Miss Porter's School

The Future of Education

Remarks from Head of School Katherine G. Windsor and Chief Academic Officer Tim Quinn at Family Weekend Convocation 2017.

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Miss Porter’s School Campus

Remarks by Dr. Windsor:

Good morning!

Welcome to Family Weekend and welcome to the Congo. It has been a wonderful Spirit Week, organized by Head of Athletics Naya Lipkins and embraced by our full community. This week captures the ways in which we both live and learn together on campus and we are happy to have families here to share in the experience.

It is significant that we are beginning our time together gathered as a community because community is so central to all that we do here at Porter’s.

I want to read to you the statement of purpose for Convocation because I believe it articulates a central value of our school:

“Convocation at Miss Porter’s School affirms our need and desire to gather as a community, it celebrates and honors our several cultural and spiritual traditions and puts into perspective our ideas, our values, our hopes, and our joys.  Convocation provides time for contemplation, renewal, and peace.”

Today as you enjoy the day with your daughters you will see a school that is:

About girls…specifically preparing young women to enter adulthood empowered by her gender and prepared to overcome the potential obstacles her gender may bring.

For girls…by making sure that Porter’s girls develop self-agency and become self-reliant as opposed to reliant on others.

And most important,

By girls…because at Porter’s, girls are given the authority to make decisions, hold power and choose their own paths.

This morning you will also hear from Chief Academic Officer Tim Quinn about the future of the program for your girls.

In order for us to keep the promise of our mission statement that your daughters will graduate as informed, bold, resourceful, ethical global citizens prepared to shape a changing world, our program must change and grow too. 

Under the leadership of Tim and Liz Schmitt, our chief enrollment and student affairs officer, and in collaboration with the faculty, this work has begun in earnest.

It is built on the learning from and successes of InterMission and research on best practices for adolescent learning, especially for girls. What Tim has to share with you this morning is ambitious and exciting and in that way it reflects your remarkable children.

And without further to-do, let me introduce Tim Quinn.

Remarks by Mr. Quinn:

Thank you, Dr. Windsor.

Good morning faculty, students, and, most especially, our visiting guests. While I have already had the chance to meet many of you, I am delighted to have this opportunity to formally introduce myself to the entire community, including our families, and to share with you some information about exciting programmatic initiatives that we are in the process of launching this year.

Before I do that, I’d like to tell you a little bit about myself and what brought me to Porter’s.

Although I am new to the Miss Porter’s School faculty, I am not entirely new to the community, as my wife, Sarah Quinn, taught here from 2008 to 2012. While she was here, I was teaching at my alma mater, Westminster School in Simsbury. Since then, I have held administrative posts at two PK-12 day schools, most recently serving as the Head of Upper School at the Tatnall School in Wilmington, Delaware. Although I had imagined a longer tenure at Tatnall, the opportunity to come back to Connecticut and, more especially to Porter’s, was simply too good to pass up. Mrs. Quinn’s experience here had taught me that when Farmington is calling, it’s best to pick up the phone. 

I couldn’t be happier about my move here. Working with this amazing faculty and this impressive group of students is truly an honor and a privilege. The role of chief academic officer is my dream job, my wife has returned to the school she considers home, and my children, Connor and Annie, walk up the street to Noah Wallace School with their friends every day. It’s pretty nice. If all goes as planned, Annie will be Porter’s class of 2030…that is assuming she can keep her grades up.

My experiences at a variety of schools have served me well, but in all of these experiences at different schools, never have I felt so in line with the mission and values of a school than I do at Porter’s. One reason for this is that I have long been passionate about social justice, yet at other schools at which I have worked, this was a secondary concern. At Porter’s, it is at the core of what we do. After all, Sarah Porter founded the school close to 175 years ago with a mission to provide young women with the same educational opportunities afforded to young men. Porter’s has helped this cause, but gender inequality persists, and a look at the news in recent months might suggest that the need to address this problem is almost as great today as it was in 1843.  

While I consider myself a feminist, concerned with the rights of women everywhere, for me, the issue is deeply personal as well. Naturally, I care about it because of the women in my life, which include a mother, a wife, a daughter and many, many friends. But I also care about it because I have a son, and I am happy that he will grow up in an environment where women are leaders and are respected, and I want him to live in a world where there same is true. Perhaps even more than those reasons, I care specifically about women’s education because of my grandmother, Helen Quinn, who, during the 1930s — a time when it was rare for women to pursue higher education — attended Albertus Magnus College, then an all-women’s college in New Haven, Connecticut.

