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Letter from Steve Piltch, February 2016

February 29, 2016

Dear Shipley Families:

Over the last few months, there has been significant discussion on the national level about the college admissions process. Although applying to college has long been seen as a challenge, it has also historically been a process that has helped our students to mature and develop. With the appropriate support of parents and the school community, it has been possible for our students to grow in spite of (or perhaps because of) the stress associated with it. However, as the admissions process has become more competitive and less personal at the colleges, students (and parents) have become even more focused on the outcome and less able to enjoy and/or learn from the experience.

Not too long ago, students throughout the country applied to relatively few schools (between five and eight); took standardized tests without being tutored; filed their applications on or around January 1; and had their admissions decisions mid-April.  Moreover, the application process was the culmination of the high school experience.

Today, things have changed. Whether we like it or not, the process plays a more dominant role in many of our students’ junior and senior years (and sometimes earlier). The vast majority of students are now tutored for the SAT or ACT. Students may shape their academic choices, service interests, and other activities around the perceived requirements of specific colleges and universities rather than their own interests and passions. Although we have many students who apply early because they are genuinely interested in the school they apply to and believe it is the right place for them, we also have many students who apply earlier in the fall to expedite the process, to increase the odds of getting in (which sometimes occurs), and to obtain a decision as soon as possible. Sadly, many colleges look at the applicants’ achievements in a limited way and do not always consider their personal strengths and attributes.

It seems clear that colleges, which have defined the criteria for admission and fashioned the application process, must take responsibility for creating this reality and (as well at least some of the anxiety and angst that come with it for many students – and parents). And our schools and parents, who, in wanting the best for our students/children, have bought into the process, are not without some accountability.  As a result, everyone involved in the college admissions process is conflicted. On the one hand, we want our students to develop passion and compassion and to pursue their interests and develop the skills and attributes to meet all of the challenges they will face in life. Yet, we know that too many students feel pressured to compromise their choices and make sacrifices in their personal and developmental experience in an effort to strengthen their college candidacy.

Acknowledging this to be the case, the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Making Caring Common project authored a report, “Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good through College Admissions” speaking to the need for changes in the process. The report particularly stresses the idea of re-balancing the admissions equation to focus less on current criteria for assessment – such as AP and Honors Courses, standardized test scores, and the number of activities students participate in – and more on authentic personal development, ethical character, and commitment to others. Expanding students’ thinking about “good” colleges is also noted as a goal – the report suggests that there is a misconception that there are only a handful of good colleges and that those schools alone create networks that are vital to professional success. Ultimately, Turning the Tide hopes that by redefining achievement, the playing field will be leveled for economically diverse students and reduce the pressure for majority students as well. This will not be easy to achieve across the system.

At Shipley, we share the perspective expressed in Turning the Tide that who our students are is more important than who they appear to be on a résumé. Through our Social, Emotional, and Ethical Development (SEED) curriculum and our college process, we have long worked toward the objectives laid out in the report. Through our SEED curriculum, Shipley nurtures in students the capacity to know themselves by teaching them how to look carefully and think deeply about themselves and others and to develop greater emotional literacy.

The SEED curriculum inspires the development of self-reflection, critical thinking, goal-setting, and decision-making, all of which are essential skills in a college counseling program like Shipley’s that is historically rooted in finding the college that is the student’s best “fit.” Moreover, our college counseling process is student-centered and cares deeply about how students achieve their goals. Although we celebrate achievement, we are ever mindful that the process is as important as the outcome. In alignment with the Shipley Method (deeply rooted learning; confidence; creativity; relationship-building) our work is driven by sustained, one-on-one work that helps students to recognize their strengths and respect their future; it is not driven by college outcomes, college lists, standardized testing scores, or rankings.

Ultimately, students need to pursue their passion and need to find the schools that are right for them. They need to have balance in their lives. They need to have both hard skills (intellectual and academic) and soft skills (emotional literacy and character development). We need to worry less about achievement and more about process. We need to make the process more humane.

While the College Counseling Team, other administrators, and I here at Shipley (as well as many people in similar positions at other schools with whom I have spoken) appreciate the report, we know that the college admissions landscape is complex and the recommendations in Turning the Tide address only pieces of the problem. Although many of my colleagues and I may be skeptical about the ability of college admissions professionals (or any other small group of educators) to affect change in the values that have become so embedded in American culture, we appreciate the efforts to begin to move this issue forward. We understand that we all need to tackle this issue together. And, while I am grateful for what we already do, we are currently evaluating the best way to reinforce this commitment so that our students find the best schools for them and have the best possible process as they do. We must do everything we can, as parents and educators, to keep that goal at the heart of our work so that we can follow through on our commitment to helping our students achieve that balance. Students everywhere deserve something better than the process now offers, and we all need to be the agents of change. Thank you for believing in this philosophy and joining us in the process.

Warm Regards,

Steve Piltch

Steve Piltch,
Head of School
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The Shipley School is a private, coeducational day school for pre-kindergarten through 12th grade students, located in Bryn Mawr, PA. Through our commitment to educational excellence, we develop within each student a love of learning and a desire for compassionate participation in the world.