The National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS), with five member institutions in Kansas and six in Kansas City, MO, is targeted by critics for emphasizing Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and social justice at the expense of student academic achievement. NAIS denies those contentions.
According to its website, the nonprofit membership organization serves some 2,000 schools and associations of schools nationwide, 60,000 teachers, and nearly 700,000 students. Approximately 1,600 of the schools are independent, nonprofit schools. The association offers research and trend analysis, leadership and governance guidance, and professional development opportunities for school and board leaders.
NAIS defines independent schools as:
“Nonprofit, private schools that are independent in philosophy: each is driven by a unique mission. They are also independent in the way they are managed and financed: each is governed by an independent board of trustees and each is primarily supported through tuition payments and charitable contributions. They are accountable to their communities and are accredited by state-approved accrediting bodies.”
The organization’s stated vision/mission is:
“All learners find pathways to success through the independence, innovation, and diversity of our schools, creating a more equitable world. As the largest association of independent schools, NAIS co-creates the future of education by uniting and empowering our community. We do this through thought leadership, research, creation and curation of resources, and direct collaboration with education leaders.”
But critics say the self-definitions mask an organization dedicated to creating so-called “Social Justice Warriors” more interested in political activism than academic achievement.
Mary Miller with Parents Defending Education (PDE), a national grassroots organization dedicated to exposing political indoctrination in schools and “to reclaim our schools from activists promoting harmful agendas”, defines NAIS:
“The association connects a woke-industrial complex of affiliated associations and accreditors, consultants, search and hiring firms, and education companies to its member-“independent” schools through its relationships with woke donors and foundations, board of trustees, “career center” jobs board, resources such as its “Principles of Good Practice (PGPs)” guidance and “Assessment of Inclusivity and Multiculturalism (AIM)” survey tool and multiple conferences throughout the year, including its “flagship” People of Color Conference each December.”
The “People of Color Conference” did offer some eye-opening workshops at its 2021 meeting. A sampling of the over 100 presentations:
- Small Activists, Big Impact: Cultivating Anti-Racists and Activists in Kindergarten On Demand
- Examining Your Classroom and Learning Environment for Bias On Demand
- Utilizing the NAIS Assessment of Inclusivity and Multiculturalism (AIM) for DEIJ Strategic Planning: A Diversity Practitioner Lens On Demand
- First-Generation DEI Practitioners: How to Survive and Grow in Independent Schools On Demand
- Building Safe, Brave, and Affirming Schools for LGBTQ Youth of Color (Part 1)
- How Our Grading Undermines Equity and What We Can Do About It
A review of all the workshops found none addressed the issue of declining student achievement.
Myra McGovern, a spokesperson for NAIS, counters the criticism that her organization is not concerned with student achievement:
“Students in the schools that belong to NAIS tend to do exceptionally well on measures of academic achievement. Students in grades 4, 8, and 12 score higher in math and reading compared to their peers in public schools on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (often referred to as “The Nation’s Report Card”). In 2019, students at NAIS member schools scored 6.6% higher on NAEP reading tests and 7.5% higher on NAEP math tests than public school students.
“Students at NAIS member schools also outperform students from other types of schools on the SAT. In 2016 (the most recent year for which the Educational Testing Service offered customized reports), NAIS students had an average combined score that was nearly 20% higher (1777, compared to the 1484) than the average of all students nationally. While NAIS students from all income groups scored higher than their peers from other types of schools, the benefit of attending an independent school was greatest for students from the lowest income groups.
“Since the pandemic, many families that previously attended other types of schools have sought out independent schools. In some cases, these families were hoping that the smaller size of many independent schools and more individualized attention would help their children catch up or excel academically. We also know that many families were searching for schools that met their specific needs during the pandemic (such as in-person school or all-virtual school). One of the things we encourage all families to consider is how well a school fits with their needs and values. We have a list of questions parents can ask to evaluate if a school is the best choice for their family.“
Among area schools affiliated with NAIS are these in Kansas:
- Bishop Seabury Academy in Lawrence
- Cure’ of Ars Catholic School in Leawood
- Horizon Academy in Overland Park
- Topeka Collegiate School
- Wichita Collegiate School
We reached out to the leaders of each institution, asking for comment on the “Social Justice vs Student Achievement” critique:
Responding was Nathan Washer, the Head of School at Wichita Collegiate:
“Wichita Collegiate is a member of the NAIS, a membership organization that provides resources and support to Independent Schools on a wide variety of topics relevant to our work. Each Independent school’s identity and purpose is not determined by the NAIS. At Wichita Collegiate, we strive to make sure all our students feel included, safe, and important so that they can become the best versions of themselves. Academic performance is detrimentally affected when a student does not feel a part of the community they are learning in. Fortunately, our students continue to thrive academically in our inclusive environment. Recently eight out of our fifty seniors were recognized by the College Board as National Merit Semi-finalists or Commended students. Academic performance within our inclusive community is thriving and we are confident it will continue to do so.”
Parents Defending Education offers a primer to parents considering private schools to assist them in choosing the right one. It includes a case study on one NAIS-affiliated school, Pembroke Hill in Kansas City, and its path to DEI “wokeness.”