Just wondering about Turning the Tide

Unlike many of my colleagues, I discovered the US college admissions process as an educator and not as a student. As a French native, the process to go to university was painless back in the 90’s. You had to obtain your baccalaureate and you could go to pretty much any university, except maybe some elite schools where a little more than a baccalaureate was needed. In the UK, I discovered the process to apply to post-secondary programmes as an educator working in a state school. Some students went to university and they needed certain grades in their final exams (A levels) to attend this or that programme in this or that university. So I started feeling students’ exam-related distress and how we, as educators, had to support students through these difficult times. 

In Istanbul, I really started experiencing the US college admissions process and all its ramifications: transcripts, GPA, challenging curriculum, extra curricular activities, SAT/ACT, recommendation letters, key dates and so forth. I have always admired our students trying to do two things at the same time: continue and finish their High School education and apply to colleges. For most students, doing both is very hard as the admissions process is usually quite time-consuming. At times, I wonder what is the main focus for some students: finishing strong or getting into college. So we support our students going through this absurd dichotomy: students can be so focussed on the admission process that, at times, their studies may be put on the back burner for a while. But, at the same time, students need good grades to be accepted into college. Exposing young adults to so much contradiction and so much stress is indeed puzzling.

Back in 2016, our college counsellor talked to me about a report released by the Harvard Graduate School of Education called Turning the Tide. The report pointed out that colleges could change their admissions process by focussing on applicants’ meaningful community service and on reducing test-related stress. This report was endorsed by 50 colleges including MIT, Yale, Harvard of course and others. We felt that it was a step in the right direction and the beginning of something new. 

In March 2019 the same Harvard Graduate School of Education released Turning the Tide 2, endorsed by 159 colleges and universities. It focuses on « the critical role of high schools and parents in supporting teens in developing core ethical capacities, including a sense of responsibility for others and their communities and reducing achievement-related stress. » 

The report outlines seven main points to guide parents and seven others to support High Schools. The audience is not exactly the same but those recommendations for parents and for schools are quite similar: the words ethic and authentic, and their derivatives, are all over the report. Meaningful also comes back quite a lot. There is a lot about contributing to communities and about reducing academic stress. This focus on character building is refreshing and gives me hope at the beginning of this school year. This message aligns very nicely with what we strive for in international schools: doing meaningful community service and choosing the right track to keep a balanced life between academics, sports, social life, community contributions and so on. To me, this sounds like US colleges are rolling up their sleeves and they are telling us: « look, what we really want and need in this world is good people who can support others, act ethically, and balance their lives ». And I also applaud the reality check that the report offers us: if those students and their parents are going though the US application process, they are part of a tiny proportion of lucky ones and there are so many options out there that they will find the right one for them. So all the report reinforces our message and I can’t wait to talk about it with students and parents this year. Finally, I will end this entry by this quote from the report:

« Despite persuasive research suggesting that certain cognitive, social, and ethical capacities—including the ability to take multiple perspectives, empathy, self-awareness, gratitude, curiosity, and a sense of responsibility for one’s communities—are at the heart of both doing good and doing well in college and beyond (Durlak, Weissberg, Dymnicki, Taylor, & Schellinger, 2011; Felton, 2016; Sansone & Sansone, 2010; Syvertsen, Metzger, & Wray-Lake, 2013; Taylor,] Oberle, Durlak, & Weissberg, 2017), many parents also fail to be ethical role models during the admissions process by allowing teens to mislead on applications, letting their own voice intrude in application essays, hiring expensive tutors and coaches without any sense of equity or fairness, treating their teen’s peers simply as competitors for college spots, and failing to nurture in their teen any sense of gratitude for the privilege of attending a four-year college. College admissions may well be a test for parents, but it’s not a test of status or even achievement—it’s a test of character. (Weissbourd, 2019) »

Have a great start to the year everyone and enjoy the beginning of the   year madness!

For what it’s worth…

Weissbourd, R. (2019). Turning the tide II: How parents and high schools can cultivate ethical character and reduce distress in the college admissions process.

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