Photo: Norman Lono/National Education Association
Ryan Ruelas, a social studies teacher in Anaheim, California, started his career at an inauspicious time – in 2004, at the outset of the No Child Left Behind era.
“It’s hard entering the teaching profession just as high-takes testing was becoming so dominant,” Ruelas says. “Test scores were everything. I wanted to be a creative history teacher – to cover topics and dig deep into the material, but we had little flexibility. The limitations of NCLB and the emphasis on accountability made that very difficult.”
NCLB’s rigid testing regime forced school across the country to focus their time and energy on preparing for tests in a narrow range of subjects – namely English Language Arts and Math – or at least compel teachers to tailor instruction to the test. Although no policymaker or school leader would publicly say that this was optimal or that ELA and Math were the only subjects worth teaching, NCLB tied classrooms up in knots for more than a decade. Under a threat of sanctions for failing to meet unrealistic proficiency levels, schools felt they had no choice: instruction in other subjects was squeezed out or at least marginalized in many schools, particularly in disadvantaged communities. Social Studies, arts, science, foreign languages, physical education – all the tenets of a well-rounded education took a back seat.
“Every student deserves access to a curriculum that is broad and rich in content—not just reading and math, but the arts, physical education, civics, hands-on career and technical education, and more,“ says National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen García.
Secretary of Education John King agrees. Speaking to the Las Vegas Academy of the Arts in April, King declared that while literacy and math skills were “necessary for success in college and in life…they’re not by themselves sufficient. A more well-rounded education is critical for a safe, supportive and enjoyable learning environment.”
The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), passed by Congress in December to replace NCLB, has the tremendous potential to open the door to this new environment.
“If we’re smart about it, ESSA could really help create classrooms where teachers in the social sciences can focus on the four C’s – collaboration, communication, creativity and critical thinking. We can really make the material relevant for our students,’ Ryan Ruelas says.
The opportunity ESSA presents isn’t a question of interpretation or misplaced hope that things will just be different. It’s right there in the text of the law. Gone are references to “core academic subjects,” highlighted repeatedly in NCLB. In its place is language calling for a “well-rounded education” for all students. (The term appears 24 times in the law.) Everything from arts, physical education, science, civics and government, music and foreign languages is named, making them eligible for federal funding under ESSA.
This language, says Christopher Woodside of the National Association for Music Education, is nothing less than “transformative.”
“For the first time, we actually have music education enumerated in federal law,” Woodside explains. “ESSA provides clarity on what ‘well-rounded’ means and spells it out. I think music educators – arts educators generally – should be very excited about this.”
But here’s the rub: ESSA, unlike NCLB, isn’t a law that dictates policy from the top down. The “well-rounded education” won’t be delivered to school districts on a silver platter. The whole point of the law is to provide states with greater flexibility to, for example, revise their own accountability systems, or, as Eskelsen García puts it, “right-size the amount of testing” to empower educators and students to refocus on teaching and learning in the classroom.
ESSA calls for multiple measures of accountability, which may include system indicators such as access to advanced coursework, college and career readiness, and student engagement – all of which provide opportunities to broaden the curriculum.
“In order for all students to be college and career ready and to be able to access advanced coursework they must be prepared in all content areas,” explains Melissa Mayville, NEA senior policy analyst. “This calls for preparation through a broader curriculum that incorporates subjects such as science and social studies throughout the educational experience, not just during the secondary years.” Mayville, a former middle school science teacher recalls how during the NCLB era she had to spend valuable instruction time building foundational science knowledge and skills for many students whose science opportunities had been limited.
ESSA also provides new federal funding pots, including a block grant titled Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grants (SSAEG), designed to help students – particularly those in disadvantaged areas – gain access to a richer curriculum. History and Civics get a boost by the creation of several presidential and congressional academies for American history and civics that will offer teacher workshops and education programs and grants for local education agencies to develop programs that teach U.S. history and government.
Ryan Ruelas (Photo: California Teachers Association)
The law’s ultimate success, however, depends on how these new provisions are actually implemented and carried out. In May, the U.S. Department of Education issued draft regulations for ESSA, basically a blueprint for states to follow as they build new accountability systems. Unfortunately, the proposed regulations do not go far enough in de-emphasizing potential punitive actions against struggling schools. The good news is that the Education Department is encouraging educators and other stakeholders to provide feedback on improving the regulations. (The deadline to do so is August 1.)
“Educators need to inform themselves on the opportunities within ESSA and talk to parents, administrators, community leaders and other stakeholders about how to become the voice of educational change. They can’t assume that this will happen without their input. Otherwise, changes will come about under ESSA, just maybe not what is best for all students,” Mayville says.
This role becomes even more vital as the action moves to the states. Ruelas, who, along with fellow NEA member Lynn Goss, serves on the Department of Education’s ESSA Negotiated Rulemaking Committee, urges educators to keep up the pressure.
“We have a huge opportunity right now. I would encourage other teachers to really start lobbying their state superintendent and other stakeholders. They need to know what our priorities are. Educators have to be the driving force.”
