An Interview with Donna Orem

An Interview with Donna Orem

National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) Interim President Donna Orem was named president of the association in late November 2016. With a wealth of experience in the independent school community and at NAIS itself, Orem’s unique perspective will help shape the future of independent schools. The Yield sat down with her to discuss the challenges facing private education and her vision for what’s to come.

You have had quite a tenure at NAIS. Tell us about your work experience prior to joining NAIS in 1998 and the accomplishments of which you are most proud.

I’ve been fortunate to spend much of the last 30 years working with independent schools. I have had the opportunity to wear many hats at NAIS, from vice president for educational leadership to vice president for strategic initiatives to chief operating officer. Before joining NAIS, I spent 15 years at the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE), serving the advancement community in independent schools as well as colleges and universities. Among other responsibilities there, I directed all services for independent schools, including the joint CASE/NAIS conference. This gave me an early window into the work of NAIS, and I developed great respect for the organization and its team.

My true love is developing new products and services for the industry, and so I am most proud of my work on NAIS research projects. Research provides so many “aha!” moments and new ways of looking at things. NAIS can investigate important issues and provide strategic insight for members. I believe in the power of data and research to transform outcomes for schools.

As the first female president of NAIS, what do you hope your tenure signals for gender equity in independent schools?

Gender equity is very important to me. One of my first jobs was as assistant director of the American Association of University Women’s Educational Foundation, where I led grant programs to help women achieve equity worldwide. In the independent school community, the majority of administrators are women, but women are in the minority in top leadership positions. Also, our schools have not achieved gender pay equity across the board, although many are working hard at this.

For the past year, I’ve been working with members of the NAIS team on a research initiative to increase the number of women and people of color in headship. We will complete this research this winter and then begin implementing initiatives for change.

Having a leadership body that’s representative of the larger society is the right thing to do, but it also confers strategic advantages for the industry. Research has demonstrated that greater diversity among top leaders spurs innovation and improves financial outcomes for businesses.

Having visited so many independent schools and presented to faculty, staff, heads, and boards, what are your impressions? What are our common challenges? Has your perception of the culture, academic programs, models, etc. changed as a result of these visits?

First, let me say how impressed I am by the people who work in independent schools. From teachers to trustees, I see such incredible passion for making a difference in the lives of children and their families. The commitment, hard work, and ingenuity are all there, but the challenges can be daunting. Here are a few of the challenges and opportunities that I see:

  • The demographics of the school-age community will continue to change in every way—size, race, ethnicity, etc.—with some parts of the country experiencing deep declines in the school-age population. Although these changes will provide some challenges, the growing racial and ethnic diversity of the student population will enhance diversity in our schools, creating more effective learning environments for all.
  • Millennials will become the dominant parents in our schools, bringing very different expectations than the Gen Xers and baby boomers before them. Many will be burdened by student debt and questioning whether they can afford an independent school education for their children. On the flip side, millennials also are more comfortable with innovation, giving schools the opportunity to experiment more actively with different teaching and learning models.
  • The workforce will change significantly, with the “gig” economy [a labor market characterized by the prevalence of short-term contracts or freelance work as opposed to permanent jobs] replacing the “career-oriented” workforce. This will provide schools the opportunity to create a very different kind of workforce as baby boomers retire.
  • The increase in types of schools—charter, for-profit private, community-based home schools, virtual schools—will challenge us to demonstrate our value proposition, but also give us the opportunity to innovate with our educational model as the environment becomes more accepting of experimentation.
  • We have the opportunity to redesign the underlying financial structure that fuels our education models. This will require more focus on expanding access, a different view on facilities, and a different staff and faculty structure.
  • With our expanding knowledge of the brain, new research on teaching and learning, and advances in technology, we have an unprecedented opportunity to create new, more personalized learning environments.
  • There is a huge opportunity to open a new dialogue with higher education on teaching and learning, assessment, and the overall structure of the K-16 chain.
  • In a world in which knowledge can be attained in so many ways and in which many colleges are redefining themselves, there is a new opportunity for independent schools to establish themselves as the indispensable education sector.

As in all education sectors, the retirement of the baby boomers is a critical leadership challenge. What can independent schools and NAIS do to ensure the sustainability of the pipeline of people interested in working at and leading independent schools?

