Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Increased Funding Could - That’s Could—Help Counselors. Here’s How.

By:  Patrick O'Connor   Ph.D

Educators across the country are breathing a sigh of relief, as Congress is almost done with
the Federal budget before heading off to get re-elected.  This is the second year the Trump administration asked Congress to cut the budget for the Department of Education (also knowns as ED), and it’s the second year the budget itself was going to eliminate several popular programs, dedicating more funds to programs focused on school choice.  For the second year in a row, Congress is on its way to denying both requests. 

If this all strikes you as good news, just wait—there’s even more.  Congress is actually on track to increase education spending, including an increase is known as Title IV funding, or Title IV A funding.  Title IV funding can be used for any resources related to Student Support and Academic Enrichment (SSAE).  That creates all kinds of funding opportunities, including technology upgrades, STEM programs, AP testing—and school counseling needs.

Yup—the Federal government is about to give you more money for counseling, including the hiring of school counselors.

The counseling community is abuzz over the prospects of what this money can do for counseling programs.  Since part of the rationale for the funding increase is the need for safe schools, it won’t be too hard to make a data-based argument that counselors make a difference in creating safe, positive school climates.

At the same time, it’s not like we’re the only ones who know this increase is coming.  Title IV funds have been around for a while, and many states have long-established ways of allocating the funds to all kinds of programs.  It’s certainly true that Title IV dollars could be used to hire more counselors, but that would require a state to spend most, if not all, of its increased funding on a single area.

That’s an uphill battle, so you’d better be armed with effective tools.  If your plan is to get more counselors in your school with Title IV funds, line your data up.  You’re going to need to show the needs students have—that’s the needs students have, not the needs counselors have—that research shows counselors can meet.  Work with your state and national counseling association to build your data base, and to find out what other schools are doing to build effective strategies.

Once you have your facts together, get some friends.  There’s a good chance you don’t know the person in your state department of education who oversees writing the grant for Title IV funding.  That’s someone to get to know.  See if you can get copies of previous grants—they’re out there—to see what other programs are likely to ask for more funding, too. Build a team of support in your school, and in your district.  Principals, superintendents, and board members are the voice of your school at the state level, and they’re going to use that voice to advocate for something.  How can you get them to advocate for you?

It’s also important to remember that Title IV funding only lasts for one year.  Safe schools are of big interest this year, but if something else matters more next year, this year’s Title IV funds could disappear.  That’s why it might be wise to take your data-rich argument to your state legislature, to see if they can find state funding for counseling positions.  Colorado did this, and within four years, the positions paid for themselves, and saved the state $300 million. If they can do it, you can too.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Testing, Testing. Testing?

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

School counselors report that their summers seem to be getting smaller and smaller.  That may be the case, but some pretty big news occurred on the standardized testing front during the few weeks counselors were off the clock.  These changes affect everything from college applications to K-12
assessment, so let's catch up:

Colleges Drop Writing Test Requirement  In addition to the traditional
multiple choice testing formats, both the ACT and SAT have offered students
the chance to receive a Writing score by staying after the other sections
are complete and putting together a writing sample based on a prompt.  The
Writing test is offered for an additional fee, and can stretch the testing
day near, if not over, the five hour mark for some students. 

Critics have long questioned if either Writing test really told the colleges
all that much-and it looks like the colleges were asking themselves that
question this summer.  That's when a remarkable number of college announced,
seemingly spontaneously, that they would no longer require the Writing test
when students apply for admission.  Some of the colleges cited the extra
cost as being burdensome on low income students, while others seemed to
acknowledge that a writing sample students have produced in about 30 minutes
doesn't reflect the process, or product, of college-level writing.

This leaves the number of colleges requiring the Writing test to about 15.
Look for them to reconsider their policies by next fall.
Subject Tests Also Falling Out of Use  A number of colleges also dropped
their use of SAT Subject Tests, the one-hour exams designed to measure what
students know about specific topics taught in school (History, Biology,
etc.) Since most colleges requiring Subject Tests also require the ACT or
the regular SAT, it's a safe bet that this reduction in testing is based in
part on the cost of the extra testing.

This also brings the number of colleges requiring Subject Tests to about 13,
with 9 of those colleges making up the University of California system.
This makes it more than likely that one meeting of the UC Board of Trustees
is all that's keeping the Subject Tests to go the way of the dodo bird, New
Coke, and campaign finance reform.

