Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Your State Legislature Needs to Hear From You

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

One state legislature wants to do away with school counselors completely.

Another state has made filing a FAFSA a graduation requirement.

Yet another is considering a bill requiring all students to submit a college application before finishing high school.

It’s more than fair to say that many are responding to the changes in the national political structure by letting federal officials know just what constituents think, and what they want the government to do. The effect of this action is clear, as many federal policy efforts have been stalled, changed, or even reversed as a result of this participation—a clear reminder that democracy is a participatory system of government that only works when people truly participate.

The same impact can be achieved at the state level, and some would even argue it’s easier to have your voice heard there.  With fewer constituents to serve, it’s easier for the folks back home to set up meetings, provide information, and set up town meetings of your own for elected officials to attend.  With frequent contact, it isn’t hard for anyone to become known to the staff members of a state official on a first name basis, and become a reliable source of information and opinion.

That’s especially true when it comes to education, an area where a vast majority of the decisions are still made at the state level.  That’s even truer with the recent passage of the new Elementary and Secondary School Act (ESSA), where Congress gave powers long held at the national level back to the states.  That’s part of the reason some of these counseling-related bills are being taken up by state legislatures; they have a new sense of opportunity, and they plan to make the most of it.

Since they have more opportunity, so do you—but will you make the most of it?  High caseloads and full work days sometimes make it challenging to stay on top of legislation, but these simple steps can keep you in the loop, and make you the active participant in school counseling you need to be:

Contact your state school counseling association  There’s a very good chance your state organization has a government relations committee, and may even hire a lobbyist to speak on behalf of school counselors.  It that’s the case, part of their task is to stay on top of legislation and policy changes that could affect your life as a counselor.  A quick email or monthly phone call to them is all you need to stay on top of essential issues—and if you persist, don’t be surprised if they call you one day with updated news on an issue they’d like you to actively support.

Subscribe to meeting notification systems  Many legislatures give members an opportunity to sign up for notifications of committee meetings.  These notices are sent directly to your email, and include the bill numbers and topics the committee will discuss.  Subscribing to notifications from all committees dealing with education—including budget committees—is another great way to stay informed.

Make a monthly visit to your district offices  Nearly all states require their legislators to maintain some kind of office hours in the area they represent.  While these are sometimes called coffee hours, they’re designed to give you direct access to your elected officials and their staff.  Going on a regular basis, even if you’re there just to listen, can build a strong relationship with your legislators.  Look for notifications of these office hours on their web page, and sign up for their monthly newsletter.  These are great ways to stay informed.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Topic of Your Choice as a College Essay. Just Because You Can...

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

“Dr. O’Connor?”

“Hello, James. How are you?”

“Well, I was doing OK, until I heard you wanted to see me.”

“Why,  James—is it my breath?”


“Yes, well. James, I heard from Tartar College today.”

“They turned me down already? I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. Their admission percentage is equal to the Federal Reserve benchmark rate.”

“James, your diffidence is astonishing. No, they haven’t turned you down, but...”

“So, I’m in?!!”

“...they had some questions about your essay.”

“My essay?”

“Yes. What did they tell me the title was? Oh yes. There’s No Place Like With Homeboys for the Holidays.”

“Oh. Yeah. That essay.”

“They said it really had some touching moments in it, as well as two consecutive prepositions in the title, but it didn’t say a lot about you. They also wanted to know a little about its origins.”

“Well, I—- hey, wait a minute. Are they saying someone else wrote that essay? Because if they are, they’re dead wrong. That entire essay was all me.”

“You have no idea how little that comforts me, James. Actually, they were wondering about timing.”


“Yes. When did you start writing the essay?”

“When did I start, um—“

“Right. When?”

“De—cem—ber 29th.”

“I see. And the deadline was?”

MidnightDecember 29th.”

“You did it again.”

“Actually, I started this one at two in the afternoon.”

“Well then, plenty of time for multiple drafts.”

“And I finished in time to watch Home Alone with my cousins.”

“That would include Cousin Kate, who gave your dog Felix the beef jerky under the mistletoe?”

“Wait. I thought I took that part out.”


“OK, OK, I did it again—I ran myself out of time. I was in the middle of a round of Apples to Apples with my cousins, when my mother said I had to finish my Tartar app. All I had left was my essay, so I looked at the prompts, picked “Write on the topic of your choice”, and put down the first thing that was on my mind.”

“Which was the joy of having family around you at the holidays, the mysteries of egg nog, and the discovery that the person who wrote The Christmas Song was Jewish.”

“Wow, Dr. O’Connor. Did they read the whole essay to you over the phone?”

“”I’ve seen essays like this one a million times, James, all by students who were hoping the adrenaline of the deadline would inspire them to produce an epic Topic of Your Choice essay, instead of...”

