SALT LAKE CITY — Maybe you’d never bribe a college official or pay someone else to take a college-placement test for your child, even if you had plenty of money.
But you could still be failing as an ethical role model if you encourage your teen to aggrandize his or her accomplishments or help too much with a college essay, according to a new report from Harvard Graduate School of Education.
Issued by the “Making Caring Common" project, the report is a rebuke to parents who may not do anything illegal in their quest to get their children into top-ranked colleges, but whose actions skirt propriety and contribute to systemic corruption. It calls on parents and high schools to work together to restore integrity to a badly tarnished system, saying that they “powerfully shape the admissions process."
“While it is essential that colleges take steps to reform the admissions process, high schools and parents have the largest impact on whether teens develop core ethical capacities, including a sense of responsibility for their communities, and suffer achievement-related stress,” the report says.
Richard Weissbourd, director of Making Caring Common, said the allegations in Operation Varsity Blues, a nationwide cheating conspiracy revealed March 12, were shocking, but that the bigger issue is not illegal activity, but unethical behavior.
“The scandal is mind-bogglingly immoral and dumb from my perspective. And it’s not really the problem,” Weissbourd said.
“It’s a problem in the sense that it’s an awful thing, but (what the indicted parents did) is not common. What we’re writing about (in the report) is very common forms of behaviors, things that parents do that cross a line.”
The report urges parents to do seven things to help improve the admissions process and to lessen the "fierce and debilitating" pressure that many teens face in communities where overemphasis on test scores and getting into a handful of elite colleges has taken precedence over figuring out what's best for the teen.
"It's perform, perform, perform," said Michael Roe, a high school principal in Riverside, California. “They’re in this big artificial hurry. Nobody can quite tell them why."
The report assigns jobs to both high schools and parents, including encouraging teens to be more authentic, ending "the community service Olympics" and paying close attention to one's "ethical GPS."
When 'right' is wrong
For the past several years, William Elenchin, chair of the Department of Sociology and Criminology at St. Bonaventure University in New York, has asked his students what topic that they’d like to see him address in a book.
“Every time, every class, the students would say stress,” said Elenchin, whose book “Rethinking Stress in an Age of Ease: A Field Manual for Students of All Ages” was published in February.
“Psychological and sociological research has well established that over the past 30, 40, 50 years, students are experiencing increasing levels of stress,” Elenchin said. “But research also tells us — common sense does as well — that since World War II, we as a culture are experiencing exponential gains in levels of comfort.
“So we should be happier and less stressed, but as a society, to include students, we’re experiencing more stress, more symptoms of behavioral health issues.”
Roe, the principal at Riverside Polytechnic High School in Riverside, California, believes he knows one of the reasons: Rising rates of anxiety and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder correspond with the rise of standardized tests in the U.S., with its attendant focus on scores over learning, he says.
“Academic achievement and authentic learning are not the same thing,” Roe said. “We continue to say as a society that we value one thing, but we test the exact opposite.”
Roe's school was working to address this problem before Making Caring Common's first report on the "madness" of college admissions was released three years ago. That report, called "Turning the Tide," focused on what colleges can do to redefine achievement, assess aspiring students' character and promote meaningful contributions to others and "engagement with the public good."
But although the report has been endorsed by admissions deans at nearly 200 colleges and universities — including some caught up in Operation Varsity Blues — there's been little meaningful change, the new report, "Turning the Tide II," says.
In fact, it says, "the trends in our country that sparked Turning the Tide have only become more troubling," among them incivility, bigotry and cynicism.
The latest report is the second of three and it was scheduled for release in April, but released weeks earlier to capitalize on public outrage over the scandal.
One positive thing that could come of it, educators say, is for the nation to examine how it created a system in which people would willingly cast aside their values so their children could attend a brand-name school, paying more for four years of education than many Americans pay for a house.
In its recommendations (called "guideposts") for high schools, Making Caring Common urges administrators, teachers and counselors to help combat the myth that students have to go to the “right” school to be successful. Aiming for schools at which only a small number of applicants get in (at Harvard and Stanford, for example, only about 5 percent of students who apply are admitted) can make students anxious and fearful of “disappointing or shaming” their parents, the report said.
