Teacher Recommendations: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Teacher Recommendations: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Douglas Leek, Director of Admission and Enrollment Management at The Northwest School in Washington, explains that teacher recommendations, as part of the application, need to provide a baseline about the student. “Like most schools, we are looking to do a holistic review of a student, and recommendations should explain how the student excels academically, but also address how the student fits within the mission of the institution to which he/she is applying.” That being said, Leek emphasizes that trust is paramount between the receiving school and those from whom they are receiving the recommendations, be it feeder schools, public schools, or educational consultants assisting families in the application process.

Properly articulating this “baseline” is critical in determining a student’s success at a particular institution. But what happens if the teacher recommending the student is not aware of the culture or academic program of the school to which the student is applying? Or worse yet, what if the teacher masks, withholds, or ignores critical information about the student? Similarly, on the receiving end, what if the person reading the file is not familiar with the sending school’s academic program? Or what if it a file reader is not properly trained to “read between the lines”?

The benefit of and need for an objective assessment of a child’s ability to thrive in a particular independent school is clear. However, the traditional teacher recommendation clearly elicits mixed opinions about its effectiveness from placement directors, education consultants, directors of admission, and even from the attorneys who deal with the legal ramifications of a recommendation gone wrong. In considering “the good, the bad, and the ugly,” it is imperative that schools embrace the development and use of recommendation forms as anything but a passive experience.

THE GOOD

Context is important when it comes to teacher recommendations. Leek regularly sends members of his admission team to feeder schools to review their programs. “As much as we are going out to their schools, they are coming to ours,” he explained. “We are building advantageous relationships that establish a trust and understanding on both sides. We’re identifying the schools with great history, science, or English programs, for example, while the feeder schools are investing the time to learn about who is a mission-appropriate child for Northwest School.”

Some feeder schools urge their recommending teachers to visit schools. Shelley Dorfler, Dean of Students and Director of Counseling at the Town School for Boys in San Francisco, places between 46-50 students each year into both day and boarding schools. Dorfler understands that training the recommending teachers is just as important as finding the right fit school for a child. “We have all our teachers visit schools to gain perspective as to how each school will best meet the needs of our eighth graders. This may include visits to local day schools, as well as boarding schools across the country.”

Like Dorfler, Mikki Murphy, Director of Admission and Placement at Far Brook School in New Jersey, trains her teachers on recommendation writing. “We have a meeting where we talk about each child in-depth and address strengths and weaknesses. We address how to talk about a kid who has struggled and how to highlight how the child has turned around. We want to be thoughtful about what is written, because we know these kids inside and out.”

But what about the context for schools outside the traditional independent school pipeline? According to The Enrollment Management Association’s recent survey research, as reported on in The Ride to Independent Schools, approximately 44% of the families responding to the survey (a representative sample of the SSAT test taking population) have children currently in public, public charter, or parochial schools.

Dennis Facciolo, Director of Admissions at Tampa Prep in Florida, has started working more and more with the public charter and magnet school in his area. “We needed a greater understanding of the charter and magnet schools, given the number of students in these schools applying to Tampa Prep for our STEM and robotics program,” he said. “The recommendations from the math and English teachers are standard, but getting to know the science teachers and the specific curricula at each school have been particularly important in understanding the standards being applied.”

Sometimes, finding the right person to craft a personalized message can make a difference in a receiving school’s assessment of the applicant. Allison Matlack, an educational consultant who has also served as a director of placement, says: “Teachers tend to write looking backward, but the magic for a student comes when you find someone who can look forward and see where the kid is going. I’ve seen brilliant recommendations from piano teachers, coaches, and even employers.”

Betsy Ellsworth, Director of Admission and Financial Aid at Greenhills School in Michigan, agrees. “When a student or family sends in supplemental recommendations, we find that these recommendations can be more authentic and honest,” she explained. “Kids are picking people that know them well—a coach, tutor, or youth leadership coordinator. We also love to receive recommendations from past teachers, since not being the ‘current teacher of record’ relieves the pressure and allows the teacher to speak to the student’s character and academic reach.”

THE BAD

While much good comes from recommendations fueled by an active and reciprocal process, most directors of admission will tell you that reading recommendations is a skill that must be learned over time. Many even refer to the learned skill as sleuthing or detective work.

