Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Before Moving Forward, A Look at Where We’ve Been

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

The last couple of weeks have been filled with accolades and gratitude for all the Obamas have done to move the college access agenda forward in the United States—and with good reason. Even the most partisan of audiences can agree that the support the Obamas have given for the encouragement and expansion of college access is unprecedented from any White House.

As a modest measure of just how far we’ve come, I’m presenting the letter I sent to Mrs. Obama that was first published in HS Counselor Week in 2013, the day she first spoke of her desire to expand college access at a Washington DC high school.  The letter was later picked up by The Washington Post, and offers insights into all the last four years have brought, as well as hints on where the movement may go, now that the work of the ReachHigher program has been transferred to Better Make Room.

Mrs. Obama, your remarks this week to Washington DC sophomores were inspiring, both to the students, and to those who work with students in choosing a college.  By highlighting the White House’s progress in making college information accessible to the public, you’ve encouraged students to make the most out of College Navigator and College Scorecard.  In emphasizing the importance of daily homework habits and making the most of every opportunity available to students, you’ve inspired them to build the study skills and interests that will serve them well in high school, college, and beyond.
It is also encouraging to know this was the first of many conversations you’ll be having about college access—and as you build your schedule of college conversations, I hope there will be time for one about counselor readiness.  College experts recognize school counselors as uniquely situated to make a significant difference in the college plans of every student.  We see the students in school, we know their strengths and interests, and we take every opportunity to help them make strong choices about college.
But just like the statistic you cited that puts the United States 12th in the world among college graduates, school counselors know they could do better helping students make good, personalized college plans.  We’re well aware of national surveys where young adults report their counselor was of little help with college selection, and while it hurts when at-risk valedictorians call us “pretty lousy” and “incompetent”, we understand where they’re coming from.
Two years of College Board survey results show counselors wish we had been better prepared for college counseling when we were trained.  Only 30 of the hundreds of counselor training programs in our country offer a course in college counseling, and only one or two require it.  We had to learn this skill on the job, and given the crisis-driven nature of school counseling, there just isn’t time to learn college advising skills while we’re putting out so many fires. We need a better foundation.
There are some professional development opportunities for counselors to learn more about the college selection process, but our students need more—and quite frankly, so do we.  Because college programs are very slow to change, it would be most helpful if you would call on all counselor training programs to develop a course in counseling in the college selection process, based on the essential college counseling proficiencies identified by the National Association for College Admission Counseling. These courses already make a difference in the lives of counselors and their students, as counselors feel empowered to help students with college counseling facts and programs they had never been able to use before, because they never knew they existed.
Asking colleges to offer this class would create opportunities for some counselors and their students, and requiring colleges to offer this course would impact all students and families. President Obama has put a high value on a college education; an Executive Order directing all counseling programs to include this course as a degree requirement would send a clear message that the United States is determined to help all students attain the highest level of college awareness and readiness, and significantly advance us towards the 2020 objective.
School counselors have a rich tradition of supporting the goals and needs of our students, a record that helps us realize the importance of asking for help– especially when we need it ourselves.  We long to be of greater service to our students and families by being better trained in college counseling; your support will help us attain that higher level of service.

Patrick J. O’Connor, Ph.D.
Associate Dean of College Counseling, Cranbrook Kingswood School
Past President, National Association for College Admission Counseling

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Texting Students into College? OK, But…

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

It’s been a busy news week for school counselors—and it isn’t even National School Counselor Week yet!  The cycle of attention began last week, when First Lady Michelle Obama honored the School Counselor of the Year at a White House Ceremony. As is generally the case, her remarks moved all those in attendance, and inspired our profession in ways no other First Family has been able to match.

The public focus on college access continued with ample social media coverage of a New York Times article on the challenges low income students face when applying to college in general, and to highly selective colleges in particular.  Citing studies that are fairly well known by school counselors, the article places special emphasis on the role cell phones play in helping these students attain their college goals.  By creating a system of support through text messages, school counselors, college access professionals, and others, are able to reach out to low income students in ways that drive the message home to apply to college, complete the FAFSA, and finish the steps necessary to enroll in college.  Early studies show these texting programs work especially well in keeping students on track in the summer months, when school counselors aren’t on hand to offer reminders to check emails, pay tuition, and submit essential documents to the college.

It’s heartening to see the creation of a communication system that touches students and gets them to close the college deal, but the good intentions of these programs call attention to questions that require some serious reflection.

Why aren’t the colleges texting the students?  There’s a lot to be said for having school counselors text students.  Even if their caseload is typically astronomical, counselors are more likely to know the students than the student services division of the college, and that familiarity can increase the chance the student will pay attention to the text.

