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Thoughts on ‘Harvard by lottery’

April 2, 2012

The Chronicle of Higher education is running this very interesting article by Dalton Conley: Harvard By Lottery.

The lack of measurable value of selective college admissions

Let’s start with the key point that has been presented many times before in many studies. Conley writes:

In other words, while the difference between Stanford and no-name college may still matter, within a general range—say Stanford versus San Diego State University—it doesn’t make much of a difference where a student goes. Similar analysis has been conducted at the high-school level, examining high-stakes entrance exams in Boston and New York. Logic suggests that there is not any real difference between the ability of two kids, one who just made it over the line for admission to say, my alma mater, Stuyvesant High School, and one who barely came up short. The point or two gap probably reflects luck in the particular mix of questions on exam day or who got more sleep the night before or even who guessed right as they were running out of time. And as it turned out in a recent study by Atila Abdulkadiroglu, Joshua D. Angrist, and Parag A. Pathak, those who went to the most-sought-after high school were little better off than those who went to the next best one in terms of standardized text scores by their senior year or in their rates of college enrollment.

Why bother going to an elite school (either high school or college) if it doesn’t yield any measurable difference in terms of income, standardized test scores, or college enrollment? First, I think these studies confirm the silliness of trying to measure and schools on these narrow measures.

To me, this is one of the best arguments I can think of for a transformative school—a school that whose highest aims aren’t standardized test scores, or college admissions, but quite literally empowering its students to change the world. Selective schools aren’t going to stand out on the basis of standardized test scores or college admissions lists, as Chris Lehmann puts it, we must aim to “create a whole greater than the sum of its parts.”

I also believe that transformative schools do this by simple, but not often quantified means—encouraging strong relationships between students and adults. Through these relationships, students realize that they can actively explore the world of knowledge around them and engage adults to help them in their quest. Once students do this, almost every door is open to them.

I’ve also written about mentoring as a measure of a school previously, where I referenced an incredible story by one of Brian Carpenter’s students on the incredible role he had in her life as an advisor.

The college admissions arms race

In a later paragraph, Conley explains how, despite these small differences in measured outcomes of tests scores and lifetime wealth, the pressure for achieving admission at a highly selective college has lead to never ending arms race among students, parents and college admissions offices:

Such evidence aside, however, when I take off my social-scientist hat and put on my parental cap, I can’t imagine not taking my kids on a coast-to-coast college tour during their junior year. I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t pay for an SAT prep class. And damned if I let them just hang out working on their eight-ball game at a billiard hall after school rather than pursue serious internships and other extracurriculars. This insanity is equally rampant on the other side of the coin. As college officials, we obsess over keeping our acceptance rates down and our yields up. We worry about slight downward blips in the average SAT scores of our entering classes, and we trumpet recruitment victories over our bitter rivals as if they were the battle for Guadalcanal. Why? U.S. News & World Report rankings that parents like me scrutinize.

Even as the parent of a 17 month-old, I feel this pressure to make sure I’m doing everything I possibly can to make sure that my daughter has the greatest possible chance at success in life, and I’m constantly bombarded with gadgets, flashcards and other things I can buy to hurry her toward that success.

This guilt at feeling we might not be doing enough to help our children achieve success can be sometimes be overwhelming, but I think Conley highlights the danger of this approach and a possible solution in a subsequent paragraph:

But such arguments ignore the fact that obsession with maximizing SAT scores or larding extracurriculars onto our children’s college applications deflects efforts from more robust forms of learning that aren’t necessarily scored in the admissions process. It’s no different than the phenomenon of “teaching to the test” among elementary-school students.

My experience in college counseling tells me that many college admissions officers want to end this arms race as well. Their campuses are overflowing with hothouse flower students, and their psychological counseling offices are buckling under the demand form students for therapy for issues both large and small. I’ve had a number of conversations where admissions officers beam with satisfaction when describing a particular applicant who clearly showed a love of learning radiating from the page and how that applicant was able to harness grow that love of learning into something truly meaningful, sometimes despite the roadblocks of traditional schooling. These students are instant admits, and admissions officers are often willing to overlook a low grade or standardized test score to bring that sort of infectious joy in learning to their campus.

The problem is that these students are rare, and admissions offices have hundreds, not dozens of beds to fill. Once you dispense with admitting these rare gems, the real work of college admissions begins as admissions officers try to sort through the rest of their applicant pool of over-stressed, over-scheduled students, many too busy to find the real joy in learning, each thinking that one extra activity or AP will be the thing that boost them over the bar. And as parents, we think that might not be enough, so we add fuel to the arms race, SAT prep, a high priced independent college counselor, and more study guides and private tutoring than you can imagine.

Conley thinks the solution to this may be to have these uber-selective schools fill 10% of their enrollments with a random lottery of qualified students. This is a very intriguing idea, and I would love to see colleges try it, but it seems impractical in the extreme, and relies on a few college admissions deans and presidents taking very bold action. My solution, beginning the unilateral disarmerment of the college admissions arms race through small individual action seems at least a tiny bit more practical.

So, what should be the first steps in unilateral disarmament?

14 Comments leave one →
  1. April 2, 2012 4:55 pm

    It’s not always about earning potential. It’s about the people you Around you at college. I’m not upset about being rejected by top schools because I now can’t achieve my career goals. I’m upset because now there is a good chance I will be at a party school which means it will be harder for me to find fellow intellectuals and nerds.