At that time, women weren’t allowed to attend the more well-known college down the street, but my grandmother told me that the Yale professors would come over in the evenings to teach the women at Albertus Magnus and would confess that the women were actually much stronger students than their counterparts at Yale.  Given my experience teaching boys and girls, that doesn’t surprise me at all.  

My grandmother, a true intellectual, was one of the first to spark my interest in literature and history — in essence, to expose me to the life of the mind and the world of ideas. I remember sitting on the couch in her living room listening to her tell me about great books that she had read and inspiring me to become a reader and a thinker myself. My grandmother’s influence on me was so profound, it seems undeniable that if it weren’t for the pioneers who established institutions for women’s education in a time when it was not the norm, I may not have become the person I am today.  

So, thanks to the impact of my grandmother, I have a personal debt to institutions of women’s education, and I am honored to pay that back by doing my small part to help create young women who will shape a changing world, a world, I might add, that desperately needs to be changed by them. Women are underrepresented in positions of power and look at where male leadership has gotten us — a world marked by war, climate change, and vast poverty and inequality. We are in dire need of female leaders.  

What’s more, in order to prepare these female leaders for the world that they will inherit, we need to think differently about how we educate them, for a not-too-distant future that will undeniably include jobs and problems and technology that we can’t yet imagine. A recent cover of “The New Yorker” depicted an out-of-work human being sitting on a curb holding up a cup in hopes that some of the robots walking by would drop some change in.  

Yes, we’ve come a ­long way from Albertus Magnus College in the 1930s. It’s not enough that we are providing young women with an education, we need to provide them with the absolute best education so that they are prepared to succeed in a very different world than the one in which their parents grew up and even different from the one in which we live now. Education, however, is an industry that generally resists change, and you can see that in the industrial era model that still exists in many schools today, despite the way the world has changed around them. Many schools still operate like factories, marching students through a standard curriculum with bells telling them to go from one thing to the next, and then stamping them with a grade (like a piece of meat… that is where the standard A-F grading system came from, by the way), before sending them on their way.

There is some reason for education to be slow to change — after all, it is an endeavor rooted in the sharing of the accumulated knowledge of the past with future generations. However, in a world where knowledge is easily accessible to all, and there is no guarantee that what was needed in the past will be needed in the future, this model does not hold up. The liberal arts and the skills associated with them will always be important, but the model in which these are delivered must change.  

Further, if we wish to prepare our girls to shape a changing world, then they will also need more than the traditional skills: they need to learn to innovate and create; they need to understand what it means to be an entrepreneur; they need to conduct original research and complete projects within the STEM fields; they need to use a deep understanding of the humanities and social sciences to address complex social issues. Yes, they need to know things, but now most, and soon all, of the information in the world will be at their fingertips, so it is far more important that they learn to assess the validity of the information before them, and then use the information that is true and accurate in the service of solving the world’s problems.  

You can see why being able to cram for a test and get a good grade on it actually tells us very little about a person’s ability to thrive in today’s world.  

There is also an increasing body of research that suggests academic skills are not as important to success as are things that might broadly fall under the term life skills. These include confidence, motivation, interpersonal skills, the ability to collaborate, cross-cultural competencies, resilience, a growth mindset, and curiosity. These aren’t easily built through sitting at a desk reading a text book.  

Now, it is important to acknowledge that Porter’s has already taken major steps away from the industrial era model of education. We have classes that are student-centered and discussion-based; we have teachers assessing student learning by giving them authentic tasks to complete; we strive to make the classes relevant for our girls every day; and we have even taken the major step of institutionalizing these things with our InterMission program, which has been tremendously successful since its inception five years ago. We now want to take the next step and make our entire program more InterMission-like because we know that that is how young people, particularly young women, learn best.

Thus, we are launching initiatives in three areas of our program that will catalyze changes over the next three to five years and that will help to assure that we remain the leading school for girls in the country, if not the world. These changes will differentiate and distinguish us as an institution, they will be good for our girls, and they will sustain Miss Porter’s School and help us flourish for another 175 years.  

The first initiative is a change to our daily schedule, which will be implemented next year. An announcement about this went out recently, but I want to reiterate some of the details here.

Over the past few months we have researched and discussed how we can change our schedule to better serve our girls. Two weeks ago, this process culminated when we worked with the leading scheduling consultant in the country to craft a schedule that increases student and community health and wellness; that is conducive to deep, interdisciplinary, experiential, mission-focused, and personalized learning; and that will provide dedicated time for socio-emotional learning and life skills.