“When we train faculty on reading files, we review various examples of past applicants and talk about how to read between the lines,” Ellsworth explains. “When a reader approaches me about a problematic file, it’s my job as director of admission to call the placement director, guidance counselor, principal, or head of school to try and find out the real story on the applicant. Often times the person on the other end of the phone starts the conversation by saying ‘Off the record…’ and is willing to talk about the student as opposed to putting it on paper.”

Leek has had similar experiences when the phone call becomes more valuable than the recommendation. “There’s a language that is generally understood by teachers and administrators, but when you see that rec with a sticky note to call or, worse yet, the rec is so broad or unclear, that phone call can be the most important part of your work.” Mark Sklarow, Executive Director of IECA, believes that a phone call can be the best thing for the student as well. “Everyone wants to be circumspect and is fearful of saying something that will hit a tripwire for a school to say no,” he said. “However, families and students need to remember that it’s not about getting into a school, it’s about succeeding in that school.”

Things can get particularly challenging when students come from public schools. Many public school districts no longer allow teachers to complete recommendations and instead supply a standard checklist of learning behaviors and attributes with different ratings. In some instances, there is nothing more than the student’s transcript—and no qualitative information about the student’s academic and classroom behavior is provided.

Yet, as Charlotte Brownlee, Director of Admission at Cate School in California, points out, this is not necessarily the case for public school students working a community-based organization. “Because some public schools have limitations on what their teachers can write, I rely on many of the access organization to help provide context of the academic rigor of the student’s current program. While I may not have something from a teacher, the access organization advisors help paint the picture of the applicant as a student and citizen.”

Recommendations for international students are typically problematic. While anecdotal, the general sentiment among many independent school admission directors is that overseas recommendations are actually written by agents hired by the family (particularly in Asian markets). As a result, many schools rely on other pieces of the admission application process to assess international students.

The Northwest School has its share of international students, and as Leek explains, some of the recommendations are legitimate. “Some recs we receive from overseas are written by teachers with a clear understanding of what a recommendation is and is intended to do. Others are not nearly as thoughtful, and still others are clearly a product of an agent. Because we don’t have as much faith in overseas recommendations, we’ve established relationships with agencies we are comfortable working with to identify the right students for Northwest and kicked up our interview process with these applicants.”

THE UGLY

International recommendations written by agents and public school district environments and policies severely limiting the student information available are pervasive issues around which schools need to strategize. However, uglier, more serious problems arise when a recommender masks, withholds, or ignores critical information about the student—omissions that could affect the child’s mental, emotional, or physical health.

“We’ve all heard the stories about schools or families not sharing the full truth about a student, and as a result, the school was not prepared to deal with what was ahead,” says Ellsworth. “You have intimate environments around the Harkness table, and then there is the one kid who is not getting the support he needs and goes off and embarrasses himself, or can’t address her emotions—and something happens that not only affects the student but radically changes the environment for all the students. While it may or may not be addressed in a recommendation, it’s a conversation that we need to be having.”

Sklarow emphasizes that schools have to communicate that they understand kids have emotional, psychological, or educational issues and that they are in a position to accept these children. “We need to encourage schools to be forthcoming about what they are willing to accept or deal with in relation to these issues and somehow communicate this to applying families. Schools have a responsibility to make clear that a student isn’t going to be rejected, because he suffered from depression or has a learning difference. Recommendations from those who saw the child overcome these obstacles should be welcomed by admission committees.”

Unfortunately, complete transparency is not a slam dunk, and schools need to be extremely diligent in providing training for recommenders in this area. “Teachers see the waiver signed by families and think they are home free,” explains Debra Wilson, General Counsel at NAIS. “The calls I get most in this area are around schools that have rejected students, and now the parents want a copy of the recommendation. It’s important that teachers help describe the child, but schools need to give teachers the tools and appropriate language to do that, as well as work with families more on providing all the information about a student up front.” Wilson also notes that recommendations and other elements of the application cannot mitigate for omissions, so language in the enrollment contract needs to address nondisclosure of information critical to a student’s success.

In addition, admission directors in particularly competitive markets indicate that the teacher recommendations can be suspect or, in some instances, driven by other motivations. “We’re in a heavy parochial market, and the fear is the best kids will leave,” Facciolo explains. “The parochial schools won’t collaborate with us on testing, nor will they coordinate with each other. Because of this, students may take up to six admission tests! The competition is so fierce that recommendations from Catholic K-8 schools will barely cover basic academic and character questions about the student. While I understand the school wants to keep the child in the parochial system, it’s contradictory to serving the best interests of the child.”

