Wednesday, April 19, 2017

A New Take on College Essays

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

The end of the college application season brings the inevitable stream of columns calling for changes to the way colleges admit their students. From plans for free college to renewed efforts to eliminate standardized testing, policy makers, college presidents, and students just completing the process are eager to offer their insights on how what they see to be a flawed system could be made better.

After all these years of reading these ideas, I’ve decided to take the plunge myself—and for me, the issue is the application essay, or personal statement. A well-crafted statement that is truly written by the student can certainly add a great deal of insight into the way a student feels and, sometimes, thinks. At the same time, it is all too easy for others to “guide” the student to a “right” answer, and since most of the essay prompts require little measurement of anything other than self-knowledge, they don’t always demonstrate the academic and problem-solving skills students need to thrive in colleges. It’s also too easy for students to short circuit their chances of writing a strong essay by waiting until the last minute to put something together, an essay that comes from the heart without having ample time to be considered by the head.

One way to address these issues is to modify the existing writing components of the current standardized tests. Instead of giving students less than an hour to make sense of a handful of documents they’ve just received, give them three hours to work in a room that has research materials, so they can fully explore multiple aspects of the questions they get once they arrive. The questions themselves will have both academic and affective components. They would have enough cultural and academic breadth that it would be reasonable to expect every student could be familiar with the context of at least one of them (and they’d only have to answer one), but also require them to do some research before putting together a thoughtful response. For colleges that aren’t crazy about standardized testing, students could sign up for an Essay Only option, where they would show up for the writing exercise, and nothing more.

This approach would require some changes, to be sure. Colleges would have to be willing to forego the creation of most of their own essay questions (except for “Why Us?”), the confidential questions would have to be genuinely new with each test administration, and admissions officers would have to be prepared to wrangle with the factual content of more essays than they do now. This isn’t to say admissions officers couldn’t become well-versed in everything from the works of Ai Weiwei to the moral proclivities of Rory Gilmore; this new approach just might require a little more time on background than the current version of the personal statement.

I’m as biased as the next person, so the six examples below are undoubtedly missing a key element of cultural breadth, but just to present some idea of what this might look like, here goes. Enjoy.

There is much speculation over which of the three Gilmore Girls changed the most through the seven-year series and the one-year sequel. It’s been argued that the answer to this question is largely generational. In that context, and in your opinion, which Gilmore Girl changed the most for the better, and which one changed the most for the worse? How would Theodore Roosevelt answer that question? How about Gabriel Garcia Marquez? How about the person who cuts your hair?

The proof that .̅9= 1 has been used to suggest that mathematics is not as precise as it claims to be. Present arguments to support and refute that claim, then include two examples from the world of sports to support the side you believe to be true.

Lin-Manuel Miranda is about to release his new musical, which is a tribute to the life and music of Philip Glass. Given the proclivities of both the subject and the composer, describe any three songs from this two-act play, which includes a total of 14 compositions.

One of the justifications for studying history is the well-known quote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Take an event you learned in a history or science class and show how this quote was proven true in a subsequent event by someone who hadn’t studied the past. Next, use the same event you learned in class to show how knowing the past led someone else to realize a different conclusion.

It has been argued that Paul Simon’s album Graceland is an example of cultural misappropriation. Discuss both sides of this argument. Does your argument change at all after listening to this? Is the wide use of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech a better example of cultural misappropriation than Paul Simon’s album? Explain.

There is a copy of the front page of today’s New York Times in the examination room. Pick three of the stories, and relate one to any poem by Emily Dickinson, one to any poem by Langston Hughes, and one to any work by Ai Weiwei.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

The Times That Test a Counselor’s Soul

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

Counselors everywhere can empathize with the hurdles Michigan counselors are facing this week, as their time in the office is dominated by bubble sheets, packing tape, and the coveted No. 2 Pencil.

It happens this time every year, which leads me to ask the same question every year.

Why are counselors in charge of schoolwide testing?

I’ve been a school counselor for a long time, and I have never, ever heard a good answer to this question.  Three answers always come up when I ask the question, but they just don’t work, when put to the—yeah. 

“You’re trained in testing, so this is a counseling duty.”  Most people buy this response, because it’s true that nearly every counselor training program includes a class in testing and measurement.  So, yes, we are trained in testing—in interpreting their results, not in how to arrange them.  Give me a student’s PSAT results, and I can tell you what they should do to improve their score in a heartbeat.  Hand me a state exam in Social Studies, and I can tell you in a moment where the student might need remediation, and where they might need challenge.  That’s what I learned in graduate school.

Graduate school did not teach me how to divide the junior class into 25 alphabetical sessions and assign them testing rooms.  It did not teach me how to schedule testing around three lunch periods and the bus that leaves for the career-tech center.  It most definitely did not teach me how to band pencils together in groups of 27, just in case two of them break.  Those are not counseling tasks; those are administrative tasks.  That’s not me.