“In affluent communities, especially, too many kids are focusing on amassing really impressive resumes, and all the data are showing it’s really not about the number of achievements you have or how selective the college is,” Weissbourd said.
“It’s much more about whether you have these socio-emotional and ethical competencies — whether you are empathic and self-aware and able to work in groups and grateful and curious, engaged. Those things in the long run turn out to be more important.”
To take the focus off a handful of schools, parents should expose their children to graduates of colleges that are less selective but still offer exemplary education. They can avoid commercial rankings, talk to students about the flaws in the rating system and promote lesser-known schools.
The report also takes on the problem of how teens are suffering from an overload of advanced courses while cramming their schedules full of extracurricular activities and community service projects that don't reflect the student's real interests, but instead are designed to dazzle on a resume.
Educators should consider drafting policies that advise a conservative approach to advanced placement classes and extracurricular activities, possibly even limiting the number that students can take, the report says.
The emphasis on test-taking — whether standardized assessments or Advanced Placement tests that award college credit — has created a system that revolves around scores, and cares less about what students are actually learning, Roe said. He recalls a conversation with a former student, who, when asked what she had learned from an Advanced Placement course, replied "how to take the test."
The emphasis on test-taking not only causes stress and anxiety in students, but it can cause parents to engage in unethical behavior like one exposed in the recent scandal: having a child fraudulently diagnosed as having a learning disability so that they qualify for extra time on tests.
This is not just a practice among the 33 parents named in Operation Varsity Blues. Mimi King, a Dallas mother of four, said she knows of people who have done this in her community.
But King — who currently has sons at the University of California and the University of Utah — said she believes that such blatant cheating, like the illegal activities alleged in the federal indictments, is not widespread. "I'd say it's the top 1 percent — or maybe I should say the bottom 1 percent," she said.
She also said there are parents who try to game the system and don't succeed.
“I’ve heard stories of parents around here who donate millions of dollars to a top school and their kids didn’t get in," she said.
At Poly High in Riverside, Roe said he once sat down with the school’s top 10 students and was disturbed by their levels of stress and anxiety. “Kids share from their hearts that their heads are spinning,” he said.
And it doesn’t matter whether parents are pressuring their children out of love and concern for their success as adults or if it’s because they want to tell their friends they have a child at Yale or Stanford; the effect on children is the same.
“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. “Nine out of 10 kids are hearing, ‘I better achieve, or else.’”
In a "commitment letter" signed by 148 admissions deans who support Making Caring Common's goals, the deans promise to "consider students' applications holistically" — assessing not just grades and scores, but how the students might contribute to the school and society. They also pledge to take into account how students have served their families, such as working to contribute income or taking care of younger siblings. And they say that two or three extracurricular activities in high school should be sufficient.
While putting forth a comprehensive strategy to reform college admissions, the report acknowledges the challenges in changing a system with many entrenched stakeholders. Some high school leaders and counselors who were provided with the report were openly skeptical that colleges will change, noting that some deans who signed the letter still say they expect applicants to have taken the most rigorous courses available.
“It’s also true that many colleges did not sign this letter, which means that students may in fact be disadvantaged in applying to these colleges,” the report says. But regardless of any continuing resistance, the authors write that parents and educators should still take the high road, saying "even if admissions offices didn’t weigh ethical character at all, educators and parents, as we’ve pointed out, have a fundamental responsibility to prioritize it in child-raising."15 comments on this story
And Roe, who has four children ages 8 to 18, said the scandal may force the country to confront a system that he believes is hurting not just children in the lowest socioeconomic classes, but also those in the high and middle classes. He says we should "follow the money" and look critically at those who profit from the current system — such as companies that develop and administer tests and high-priced tutors and admissions counselors.
Roe also notes that people trying to scam the system have been around for decades. When he was in high school more than 25 years ago, Roe said he was at a volleyball tournament when someone approached him and said that for $1,200, he could get him a passing score on the SAT.
“That kind of stuff has been happening forever,” he said. “These people just happened to get caught.”