How Not to Get Into College:
The Preoccupation with Preparation
by Alfie Kohn
Copyright 2002 by Alfie Kohn
(www.alfiekohn.org). Reprinted with the author's permission.
(continued from page 2)
With such a tension between goal and practice, something has to give. Inconveniently, there are only two possibilities. Either: the objectives are pushed to the side, regarded as a pleasant-sounding but functionally irrelevant ideal confined to mission statements and P.R. materials. ("It's not really that important to us whether our students are happy, ethical, reflective lifelong learners, but we'll keep that rhetoric in the admissions brochure because it sounds reassuring.") Or: the goals really do matter, in which case the preoccupation with preparation has to be seriously reexamined.
Immediately comes the objection: It's not our fault! Some of our students' parents would have hired fetal tutors if they'd thought that could improve their Apgar scores. Some of them have dedicated their lives to preparing their children for Harvard (a process I've come to call "Preparation H"). Some pursue this agenda with the best of intentions, and some are mostly concerned to derive a vicarious sense of triumph from the success of their offspring, to trump their friends when the talk turns to whose kids made good. What are we supposed to do, given pressure from parents who seem to care less about their children's well-being than about their SAT scores and the thickness of the envelopes that arrive senior year from Cambridge, New Haven, and Providence?
Do some people think like this? You bet. Some people also judge individuals by the size of their houses, or nations by the size of their armies. Since when is that a reason for us to do likewise -- or to become enablers of their warped values?
What's more, while the faculty blames the parents, there are also plenty of parents blaming the schools with equal passion. ("We try to keep things in perspective for our daughter, but it feels like a losing battle because the school culture is so steeped in grades and scores and admissions.") The only thing teachers and parents can agree on, it seems, is that they are both utterly helpless, caught in the grip of colleges. The colleges, meanwhile -- or at least many of their professors -- blame the K-12 educational system that deposits eighteen-year-olds in their classrooms whose interest in learning has already evaporated. Fingers are pointed in all directions, understandably in each case, but the upshot is that none of the parties takes responsibility for trying to restore a measure of sanity.
People who work in schools have a responsibility for leading, not only following. Pressure from college admission offices notwithstanding, educators are not being forced at gunpoint to make college preparation the overriding priority in adolescents' lives. Pressure from families notwithstanding, educators have an opportunity to educate parents, not only children. Of course, we can also learn from them, and we must be respectful of their concerns and beliefs; finding a balance here is an art and sometimes an agony. But part of our job is to help students and parents understand that the difference between acceptance to a moderately elite college and acceptance to an extremely elite college does not justify sacrificing everything (health, happiness, friends, love of learning) in a desperate effort to gain access to the latter.
What happens when college preparation takes over the upper school, squeezing out other purposes? Pre-K-to-12 schools become increasingly traditional as the students get older, with more rating and ranking and a curriculum that is more predefined and less driven by students' interests. But don't adolescents need and deserve student-centered instruction as much as younger children do? And, if so, is it impossible to change what we're doing, or merely difficult?
Even those unwilling to question the emphasis on college preparation ought to realize that this goal may not require all that is currently done in its name. Take the SATs. (I resist the temptation to add, "…please!") Those scores often count for less with admissions committees than we think, suggesting an opportunity to rethink those time-consuming, stress-inducing, money-wasting coaching sessions designed to teach tricks for raising scores on a bad test. In fact, about 400 colleges and universities, including Bates, Bowdoin, and Mount Holyoke, have stopped requiring the SAT (or ACT) altogether. (For more information, go to the appropriate page on Fairtest's website.)
What else can we dispense with? As Fieldston and other schools have discovered, students get into terrific colleges without Advanced Placement courses, and that provides an opening for us to think about whether we really need them. The fact that a course is difficult does not mean it is worthwhile. (Indeed, the confusion of harder with better helps to explain an awful lot of what is wrong with the "raise the bar" mindset that currently dominates school reform.) Some courses merely accelerate the worst forms of lecture-based, textbook-driven pedagogy: they have high standards but little room for deep thinking. A.P. courses allow the College Board to determine our curriculum. By virtue of the fact that they are geared to an exam, they are typically more about covering (material) than discovering (ideas).
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