Decade Ahead
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Decade Ahead

Every person had to be a little less passive

A conversation with Raynard Kington (Apr 15, 2021)

By John Mitchell and Maxwell Bigman ()

“I’m one of the few people who have done this twice,” says Raynard Kington from his academically scattered office with an Andover sign over his left shoulder, “once at Grinnell and once here.” A public health physician and former leader at the National Institute of Health, Dr Kington served as president of Grinnell College for a decade, navigating spring 2020 in rural Iowa. Taking over as Head of School at Phillips Academy in August 2020, he then led the elite private high school through the 2020–21 academic year. At Grinnell, he says, “we were one of the first schools in Iowa to send students home.” Arriving at Andover where classes were optionally in-person or online, he then moved the school back to in-person teaching at the beginning of 2021. Raynard compares Covid-19 to AIDS: “I was a physician in early AIDS and took care of many AIDS patients in Chicago.” As a gay doctor treating primarily gay AIDS patients at that time, Raynard says that, “if you were not in one of those high risk categories, people felt it wasn’t [dangerous for] them.” In contrast, “this [pandemic] was worse in that everyone was afraid… in terms of overall re-shaping of the entire society, this was much bigger.”

Raynard Kington

Dr Kington served as the deputy director of the National Institutes of Health, 2003–2008, and acting director in 2009. His research has studied the social determinants of health and, more recently, diversity in the scientific workforce. Recalling the challenges of early 2020 in Iowa, Raynard stresses his public health background and the group he assembled to manage responses to the pandemic. Their decision to send students home did not sit well with other small colleges in Iowa, nor did it match the politics of the state governor, who resisted a mask mandate. By the time Raynard arrived at Phillips Academy, 1100 students had been sent home, many of them to international locations. “Of all the elite boarding schools,” he says, “we were the most conservative.” The first fall term, about 20% of classes were in-person, with the rest online. Parents were outraged, some saying, “At Groton everyone is in person, so why are you different?” At the same time, “faculty were terrified.” It was only “once it became clear we could protect faculty and have in-person classes,” Raynard says, that he “decided all classes would be in-person” for the spring term of the academic year.

Raynard talks about Phillips Academy’s operating model and the ways old institutions can change. Prior to the pandemic “we had a model — small in-person classes, a difficult and demanding academic program.” During the past year, “every dimension of that model had to be completely reinvented.” He concludes proudly that “Even old institutions, when they have to, can change.” Sensing a key legacy of the pandemic, Raynard says, “I hope to some degree that will be a lasting impact: our institutions are capable of significant changes for the good.”

Reflecting on the growing disparity between public schools and private ones, Raynard tells us more about his personal history. “I went to public school [from] kindergarten through medical school. My grandparents were children of slaves who became teachers.” Now leading one of the most elite private schools in the world, he tells us that “every private school in America had an uptick in applications.” At Phillips, “this year we had a record number of applications. We saw an uptick .. across all demographic groups.” In addition to growing student demand for private schools, “many teachers are pulling out of public schools and switching to private,” creating shifts with longer term consequences for students. Raynard expresses that “we should be concerned that because of the hit academically for kids in public schools, because the disparity between preparation at private schools and public schools will get wider.”

Turning to the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, nationwide Black Lives Matter protests, and counter-protests that followed, Kington tells us that Phillips Academy has “a critical mass of diversity — a diverse faculty and a diverse study body.” While nationwide attention to racial justice “was a long time coming,” it “definitely made things harder because there was an overlay of anxiety and anger and frustration about where we were as a country and an institution.” He believes that the pandemic has “highlighted the disparity in health outcomes and also educational outcomes.” As a result of the pandemic, “more people now know the pathways by which mortality differences exist between rich/poor, black/white.” However, the longer-term consequences are not yet clear. “Does that result in more empathy?” he asks rhetorically. Answering his own question, “The jury is still out on whether or not we have an effect like the great depression … fundamentally shifting the way people think of society.”

Will the upheaval of the past year lead to broader changes in education, we ask Raynard. Phillips “already had conversations about requiring students to take one online course,” he says, since many students will need to master online courses in college or afterward. As a result of the pandemic, “technology is no longer bizarre; we will have more flipped classrooms, I guarantee.” Because online learning often requires more initiative and more discipline for the learner, he asks rhetorically, “Will there be a residual feeling that people can teach themselves something? Will this turn into the ability to educate themselves for their lives?” The pandemic has also required more agency beyond the virtual classroom.. “Every student has had to be at least a little more engaged,” he observes. “They’ve had to exercise agency.” This may be one of the biggest impacts of the pandemic. We have seen “huge disparities in agency; but, nevertheless, every person had to be a little less passive.”



The Decade Ahead project presents observations, case studies, reports, and commentary on forces and events that are shaping the next decade of education

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