The result is a schedule that will consist of longer classes that meet less frequently. These longer classes will allow for deeper learning through more creative and engaging use of class time. Fewer classes meeting per day will make the pace of the day less frenetic. Fewer classes meeting per day also reduces the number of assignments due each day, consequently reducing the amount of homework and leading to a deeper engagement with homework. All of the above are examples of how we will be privileging depth over breadth and the development of skills over the memorization of content. 

We are also setting aside a 40 to 60 minute block of community time four days per week. This block of time, in which all members of the school community are free, will allow students to receive extra help; collaborate; conduct meetings for clubs and organizations; pursue individual passions; get a jump on homework; or take a break as needed. It also means that, considering there is a break for lunch as well, it will be rare for students to have classes back-to-back without a break between them.

School start and end times will remain the same, with the exception of a late start once per week to allow faculty members much needed and regularly scheduled professional time to collaborate and plan. 

Of course, this will also allow the students some additional sleep. Believe me, I led with this point when I presented this to the students last week.   

We are confident that this schedule as a whole will have a tremendously positive impact on the lives of our girls. A less frenetic pace to the day + less homework + more sleep = less stress.  And here is the important kicker: less stress is proven to lead to increased academic performance. 

This schedule will also give us the space to reimagine what we teach and how we teach it, and that leads to our second initiative, the formulation of a curriculum committee that will endeavor to create a new framework for learning that will help us even better deliver on the mission of the school, differentiate our girls in the college process, and, more importantly, to prepare them to uphold their end of the mission and go on to shape a changing world after college. I can’t stress that point enough. While there is a great deal of focus on college, it is just one step, it does not define people, and what happens after it is much more important, and not as dependent on where you went to college as some think. 

Building on a successful InterMission program, the curriculum committee is working to establish an even more engaging and challenging curriculum that is interdisciplinary and experiential in nature, and that is more relevant to the lives of our girls through its focus on authentic problems faced by the world. This curriculum will be global in scope, while also highly personalized for each individual student. It will continue to emphasize the liberal arts while also assuring that the girls have exposure to and develop expertise in STEM fields. It will train them to be leaders, innovators, and social entrepreneurs. 

We are still in the brainstorming and visioning stages of this, but we hope to pilot elements of this initiative next year, as we work to phase in an enhanced curriculum over the next three to five years. 

So that covers what we teach and how we teach it and the structure of time in which the teaching and learning occurs. The third initiative deals with the way in which we assess and report the results of the work produced by our students.

Traditional grading systems have many flaws. They are poor motivators of lifelong learning; they do not provide feedback that is useful to future learning; they contribute to fixed rather than growth mindsets; they create unnecessary stress; and they aren’t necessarily authentic indicators of what a person is capable of. Thus, each year, more and more schools move to a standards-based grading model in which teachers report student progress on a continuum as they move toward mastery of a series of well-defined learning objectives for each class. 

These systems provide students with much more specific and nuanced information on their progress, information that is more useful to their continued growth, than the very traditional grading system in place at Porter’s currently. As a first step toward adopting a system of assessment and grading that is more transparent, purposeful, and supportive of student learning, we have joined the Mastery Transcript Consortium — a group of elite independent schools that will work together on the development and dissemination of an alternative model of assessment, crediting and transcript generation.

We want to support student growth, that is our primary motivation, but we also want to make our students more attractive to colleges and even employers. To that end, the hope is that one day MTC schools will be supported by a technology platform that allows the complete record of a student’s actual progress and examples of her work to be submitted to college admission offices for evaluation, thus giving depth and transparency to the student’s work record. We know how impressive the work of our students is, we know it can’t be captured by a number or a letter, and we want the world to know that as well.

The goals of the consortium are bold. To read from its mission, “The initial formation of the MTC hopes to use the collective influence, access and flexibility of established independent schools to change the college preparation model for all high schools…not just private schools….Simply put…the MTC hopes to change the relationship between preparation for college and college admissions for the betterment of students.”

The first step toward this will be clearly identifying the competencies and learning objectives that we want to report progress on, and the important thing to note is that this is valuable work, whether or not the long-term goal of getting to a mastery-based transcript ever comes to fruition. 

So that is a vision for the future of education at Porter’s. It is daunting work, but it is all very exciting. And it is all very necessary if we are to respond to the changing world and be prepared for the changes that are still to come. I believe all of you — students, faculty, and families — should be proud that your school is engaging in this work. We say that “within our legacy lies our future,” and Miss Porter’s School, as an institution, has always been a leader and not a follower. The same will be true as we embrace the changing educational landscape ahead of us. 

This work is of vital importance. We aren’t simply doing it because we know that it is what our girls need. We are doing it for the benefit of the world, because we know that the world needs our girls.

Thank you.