But the college’s lack of familiarity with the student is going to be a problem sooner or later, and summer is the best time to fix that.  By supporting high school counselor’s efforts to help students stay on track, college student service offices would be texting specific information to students on what they need to do, when they need to do it—and, most important, who the student talks to at the college if they run into a problem. It’s one thing for a high school counselor to text a graduate to sign up for college orientation; a follow-up text from the college with the link that allows the student to do that builds an essential bridge to a new support group, and a new dimension of autonomy.

What prevents school counselors from solving these problems during the school year?  Everything in life has a “last minute” nature to it, and that’s definitely true when it comes to teenagers applying to college.  That’s why our offices are always the busiest before a college application deadline.

The need for some summer help getting ready for college will always be with us, but that need would be greatly diminished if counselors’ time during the school year was focused more on preparing students for the transition to college, and less on tasks that have nothing to do with counseling.  Schedule changes and test organization are administrative tasks that counselors receive little training in, and whose insights are rarely needed.  If schools really want to help young people create bright futures after high school, they should make the most of the time and talents of the counseling professionals trained to do just that.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Why Are College Apps Due January 1?

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

Your holiday travel plans probably didn’t include Arlington, Virginia, but you should be really glad a few folks were in that bustling city this weekend.  About a dozen very loyal college access champions spent their New Year’s Eve at the headquarters of The Common Application, where they answered questions and resolved technical issues from the thousands—that’s thousands—of students applying to college just in time to meet the January 1 deadline.  It’s estimated that Common App processed 700 applications in one minute, just before the major deadline of midnight Sunday, January 1. That’s almost 12 college applications per second. (Full disclosure:  I’m on Common App’s Board of Directors, and can attest to the incredible commitment of the entire CA team.)

Of course, many counselors were also at work this holiday season, checking email and sending transcripts for last-minute applicants, even though schools were shuttered and counseling offices were dark.  It’s unlikely any of these loyal counselors clocked their work in at 12 applications per second, but like those very noble Common App workers, the result is the same—if it weren’t for their steadfast support of the college selection process, far fewer students would be thinking about college today.

The commitment of everyone who spent some time over the holidays poring over SAT scores and pdf files is cause for thanks and admiration, but it’s also a reason to ask an important question:

Why are any college applications due January 1?

At first blush, it doesn’t make a lot of sense.  Except for the stalwart Common App team, and a few counselors who can’t get enough of email, most support services for college-bound students are closed New Year’s Day, and have been for at least a week before that.  Many students apply to college before the holidays, but with so many colleges sounding the alarm on January 1, it’s easy to wonder how many students would be making better informed choices, and presenting better organized applications, if the deadline was moved to a time when high schools and college admissions offices are open. 

Some may suggest that the January deadline is actually there to help to students.  That argument goes something like this:
·         Students work hard on their classes when school is in session;
·         They need ample free time to write strong college applications;
·         December vacation offers them that free time.
I offered this opinion to a college admissions colleague, who suggested that argument is giving colleges too much credit, calling this theory “discarded bovine digestive material”.  It’s also difficult to assess the truth of this argument, since more than a few teachers fill this “gap of learning” with book reports or project proposals.  In addition, there is the argument that vacation isn’t a “gap of learning”; it’s a time to be with friends and family, time that’s in short supply for most high school seniors, who will be in a very different place, and on a very different schedule, a year from now.

There may have been some logical reason in the past to have January 1st as a college application deadline.  Still, given the advances in technology, and the lack of the presence of the Post Office in the current admissions process, it might be time to rely less on the goodwill of guilt-ridden school counselors and overworked admissions professionals, and consider moving the January 1 deadline to December 15.  Help for students is more readily available, college advocates gain some free time (and respect) by serving students on the clock, and everyone would get to use January 1 to rest, revel, restore, and resolve—kind of like, you know, a vacation.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

The Best of 2016, and Predictions for 2017

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

There are two great parts to the last day of school before December Break. The first one is the student who has the poise to wear fake reindeer antlers to school. It doesn’t matter what grade you teach— somewhere in your building, a kid is showing off his best Blitzen. Seek them out, and assure them they will be going to college.

The second great part is that the last day almost always gives three minutes to us, to look back on what went well this year, and to think about what lies ahead. Many people seem to be ready to let go of 2016, but the teachings of Eric Erikson remind us of the importance of choosing Integrity over Despair at the end of a life cycle. Since that’s what a year is, let’s take a look at the good in college admission:

FAFSA Filing Changes instituted this year made it possible for students to find out what a college would actually cost them well before they had to choose which college to attend, making it more like the purchase of, say, everything else. There are still some bumps in the system, but this emerges as the game changer of 2016.

