This Crazy Game We Play

Taylor Stockdale
Recently, when on a conference call with fellow board members of the World Leading Schools Association, we were asked to brainstorm a theme for our upcoming conference in Prague in the summer of 2019. There was a small but important group of educational leaders from all over the globe on the call representing schools such as Harvard-Westlake and Webb from the west, Groton from the east, Eton College from the UK, and top schools in China, Africa and India. As we started to bat around ideas for the world educational summit, we talked about the changing nature of the workplace given advanced technologies; what it means to be a global leader; how to retain school culture while embracing this new world. These were all rich topics we agreed, and ones we should and must be addressing. But then the conversation took an interesting turn.
Student health and wellness—the impact stress plays on a student today—was offered up to great discussion. We began to name the many pressures students now experience in a world that feels undependable at best, and violent and out of control at worst. Mind you, this wasn’t just a group of American educators. It was a group of leaders from all corners of the world. We were all seeing it—the impact and downside of unrealistic performance expectations on students, oversized parental ambitions and finally the frenzy over college admissions. Students worldwide are so good at putting up a brave front, and yet often they are in turmoil underneath. We landed on a conference centered on the human condition—student health and wellness in a highly stressful, unrelenting world. What began as a conference call ended in catharsis. As educational leaders at the world’s most venerable institutions, we suddenly knew that first and foremost we shared a deep concern for the well-being of our kids.
So, what exactly is the game I’m speaking of?
Well, it goes something like this. In 1983, the magazine US News and World Report began a poll to rank colleges and universities according to a number of indices (far too complicated to mention here). The net result of this was that colleges and universities began what was at first a rather subtle competition, but over time has exploded into a virtual industry in which colleges and universities have entire offices devoted to doing everything possible to ensure their institution is ranked as high as possible. Of course, there are institutional categories, from small private colleges to major research universities and everything in between. But, again, the net result is everything that each of the roughly 1,500 ranked colleges does is distilled down to a number, a ranking, a spot on a list. This ranking is then either celebrated widely, or spun as a challenge for the next year. The game, year-to-year, seems to get more insidious, more overt, and more damaging. Americans, and as it turns out people around the world, are infatuated with rankings, even though in our hearts we know a single number doesn’t come close to capturing what a given institution does in changing the life of a student.
A primary measurement tool used by US News is admission selectivity. In other words, what percentage of applicants a school accepts. The lower the number, the more competitive it is, and the higher the ranking. So here’s the game. Colleges and universities do as much as they can to get as many people as possible to apply to their institution, and then turn around and reject as many of those applicants as possible—all the while touting inclusivity, etc. The more applicants they can deny, the better. It is never framed in this manner, but this is the game.
I titled this letter “This Crazy Game We Play,” because, I am loath to tell you that prep schools have gotten into this game as well. We, too, are now being rated and ranked by multiple sources, many of which make little sense to us. For example, one prominent ranking relies almost exclusively on the percentage of kids who take AP tests. The ranking doesn’t even consider how the kids perform on these tests, just the mere number of tests taken. Other metrics are even more mysterious.
I know that rivalries among close competitors (Harvard vs Yale, MIT vs. Caltech, Andover vs. Exeter, etc.) are as old as the institutions themselves. But none of them, and that includes Webb, were built to serve a ranking number over the quality of an educational experience in which the mind, body and soul are nurtured and challenged to make a better world for those who will follow. I’m not writing this to call for a revolt against the ranking machine, but more as a reality check. What we stand for is far more than a ranking. In fact, I would argue it is far more than even a prosperous and successful life.
I’ll conclude with a message of hope. It is derived from a book I read recently entitled Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress by Steven Pinker. It’s a great read and reminded me again about the important work we are doing here at Webb—work that will have a lasting impact on mankind through our graduates. In his book, Pinker tackles the pessimist’s eternal questions, “Is the world falling apart?” With unbridled enthusiasm he answers “No?” Relying on a rich storehouse of historical data parsed out over some 450 pages (and an astonishing 75 graphs), Pinker argues that life span, prosperity, safety, peace, knowledge, happiness and more have been on the rise in one manner or another since the last two-thirds of the 17th century to today. Why? First among his answers are education and literacy of various types—education has led us to democracy and prosperity. In a nutshell, following Pinker, it will be places like Webb that will ensure our progress and momentum continue.
In this issue of WEBB Magazine, our major features describe in detail our new, innovative curriculum. The first piece describes how we use technology and educational design as tools to better equip students for higher-level learning. In the second feature, we describe how we’ve also held onto out time-tested, whole-students programs in honor and moral courage, leadership, teamwork, community building, and more. We count on and use the best of both the old and new here at Webb—all of it flowing from those “timeless ideals” begun in the Enlightenment. Again, I think, why would anyone ever want to reduce this serious and complex work to a simple ranking?
Taylor Stockdale
Head of Schools

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