Sizing Up the Competition

Twenty plus years ago when I worked in the admission offices at the George School (PA) and Westtown School (PA), our competition was the same schools we competed with year after year, either for day students, boarding students, or both. Today, educational innovation—and thus educational choice—is exploding, and a new competition is emerging.

2015CompetitionReportCoverIn our latest report, Sizing Up the Competition, SSATB sought to better understand this new wave of competition and the specific threats posed. What we found were new schools exploiting technology in intriguing and powerful ways, leveraging private capital in a manner not seen before, and standing on the shoulders of the maturing public charter school movement. And what we concluded was that these new alternatives do not compete by being different—except in price! Rather, they compete by going head-to-head with independent schools in their traditional areas of strength.

To make sense of the landscape for readers, we identified four major “types” of new competitor schools and highlighted one illustrative example of each type.

Academically Rigorous Schools

Academically rigorous public schools are not new and are an important part of the competitive landscape for independent schools. In northern Virginia, for example, some NAIS high schools find themselves taking second position behind the nationally-renowned Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. By and large, they are stable components of the landscape—longstanding, but not expanding. BASIS Independent Schools™ on the other hand are gaining national notoriety.

BASIS schools had kept a fairly low profile outside of Arizona until their students’ PISA performance caught the attention of Amanda Ripley, author of The Smartest Kids in the World, in 2013. BASIS operates 24 schools in the U.S. and opened schools in Brooklyn, NY and Silicon Valley, CA in 2014. Since our report was published, BASIS announced the opening of a new school Shenzhen, China along with its plans for continued international growth “in China, other parts of Asia, and other regions around the world.”

BASIS schools maintain a laser-like focus on academic rigor. Students, beginning in the sixth grade, take high stakes comprehensive exams at the end of every semester, which count for 50% of their grade. Similarly, teachers receive performance bonuses for student scores on AP exams. In addition, BASIS employs a full-time psychometrician to determine what is working for student learning.

Deeper Learning Schools

These schools are designed from their foundation to deliver fully on the promise of developing 21st-century skills, which they are increasingly and effectively doing. These are the more than 500 charter and alternative public schools loosely associated with or alongside the Deeper Learning Network (DLN). The individual schools and the school networks within DLN vary widely in educational philosophy, school structure, and demographics, and in many markets, they do not currently pose significant competitive challenges to independent schools. Still, in some areas they are beginning to be a genuine alternative for families. We chose to profile in our report High Tech High (HTH) in San Diego, probably the best known of the deeper learning schools. In addition to receiving significant attention from Tony Wagner in his book The Global Achievement Gap, since our report was published, HTH is the focus of a special documentary film, Most Likely to Succeed.

What makes a school like HTH so compelling is its total reinvention of the traditional teaching and learning model, including the physical space. One independent school parent, whom we interviewed for our report and who had moved one of her children to HTH, described it well: “The philosophy at HTH of depth over breadth is excellent. They take the attitude that they needn’t cover 40 units in a year, but instead, let’s learn something really, really well, and take those studies all the way to the level of original research.”

Personalized Learning Schools

Personalization or personalized learning—the ability to tailor the academic experience to the level of the individual learner—is being thoroughly implemented by the founders and educators of schools such as AltSchool, Fusion Schools, and Summit Public Schools. These less-expensive alternatives to independent schools are popping up in all the places one would expect to find a “disruptive” educational model. Carolyn Wilson, AltSchool’s Director of Education, explains the main draw: “Personalization. This is what we do better than anyone else. From the first weeks of school, we’re working to deeply understand each student, where they are in their learning, their pace and preferred style of learning, their interests and passions, and personalizing their learning in all those ways.” Parents, who want to build an education around their child—not the other way around—are beginning to see great value in this new and innovative model.

Online Schools

A number of states have a rich history of online/virtual schooling. Online schools typically represent a partnership between a traditional educational provider (like a state, district, school, or university) and a for-profit online provider. Today, many independent educators see online schooling as a supplement which strengthens traditional independent schools, rather than as a competitor which could weaken them—and there is much evidence to support this perspective. Online education providers that attract independent school families are often partners, not alternatives, to independent schools. Despite these relationships, however, some online schools are growing in full-time student numbers, with full-tuition-paying students who might otherwise have attended independent schools. Like the personalized learning schools, online schools provide students with a flexible education that can be experienced from anywhere in the world.

What are Independent Schools to Do?

Each model school described in the report is offered for free or significantly less than the typical independent school in its market, was launched since the beginning of the century, is on a fast growth curve, and shows some evidence of appealing to families who have traditionally selected independent schools. As such, our report ends with 11 strategies that schools can implement now to counteract the varied, burgeoning, and strengthening competition. It’s time for independent schools to look at the new landscape, forget the past, and forge forward as the leaders in education. It’s time to reinvent our schools to compete before we become the competition of the past.

Find the full report online at

Heather Hoerle is Executive Director of SSATB. To learn more about Heather, read her full bio here.

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