents who send their children to private schools are not only paying for quality academics, but for a filtered environment where their children will be surrounded by quality students. The less effective the filtering, the less value there is in paying a premium over quality public alternatives.

The same principle applies to faculty. In spite of the fact that many private schools issue annual contracts to their faculty with no extended commitment, they hesitate to ask mediocre faculty not to return. Further, as pay is often based exclusively on a combination of seniority and education levels, there is little built-in incentive for faculty to maintain their vigor after they have established themselves. As long as they perform above the minimum requirements, they can focus their extra energies on their families and personal interests. This creates an environment of mediocrity.

The pass/fail assessment of faculty is in stark contrast with the graduated grading system used habitually for students. Honors ceremonies unite the entire student body to celebrate the students who make the dean’s list and who achieve great grades, but teachers are usually only celebrated for seniority or external accolades. That sends the signal that teachers are better off conserving their energy in order to last longer and thus move higher up the salary ladder.

The majority of students and faculty respond positively to effective incentives, raising the standards of the entire school. In a school employing such incentives, performance would improve such that few students and faculty would need to leave, and they would be motivated to constantly give their full efforts.

Identifying clear values and expectations and creating consistently enforced incentives to propagate those values among both faculty and students creates an environment of excellence. Quality admissions and hiring solve only part of the solution. Quality on-going incentives within the community keep it vigorous and healthy.