Succession planning is essential for schools, yet few are investing the resources required to ensure strong leadership into the future. I recently wrote about this in a NAIS blog. I suggest that every school take the time to do the following:

  1. Encourage gifted educators to pursue leadership roles. Most current school leaders note that in their own careers, early encouragement around the attractiveness of leadership roles was formative in making their decision to pursue one.
  2. Create opportunities for faculty and administrators to develop leadership skills at many points in their careers, not just when they aspire to a top position. Schools should invest in career pathing so that employees can see the paths to different types of leadership roles and understand the skills needed to succeed in those roles. Training and development should be available from entry level on to help them acquire needed skills.
  3. Provide coaching on key leadership skills. Most schools have not created a culture in which formal leadership coaching and development are a key part of what school leaders are expected to do and how they are evaluated. It is imperative for the future of our industry that leaders take on this role.

In addition, NAIS offers both a Fellowship Program for Aspiring School Heads and a School Leadership Institute to train and mentor aspiring leaders at all levels.

NAIS has curated research on millennials. What is the research telling us?

Research on millennials is telling us that there are similarities and differences between the millennials and prior generations. As parents, the research suggests that millennials hold many of the same values as the generations before them—being responsible, working hard, and helping others receive top ranking from all generations, while creativity stands out as a more important value for millennials than for other generations. Other research suggests that millennials will adopt simpler lifestyles for their children as a reaction to the over-scheduling they experienced as children. Although the notion of helicopter parenting may fade away with the baby boomers, some researchers forecast that millennials may adopt a drone parenting style—drone parenting does not require that the parent be present, but rather be able to monitor a child remotely through a mobile device. Also, like drones, the drone parent is able to make a very accurate strike when called into action to address a child’s problem.

As employees, millennials may be less career-oriented than generations before them, seeking dozens of different jobs over their lifetimes. They also may prize different things in a job. We have a chapter in our recent Trendbook on this topic.

  • 64% want to make the world a better place.
  • 72% would like to be their own boss.
  • If they have to work for a boss, 79% of them would want that boss as a mentor.
  • 88% prefer a collaborative work culture.
  • 74% want flexible work schedules.
  • 88% want “work-life integration,” in which work and life blend together.

What new methods must be developed and implemented to measure and articulate the benefits of independent school education?

Increasingly, our schools will be filled with millennial parents, so they must rethink how they stay true to their missions while still accommodating the wants and needs of a new generation of parents. We need to understand those desires as a first step. NAIS is rolling out new research initiatives to inform school strategies for articulating value propositions. We are conducting pilot studies in Los Angeles and Baltimore to examine parents’ attitudes and perceptions, decision-making processes, and price sensitivity when choosing a school for their children. The report for each metro area will include aggregate data from the participating schools to represent the region. Individual school reports will provide details on each participating school’s specific situation compared to the region overall. Once we complete the pilots and tweak the methodology, we will replicate the research in other markets throughout the country. Also, we are planning to conduct a more comprehensive study on millennial parents to understand the drivers in their educational decision making for their children. We plan to conduct the first phase of this research in spring 2017.

How can independent schools maintain a commitment to economic diversity as enrollment and affordability challenges mount?

There is no question that many of our schools have priced themselves out of a significant portion of the market, but diversity of all kinds is essential to a child’s school experience; thus, maintaining socioeconomic diversity is key. Schools need to rethink their business models in order to be more approachable to today’s market. One way that schools are doing this currently is through indexed or sliding scale tuition programs. Some schools, like Lick-Wilmerding in San Francisco, have been offering indexed tuition for decades as it is core to their mission, while others are adopting it to adapt to the realities of today’s market. The concept of indexed tuition is a departure from the notion of offering “aid” to some families; rather, indexed tuition is meant to offer tuition at the level each family can afford. Most schools determine tuition level by reviewing a family’s financial information, often using a third party to do so.

Some schools are launching more affordable models altogether, like micro schools or charter schools. Their aim is to offer a quality education—without some of the additional programming and support services that are found in more traditional independent schools—at a more affordable price point.

What is next for NAIS?

Right now, we are very interested in re-engineering NAIS around school outcomes; that is, investing in those products and services that will create the most positive outcomes for schools. We are doing this by creating an environment of controlled experimentation—setting up hypotheses and associated experiments to address industry challenges, such as enhancing market alignment, creating strong leadership pipelines, developing more effective business models, etc.

We also are investing heavily in innovation. This spring we will pilot an experience that brings small school teams together to study the innovation process and create a plan for guiding their schools in a collaborative journey from ideation through execution. We also plan to bring teams of school leaders and experts together to work in innovation incubators to find creative solutions to the greatest challenges facing our industry.

Our schools face both challenges and opportunities in this changing landscape. I would very much like to make inroads at both ends of the spectrum. Fortunately, we have a great team at NAIS. Achieving all these things isn’t about me. It’s about the team working together to achieve our goal of making a difference to schools.

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