“But the counselors don’t have classes to teach.”  OK—two things wrong here.  First, most of us do have classes to teach.  We partner with English and Science and Health teachers to present all kinds of programs regarding careers, college opportunities, social media skills, and more.  In any given week, most of us are seeing as many kids in the classroom as the average teacher.  So there’s that.

The second part of this comment is harder to parse out, but it boils down to “Well, you aren’t teaching, so you have lots of free time.”  If we accept that premise, administrators aren’t teaching either, leaving them just as much time to organize testing—and given the weight tests have in our society (for better or worse), can they really say they have something more important to do?  Counselors, on the other hand, have something much more important to do; see students.

“But what else would counselors do?”  This response drives me crazy, but I get where this is coming from.  People are so used to seeing counselors arrange testing, they think it’s a given, and they just can’t imagine a world where we’d do something else—like, our jobs.

But try this on.  Imagine if, instead of spending hours with the logistics of testing, counselors had hours to prepare, and present, test prep programs to students.  The materials are out there for us to use; it’s just a question of finding the time to fine tune those materials to meet the needs of our students and our school, then presenting them.  Research shows that increased test awareness leads to better achievement-- and with the training we really did get in graduate school, we could make that happen.

Good test prep isn’t giving students the answers—it’s giving students the skills and confidence to show what they already know.  And the masters of instilling confidence are?

Looks like you just passed the test.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

The Ten Things We Learned This College Application Season

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

The smoke has cleared, the dust has settled, and the students are now nicely nestled on waitlists or orientation schedules—but what can this year’s juniors learn from this year’s seniors about applying to college?

  1. This is about you. A few of the seniors in your school are just discovering this, as they try to figure out how to tell their parents they’d rather go to the local college no one’s heard of, instead of the famous college that admitted them that they really hate. You don’t want to be that student next year—so don’t apply to any college you’re sure you don’t want to attend.
  2. That means you drive the bus. The only way you get to stay in charge of things is for you to keep track of who’s doing what—and to make sure you end up doing most of it. So, you write your essays, you submit the applications, you call the college with any questions you have, you ask the teachers for the letters of recommendation, you talk to your counselors. Colleges say they’re hearing more from parents than students, and that hurts your chances of getting in. Grab the keys, buckle up, and get busy.
  3. If you need help, say so. You don’t have to be a team captain or a born leader to get into college, but you’ll need to know how to ask your high school for your CEEB code, because you’ll need to ask your college for all kinds of things. And when you get the answer you need, remember that someone just made your life better. Say thank you.
  4. There’s more to college than classes. If you ask any adult about their college experience, they’ll talk about the friends they made, the trips they took, and the life lessons they learned. Classes are part of the college experience, but only a part. Visit the campus that could be your home to make sure it feels like home, both in and out of the classroom.
  5. College is expensive. Nearly everyone’s college plans depends on how much aid they’ll get to pay for it—but how much will you need, and how much might end up being loan? The time to start finding out is before you apply, not after. You’ve already had one awkward talk with your parents, about where babies come from. It’s time to make it two.
  6. Lots of people want to go to the same college. Not everyone will get in. That could be you. 95% of the students applying to Ivy League schools can do the work, and hundreds—that’s hundreds—of valedictorians—were denied admission to the Ivies this year. You may never need Plan B for college, but you’ll need to know how to make a Plan B once you’re in college. Now is the time to practice. Find two schools you’d love to attend where your chances of admission are greater than getting struck by lightning. They exist.
  7. A little planning is good. Many colleges with February deadlines are actually rolling admission schools, where it’s first come, first serve. Find out which of your colleges are rolling, and apply by mid-October. They are harder to get into in February. Much harder.
  8. A lot of planning is bad. There’s a lot to consider when applying to college, but two hours charting the probabilities of your admission under different early action plans are really two hours that are wasted. Watch this Or this.
  9. The first year of college isn’t Grade 13. College classes meet on a different schedule, and cover material at a different pace, so your study skills will have to be flexible and your mind will have to stay sharp. Learning does that for you, so keep paying attention to high school until you’re finished with high school.
  10. You’re a senior. Act like it. Applying to college is a temporary, interesting hobby, not a lifestyle. Work on your college applications a couple of hours each weekend, and leave the rest of the week for studying, bonfires, dances, and French fries. Lots and lots of French fries.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Report—The State of College Counseling in the US Isn’t Good

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

A new report on the state of college attainment offers some important points for school counselors to consider.  Presented by The National Consortium for School Counseling and Postsecondary Success, the report outlines the progress made in raising awareness of the important role counselors play in helping students make plans for life after college, including the many contributions of First Lady Michelle Obama in raising the importance of college attainment for all students.

