How Do We Determine Success? Part 2: The Best University Dilemma

On Saturday, May 30th we will celebrate the graduation of the Class of 2015. In three months these students will go off to university for the first time and I wonder what will greet them upon their arrival. They are attending a diverse range of schools from Yale to Colby College to St. John’s. They will go to big urban schools, small suburban schools, research universities, and liberal arts colleges. About the same time they arrive on campus, our guidance team will present the annual report to our parent community that summarizes the success of the Class of 2015. The question that will be asked more than any other is “How well did we do in college admissions?”

This question is one we are obligated to answer. I fully understand that many parents in our community are investing in their child’s education with the hopes of attaining specific college matriculation outcomes.   However, frequently the criteria we use to determine how well we did is reduced to questions like: How many student got into… the Ivies, the Ivy Plus, the Highly Selective Colleges, the Top 20 or Top 50 US News colleges? As described in our previous blog post we are all enamored by being associated with an elite institution.

Yet many parents approach admission to these elite institutions as if they provide a guarantee of success. Frank Bruni recently published a book entitled Where you go is not who you’ll be. His premise is that the roads to success are many, and no two paths are the same. He shared data that over 60% of Fortune 500 CEO’s did not attend a highly selective school, nor did the majority of United States Senate. In addition, he notes that we tend to mention where someone when to school only if they went to a highly selective school. He holds that while all of the highly selective schools are wonderful educational institutions, we tend to greatly over value their impact on individual success. Below you can view a short video clip in which Bruni summarizes his basic premise. In it he states, “There is no best school; there might be a best school for you, but there is no objective best school.”

Is your dream college overrated? – CBS This Morning Interview with Frank Bruni

Malcolm Gladwell, author of David and Goliath, supports Bruni’s findings in a 2013 speech, at the Google Zeitgeist conference, where he uses an economic model to illustrate the minimal benefit of attending a highly selective school. Gladwell states that the biggest factor to long-term success is not if you go to the best school, but that you are the best at the school you attend. You want to be the biggest fish in your pond. Gladwell smartly integrates a powerful psychological theory called relative deprivation theory to further illustrate the importance of selecting the right fit university. If you are best in your class, the chances of you matriculating and finding high levels of success are greater. If you are at the lower end of your class, the chances of your success are diminished.

Malcolm Gladwell – Google Zeitgeist Minds Presentation 2013

If we accept Bruni and Gladwell’s logic, then next fall we should not be asking how many of our kids went to top universities, but instead we should ponder how many of our graduates are thriving and attaining high levels of success at their university.

Simply put, did we find the best-fit college for each graduate?

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Nobel Laureate Visits SAS

We are honored to welcome Nobel Laureate Sir Richard Roberts to SAS on Monday, May 11.  Sir Richard won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1993 for his discovery of split genes.  His work fundamentally changed the view of what constitutes a gene in eukaryotes.  This new knowledge was of crucial importance for interpreting the human genome sequence. We welcome SAS families and friends to the following events.   We hope you will join us as we learn from a world-renowned scientist!

Lecture: “Why you should love bacteria”

2:15 a.m.-3:00 p.m., Puxi Performing Arts Center

A Conversation with Sir Richard Roberts

3:30 p.m.-4:30 p.m., Puxi Elementary School Project Area

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How do we determine success? Part 1: The Outcome Pressure Cooker

The Outcome Pressure Cooker

I was recently talking to a senior student who confronted me about the level of academic pressure that permeates the student population.

Student: Dr. Heckmann I appreciate what you have done to try to help students find their own success, but I have to share with you that I was disappointed last year to see that you have given in to the SAS culture of academic pressure.

Principal: What do you mean?

Student: Today you shared at our meeting that it is our job to support each student in attaining personal success, regardless of what that may look like. I think the student body fully supports that idea, however we constantly get different messages from our peers, parents, teachers, and even you.

Principal: I’m not sure what you mean. I think we have taken a lot of steps in trying to reduce the academic pressure. We changed the valedictorian process; we changed how the college acceptances are reported. I think we have moved greatly.

Student: Dr. Heckmann, let be real. Those are nice gestures, but really the continued message from the administration and the school is that what matters is high academic achievement and getting into the best, or should I say highly rated universities. This message is loud and clear to all of the students.

Principal: How is that message communicated to the students, and in what ways do you feel I have given in to the culture of academic pressure?

Student: You often say it is about best-fit, not best college. I have heard you say that probably fifteen times in our meetings, yet you message something different when you broadcast our success. Last year you sent out a message to the Class of 2014 about how proud you were of their success. In that message, you shared that the Class had gained admission to 7 out of 8 Ivies, and that over 65% of students were going to study in Top 50 universities. In addition, I understand that you created the college acceptance slide show that, while highlighting all the colleges students gain acceptances, allows for the public celebration of a few universities and snickering at those less prestigious. I had a friend get into Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute last year with significant scholarship and he was embarrassed to share where he was going as he felt it paled in comparison to Harvard, MIT, or Princeton. It was his best fit, yet he didn’t feel it would be respected by our community. That’s a problem isn’t it?

This conversation has caused me to reflect deeply, as I was very proud the student going to RPI, as much as the student going to Harvard. Yet the message the students had received from me, as well as the community at large is that somehow one accomplishment is better than the other. The student is right… We have a problem!

Society is greatly influenced by the basic economic concept of scarcity. Tell someone that they are purchasing the last of anything and they tend to consume at a more rapid pace. Scarcity has also dramatically changed the perception of success. If you get into a highly selective college, it must be better.   If you are able to gain admission into a highly selective boarding school, you will get a better education. Our group mindset about educational outcomes has been over simplified to the basic principal of scarcity… what is rare or hard to come by is somehow more worthwhile.

To be clear there is nothing inherently wrong with the pursuit of a dream of attending a great university or of the attainment of high marks. The courage to pursue a dream is core to our mission as a school. However, our obsession with scarcity has forced many our students to feel like losers. If only 6 out of every 100 applicants to Ivy League schools are admitted, then there are 94 that are denied. In essences some must be sacrificed so that a few can be glorified. I believe firmly this is not our intended outcome, but for the 94, this is the result when so much emphasis is placed on such scarce opportunity.

Possibly more influential over our culture of academic pressure is our school community’s obsession with comparisons. Students compare marks, grade point averages, hours of SAT prep, number of clubs and activities, the number of AP or IB courses, and even their hours of sleep (less is more). Families wanting assurances that they are sending their children to the best school compare the SAS school profile, teacher qualifications, IB and AP diploma results, etc. with other schools in Shanghai or abroad. Institutionally we message similar things with the statistics the student mentioned above and our internal academic awards. There is nothing wrong with the celebration of our success as a student, school, or faculty. However why must that success be defined by comparison?

Is it possible that we have become our own worst enemy? Has the race to nowhere caused everyone to run so fast that we are missing the most important aspects of learning such as inspiration, curiosity, passion, persistence, depth of knowledge, and even personal academic fulfillment?

I have to confess that the student may be right. If we have reduced success a zero-sum game where some are winners and other losers based largely on comparison outcomes, we might have a problem!

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