Ann Arbor also has a competitive market, and Ellsworth has had similar experiences. “We’ve actually received disparaging recommendations for students we’ve later accepted and enrolled, merely because the sending school didn’t want to lose the kids. When these recommendations come in, we have to rely on our relationships and networks to find out the real story about the child.”

Dealing with families who have been denied admission can also get prickly. Threats of lawsuits or subpoenas, with specific requests to review the teacher recommendations, are becoming more common, as parents seek answers as to why their child may have been denied acceptance to the school.

“Recommendations have become evidence,” explains Wilson. “If schools want recommendations to be part of a student’s permanent file (and not destroyed), then sending schools may want to consider more quality control, while receiving schools need strict oversight policies on who can review the file. Either way, both schools have a potential liability. There is quite a bit of work to be done in this area, especially for those schools sending negative recommendations, and particularly if the school does not know that a teacher is sharing such insight.”

Similarly, schools need to question even how recommendations are originated or saved. Wilson says because online forensics are standard in a digital age, clear policies with teachers need to be communicated. “We’ve seen instances where the school may destroy recommendations, but the teacher’s computer is subpoenaed, because the teacher may have saved a recommendation to his or her hard drive.”

THE CONTRADICTION

No doubt, teacher recommendations are fraught with liability issues, but the system can also be extremely onerous for the teachers on which the process relies. Despite this acknowledgement by placement and admission directors alike, there might be a contradiction in the system which is inherent and not easily overcome.

Mikki Murphy feels that many of the recent improvements to applications, like moving the systems online, have simplified the process and made it more efficient for recommenders, but believes there is room for improvement. “I’d be happy for admission teams to understand the weight on the back of the English teacher responsible for 24 student recommendations multiplied by three to five schools each!” says Murphy. “We understand the value of each school having a custom application, but perhaps at least an industry-wide standardized rating scale could help our teachers differentiate among and between candidates.”

Charlotte Brownlee agrees about the burden placed on teachers. “Teachers have a nightmare of a time when there are large classes placing out, and we need some way to make this easier for the teachers, so admission teams can get what we need. But, when we receive applications from a number of ‘standard’ systems, I have to question if there is a desire for a centralized recommendation portal for high school students. Ultimately, I find the recommendation form crafted by my admission team to be the most useful (based on situational anecdotes), because they were built to show me what I need to know in relation to a student’s success at Cate. I feel for these teachers. It’s a tough spot for recommenders—and our admission teams.”

THE FUTURE

So how are schools dealing with the issues and problems presented by recommendations? Many schools are changing their recommendations or developing new programs to dig deeper about how successful a student will be at a school.
“After reading Carol Dweck’s Mindset and reviewing Angela Duckworth’s work, we realized what we needed out of recommendations,” says Brownlee. “To that end, we changed the check box questions on our recs to describe a more situ- ational context—such as, did the student demonstrate the ability to apply learned concepts to new problems?”

However, Brownlee explains that asking teachers to describe how the student has achieved their current class grade (check all that apply)—diligent hard work, grade conscientiousness, memorization, or natural ability—has offered them the greatest insight. “These questions have given us a different window into how teach- ers view their students,” emphasizes Brownlee.

Facciolo requires that all students applying to Tampa Prep spend a day at the school shadowing a student and has changed his entire interview process to address student behavior and character that can be missed in recommendations. “We do have our own recommendation that addresses behavioral issues, but the interview system we’ve developed really helps us get to the heart and soul of an applicant,” he explains. “Our approach to learning is about engagement, debate, and collaboration, and our families are accepting of these ideas. We’ve found that the interview is the best way to capture this from a student.”

As independent school admission evolves and competitive forces continue to shape the landscape, the need for more, not less, information about an applicant is real. Modern and holistic evaluation requires multiple student data points gleaned from a number of different sources and perspectives. The Enrollment Management Association’s Character Skills Assessment will add valuable information to a student’s file, but let’s face it, little has changed about the independent school application in 50 years. As consumers change, new technologies emerge, data modeling spreads, and educational choice explodes, a reinvention of the system from end to end will most assuredly be required. This new system will need to deliver smart and more easily attainable student data.

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