After reviewing the important role White House convenings played in establishing a strong national need for improved college access and opportunity, the report offers a sobering conclusion:

“We must acknowledge that despite the hard work of many well-intentioned professionals working in the college advising space across institutions, we have failed to accelerate the degree attainment process, particularly with underserved populations across the nation who are in greatest need of assistance.”

From there, the report outlines several steps that can be made to improve national efforts in degree attainment, liberally defined as completion of any degree or certificate.  The first recommendation calls for greater collaboration between school personnel and community partners, an important reminder that, while school counselors play a unique role in the college advising process, it is impossible for any significant change to be made in the metrics without a broader array of participation:

In general, college access efforts focus on postsecondary completion strategies within schools during grades 11 and 12; however, this work often exists in silos, rather than through coordinated efforts to reach every student, and is seldom integrated with a broader college and career strategy that spans a child’s Pre-K to postsecondary educational journey. Progress is often impeded because internal school staff, who have existing relationships with students and families, and external partners, who have resources and information, do not function as a collaborative team.

The second recommendation calls for renewed efforts to create more research specific to the training counselors receive in college advising, and in their role in working with students and families in schools.   A survey measured the attitudes and perceptions of both school counselors and the counselor educators who train them, and the results yielded at least one important finding:

Interestingly, the survey discovered a strong discrepancy between school counselors and school counselor educators on the content covered in counselor education programs, with counselor educators reporting much more effective coverage of topics than practitioners. This gap in perceptions suggests that counselor educators may need to pay closer attention to the demands of those in the field as well as emerging responsibilities such as a greater need to support career and college readiness.

In other words, while counselor educators felt their programs fully addressed the essential skills of college advising, practicing counselors didn’t agree at all.

The report concludes with six recommendations that focus primarily on these two findings, with heavy emphasis on the need for more research, and for greater standardization of counselor educator programs, including a thorough review of the content of instruction in college and career advising.  This is welcome news to a profession that has long been short in empirical data; the larger question remains, what can school counselors do now to improve the quality of college and career advising, in the years it will take to build a sturdier foundation of research?

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

A Financial Aid Call to Arms for School Counselors

By:  Patrick O'Connor  PhD

The end of the college application season is here, and thanks to our friends at WikiLeaks, it comes with a twist.  Soon after WikiLeaks published a series focusing on how it’s possible to hack just about anything, the federal government suspended the IRS Retrieval Tool so many students use to file for financial aid.  

While this was done in the interest of keeping taxpayer information secure, students just deciding to apply for financial aid are finding more hurdles in their way—and there were plenty to begin with.  It’s been possible to file for financial aid since October, but this is the first year filing started that early, so many students, families—and, ahem, counselors—aren’t used to the new calendar.  That means many students (especially low income students, or students who are the first in their family to go to college), will be applying now, where they have to use their tax information from 2015.

Quick now—where is your tax information from 2015?

And that’s the problem.  Without the retrieval tool, most people will be more challenged to find their 2015 tax information than they would trying to remember what they ate for lunch yesterday.  Since this affects more first-time college attenders, this could be the game changer that leads them to decide not to bother applying to college at all; if you’re not sure you can afford it, why bother?

That’s where we come in.  Thousands of students will be getting college decisions in the next two weeks, so we’re going to be plenty busy high fiving students who heard yes, and designing new plans for those students who didn’t.  In the midst of that traditional mix, we’ll also have to keep an eye out for the late FAFSA filers, a challenge we didn’t think we were going to have.

Here’s what to do:

Make sure the student has applied to college.  If they haven’t applied for aid til now, there’s a good chance they haven’t applied for college, either.  The IRS tool is expected to be back up in a month, and giving them something to do until then can keep their college hopes up.  Check and see if their applications are in.

If they have applied, have them contact the financial aid office.  Counselors aren’t the only ones freaking out about the FAFSA disconnect, since financial aid offices can’t do much without applicants.  Some colleges are developing Plan B for creating packages, relying on applicant’s best recollection of their taxes, using 2016 tax information, or some combination of both.  Your student’s school may be one of those colleges, and if that’s the case, they can still give your student college cash.  Calling them will help you—and the student—discover the answer. 

Review Plan B.  The IRS tool may be back online in late April, but many colleges will have given all their aid away by then.  If a student’s top choice is a school that tends to run their funds dry by May 1, it’s time to make sure the student applies to a college that’s known to fund students who apply late.  That’s usually colleges that have a smaller percentage of students on campus, and community colleges, but a phone call to the college’s financial aid office will let you know for sure.

Tell ED to fix this problem now.  Education Secretary Betsy DeVos , 400 Maryland Ave  SW, Washington DC 20202.  A letter there, encouraging the federal government to work with the National Association of Financial Aid Administrators to find a workaround, might help us reach a faster, better solution for all. 

