Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Ten Things Principals can do to Improve the College-Going Culture in Their Building

By: Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

With National School Counselor Week next week, your principal may be wondering how to honor your work.  Slip this to their administrative assistant, and see what happens—and be sure to remind them if you prefer dark or milk chocolate.

1.      Ask this your school counselors how you can be of help.  School counselors are the coordinators of the college-going curriculum in your building, so keeping in touch with them keeps you in touch with the successes and needs of your college-going climate.  Meet with them regularly

2.      Support your school counselors.  Improvement in a college-going culture begins with support of those leading the creation of that culture.  There are five key ways administrators can show that support—understand all five, and be sure to ask your counselors what else you can do.

3.      Know the two parts of the college-going curriculum in your building.  College-going culture is far more than “getting in” to college.  The two parts—college awareness and college readiness-- are integral parts of every other curriculum in the building, and run the K-12 span.

4.      A college-going curriculum starts well before junior year.  You didn’t misread the last sentence in point 2.  Attitudes about college are shaped early, in both students and parents, so it’s crucial to have a college-going curriculum at every level of learning.

5.      Colleges want more than good grades and test scores.  These important data points reveal only part of the demonstrated qualities colleges want to see in applicants.  Extracurricular activities, service opportunities, essays, and recommendations address other qualities vital to a successful college application, including intelligence, creativity, critical thinking, persistence, reaction to setbacks, leadership, self-knowledge, innovation, synthesis, effective communication, empathy, curiosity, and analysis.

6.      A college-going curriculum doesn’t have to be built from the ground up.  A number of strong (and free) resources exist that are ready for your counselors to implement and tailor to the needs of your students and your community—for starters, see:

7.      College awareness is for every student.  Not every student needs to go to college to fulfill their personal or career goals, but every student needs to know what college offers before they can make that decision.  Make sure all students are involved in college awareness activities.

8.      All postsecondary plans have equal value.  Students who thoughtfully choose a path other than college are doing just as much for their families and communities as students who thoughtfully choose college.  Work with your school team to make sure the plans of all seniors are equally respected and celebrated.

9.      It takes a community to make students college-aware and college-ready.  A Counseling Advisory Committee consists of community leaders who come together for one goal—to support all counseling efforts in your building, including college-going.  This team leads to more scholarships, internships, and support with the logistics of applying to college.  This is an ASCA requirement—if you need help building one, take a look at

10.  Your counselors need more and frequent training in the college selection process.  Only two counselor education programs in the country require a college counseling course, and less than 30 offer one, so most counselors learn about college counseling on the job—and with high caseloads, that can be difficult.  More training is usually needed throughout a counselor’s career—for one possible training option, see the class I teach at

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

New Studies: Liberal Arts Majors Make Money, MOOCs Don’t Get Completed, and Snow Days Rock

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

You’re not alone if you think winter is a good time to curl up with a good read. Professional journals are awash with reports, studies, and findings that impact a great deal of our work—here’s a small sampling of what’s out there:

  • A report from MIT and Harvard shows what most counselors could have predicted--completion rates for online courses is remarkably small. Over 800,000 people signed up for the Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) the two institutions offered last year, but less than five percent completed the course—and over a third never opened the course material.  If those numbers sound worse than students who enroll in traditional classes, there’s a reason for that—they are…

…but the authors of the report say that’s not their fault, and measuring the success of a MOOC by the percentage of completers misses the point of MOOCs.  "Some students who register for MOOCs have no intention of completing, and some instructors do not emphasize completion as a priority. Success and failure take many forms."

It’s certainly encouraging to hear some students are signing up for MOOCs merely for the sake of learning—but isn’t that also the case for face-to-face colleges?  The authors of the study may have a point, but they also may be using the claim to hide a larger issue—that students are finding the courses harder than they thought they would be.  That isn’t news to veteran online teachers—and since policymakers are expecting traditional schools to ramp up completion rates, you can bet this report won’t be met with open arms in Washington.

  •  Another report suggests parents don’t have to worry that their child with a liberal arts degree will spend their entire life living at home.  The American Association of Colleges and Universities joined with the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems to produce a report suggesting many liberal arts majors in the middle of their careers make more money that those who majored in a professional area, and employment rates are about the same. There is an initial employment and earnings gap at the start, but liberal arts majors catch up…

…and seem to offer employers more as a whole.  The report indicates employers still place a high value on the critical thinking skills that are the essence of a liberal arts education, qualities more professional degrees aren’t teaching.  The report doesn’t guarantee success for anyone, but provides assurance that successful students who follow their passions are likely to do well in the world, regardless of where that passion lies.
  • Finally, Harvard offers great news about snow days.  Despite the insistence of Grinchy policy makers, snow days have no impact on student achievement.  In many cases, this may be due to policymakers adding a couple of extra days of school in regions where winter weather is hazardous, but calling a day off because of bad weather doesn’t hurt students…

…instead, not calling snow days seems to have a negative impact on learning.  If the weather is bad and school’s open, fewer students come to school; that means teachers have to take more time to bring the absent students up to speed on an entire lesson, and that slows the learning process.  While the report doesn’t address this point, this could be due to the strategies teachers have for condensing two lessons into one when there’s a snow day—strategies that don’t work when half the class has had the whole lesson.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Celebrating Our Work, Even in January

By: Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

January can feel very hard on school counselors. We help students get over the post-holiday slump and back into the groove of going to school, we prepare for testing, we embrace a new round of schedule changes, we talk students through the college admissions decisions they received over break, and—let’s be honest—we count the time down to Presidents Day. Little did Lincoln and Washington realize how much freedom they were giving to school counselors, simply by being born the same time of year!

