Is it possible to be both an innovative and a rigorous school?
This has been a question that I have pursued during my 15-year tenure at The Lexington School. I have come to believe that a connection between innovation and rigor is not only possible, but that innovation produces productive, constructive rigor. Research plays a critical role in every field, and during the last sixty years significant research has been conducted regarding child development, the brain, motivation, memorization, understanding, reading, mathematics, writing, and the list goes on and on. Simply put, we have learned so much about the brain and about how children learn, but there is a natural tension to innovation… change.
Humans have an interesting relationship with change. On one hand, we love it. Every day is different, and with that comes curiosity. On the other hand, we are skeptical of change. We are proud of the way we did something, and we want those traditions to remain. This is true of the way adults view education for their children as well. We remember the way we learned. We value those lessons and the traditions that created the opportunity for those lessons to be remembered. As a result, we want our children to have that same experience. It is exactly why alumni love their schools so fiercely. Their school represents memories of a common challenge that all of those who attended shared. Having overcome that obstacle creates a bond among generations. We see this with summer camps and excursions as well. I want my child to attend TLS because it shaped my study habits. I want my daughter to attend Camp Wadda Wadda because I learned independence and made friends from all over the country. I want my child to live in Spain for the semester so he can learn a new culture and become fluent in another language like I did.
The reality though is that experience evolves over the years. To stay relevant, organizations must evolve to survive and get stronger. The other reality is that we as adults do not always remember what we experienced accurately. We remember BIG moments, and in retrospect, we attribute meaning to those events in our life. For example, I remember my sixth grade teacher, Mrs. Madigan. I remember that she was demanding, but I don’t remember the grade I received in her class, nor do I remember any day-to-day details. To give another example of an institution evolving in my life, I went to an all-male high school, and the fact that it was all-male certainly shaped me as a person and made me who I am today. It was part of the fabric of the school. That being said, my high school today is coed, and I think by all measurable statistics it is a better school now because it chose to accept girls. Some of you will read about that change and say, “Of course, it is a better school. The world is a coed world and men need to work and learn alongside woman.” But to be clear, there are a significant number of alumni who vehemently disagree with that statement. They feel the school does not have the same quality that it used to. As an alum, I understand why they may feel that way, but I don’t agree with them. This is where experience can outweigh facts. It does not matter to some that the school is more selective, more rigorous, stronger financially; going coed was too much change for them.
A common refrain from heads of schools is, “Your most traditional alumnus is the one who graduated last May.” One would think the 50-year alumnus would be the most traditional, but if you think about it, it makes sense. Those who have just completed the challenge desire most deeply that it have the same value as past generations. Those newly minted alumni studied hard, stayed up late doing homework, completed this project, and returned from that trip; don’t tell them it wasn’t hard enough, late enough, completed to the same standards, or lacked this “old-school” adventure.
I give you these examples to lay out the tension all good schools have. How do we innovate and evolve with what we are learning about teaching while at the same time maintain our traditions in order to keep the institutional experience the same?
When I look back on my time at TLS, I remember the changes we made that marked a departure from some traditions of the past. Here are the ones that stick out:
Putting the word “failure” in the Philosophy Statement:
It was 2005 when the school’s philosophy statement was written by faculty, administration, and trustees. While Wendy Mogel’s Blessing of a Skinned Knee was published in 2001 and gave credence to the idea that making mistakes was a good thing, schools were still adapting to the age of “helicopter parenting.” TLS took a strong stand and actually used the word “failure” in its philosophy statement. The school wanted to take a stand in this era of parents protecting their children from making any mistakes or suffering any consequences. Of course, TLS is not about “failure”; we are about success, but the only way to achieve success is to make a mistake, learn from it, pick yourself back up, and try, try again. Since then, the Philosophy Statement has become TLS’s “North Star.” It has defined us as a school and is cited by many parents as the “reason we chose TLS.”
Adding Mission Skills to the curriculum:
In 2008, The Lexington School sat with 18 other schools in a conference room in Chicago and dreamed of a test that measured non-cognitive skills such as Creativity, Curiosity, Ethics, Resilience, Teamwork, and Time Management. These were called mission skills because at least one of these skills was mentioned in 100% of the participating 18 schools’ mission statements, and all six were represented in 80% of the schools’ collective mission statements. We heads of schools wanted the test because parents and trustees were saying, “You say you teach ____________ (Curiosity), but can you really prove it?” Data was king, and parents wanted to see the data. The Mission Skills Assessment was able to quantify to a reliable degree how well schools taught each skill. TLS and other independent schools knew these six traits were critical to the education our graduates received and wanted to give these skills the same emphasis as a specific academic skill. Mission Skills are the differentiator between TLS and other schools. Teamwork and Ethics are the foundations of a strong leader in the community. Curiosity and Creativity spark the inventor. Time Management and Resilience are the engine that keeps one working to find a solution when others get disorganized and quit. That is why Mission Skills have been an essential part of a TLS education long before Carol Dweck (Mindset), Angela Duckworth (Grit), and Paul Tough (How Children Succeed) became best sellers and declared these skills critical to an excellent education.