For-Profit Clean-Up It wasn’t very pretty, but actions were taken this year to make sure for-profit colleges were delivering on their promises, and those that didn’t were dealt with and closed. As a result, the world of choice becomes a world of better choice.

States Rediscover Counselors The end of the year finds several states finding and devoting resources to improving school counselor training and ratios, including a report from Colorado showing a modest investment in counselors has already saved the state $300 million. Now that ESSA gives more flexibility to the states, will 2017 be The Year of the Counselor?

College Testing’s Value Questioned Bleak reports of overseas security issues with college tests, combined with incredibly late submission of test results to colleges, put both SAT and ACT on school counselor’s naughty lists. The good came when more colleges used the opportunity to reevaluate the importance of testing in the admissions process, choosing to make reporting of test scores optional for most students.

Given these changes, what can we expect to see in 2017?

Obama Farewell Unless John Harvard had been elected our next president, we all knew 2017 would be a change in the way The White House was going to support college access. Reach Higher efforts will continue with Better Make Room, but the coming year will find fewer messages of “Yes, You Too” from the First Couple. Here’s hoping someone picks up the slack.

College Control and the States Changes in federal law will give more authority and funding autonomy in education to the states. The plus here is that states can now tailor programs to better meet local needs; the potential minus is the lack of federal standards when evaluating value and success. Stay tuned.

Counselors are Ambassadors, Too The federal government has long given teachers the chance to shape education policy directly through the School Ambassador Program. Counselors will be allowed to participate in this program for the first time in 2017, and now is the time to apply.

College Isn’t Just Four Years The Great Recession somehow hoodwinked most people into believing four years of college was the only way to a great job. Data, common sense, and the efforts of many organizations are waking society from that dream, creating more options for The Class of 2017. Expect this trend to grow.

Now, go rest.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Ring in the New, But Don’t be Wrung Out by the New

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

School counselors know this isn’t always the merriest and happiest of times for some students.  From students living in homes in crisis, to those living with families in transition, to the uncertainties some experience when graduating high school, counselors know that the holidays can bring some mighty challenges to overcome.

We’re used to helping others work through these issues—but what do we do when we’re the ones needing help through a transition? While 2016 brought many events that required us to reflect on our personal values, more than a few moments challenged our professional beliefs—and it’s likely we’ll begin the new year with some additional opportunities to review, reconsider, and clarify.  Consider these:

·         Significant changes are expected at the national level of education leadership.  Some of these were already in place with the passage of the new Elementary and Secondary Schools Act, where much of the decision-making was shifted back to the states.  These changes may be magnified further with the election and appointment of officials who believe education is much more a state issue than a national issue, a position that has been used in the past to create distinct educational climates in each state that have led to different levels of college and career readiness.

·         These changes are likely to be heightened by the absence of a First Family whose support of counselors and counseling services is unprecedented.  From hosting the ASCA Counselor of the Year ceremony in the White House to engaging students to ReachHigher, counselors and college access are on the radar screens of millions of students who once saw themselves as beyond hope, and beyond repair—until the Obamas personalized the college journey, and students realized there was room for them after all.
As a result of these two changes, we now have some idea what it’s like for a student whose favorite teacher retires in the middle of the year, and is replaced by someone who has a different vision of how a classroom should operate.  That difference isn’t good or bad; the mere fact it isn’t the same as what used to be is enough to cause concern.

What are our keys to making a successful transition?  The same ideas we offer to our students when they sense their scene is shifting, and they don’t know what their new world will look like:

Say goodbye.  The best way to recognize things will be different in some way is to look back on the good you’ve had an express thanks for it.  This helps you appreciate all the good you’ve had in your life, and it helps you identify why it was good.

Set your goals.  Finding the good in the past clarifies what you value, which will help you determine the qualities you’ll want to maintain in times of change.  Those qualities may manifest themselves in new ways, but focusing on their worth to you will make the new forms of those qualities easier to identify and appreciate.

Stand up for yourself.  A new job or a new boss may challenge you to demonstrate flexibility, but that’s different than giving in.  Looking and listening closely will guide you to know the difference between change that is absolute, and change that is negotiable.  Either way, you don’t have to give up your principles.

Celebrate the victories.  If the journey really is the sum of the steps, recognizing the value of each step can be the difference between moving forward and giving up.  Every step may not be perfect, but many will resonate with purpose.  Honor them, and they will become more frequent.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

New Year’s Resolutions Should Include Counselor PD

By:  Patrick O'Conner Ph.D

If any group knows the limits of New Year’s Resolutions, it’s school counselors. Like everyone else, we have friends whose December 31 plans for the perfect life are in tatters by January 2nd. But we also have the students who begin the new school year with plans to become the next Einstein, only to find a few weeks later that their study skills aren’t quite all they need to be.