University of Chicago Breaks Away Access and opportunity were the clear
reasons The University of Chicago announced its plans this summer to become
a test optional school.  Once considered a ploy to increase applications,
test-optional schools now cite data-based evidence showing SAT or ACT scores
gave few additional insights into applicants to their schools.

Chicago's announcement is notable, since it is the most high profile college
to go test optional.  While their announcement hasn't led to similar
decisions from Ivy League or Ivy-like colleges, keep an eye out a few years
from now, if Chicago's student profile is more diverse and just as strong as
in years past. 

K-12s Going Test Optional?  Debate over the merits of test-optional college
admissions continue, but the idea seems to be spreading.  Politico reports
that the US Department of Education is offering states money to review their
statewide testing program, and come up with "more innovative exams."  While
the call for proposals suggests the goal is for states to develop new tests,
it wouldn't be unreasonable for a state to use this opportunity to develop a
research-based assessment that looks more like a portfolio than a
paper-and-pencil exercise, a common practice for test-optional colleges.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

A Life Beyond Us Versus Them

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

Something pretty great happened a couple of Saturdays ago your students need to know about.  The University of Maryland was playing The University of Texas in football, and when Maryland’s offense came on the field, they started with only ten players.  Football requires eleven players, but Maryland did this on purpose, leaving a position blank for Jordan McNair, a Maryland player who died this summer.

It’s a pretty remarkable show of respect when a team is willing to play with one less player they truly miss, but the referees didn’t exactly see it that way.  When they counted ten Maryland players where eleven should have been, they penalized Maryland five yards for delaying the game, because you have to play football with eleven on the field.  The penalty would have put them in a little bit of a hole, but Maryland didn’t seem to care.  The head coach for Texas quickly figured out what was going on and even though his team would have clearly benefitted from the penalty, he declined it, and the game went on.

This reminded me of the time President Obama went to visit New Jersey a few years ago, after Hurricane Sandy destroyed an incredible amount of property there.  Chris Christie was the governor of New Jersey, and he and President Obama toured the damage together, discussing how the state and federal government were going to work together to help the people who had lost everything.  Governor Christie was a Republican, and when he was asked why he was working so closely with President Obama, a Democrat, he said “This is what adults do.”

It’s doubtful many teachers will ever share these stories with their students, but they should.  Maryland and Texas are both very proud of their football teams, and once Texas declined the penalty, you’d better believe both sides fought hard to best the other side.  The same is true for Republicans and Democrats, in ways no one has to point out to anyone.

Even in the midst of these fierce rivalries—one in the name of sport, one in the real world—competitors realize when something more important calls for a response, something more than a win, or bragging rights, or lording  your success over others. It may not happen often, but when it does, it moves us in ways we just simply understand to be right, and we dwell in that sense of right because it is just so strong.  Like the football referees and the press accompanying Governor Christie, it might seem like others don’t understand what’s going on, but that doesn’t it make it less right—or less important—to act on that intuition to step up.

Our students are being raised in a society where people seem to be paying less and less attention to those moments.  The “he said she said” and instant judgement that too easily pervades adolescence is more intense than ever, thanks to social media outlets young people just can’t turn off or away from.  These same outlets become centers of cynicism when genuine moments do occur, with voices claiming someone is only trying to increase their Likes or Hits by pretending to be human.  It’s as if no one can tell the difference anymore, or at least doesn’t want to.

That’s where we come in.  The tape of the Maryland-Texas penalty isn’t even a minute long, but there are enough life lessons there to fill a class period.  See what you can do to advance the cause of civility in your school, this week and every week.  It’s what counselors do.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

A Welcome Back to School Letter from A School Counselor

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

Have you ever wondered why only the principal gets to write a “welcome back to school” letter?  Why not a counselor—better yet, a counselor who works for the US Department of Education?

My work with the Department is almost up, so here’s my one and only effort to welcome back every student to school.  Share widely, OK?  And welcome back!

Patrick O’Connor is in his thirty-fifth year of service as a school counselor.  His work as the inaugural school counselor ambassador fellow with the US Department of Education ends in October.

Some of you have been in school for a month now, so it’s a little late to say Happy First Day of School.  Still, now that nearly all of you are back in the classroom, I wanted to offer three pieces of advice for the coming year.  You may have already heard them from your own school counselor, but just in case, I hope you’ll keep this close—in your locker, on your phone—to help make this year a great one.

Keep wondering Many students get the message that the main reason they’re learning whatever it is they’re learning is only because it will get them ready for something else.  We learn to read in first grade so we can learn to read more in second grade.  We take French in eighth grade to take more challenging classes in ninth grade.  High school gets us ready for college, or a job, or something else.