    • April 2, 2012 7:05 pm

      First, I’m very sorry for any pain you may be experiencing from your college process. I distinctly recall the pain of being denied from my dream schools many years ago. But I do want to stress a few things. Unless your career goal was to be a Supreme Court Justice (something that very oddly seems to hinge upon admission to the Ivy League), very few careers should be completely closed to you on the basis of not achieving admission to a particular school. Second, if you give it a chance, I think you will find there are students who will push your thinking, as intellectuals and nerds, no matter where you go, and “party school” really is just a convenient label people use that doesn’t really capture the true diversity of any college. More than that, even at the partiest of party schools, the professors who teach there were probably selected by a job application gauntlet that would make college admissions seem tame, and those professors would be delighted to work with a thoughtful, inquisitive student like you. All it takes is staying after lecture one day and saying “Professor, I was wondering about….” You’ll likely be amazed by the doors that can be opened to you by developing a strong mentoring relationship with just one professor each semester. Finally, you more than just about any other student I’ve seen, have seen how easy it is to find like-minded people interested in ideas and learning, across campus or across the globe. You have access to more resources, mentors and ideas than you can possibly imagine.

    • jsb16 permalink
      April 3, 2012 12:41 pm

      a) Just about every ‘party’ school has an honors program as well.
      b) You can always transfer after a year or two.
      c) It is, as you say, about the relationships, which are available everywhere if you look for them as John said.
      d) Find a college that wants you as much as you want it, and you’re golden, no matter what anyone else’s rankings suggest.

  2. April 3, 2012 7:37 am

    I feel absolutely none of the ‘pressure’ you speak of with my own kids – literally none. It’s a state of mind and that’s just one of the reasons they go to school really close to where you went to high school! If they are happy and mentally well-adjusted they will do just FINE in life. The college they go to (IF indeed they do go to college), will be largely irrelevant.

  3. April 3, 2012 12:44 pm

    This post resonated with me in a few different ways. First off I teach at a public magnet high school that for the past 17 years has made meaningful relationships, mentoring, and authentic, experiential learning its focus. Because those things are in place our students are confident learners who college recruiters love to admit. We admit students into our 9th grade class in 2 ways: If an 8th grader has an older sibling currently attending they are automatically admitted if they choose. Otherwise, all available seats are determined by lottery. There are no minimum qualifications to enter our lottery other than students have to want to be a part of our school. The lottery ensures that the population of our school matches the urban neighborhoods around us, and while there are many challenges to teaching students who may not be well prepared for high school, these are the students who need our type of school the most. I hope that as more charter, magnet, or private small high schools open up around the country that they would use a lottery-based admission system and I’m fascinated about what a college lottery might look like.
    Finally, as a parent I feel my most important job is to make sure that my young kids love to learn and love to ask questions. If that is in place then it should be easier to instill them the skills habits they need to be productive and successful.

    • April 3, 2012 9:12 pm

      Couldn’t agree more on both your points, especially the point about parenting. And I do feel like there are more and more resources out there that support this viewpoint, from Free Range Kids to Challenge Success.

      • April 4, 2012 1:34 pm

        Thanks for sharing, the Challenge Success program looks really interesting.

  4. April 3, 2012 10:13 pm

    I wonder how this plays into Chris Lehmann’s recent post about “transformative schools” in contrast to “good schools”. The good schools, like the one I teach at, are largely focused on getting their kids into “good” colleges. Wouldn’t it be excellent if these schools could step up and become transformative and look beyond the college admissions game?

    But, as you and Conley say, it’s an arms race. And who is going to be the first school to drop out of it? And what parents in what upper-middle-to-upper-class town are going to stand for it?

    • April 3, 2012 10:21 pm

      I think if good schools can have the courage to look beyond college admissions, and strive to achieve Lehmann’s vision of a transformative school, I think they will find in many cases that their success in college admissions will be equal or greater than what it was previously. Of course, this requires a big leap of faith in the face of uncertainty. But that’s a big jump for most students, teachers, parents and administrators. I think it’s one of those things that a community can do together in a “greater than the sum of its parts” move.

    • April 4, 2012 1:51 pm

      A lot of the interest in my school comes from nearby upperclass families. We’ve gotten word out in our community that being at a transformative school makes kids more attractive to colleges. Maybe not the super elite ones, but the smaller private colleges. In our area there are a lot of families looking for a different type of focus for their kids high school. But I also know when a new high school opened recently with a goal of being “non-traditional” the efforts were unsuccessful because the majority of the community did not want this. I think the change will start in inner cities where there is a track record of traditional schools failing kids, and the success of some magnet and charter schools can hopefully trickle out into the ‘burbs.

  5. April 5, 2012 4:12 am

    I discovered your blog recently and find it fascinating. I hope this isn’t too out-of-left-field. Serendipitously, just before reading this post about transformative schooling I watched an online video (40 minutes) about a 4th grade class in Japan that was stunningly different from what I expected. This teacher stressed happiness and bonding! If you have the time, see what you think.

  6. Matt Wolinski permalink
    April 6, 2012 12:46 pm

    John – wasn’t sure if you saw this. As both a physics teacher and an educational thinker, I think you’ll appreciate the sentiment, if not the action this guy resolves to take!

    Looking forward to working with you!

    • April 6, 2012 10:54 pm

      Thanks so much for the link. I did stumble across this, and have put it in my ever growing pile of potential future blog posts. It’s an interesting argument, one I’ve heard before, and need to think more about. I think he’s definitely identified a real problem in education—our obsession with grades, but I don’t think AP exams are the solution he claims them to be.

      And I’m greatly looking forward to working with you, too.

    • April 7, 2012 7:58 am

      I’ve never understood the idea of a high school transcript grade (it’s totally meaningless in so many cases, open to horrible subjectivity and corruption, and as for ‘participation’ grades don’t get me started), and am 100% in favor to moving to a system of public exams – British style! If the test is good, ‘teaching to the test’ is good education.

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