As the nation turned its attention to a college admissions scandal that swept up celebrities and other wealthy parents who paid for their kids to get into elite schools, the Harvard Graduate School of Education released a report explaining how the high-stakes pressure to get into college leads to a culture that condones a whole host of unethical practices.
The report, titled “Turning the Tide II: How Parents and High Schools Can Cultivate Ethical Character and Reduce Distress in The College Admissions Process,” makes the case that an intense focus on academic achievement has squeezed out serious attention to ethical character in many high schools and families, especially in middle- and upper-income communities.
With a narrow focus on high achievement and admission to selective colleges, parents in these communities often fail to help their teens develop the critical cognitive, social and ethical capacities that are at the heart of both doing good and doing well in college and beyond. Many parents also fail to be ethical role models to their children by allowing a range of transgressions — from exaggerating achievements to outright cheating — in the admissions process.
Published by the college’s Making Caring Common project, the report builds upon a 2016 report that sought changes at the college level. This follow-up report shifts the focus to the role of families and high schools in college admissions.
“High schools have a much greater commitment to their students than just helping them achieve at a high level or get into a high-status college,” said Brennan Barnard, College Admission Program Manager at Making Caring Common, in a press release. “They also have an obligation to prepare students to be caring, ethical community members and citizens.”
The report describes the results of a new #CommonGood campaign that has engaged 189 high schools and middle schools nationwide in promoting Turning the Tide’s goals and supporting high schools in developing students’ ethical character.
Michael J. Roe, principal at Polytechnic High School in the Riverside Unified School District, was among the early leaders in this campaign.
Roe recently told Deseret News that the college admissions process and an emphasis on standardized testing are sending the message that achievement is more important than authentic learning.
“If you ask parents, ‘What are you more concerned with? Your child being a caring, empathetic individual or achieving at the highest level?’ parents will tell you, that’s ridiculous, I want both. But that’s not what kids are hearing,” Roe said in the article. “Nine out of 10 kids are hearing, ‘I better achieve, or else.’”
Turning the Tide II includes actionable guideposts for parents and high schools for putting young people’s ethical character and well-being at the center of a healthier, more sane college admissions process.
For high schools, the report lays out the following seven guideposts:
Set ethical expectations with families. Most parents are responsible in their college admissions-related interactions with schools. But many parents, including those who genuinely want their child’s school to promote ethical character, neither model ethical character nor support schools in promoting it in the college admissions process. To establish what it means for parents to be a member of a caring, ethical community, schools can create a “compact” or agreement with parents, an active document that should be referred to throughout the year, that spells out the school’s and parents’ obligations in promoting ethical character, leveling the playing field for economically disadvantaged students, and reducing achievement-related distress in college admissions.
Create opportunities for authentic student service and contributions to others. High school students in some communities are caught up in a kind of community service Olympics, a contest to see who can get an edge in their applications by tackling the most formidable problem, often in a distant country. But what is most important to many colleges is whether an experience is immersive, sustained, chosen based on authentic interest, and provides students opportunities for reflection with both peers and adults. High school counselors and teachers can explore with students the kinds of community service or contributions that are likely to be meaningful and seek to provide students with a wide range of service experiences and other ways to contribute to their communities, such as working to prevent students from being bullied or isolated in their own school.
Use the admissions process as an opportunity for ethical education. Like parents, high schools should explore with teens the many ethical questions that the admissions process raises, such as why the admissions process often advantages certain students such as athletes and children of donors, why large inequities in the process exist and what can be done to remedy them, why well-intentioned people participate in unfair systems and how to both express oneself authentically and “play the game,” making oneself attractive to colleges. High schools, like parents, might also ask their teen to imagine what a fair, equitable admissions system would be and consider with teens what needs to change for this system to exist.
Focus students on daily acts of character and provide evidence of character in applications. Schools have a crucial responsibility to promote cultures and relationships that cultivate concern for others and other key ethical capacities in students, and the endorsers of Turning the Tide underscore that a student’s daily conduct “is critically important” in admissions. At a minimum, schools might provide guidelines to school counselors and teachers that both help them assess the capacities that comprise ethical character and that guide them in describing these capacities in recommendations. Schools might also develop deeper and more comprehensive ways of capturing these capacities by, for example, using assessments that draw on the input of students’ peers, teachers and other adults.
Guide students in reporting their substantial family contributions and challenges. Many teens are unable to engage in community service or activities outside the home because they spend substantial time supporting their families — such as working to provide family income or supervising a younger sibling — and these ongoing responsibilities may be far more likely than community service to promote key ethical and emotional capacities such as compassion, selflessness, perseverance, and respect. Schools should guide teens in reporting not just community service and contributions but these responsibilities.
Focus students on a wide range of colleges. At the core of excessive achievement pressure in middle- and upper-class communities is one fundamental myth: Only a small number of highly selective colleges will position students for success. Students who are convinced that these colleges are the key to success will continue to be hounded by fears of disappointing or shaming their parents and themselves until they and their parents embrace the reality that there are a wide ranges of colleges that are just as likely to lead to success. High schools can reduce the focus on a small number of highly selective colleges by presenting facts about job satisfaction and general well-being reported by students who attended colleges of varying selectivity; exposing students to colleges that vary in selectivity and to alternative pathways to careers; encouraging parents and students to avoid commercial college rankings; focusing on meaningful outcomes (such as student satisfaction) rather than selectivity when communicating to parents and prospective students about the colleges attended by graduates; and launching an awareness campaign with neighboring schools elevating a wide range of colleges and alternative pathways to careers.
Create limits on advanced courses and discourage students from overloading on extracurricular activities. Schools need to have comprehensive and mission-driven conversations about what is a healthy and balanced academic load for their students. Educators might consider creating clear guidelines that prevent students from overloading on high level (AP/IB/Advanced) courses each year. As part of this effort, schools should intentionally survey students, faculty, and parents on an ongoing basis to assess homework loads, pace of life and student well-being and engagement. Based on the results schools should establish appropriate limits that reduce stress and lead to more meaningful engagement in courses and activities and adapt these limits as needed.