A Call for Parents to Behave

Harvard scholars release a new "Turning the Tide" report on admissions at the height of a scandal over alleged misbehavior by those who should know better.

March 18, 2019
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A report being released today by scholars at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education was drafted well before the current admissions scandal.

But "Turning the Tide II: How Parents and High Schools Can Cultivate Ethical Character and Reduce Distress in the College Admissions Process" may be arriving at an opportune time. The first "Turning the Tide" report, in 2016, urged colleges to consider a variety of reforms, including going test optional on admissions or assuring students that standardized tests aren't the crucial part of applications, discouraging students from trying to take the maximum number of Advanced Placement courses possible and encouraging high school students to focus on the quality rather than quantity of extracurricular activities. Many of the recommendations were applauded by admissions leaders -- although some have questioned whether enough colleges have heeded the advice.

The new report focuses on parents and high schools. The introduction seems like a lecture that Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, among others, might have benefited from hearing.

"Many parents also fail to be ethical role models during the admissions process by allowing teens to mislead on applications, letting their own voice intrude in application essays, hiring expensive tutors and coaches without any sense of equity or fairness, treating their teen’s peers simply as competitors for college spots, and failing to nurture in their teen any sense of gratitude for the privilege of attending a four-year college," says the report. "College admissions may well be a test for parents, but it’s not a test of status or even achievement -- it’s a test of character." (The report does note that most of the failings it addresses are by middle- and upper-income parents, and the report is addressed to those focused on the admission of traditional-age college students.)

So what should parents do? Here is some of the advice:

  • "Keep the focus on your teen … It’s critical for parents to disentangle their own wishes from their teen’s wishes and avoid conflating their interests with their teen’s interests. Throughout the process, parents should get input from their teen about whether their involvement in the process is helpful. Often it’s important for parents to just pause and listen."
  • "Follow your ethical GPS … Rather than dismissing misrepresentations as trivial or finding ways to overlook them, we as parents ought to be willing to ask ourselves hard, fundamental questions about who we want to be and what we want to model for our children. Is getting into a particular college really more important than compromising our teen’s or our own integrity?"
  • "Be authentic. Many parents fail to have authentic, honest conversations with their teens during the college admissions process and send conflicting messages ('I want you to go to the college where you’ll be happiest' and 'I want you to get into the best college you can get into.') These mixed messages can diminish parents’ role as trusted guides and erode their capacity to support their teen in expressing themselves authentically."
  • "Advocate for elevating ethical character and reducing achievement-related distress. Many colleges and high schools are unlikely to change practices that emphasize achievement and sideline ethical engagement unless parents start 'walking the talk' and become strong advocates for promoting ethical character and reducing stress. Parents need to step up -- respectfully but firmly -- to advance a very different vision of high schools and the college admissions process. They can press for prioritizing not just academic achievement but ethical character, take a zero-tolerance stance on achievement-related distress, and advocate for greater equity and fairness."

And here is some of the advice for high schools:

  • "Set ethical expectations with families … 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 … is whether an experience is immersive, sustained, chosen based on authentic interest and provides students opportunities for reflection with both peers and adults."
  • "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 their chances are very high of being accepted at one of a wide range of colleges that are just as likely to lead to success."
  • "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 [such as Advanced Placement] 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."


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