Of course, we don’t always have to wait for days off to feel a sense of satisfaction—in fact, two recent reports suggest we have a great deal to feel good about all the time.  A.S. Belasco recently conducted a data review of high school graduates who went on to postsecondary institutions, and the findings are impressive. Here’s a note from the Results section:

…(S)tudents who visited their counselor for college-related information were more likely to enroll in postsecondary education and at four-year institutions in particular. Results also demonstrated that the influence of school-based college counseling varied based on socioeconomic status, and that low-SES students were likely to yield the most benefit from their relationship with a school counselor.

The findings went on to point out that students from low socio-economic schools (SES) had a greater likelihood of going to a four-year college if they visited their high school counselor in both 10th and 12th grade, and not just 12th grade.

These results are very encouraging for a couple of reasons.  First, the results confirm that counselors do make a difference when helping students develop plans for study after high school.  Counselors have known this for a long time, but this data analysis goes a long way to provide empirical support of this position.

Second, these results offer some evidence to refute the current claim that high school counselors are “undermatching” low-SES students. The study doesn’t analyze counselor effectiveness by type of four-year institution, but the results do suggest students who meet early and regularly with their counselor get the support and “push” they need to look at four-year colleges.  This lays the foundation for more research from the same data to see what role counselor influence plays in students applying to highly selective colleges.

Many of the points raised in this study support the findings of a little-used College Board study from last year.  High schools in Oklahoma were randomly selected to receive an additional school counselor.  At the end of the study, college- going rates were compared between the high schools that received an extra counselor, and a control group of high schools that received no extra counselors. 

The summary of the College Board findings suggested that, on average, the presence of an additional school counselor led to a 10% increase in the number of students attending college.  In addition, the findings indicated that the degree of the increase was impacted by the amount of training the new counselor had received in college advising.

While these results are tentative, the two studies support some long-held counselor beliefs:

  •  Counselors make a difference when it comes to students’ plans for life after high school.
  • This is especially true in low-income high schools, where students start to work early with their counselor.
  • College attainment increases when student/counselor ratios go down.
  • College attainment increases when school counselors receive more training in college counseling.

Now that’s worth celebrating!

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Welcome Back!

By: Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

Counselors are coming back—or digging out—from a well-deserved holiday break, only to discover a handful of challenges and opportunities awaiting them at the office.  If you’ve had a good break, one of those challenges may be remembering your computer password; once you’re past that one, here are a few things to keep an eye on as you and your students settle back into the routine:

College admission Decisions—more ‘Maybes’ than ever before.  High school counselors will likely return to a number of seniors who received dismaying college news over the break, as many strong, competitive colleges ended up deferring a high number of students.  While this isn’t unusual at the highly selective colleges, more selective schools are asking good applicants for additional information like current grades—and these requests are being made of students who would have easily been admitted just a couple of years ago.

While the holidays may have given seniors time to sort out their options, the return to school gives them fewer distractions, and more reason to focus on the surprise news they received in December.  Be sure your first few days includes ample time in the hallways, so students can find you and set up times to see you. January may not be the best time to rework college lists, but given the curves some schools threw students, now is the time to refocus college plans.

Planning for life without the PLAN.  As reported in a previous column, ACT will discontinue its PLAN and EXPLORE tests at the end of this year, replacing them with the ASPIRE test, a series of assessments that can be used by all students in grades 3-11.  While these new tests may offer more fluidity in pupil accounting options, they can also create gaps in some long-standing testing plans of middle schools and high schools, especially since ASPIRE doesn’t use the same 1-36 grading scale of the ACT.

This change in testing may not be news to you, but you don’t want this to become news to your principal or district coordinator this spring, when it’s time to order tests.  Once the snow settles after  the first week of class, find some time to meet with everyone who could be impacted by this change, and make sure to think far down the road; October 1 isn’t time to realize your Fall Testing program has to change to accommodate ASPIRE.

“This New Class is So…” January is typically a short school month, but it’s often the first time teachers articulate their impression of the new ninth grade class in a high school, or the sixth grade class in a middle school.  For the first four months of school, they were all students from different feeder schools; by now, they’re a cohesive whole, and their tone and values are getting easier to read.

The time to capitalize on those impressions is now.  If you have a staff development day coming up, put together a brief survey and series of guided questions to create a discussion of what teachers are seeing in the academic, social, interactive, and moral development of these new students.  February – April is an ideal time to provide students with the programming and resources needed to understand more about themselves and the world around them, and faculty can tell you where the biggest needs lie.  Don’t miss this opportunity to create a collaborative opportunity to improve the quality of learning and living in your building, as you confirm your role as the school leaders in shaping affective climate.