Starting The Learning Center:
Almost a decade ago The Lexington School took the bold step of starting a school within a school for students with Language Based Learning Differences like dyslexia, dysgraphia, and dyscalculia. At the time, Lexington did not have a school to serve those types of learners. When it became clear that TLS could no longer serve the student with dyslexia, the difficult part was informing the family that 1) TLS could no longer serve their child; and 2) there wasn’t a school in Lexington that could serve their child. Looking back nine years later on that decision, starting The Learning Center seems like a “no-brainer.” The Learning Center now serves 63 students. Having grown beyond our wildest dreams, it has garnered a national reputation for TLS because it serves as a model for other traditional independent schools, and it has enhanced our teaching of reading schoolwide. It is not only changing the lives of students in The Learning Center but of every student at The Lexington School.
One of the highest compliments we get about TLS is its ability to serve a wide range of students. A parent just recently noted, “What I am most amazed at and appreciative of regarding TLS is its ability to serve all of my children well.” This idea of Differentiated Instruction has been pioneered and championed by Dr. Carol Ann Tomlinson at the University of Virginia Curry School of Education. In the good old days, teachers gave each student the same math test, spelling test, writing assignment, or book to read. Students were graded along a bell curve, and most instruction was geared to the middle student. The Lexington School classroom is run very differently today. Teachers know their students well and adjust their instruction to meet the strengths and challenges of each one of them. For example, in Lower School we have adopted the Lucy Calkins writing methodology. It formalizes what has been a trademark of a Lexington School education. If Suzie is a strong writer who uses descriptive adjectives well and is beginning to form a focused thesis statement, our teachers can set individualized expectations for Suzie’s writing. Her teacher can expect that Suzie use more descriptive adjectives and write a tighter thesis statement in her next essay, and she will receive feedback from the teacher that stretches her to write more coherently. If Chuckie on the other hand is an average writer who struggles with descriptive language and hasn’t quite mastered the idea of a topic sentence, our teachers set individualized expectations for Chuckie’s writing. The next essay will demand the use of descriptive adjectives and a topic sentence. The beauty of Differentiated Instruction is that satisfaction is never met. One can always write a better essay, use more descriptive language, and give more insightful commentary. More is expected of every student. In the good old days, that wasn’t the case. Differentiated Instruction is not limited to writing. I watched a fourth grade math class in which technology was used to gather student answers on a given math problem. Immediately the teacher had real-time information about each student's understanding of the topic being taught. The teacher could see who understood the concept and was answering the question correctly and who struggled to find the answer. During one-on-one time, those students received direct instruction to buttress their understanding of the math concept allowing for that individualized instruction that builds confidence and understanding. Again, more is being expected of every student.
Some trends TLS did not follow:
TLS is very thoughtful about its approach to education. Like everything in life, education can be trendy. A school can easily become distracted by the latest idea. Parents can as well. I think TLS’s approach to Mandarin is a good example of this. Mandarin has become popular in the last ten years due to China’s prominence as a major economy. There was a great deal of buzz to add Mandarin. While the buzz was in the community, when it came to choosing Mandarin over Spanish, parents overwhelmingly chose Spanish. People liked the concept of Mandarin, but in reality, Spanish seemed more practical. There wasn’t enough demand to warrant a full-time instructor, so the school took a hybrid approach and offered Mandarin as an after-school class. While not ideal for those who are passionate about Mandarin, our program gives the opportunity for exposure for some and for those truly dedicated few, an opportunity to learn the language.
The subject of homework falls into this category as well. Several years ago, with the gaining popularity of Alfie Kohn’s The Homework Myth (2006), a significant number of parents raised concern about the level of homework given at TLS. This awareness created an opportunity for the administration and faculty to study and analyze TLS’s philosophy on homework. After reviewing our policy, TLS took a via media approach. We asked teachers to assign homework that was relevant to the next day’s class instruction but eschew homework that would better be defined as “busy work.” On the other hand, among TLS’s alumni a consistent trait that is valued is “work ethic.” They say that TLS teaches its students a strong work ethic. We did not want to lose that important trait among our graduates and felt some of that work ethic could be attributed to homework and our students’ ability to organize their time and daily work load. As a result, homework is still an important expectation of our students. TLS feels it has an important role to play in teaching responsibility, time management, and work ethic.
TLS takes great pride in its long-standing reputation as a rigorous academic institution that builds a strong foundation for a lifelong love of learning. It also takes pride in being known as a national leader of independent schools. With an entrepreneurial spirit, The Lexington School is willing to live its philosophy statement as it takes risks, innovates, makes mistakes, learns from them, and strives to build on its reputation for academic excellence.
As a result, TLS can honestly say it is a better school today than it was yesterday, ten, twenty-five, or fifty years ago.
With gratitude for a job I love,
Charles D. Baldecchi
Head of School
Reading List (Articles, Books, Research, and Authors Mentioned in this Letter)
- TLS Heads Letter explaining the Philosophy and Mission Statements
- The Learning Center Resources https://www.thelexingtonschool.org/page/academics/the-learning-center
- Duckworth, Angela. Grit, https://angeladuckworth.com/
- Dweck, Carol. Mindset, https://mindsetonline.com/abouttheauthor/index.html
- Kohn, Alfie. The Homework Myth, https://www.alfiekohn.org/
- Mogel, Wendy. Blessing of a Skinned Knee, https://www.wendymogel.com/
- Tomlinson, Carol. The Differentiated Classroom, https://www.caroltomlinson.com/
- Tough, Paul. How Children Succeed, http://www.paultough.com/