SERVING STUDENTS IN THE COLLEGE ADMISSION PROCESS AND BEYOND: ‘TURNING THE TIDE’

March 28, 2016
(Adapted from ICG executive director Peter Gow’s column from the ICG’s February Independent Educator newsletter.)

A few months ago I began my monthly column in our newsletter by musing on the grace I often see displayed—grace under pressure—by students enduring the college search-apply-choose process. This process isn’t much fun for anyone, and every college counselor or parent of a high school junior or senior can tell you how on its worst days—and there are a lot of these—the whole business distorts and damages the world of kids: their psyches, their families, their friendships, their classrooms, and even their schools. We all know about the warping of the high school curriculum and the lives of kids—the résumé-padding, the endless test prep, the sacrifice of interests for expediency and the sacrifice of time and opportunities to explore and grow under the imperative to perform, to achieve, and to excel, with no room for risk or failure. Right now, of course, we’re in the middle of this; for this college counselor called back from retirement, the two weeks on either side of today are as hard as any in the year.

The Independent Curriculum Group came together in response to the role of certain kinds of imposed instrumental curriculum and standardized tests in this process. Our Principles of Independent Curriculum have at their core a concern for students in the very context of the forces that often compel schools and teachers to knuckle under to external forces and demands made in the interests of institutions, not in the interests of children and young adults.

This winter we were delighted, then, to learn that the Making Caring Common Project at the Harvard rick-weissbourd_0Graduate School of Education had enunciated its own principles for “Turning the Tide” in college preparation and admissions. These principles, enunciated in the executive summary of the “Turning the Tide” report and then fully developed in the report itself, dovetail nicely with the ICG Principles, in the service of kids. Leading the Turning the Tide initiative is Dr. Richard Weissbourd (author of The Parents We Mean to Be, which is a revelation in its own right.)

The college admission process generates a lot of heat and plenty of anger and bitterness, even among the counselors whose daily task it is to help kids through it. Turning the Tide has already inspired its own scoffers and cynics, and all of us—I as much as any—are concerned that colleges, especially either super-selective colleges that trade on their stratospheric rankings and “exclusivity” or less prestigious schools scrabbling to make their class numbers each year, will simply ignore the whole idea. That it emerges from Harvard—the education school and not the undergraduate admission office—probably prompts others to look askance: Is this just another pie-in-the-sky idea or another elitist smokescreen to mask the same-old same-old.

But I believe, and the Independent Curriculum Group believes, that Turning the Tide marks the first real opening in many, many years for a significant, human change in the nature of college admission. Taken to its logical ends, it permits the transformation of curriculum and learning in general along the lines the ICG has put forward.

One user posed this question on an NAIS community discussion about Turning the Tide: “Why have we not banded together, made the many substantive changes that our experience and research into learning and brain function suggest are needed to improve learning outcomes and the health of our students, and pressured the colleges to rethink their admissions criteria in light of these changes?”

This is a pretty compelling question, and one that touches on some of the more salient elements of the ICG Principles of Independent Curriculum and what we, as educators, hope for in our most sanguine moments as we contemplate what the future of education could bring.

But we at the ICG believe that advocacy around college admissions can serve as a particularly powerful stand-in for a more substantial kind of advocacy around the nature of school at all levels, in all sectors. The three main recommendations of the Turning the Tide report relate to 1) “community service and engagement with the public good,” 2) “ethical engagement and contributions to others,” and 3) “redefining achievement” to “level the playing field” and “reduce excessive achievement pressure.” These goals are important not only in the context of college admission; they matter to the entire  making-caring-common-logo_1enterprise of developing whole, authentic, and balanced human beings.

The Independent Curriculum Group is engaging with Dr. Weissbourd and the Turning the Tide group at Making Caring Common to see how and where we can help, and more importantly to press not only the agenda implied by our principles but the higher purpose of making school and schooling truly responsive to the requirements and well-being of all students.

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