As W.B. Yeats famously said, “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” But what if we substituted a bottomless bowl of pasta for the pail, and what if said fire was actually a wood-fired pizza oven? If you’re lost already, please allow me to explain.

Last week, a tweet from The Chronicle caught my eye. It read, “The Olive Garden Theory of Higher Education,” and really, how could I pass that up? So I clicked on the link, which took me to a blog post that asked a simple question: “Should colleges and universities find ‘innovative ways to skimp on quality’?” As an educator, my gut reaction was to scream “No!,” but I read on.

Turns out, the question was first posed by Matthew Yglesias, and although the metaphor is striking, the idea is really pretty simple. According to Yglesias and the Chronicle, national chains like The Olive Garden have achieved economies of scale that allow them to sell “reliably okay” food at prices that a middle-class family can afford, even in this economy. According to Yglesias, these kinds of restaurants are “successful at exactly what our health care & university systems are terrible at, namely … balancing cost and quality or … finding innovative ways to skimp on quality.” Yglesias argues further that no one would mistake The Olive Garden for “the world’s greatest Italian restaurant,” but that such establishments take high-brow concepts and make them affordable for the mass public. Hmm.

As a side note, many commenters take issue with the characterization of The Olive Garden’s food as “reliably okay,” but let’s not get bogged down there. I’ll admit that although I don’t care for The Olive Garden, I do enjoy Carrabba’s, Bonefish Grill, and other typically suburban chains of that ilk. And you do too. So I understand what Yglesias is saying (and you do too). Sure, those restaurants are about as far from the “local food” movement as you can get, but the food is a definite step up from McDonald’s or Burger King. And in this economy (probably in any economy), the folks who can afford “local food” are greatly outnumbered by those who can’t. I also tend to think that American culture has become so homogenized that many middle-class Americans actually would point to the Olive Garden as the “world’s greatest Italian restaurant.” And that is a shame.

But all of that aside, this has gotten me thinking about the costs of education. Substitute college for carbs, and you have the gist of Yglesias’ argument. Although both he and The Chronicle focus on grappling with college and university tuition, I wonder if the same principle can’t be applied to independent schools. (You might say that charter schools attempt to bridge that divide, and I suppose that’s true to some extent, but charter schools are still subject to many of the bureaucratic restrictions of public schools.)

A case in point: the school where I teach charges more than $17000 per year in tuition, and this does not include nearly $3000 in additional fees (books, technology, etc.). If you’re math-averse, this equates to nearly $80000 for four years. Of high school. For someone like me who went to public school K-12, this seems unfathomable. But, of course, there are benefits.

First and foremost, teacher-student ratios and class sizes are considerably smaller (the largest class I’ve ever taught was 21 students, and that is considered huge–my classes this year average 15 students). Within those classes, I feel confident in saying that all of my students will attend four-year institutions, and at least a few will go on to very selective colleges and universities. So although I am faced with varying degrees of ability, the range is not as wide as what I experienced in my own (public) high school classrooms. Similarly, there is a general consensus among students and parents alike regarding expectations, and motivation is less of a problem.

Faculty teaching loads are somewhat reduced (I teach four sections, with two preps), which allows for more individualized student attention and greater emphasis on writing-intensive assignments. Faculty are also given a significant degree of classroom autonomy, and the absence of standardized assessments allows teaching to be student-centered with critical thinking–as opposed to factual mastery–as the goal. Lastly, as a teacher in an independent school, I have at my disposal all sorts of resources (technological and otherwise) which allow me to teach the past in ways that a textbook simply cannot.

Of course, this is not to say that public school teachers can’t do great things. Of course they can, and my own education is a testament to that fact. I had more than a few phenomenal teachers in high school. But there are institutional impediments to this sort of teaching and learning in almost every public school in the country, which is one reason that for families of means, independent schools are a very attractive alternative.

In the current economy, though, independent schools across the nation are struggling to maintain their enrollments. Many of those families who once sacrificed and cobbled together funds to give their child a “leg up” now simply can’t afford it. And financial aid dollars that may have once gone to underrepresented student populations are now being spent to retain the students who are already enrolled. At my school, our enrollment has decreased by about 5-10% since 2008.

And all of this makes “Olive Garden schooling” an interesting concept. Are there ways–even in this economy–that independent schools can reduce their costs while still providing a first-rate education? I think there must be.

For one thing, I think many independent schools could cut back on “appearances.” One trivial example comes to mind immediately. From what I can tell, my school spends a considerable amount of money on fresh flowers for ceremonies like the opening of school and graduation, and the school grounds are always impeccably groomed. When the school renovated a building several years ago, beautiful hardwood floors were installed, and the reception area was outfitted with leather sofas and beautiful antique furniture. Of course, this looks very nice, but is it necessary to teaching and learning? I would not suggest we allow independent schools to become barren wastelands, but I wonder if these sorts of expenses don’t do two things at once: first, drive up costs, thus putting such schools out of reach for many families; and second, give such schools an air of elitism, thus making them unattractive for many families.

We also have Nike and Under Armour athletic uniforms. Surely there’s a less expensive option that would either a) reduce the school’s costs or b) allow re-allocation of funds toward classroom purposes. (Let me state clearly that I am not one of those teachers who resents the athletic department. I am an avid sports fan and a coach on top of that, so I believe very strongly in the benefits of high school athletics. But I don’t think that a brand-name jersey makes any difference in what students take away from athletics in the long run, and I’m not convinced it’s the most effective use of the school budget.)

For another, I think that my school has become increasingly “business-oriented.” Although fundraising is obviously crucial in this day and age, our development department is larger than any academic department on campus. Perhaps I’m alone in this, but I worry about the message this sends, and I fret that schools have become too focused on the bottom line. If discretionary costs weren’t so high, might we be able to scale back the fundraising efforts, or has fundraising become a new measure of assessment for independent schools? In other words, are we now fundraising because we think we must? Are we fundraising for fundraising’s sake?

I don’t know if there’s anyone out there who reads this blog yet, but if there is, I welcome your feedback. How do you feel about the concept of “Olive Garden” schools? Are there ways that independent schools can put themselves within reach of a broader cross-section of society without compromising their essential goals?

Advertisements