Given our checkered history with resolutions, you’d think we’d be hesitant to try and use them as a tool for our own personal or professional growth. But since we also know the key elements of effective goal setting, it’s possible to take resolutions to the next level, and use them as a tool of powerful change.

We clearly need to do that, especially in one key area – professional development. Like resolutions, we begin our search for professional development committed to finding the best programs that will help us do even more for our students. But too often, due to either cost, location, or availability, we end up taking the programs that are easy to get to, free, or that fit in our schedule without much conflict, even if they don’t always advance the skills we most need to work with our students. One colleague confided she was just a few hours short of meeting her required PD updates, so she took a course on spreadsheets—even though she had mastered spreadsheets a long time ago.

The best way to realize a goal is to make a plan we can stick to, and that’s just as true for professional development as it is for anything else. Try this framework to develop your PD resolutions for the coming year:

What work do I do with students? There’s nothing like getting back to basics when creating a set of PD goals, and there’s nothing more basic that remembering what you do for a living. Use your calendar to review the programs, meetings, and individual sessions you’ve had with students and parents since the start of the school year. What do they cover? What knowledge do you need to present them? What skills are needed to make sure your clients can apply the information? How do evaluate the success of your work?

When is the last time I received training in… Now that you have your list of skills and information to keep sharp, when is the last time you updated each of them? Be careful here—there’s a difference between the last time you usedinformation, and the last time you trained in it. You may be giving students information all the time about the hottest jobs in your state, but if the last time you looked at an updated career list was 2012, it might be time for an data upgrade. As you put this together, prioritize your needs based on how often you use this information with your clients—if you mostly talk with your students about college, college updates are the place to begin.

Where can I get this training? This is the most time consuming part of goal setting, but it’s also the most essential. If the best place to get a career information update is a two hour drive for a Saturday conference, sign up now, and put the program on your calendar—you’re less inclined to change your mind once it’s in your calendar. Ask colleagues and your professional organizations for help finding quality programs. You’ll see there’s strength in numbers, as you work together to become even stronger student advocates, together.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The Crazy Time of a Crazy Year

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

I first heard someone say it at a New Year’s Eve party, many years ago.

“I can’t wait to say goodbye to this year.  It can’t leave soon enough.”

My heart really went out to that person.  It’s tough going through any challenging experience, but when they all seem to pile on top of each other in the same year, it makes a real challenge out of getting through the day.  It’s no wonder folks experiencing that hope January 1 will draw a line in the sand of despair, and give them the fresh start the calendar promises.

I expect I’ll hear that again this New Year’s Eve, because I’ve already heard it from lots of people—and it isn’t even December.  From the passing of so many amazing entertainers to a one-of-a-kind election to too many news features of frustrated citizens,  reasons abound for people to want to move on to 2017 without giving 2016 a proper goodbye, wishing instead just for good riddance.

This is just as true for children as it is for adults.  Grownups may better understand the challenges that come with a change in presidents, but don’t think that the children aren’t immune from the tension some parents might feel, and unwittingly share with others.  They might not be articulating the need for a safe space, but that doesn’t mean they don’t need one; and combined with the holiday tensions some families regularly encounter, it will be easy to understand if some students will be engaging in unusual behaviors in the next couple of weeks.

What can counselors do to help these students?  What we do best—support.

Create a safe space  Counselors know students will only reach out for help in places where they feel accepted, and where they know asking for help will give them the help they need.  Counselors devoted their energies making sure counseling centers have that vibe and that track record; now is not the time to take away the that certainty with a slip of the tongue about a new political leader or the edgy relative you’re not looking forward to seeing.  Our students need a message of support now more than ever; modelling that message is the very best thing any counselor can do.

Call on your team  You never want to expect trouble, but now might be the time to send a heads up to your classroom colleagues, reminding them of the kinds of stress this time of year puts on students, and encouraging them to let you know if there’s a student who might be struggling unexpectedly.  Intervening before a problem gets out of hand is a delicate mix of art and science, and the intuitive data teachers can provide can make a world of difference in a student’s life.  Let your work partners know how much you value their insights.

Self-regulate  Being a great counselor is important to everyone, but that won’t get your holiday shopping done, or help you manage your own disappointments of 2016.  Counselors often find themselves hanging around the office a little more this time of year for no particular reason.  Make sure you understand your surroundings and the perspective you have that’s shaping them.  You can only be at your best by checking in, and shaping up.

It’s been an unusual year, and this time of year brings with it all kinds of unusual dynamics.  Being your supportive self can create a secure sense for students who keep looking ahead to the What If of the holidays, or who want to know if we’re at 2017 yet.