NAIS Research: How Polarization Affects Independent School Communities

By Margaret Anne Rowe
NAIS Research Analyst

Leading up to and following the 2016 election, NAIS increasingly heard from its members about discord and conflict among school communities, even the youngest students. The rancor only increased in the wake of the pandemic, racial reckoning, and subsequent intense scrutiny of K-12 education. In the 2021 State of Independent School Leadership Survey, just 23% of heads reported feeling “very prepared” to address and manage community polarization at school; for 2022-2023, 25% of heads ranked political polarization as one of the top three challenging aspects of their headships.

As part of its ongoing work to help school leaders understand and manage divisions within their school communities, NAIS surveyed 500 heads of school about their experiences with polarization. The survey built on in-depth interviews conducted in summer 2022 and aimed to uncover the frequency and intensity of polarization in school communities, the share of schools grappling with these issues, and heads’ professional experiences in dealing with them.

Part 1, “Polarization Through a Jobs-to-Be-Done Lens,” explores how heads perceive gaps in the political orientations of their teachers and parents, and how these gaps can complicate community discussion around DEI-related topics. In particular, heads who perceive a large difference between their teachers and parents reported feeling the most concerned about the discussions taking place at their schools. This part of the report explores how many of these conflicts can be understood through a Jobs-to-be-Done lens and offers suggestions for reducing misunderstanding in school communications.

Part 2, “The Experiences of Heads in a Polarized Environment,” analyzes the relationship between the well-being of heads and their schools, as well as the differing experiences managing polarization by head demographics. While majorities of schools are doing well and have heads who feel positively about leading them, many heads also reported negative feelings, with female heads and heads of color more likely to feel negatively in some cases. Women and people of color were also more likely to engage frequently with DEI-related topics, and were more likely to devote at least a full day of the school week to doing so. Overall, heads of color were less concerned about the DEI-related discussions taking place in their communities than white heads were, while female heads were somewhat more concerned. This part of the report also offers tips for boards to better support their heads through managing polarization.

Read the Full Series: How Polarization Affects Independent School Communities

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