Changing the System from the Top Down

Often, the problem with reforms is the lack of understanding and communication between the people who make the policies and the people who are actually experiencing them. In “Fear and Learning in America” by John Kuhn, this disconnect can be seen in Kuhn’s experiences working in Texas public schools. In today’s system, that’s the way that policy is made, with a small group of people at the top making decisions for the wider general public. That system only works if the people at the top can be held accountable for making the decisions that best reflect what their constituents want. Some would argue that today that system isn’t working well. The problem is once that accountability is weakened, it’s hard to change it unless the changes come from the top.

It seems that one of the groups that has power over the way schools work is trying to change the system. Harvard University, one of the best universities in the country, has decided to change their admissions policy. This is important because, as David Tyack and Larry Cuban explore in their book “Tinkering toward Utopia: A Century of Public School Reform“, colleges have been important factors in shaping the way that public schools run. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Thinking is an example of how leaders in higher education have a large effect on schooling. In 1905, a group of leaders in higher education, including people from Harvard, Princeton, Yale, and Stanford, came together and created the Carnegie Unit, which still is present in our education system.

So, what has Harvard decided to change about admissions? The main thing that has most people very excited is that they are planning on making standardized testing like the ACT and the SAT optional. They are also emphasizing importance of dedication to extracurriculars and advanced classes, instead of trying to have as many as possible. I was a member of 8 clubs when I was a senior in high school and president of 2 of them, but I can only really claim to have been dedicated to 3 or 4 of them. If schools when I was applying had emphasized quality over quantity, I would have likely not been members of so many of them. They’re also trying to take into consideration responsibilities of some students, especially those that have to work or stay at home after school to take care of their younger siblings. Overall, the new admissions seem to be emphasizing commitment to activities, public service, and community engagement instead of test scores.

This is just a small step towards what needs to happen to help make the education system better, but it is important. In the current education system, top down change is what has made the largest effects. And for Harvard, which is well respected and internationally renowned, to be making a change as important as this is really huge. Hopefully, this will mark the beginning of a change in our school systems, where high stakes testing isn’t as common. Because if the most prominent schools in our country are deemphasizing it, it’s only a matter of time before others follow suit.

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2 Responses to Changing the System from the Top Down

  1. leighahall says:

    I think this is a big step. It takes a leader like Harvard to help create changes. They can have influence. I agree with you about the quality vs quantity – and I understand what you mean. I know that quantity is the system you have experienced. You become stretched too thin and, at some point, some of it must have been meaningless. You can only do so much. Do a few things, and do them well. I’m excited to see where these changes go.


  2. Annie says:

    Thank you for sharing! This is so exciting to read about. I had a very similar experience in high school. I remember teachers telling me to make sure to have a list of organizations and clubs I could put on my application. I remember getting frustrated that I could not tutor at the local community center as much as I wanted to, because I had to attend a certain amount of club meetings to be able to include them in my list. It is very encouraging to hear that Harvard has taken this new approach. I’ve heard of universities that practice similar admissions strategies for years, but, for the most part, I’ve heard them dismissed as outliers. They are colleges that are rather small, or not very prominent, and so they can afford to take the time to look at student’s academic and social accomplishments in-depth instead of relying on test scores. The fact that Harvard is willing to adopt a similar method is incredibly encouraging, particularly since they are a university that received 37,307 applications in 2015 and only admitted 1,990. I share your hope that more universities will follow suit and such actions will lead schools to question the validity and necessity of expensive, high-stress, inequitable tests such as the SAT and ACT.


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