Monday, September 18, 2006

Marilee Jones, MIT Dean on Education Issues

An AP interview with Marilee Jones reinforces many of the growing concerns I already have about the effect of NCLB on education. First let's look at the issues Jones cites. From MIT dean takes aim at admissions anxiety by JUSTIN POPE, AP Education Writer.

Are schools making students sick?

Not many sleep eight hours a night, or eat three meals a day. Few spend time each day just staring into space.

And Jones is blunt about the consequences.

The quest for perfection "is making our children sick," the MIT dean of admissions told a recent gathering of college admissions professionals in Boston. She means it literally, snapping off statistics on the increase in ulcers, anxiety disorders and control disorders such as cutting and anorexia.

"Kids aren't supposed to be finished," she said. "They're partial. They're raw. That's why we're in the business."

For years, high school teachers and counselors have been complaining about the emotional and physical toll of the competition for slots in selective colleges. SAT prep classes and an arms race of extracurricular resume-building, they say, are draining the fun out of life for their students.

College officials have been slower to see it as a problem — though, finally, that may be changing. A group of presidents from prominent colleges has been talking behind the scenes about possible steps to "lower the flame" — to use the buzz phrase — surrounding colleges admissions. And Harvard made a surprise announcement Tuesday that it would eliminate its "early action" round of admissions, partly on grounds it contributes to admissions anxiety.

Jones, who sports a shock of red hair, speaks bluntly and loves the Rolling Stones, is neither quiet nor behind-the-scenes by nature. Nine years as dean, and the mother's-eye view she got of college admissions last year, have persuaded her something is wrong. Now, from the surprising pulpit of a university famous for its overachievers, she has become perhaps the field's most visible and outspoken champion of revamping admissions — and certainly the sharpest critic of colleges themselves for their complicity in the problem.

What happened to truly creative students?

And Jones grew increasingly worried about the applications that crossed her desk. The students were remarkably accomplished, but she worried the resume rat race had quashed creativity. Would future MIT graduates make world-changing discoveries, she wondered, or merely execute the discoveries of others?

"You don't see the kind of wild innovation from individuals you used to see," Jones said over lunch during a recent interview. "You see a lot of group and team projects overseen by professionals, but you don't see the kind of rogue, interesting stuff that we used to see at MIT."

MIT faculty told her many students just weren't much fun to teach. The issue of perfectionism had been brought painfully to the fore at MIT by a series of student suicides. Students "want to do everything right, they want to know exactly what's on the test," faculty told her. "They're so afraid of failing or stepping out of line, that they're not really good students."

Who ARE these kids?

"We're raising a generation of kids trained to please adults. Every day kids should have time when they're doing something where they're not being judged. That's the big difference with this generation. They're being judged and graded and analyzed and assessed at every turn. It's too much pressure for them."

On standardized testing...

Jones hopes someday to see MIT make standardized tests like the SAT optional for applicants. A growing number of colleges have stopped requiring standardized tests, though none of MIT's reputation, and for MIT to do so would send shock waves through the field. (Jones acknowledges that persuading MIT's faculty to go along is a long shot and is doubtful it will drop early admissions as Harvard did).

We'll return to these topics again and again because they're important and largely neglected today. What much of this points to is that it is not junk food that's poisoning today's generations but junk education.

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