Anyone who reads my blogs on a regular basis or has heard me speak knows that I focus passionately on the following topics: the need for Jewish day school education to ensure the vibrant future of the Jewish people, and the North American Jewish community; that education in America must change to meet the needs of children so they are prepared for the world they will inherit, and that if schools look the way they did when we went, we are failing our children. I also write frequently about the undue pressure students are under, and the negative effect of testing that leads students to learn how to “do school” rather than to really learn how to learn, and I have written about how this pressure can take away from the things that really matter, like values, community and ethical behavior. Just a few weeks ago I wrote how this whole process was making our children sick. Over the years I have stated that colleges need to change how they handle the admissions process, because to a large extent they have created this crazy culture. I have also been optimistic that change would ultimately come because the needs of our society and the workforce would demand it.
At the same time I have also indicated over the years that Hillel would not be complicit in maintaining the status quo, and that we will put children first and do what is best for them, even if it means going against the current stream. Hence, we have reduced their amount of homework, are focusing less on grades, and more on learning, utilizing our core Jewish values to teach ethical behavior and responsibility to self and community through a Jewish lens, and, we are reinventing school by focusing on the skills students need, and creating a learning environment that is exciting, authentic, engaging and challenging for his century. Disruption in the status quo has been evolving in certain educational sectors to nudge this essential change in education. I am proud that Hillel is a part of the educational community working on this issue.
And then last week Harvard University published a paper that not only validates what Hillel has been advocating, but which will also accelerate the real and inevitable changes that are needed in the college admissions process. I am certain that this study will also provoke high schools and lower schools across the country to accelerate changes in their educational approaches to benefit all students.
“Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good through College Admissions” has been endorsed by more than 80 universities and colleges already, including the Ivy Leagues, Stanford, Brandeis, and locally, Michigan, Michigan State, and Kalamazoo College. The expectations are that changes will be coming over the next two years and beyond.
There are three specific recommendations. The first is redefining achievement in ways that both level the playing field for economically diverse students and reduce excessive achievement pressure. The paper recommends that the admissions process should focus on the quality, not quantity, of activities; in other words, brag sheets will not increase chances of college acceptance. Applications will soon limit the number of spaces for activities, and instead ask applicants to describe 2 or 3 meaningful activities. Admissions officers will be looking more for depth of intellectual and ethical engagement, and potential, and not at how much you did or how many courses you took. The report discourages large numbers of AP courses because they are not as valuable as sustained achievement in a limited number of areas.
Admissions officers will also be on the lookout for “over coaching” that could jeopardize admissions. The goal is to make the process authentic, honest and ethical. The report recommends relieving undue pressure associated with admissions tests – moving to making tests optional, clearly indicating how much they really count, and discouraging applicants from taking them more than twice. Colleges should be asked to justify the use of these tests by providing data that indicates how scores relate to academic performance at their particular institution. (I believe they added this recommendation because they know there is little to no correlation between the test scores and academic performance.) And finally the report advocates expanding students’ thinking about what makes a college “good.” There are a broad range of excellent colleges outside the so-called elite colleges, and many paths to professional success. Students and parents need to learn to care more about the right fit and not the status.
The second recommendation is promoting more meaningful contributions to others, community service, and engagement with the public good. The report recommends meaningful service that is sustained – and that students be able to demonstrate ethical and emotional awareness of the value of their service. The admissions offices will be wise to those who game the system. Volunteering in exotic locales will no longer place one at an advantage. Volunteering at many places to build a list will also not be welcomed. Admissions professionals will be putting more emphasis on students who work collectively in a group to make changes in the community, or in the student’s school. And they will be looking for service that develops a sense of gratitude, and sense of responsibility for the future.
The third recommendation is assessing students’ ethical engagement and contributions to others in ways that reflect varying types of family and community contributions across race, culture and class. Contributing to one’s family will now be seen as valuable, whether it is babysitting a younger sibling so parents can work, or helping with family income and responsibilities. The report also recommends that what needs to be weighed is whether students are ethically responsible, and concerned for others in their communities – day to day conduct over stints of service.
These recommended changes are long overdue. It will take time for them to take place, and they will be implemented differently from college to college. But the message is clear. Colleges are owning responsibility for the unhealthy culture they have created, and now they are beginning to do their part to change that culture.
They cannot do it alone. It is time for parents to internalize these very recommendations, and encourage their children to balance academic achievement with becoming a good person, and committing to the common good through service and ethical conduct. Parents need to redirect their children away from working for good grades, and focus on real learning. These messages must come from the home.
And finally, Hillel will continue to do its part by focusing on learning, helping children to acquire skills that will prepare them for the world they will inherit, helping students to discover their talents and passions, and through our Jewish tradition and values, teach children to be responsible to the community.
The direction colleges are headed is what Hillel does naturally. As we have been saying for a long time, and now schools of higher education are catching on – Mind and Soul are better together!
You can read the entire report here.