“...Instead of taking the time to think about what the essay was saying about me, thinking about using the structure of a different topic to help me focus, and presenting rough drafts to my counselor or English teacher in advance.”

“The exact words I shared with you when you wrote Halloween: A Memoir on October 31st for your November 1st application.”

“But I really do love my family, Dr. O’Connor.”

“I know that, James. You’ve told me about the conversations you’ve had with the cousin you’ve driven to physical therapy for the last three months, the grandfather who stood next to Eisenhower on D-Day, and the other cousin you teamed up with when you were both lost on the Appalachian Trail.”

“That was Kate.”

“But none of that was in the essay. Instead, Kate is on record for her poor meal choices in caring for a golden retriever.”

“You were right, Dr. O’Connor. Topic of your choice is pretty tricky. With a little more self-discipline, I could have done myself proud and written a great family essay.”

“Well, there’s some good news, James. The praise you received in the letter of recommendation from your English teacher has led Tartar College to ask me if they can look at a graded paper you’ve written for an English class. If I can submit one today, they’ll use it in lieu of your, um, essay.”


“Any ideas come to mind?”

“Well, I did write this paper in December, using O Brother, Where Art Thou? as a vehicle to compare the struggles of the protagonist in The Odyssey to those of JD Vance in Hillbilly Elegy.”

“You wrote that in December?”

“Yeah. Got an A on it.”

“And it didn’t occur to you to submit an annotated version of that to Tartar College as the topic of your choice?”

“Oh. Wow.”

“That’s a perfect reason to use topic of your choice, which Common Application has reinstituted as an essay option next year. If, for some reason, the other prompts don’t give you a chance to do an intellectual deep dive, then—and only then—do you go to topic of your choice.”

“And instead, they got a description of my Uncle Earl’s singing trout tie that has a Christmas hat painted on it.”

“I’ll check with your English teacher, and send the paper over this afternoon.”

“Thanks, Dr. O’Connor. You know, if you could wait a day, I’m almost finished with my next English essay.”

“Oh. What’s the title?”

Losing the Big Game: Sports as a Metaphor for Life.”

“James? Two things. First, I love you. Second...”

“...get out of your office?”

“And don’t the let door hit you, lad.”

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Mr. Obama, We'd Like To Reach Even Higher

By  Patrick O'Connor   Ph.D

Mr. Obama, I’ve written you from this space on more than one occasion to thank, beg, and plead for your support
for school counselors when you were President Obama, and the profession of college counseling received more support from The White House than ever before. Since I just received a letter from you to thank me for writing, it’s an honor to know you listened. More important, it’s a privilege to be part of a profession that has grown in depth and breadth of service in ways that simply wouldn’t have been possible without your and Mrs. Obama’s support. I am grateful; much more important, the families I serve have greater hopes and lives, thanks to all you’ve done.

I couldn’t help but notice that you’ve now started a foundation, and you’re asking for answers on where the foundation should devote its energies, by having individuals answer the question, what makes a good citizen? At the risk of running afoul of a request of the former leader of the free world, I answered the question by urging the foundation to continue the work started in The White House through the ReachHigher Initiative.

I know much of this work is being taken up by BetterMakeRoom, there’s more than enough work to be done in college access to keep dozens of foundations and non-profits busy for quite some time—and, to be honest, the profession would be greatly enhanced with the active presence of the very caring couple who brought school counselors to The White House for the First. Time. Ever.

As it turns out, there’s a college access project that would be a great first step back into the field of college access. The state of Colorado has developed a pilot project to add more counselors to schools in need, and given the high number of students most counselors serve, that need is fairly big.

These four year grants allowed schools to train these new counselors and get them familiar with the building. After four years, the dropout rate fell from 5.5 percent to 3.7 percent; college access increased at a double-digit rate, and participation in career and technical education programs more than doubled, according to one report.

The change in the dropout rate meant that each school received more money in their budgets, so the counseling positions more than paid for themselves. In addition, since these students are completing high school, Colorado saved more than $300 million in social costs—far more than the $20 million they invested in the program.

Several other states are looking at this model, to see if it would work for their schools, including Michigan. We certainly get the attention of legislators when we tell them we have a program that makes the state money, but something tells me they might pay even more attention if this information was being provided by, say, a more familiar face.

I can’t guarantee that every state will realize the success Colorado has, Mr. Obama, but I can tell you that having more counselors is the issue in our profession. Now that we’ve found a way for those positions to pay for themselves, all we need is help spreading the word.

Can we count on you, sir?

Oh, one more thing. After I sort of hijacked the question on your foundation’s Website to advocate for college advising, I urged a few colleagues to do the same thing. Some told me they did, and others have said once they hear you’re on board, they’re game to offer support.

Right now, the count is up to a couple of hundred.