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Kill the College Admissions Essay

Robert Pondiscio is a senior fellow and vice president for external affairs at the Fordham Institute. Back in 2002, after twenty years in journalism, Robert left a senior position at Business Week to teach fifth grade in the South Bronx, before moving to the Core Knowledge Foundation and ultimately to Fordham. He has an eagerly awaited book coming out in September about New York City's remarkable, controversial Success Academy. He'll be writing about anti-charter school activism, the problems with searching for the New Big Thing, and why we're unlikely to reach consensus on what schools should teach—and why that's okay.

Thanks to Rick Hess for the pleasure and privilege of this platform and microphone this week.  I look forward to reading the contributions of the guests he has lined up in this space in the coming weeks—Rich Buery, Heather Harding, Jessica Sutter, Loren Baron, Melissa Junge and Sheara Krvaric—and am flattered to be in such good company.

One more before I go.

This month, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, where I have happily toiled for the last several years, is co-sponsoring a contest with the Center for American Progress, inviting readers to compete for a $10,000 "Moonshot For Kids" prize.  The premise of the initiative, writes my colleague Mike Petrilli, is that "the U.S. will only make significant gains in real outcomes if it develops and deploys bold new—sizable and scalable—evidence-based approaches that build on the best ideas from the private, public, and non-profit sectors."

I'll admit I'm not a big fan of "moonshots" generally (wasn't it federal law that every child must read on grade level by 2014?). Education suffers not from a lack of vision, will, or urgency. Mostly it's ADD. The Next Big Thing distracts us not just from the Last Big Thing, but also from the basic blocking and tackling that we never get quite right. Vast ideas lead mostly to half-vast outcomes.

I've long wished a dedicated and focused group of philanthropists and level-headed educators, far from the glare of Ted Talks and the seductive lure of SXSW EDU, would quietly band together and start "The Coalition of Pretty Good Schools," focused on a few simple goals, like guaranteeing safe, warm, disruption-free classrooms; scientifically sound reading instruction; a well-rounded education including science, civics, history, geography, music, the arts, and physical education; and remaining mindful of the need for public accountability, while not permitting test-prep to dominate schooling. 

So my small idea that might actually work to improve K-12 education would be a change in higher education, specifically in college admissions: Kill the personal essay. Colleges, particularly elite and competitive colleges, should instead require students to submit two graded pieces of academic work, ideally research papers, with their applications.

Back in 2011, College Board President David Coleman famously got himself in a bit of hot water observing that "as you grow up in this world, you realize people don't really give a shit about what you feel and what you think." Almost no one, then or now, noted the larger context of his controversial comment. He was taking issue with the dominance of "the exposition of a personal opinion or the presentation of a personal narrative," which he noted are the two most popular forms of student writing in American high schools.

He was not dismissing students or their opinions. It was a critique of the lack of challenge and rigor in what we ask them to do. Coleman wasn't wrong. Personal essays are not indicative of the most common kinds of writing students do in college. It makes far more sense for colleges to ask for actual work samples than a personal essay. And far more sense for high schools to prepare them for it.

A simple principle has often gone missing or misunderstood in the age of standards and testing: teacher and school accountability should incentivize the classroom behaviors we seek, or at least not conspire against them. I've noted elsewhere that reading tests violate this principle. You build good readers with a patient investment in vocabulary and content knowledge, building coherently and cumulatively over time. Reading tests treat comprehension as a collection of content-neutral skills like "finding the main idea," thus encouraging poor practice, and incentivizing the reduction of precious school hours to test-prep and mind-numbing "skills and strategies" lessons.

Perhaps it will be less entertaining for admissions officers to read 8-10 pages on the causes of the Salem Witch Trials or the Rwandan genocide, Shakespeare's views on gender, or the effects of China's one-child policy, rather than bracing tales of self-discovery on service trips to Central America. But elite colleges are actually in a position to do something accountability policy has largely failed to achieve: spur demand for rich and rigorous academic work in U.S. high schools.

If education's "worried well" and tiger moms know that research papers and graded work is the key to Harvard and Stanford admission, they will bring pressure to bear to make sure assignments are substantial and challenging, perhaps spurring an academic rigor arms race. Teachers would be incentivized to give careful and meaningful feedback, knowing it could end up under the watchful eye of the admissions office at Tufts or Penn, reflecting well or poorly on their work and the reputation of their high school. 

It might not be the Next Big Idea, but it would accomplish something test-driven accountability often fails to do: incentivize classroom practice that benefits students, and align classroom practice with student self-interest.

That's not asking for the moon.

Robert Pondiscio

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