My hope is that you’ll never feel that way this school year.  It’s important to be ready for what comes next, but everything you learn—everything—is an idea all by itself, something someone first thought of that no one else had considered.  There was a first person to think about what keeps plants green, how courts should make sure laws are fair, and how to make The Twist different from a waltz.  The first step in wondering about something new is taking the time to look at something you know, and think about how it got here.  Keep doing that—it will encourage you to keep asking the questions you want to have answered, and that is important to all of us.

Step forward  Kindergarten classrooms are pretty amazing places.  When the teacher asks a question, a million hands go up in the air and wave around like crazy.  Sometimes, it doesn’t even matter what the question is—students just have something to say.  Remember when your kindergarten teacher asked what day it was, and the student they called on said “My dog had puppies?” That’s really putting yourself out there.

For some reason, students in older grades often think they don’t have anything to say anymore, or what they have to say doesn’t matter.  If your teacher didn’t want to know what you think, they wouldn’t have asked you a question—and if somebody else laughs because they think your answer isn’t perfect, that’s about them, not about you.  Live your life.  Use your voice.

Know you aren’t alone  Not everything grows in light.  Doubt, frustration, anger, despair, disappointment—all thrive in darkness.  In fact, they like the darkness so much, they’ll do whatever they can to keep you isolated, so no one can help you end the darkness by turning on the light.

Keep that in mind the next time you’re not sure what to do.  Friends, neighbors, teachers, counselors, and parents are all there, waiting to help the best way they can.  Something inside you may say “no one can help”, but that’s the same voice that says it’s OK to eat cake for dinner—it’s never helpful.

Finding the right helper may take a couple of tries, but keep at it. Thomas Edison thought he could make a lightbulb, and a thousand failures later, he finally made one—he’d found the right combination to turn on the light.  There’s a million light bulbs in you.  Reach out, let others help you light them up, and watch them shine.

This Year’s New (School) Year Resolutions for College Counseling

By: Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

Welcome Back, and Happy New Year!  Now that schedule changes are done, let’s look ahead with a mutual commitment to the best year ever.  Start with these three resolutions, all related to college advising:

Resolve not to use college rankings as my guide for building college lists. It continues to amaze me how many counselors continue to use rankings in their work with students.  When things as simple as the number of applications received, and the number of students rejected, can move a college up or down in the rankings, it’s hard to see what any of that has to do with whether a student with a B+ average and an interest in Biology would be happy there.

It’s easy to see why parents are addicted to arbitrary lists, since they so desperately want their children to be happy, they’ll cling to anything that seems to offer some kind of guidance.  But that’s the job of someone who sees the student as a complete person, not of a company who sees them as just another customer.  In the long term, you may need to think about strengthening your parent education program in middle school and early high school, to show them the futility of relying on rankings.  For now, it’s time to set an example, and quit them yourself, cold turkey.

Resolve to learn about 20 colleges I know nothing about.  A couple of counselors have contacted me lately, saying they’re a little burned out with all they have to do.  They’re looking for something to focus on that will give them a new perspective on their work, and rekindle their energy.

Learning about some new colleges will do just that.  I teach a college counseling class online, and students have to research 10 colleges I assign them.  It’s one of the favorite part of the classes, since students learn about some pretty unique schools, like the ones where students take one class at a time, or offer BOGO scholarships for twins, or are free for every student admitted.  Other counselors pick a major that’s popular with their students—say, business—and decide to find out about 20 business schools they’ve never explored. 

It may seem odd to say that the best way to refresh your outlook on work is to do more work—but it works!  Give it a try.

Resolve to confront any counselor who uses “The Phrase.”  I’m sorry to say I continue to run into students who tell me their school counselor discouraged them from thinking about college.  It’s one thing to have a meaningful discussion with a student about options to college, but these students are talking about interactions that were cut painfully short when the counselor told them—in these words—“You aren’t college material.”

This is my 35th year in counseling, and I have never understood what that means.  With thousands of colleges offering millions of courses, does anyone really know enough to say there’s no level of college that can create new opportunities for a student?  I doubt it.

On the other hand, should Every. Single. Counselor. intuitively know the cognitive and affective damage they do to a student when they offer an assessment that’s so blunt, so cruel, and so wrong? They should.

It’s time to retire The Phrase, and, likely, most of the counselors who utter it.  If you find a colleague who still uses The Phrase because “it’s for the student’s own good”, have a chat with them, or email me, and I’ll chat with them for you.  We’re talking about kids here, not sheet metal.