Much of the classic conception of the ideal college application centers around the idea of a “well-rounded” student. The archetypal well-rounded student is strong in every subject, class president, team captain, thespian, and debate whiz – a well-rounded student, as the name implies, is strong in many areas, but hasn’t devoted the entirety of their time and energy to any single pursuit. For decades, common knowledge has stated that being a well-rounded student is the key to gaining admission to elite colleges. But in an era where admissions rates are lower than ever and it seems impossible to know exactly what colleges are looking for in students, does the notion of a well-rounded student still hold water?
The answer? Both yes and no. An idea is gaining prevalence in the admissions world of a “specialized”, “angular”, or “sharp point” student – someone who focuses on a specific subject, activity, or career path and whose extracurricular activities, coursework, essays, and letters of recommendation are all oriented in one direction. Debate is beginning to arise about whether it’s better to be a strong student in all areas, without one clear focus, or to completely dedicate yourself to one area.
How “Specialization” Factors into the Admissions Process
As admissions become increasingly competitive, colleges receive countless applications from students who are generally strong. However, good grades, solid extracurriculars, and well-written essays aren’t enough to guarantee admission anymore; more and more, colleges are looking for a “hook”, or some distinct aspect of a student’s application that satisfies a need for the university. Hooks can include being a national athlete or international award-winning musician; often, “hooked” students have devoted an enormous amount of time and energy into developing their specific skill. Each student is categorized in the admissions review process according to their hook or lack thereof. Consequently, well-rounded students, who have not focused on developing any specific area, are placed into the largest group. Because adcoms don’t compare you to the entire applicant pool, but rather the other applicants in your specific group, “unhooked” applicants have the highest number of students to compete against for a limited number of spots.
A common counter to the concept of a “well-rounded student” is the that of a “well-rounded class”: a group of students whose individual interests and specialized accomplishments culminate in a class that, when considered as a whole, excels in nearly every academic, extracurricular, and athletic pursuit. The idea of a well-rounded class is beginning to replace that of the well-rounded student in discussions about admissions as colleges begin to seek specialization with increasing frequency.
The Danger of “Over-Specializing”
Colleges and universities value students with specific skill sets. Despite that, it is necessary for students to be competitive in all regards, not just the realm they’ve chosen to focus on; essentially, everyone needs to be well-rounded to some extent. Even a student who demonstrates exceptional ability or focus in one area can’t allow that focus to compromise the quality of their performance in other areas. For example, a student extremely gifted in STEM subjects who has scored perfectly on tests and taken accelerated courses programs still must demonstrate significant aptitude in reading and writing.
Additionally, applicants should demonstrate proficiency not only in a diverse array of subjects, but also in the diverse aspects of an application. For example, consider again the hypothetical student with extremely challenging coursework in STEM subjects and flawless test scores. While such success in academics will doubtless be advantageous, focusing on only one aspect of an application (like academics) can be disastrous. In addition to schoolwork and testing, the student should be involved in extracurriculars, especially those related to their field of interest, develop close relationships with teachers in order to ensure strong letters of recommendation, and write stellar essays. Strength in one area, be it academics, extracurriculars, or essays, cannot guarantee admission on its own.
The Importance of Being Well-Rounded
As admissions becomes increasingly competitive and acceptance rates plummet, students who set themselves apart by “specializing” their applications cut through the noise of innumerable other applicants. However, success for these students is only possible if they also demonstrate universal strength and competence. You can’t be a competitive specialized applicant without first being well-rounded.
Again, well-roundedness can be considered in two ways: a student should both perform well in a variety of subjects, and develop each aspect of their application fully without neglecting any in favor of another. While applicants are not expected to be equally strong in all areas, colleges usually expect students to take four years of science, math, social studies, and English, even if four years of each subject is not required for graduation. Additionally, students should devote significant time to each component of an application, including academics, extracurriculars, essays, and recommendations. Even if you know your essays will be superb, you can’t allow your grades to slip by spending all your time perfecting your essays; conversely, don’t wait until the last second to start your essays because you’ve been busy with school. A huge part of being successful in all areas, especially in senior year, is proper time management!
Making Your Application Specialized
Once you’ve established a baseline level of proficiency across the board, you can consider specialization. If there’s an area you have a special interest in or passion for, seek to develop your involvement in that area to the furthest degree possible. Seek out relevant clubs at your school, summer internships, or volunteer opportunities, and take related courses at your high school or a local college. Once you’ve devoted yourself to a pursuit, work on expressing it clearly and effectively in your applications. If you’re not sure how to showcase a specific skill or talent in your college apps, check out our blog post on how to create a cohesive application.
Like many students, you may have at one point asked yourself, “is it better to be well-rounded, or specialized?” The truth is, to have the best shot at getting into your top choice colleges, you need to be both.
Managing Editor at CollegeVine Blog
Anamaria is an Economics major at Columbia University who's passionate about sharing her knowledge of admissions with students facing the applications process. When she's not writing for the CollegeVine blog, she's studying Russian literature and testing the limits of how much coffee one single person can consume in a day.