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Essential Reading for School Counselors

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

There’s a report floating around your state capitol that school counselors really need to read. As we were electing a new president last year, Congress managed to pass the Elementary and Secondary School Act, or ESSA. ESSA replaces the much-discussed No Child Left Behind Act, the legislation counselors knew as No Child Left Untested. Noble in its goals, No Child Left Behind got bogged down in its own details, neve delivering most of its promise. That’s why Republicans and Democrats were only too happy to replace it in an election year; they could campaign take credit for killing an unpopular program, and improving education.

That’s where the report comes in. ESSA puts a great deal of planning (and a little bit of funding) back to the state level, something Republicans really like to do with education, and something we’re likely to see more of with the Trump administration. Before getting federal funding, each state must submit an ESSA plan, outlining just how they’re going to use this newly given power and money—and before that plan is read by the federal government, it must remain open for public comment for at least 30 days.

It’s important for counselors to read this report for three reasons. No Child Left Behind included monies that may have been used for counseling-related activities. Now that all Federal funds have been lumped together in one big block and given to the states (this is creatively known as a block grant), states are no longer limited to how they use that money. If your state was using this funding for counseling activities, they can now use it on just about anything else related to schools. A quick call to the legislative committee of your state counseling association will let you know if your state was using this money for counseling services. A quick look at your state’s ESSA report will show if it’s still being used for that purpose.

Taking the limits off of education funding makes it possible for states to use ESSA funding to increase the amount of federal funding they use for counseling activities. Yes, this means your state could end up taking federal money from some other worthy program and giving it to you, so that means counselors would have to live with expanding their services at the expense of some other department. On the other hand, this creates an opportunity for the state to look at how it’s been using Federal funding, and realize ways to spend the money more efficiently, creating a surplus that could go to counseling. How do you find out if they’ve used this opportunity to run a tighter fiscal ship? You read the report.

Finally, and most important, many states are using ESSA as an opportunity to review how they are spending state funds on education. Not every state will do this, but now that federal funding is one more money source the state gets to use to meet state needs, some states will use this as an opportunity to review all spending, and see if money could be used more wisely.

If your state is taking this approach to ESSA funding, it’s time to stop reading this article and figure out where your state’s ESSA report is located. This zero-based budgeting approach was popular in the 80s and 90s, and it can certainly add more money to counseling services—but it can also wipe out programs completely. Thanks to ESSA, you have the ability to help shape the education power in your state. The first step in plugging into that power is reading the report.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Reducing “Other Duties as Assigned”

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

For reasons that have never been clear, many schools either give the task of test coordination to counselors, or assume counselors do that as part of their job. Either way, counselors who have taken courses in test interpretation—as in, here’s what the results of the test mean—spend the better part of March putting Number 2 pencils in groups of 25, setting up seating assignments for a special testing schedule, and hustling to find speakers to keep the non-testing grades busy, and far away from the part of the building where testing is occurring.

It isn’t easy to say just how this “tradition” came to be, but it’s easy to see how it can come to an end. Many counselors have just spent the last month or so working with students on scheduling for next year. Since most high school counselors spent the last half of January working out schedule changes for the next semester or trimester, that means many school counseling offices have been on “other duties as assigned” mode since returning from Christmas Break. Sure, students with urgent needs have trickled in here and there, but since the bulk of the counseling office’s work has focused on logistics, it isn’t hard to see how the word is out among students that the counselors just have other things to do this time of year—and that isn’t good.

What can you do to end the madness and make sure everyone understands student access is your top priority? Try these:
  • Make sure the person in charge of your schedule understands what you’re up against. You might assume your administrator knows that schedule changes turns in to scheduling, and that turns in to testing—but maybe they’ve never put all the pieces together.
            The solution is twofold. First, take a look at the Annual Agreement form produced by the American School Counselor Association.     This form helps provide structure to what could be an awkward conversation with your administrator. On the other hand, since administrators usually don’t know what counselors are really supposed to do, this handout helps guide them, and your discussion about duties. Once it’s done, it can be refreshed every year.

            The only thing missing from this document is a calendar that outlines your major and minor counseling duties on a monthly basis. You’ll want to set this up using the calendar program your administrator uses—this makes it easy for them to understand just what you’re doing each month. You give them a master calendar at the start of the year, then a monthly calendar at the start of each month. This is a reminder of what’s coming up, in case they’re thinking about “surprising” you with a new project.

  • Once your administrator is on board, make sure you communicate with your parents and students. I’m still a fan of a weekly one-page newsletter to let them know what’s going on in your office. This can remind them of your big projects, but remind them you’re still there for them. “Yes, it’s March, so I will be testing the juniors, but I’m never so busy that I don’t have time for you. If we need to talk, come right in.” This allows you to keep a “students first” tone in your work—and once you write a year’s worth of newsletters, you’ll only have to tweak them the following year.