Wednesday, November 18, 2020

A Different Thanksgiving, Sort Of

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

We all kind of figured we would be in a different place this Thanksgiving, but we really had no idea it was going to be this different. Last Thanksgiving, we were speculating how different college admissions would be, now that the Justice Department told NACAC it could no longer enforce a code of ethics that was counted on to keep students sane and colleges on the straight and narrow. We wondered if the Harvard decision, allowing the use of race in college admissions, would change very much—or would the ruling itself be changed by the US Supreme Court? And, on the lighter side, we wondered just how many cable movies it would take before The Hallmark Channel made a Varsity Blues Christmas show.

I don’t know about you, but I’d gladly have those be my biggest concerns now. Our profession saw radical change right before St. Patrick’s Day, when college campuses were closed, SAT tests were cancelled, and students with plans to demonstrate interest in a college had to do so without ever setting foot on campus. We college admissions folks are an inventive bunch, so we’ve taken to the airwaves to meet students and show off colleges, reduced the value of standardized tests, and asked students to talk about what the quarantine has done to their college plans. In a profession where change is glacial, we turned the Titanic on a dime and dodged most of the major icebergs—and wow, are we tired.

Thanksgiving has always been an important time for most of us to put our feet up and consider the big picture, and thank goodness that hasn’t changed. Once you catch your breath, consider where we need to head as we look at our new reality:

Numbers look bad, especially for low income students. The stock market lost a third of its value in March, as families watched their college funds literally fall apart. The market rebounded in time, but the job market didn’t, and neither did the confidence of many families in colleges’ abilities to take care of their children. This was particularly true for low income families, as FAFSA filings dropped 16 percent last year, and the number of students requesting Common App fee waivers this year is down about as much, as of now.

Early Application Numbers are Down. Many colleges are reporting double-digit drops in the number of Early Action and Early Decision applicants, leading many to wonder if colleges are still going to take a disproportionately high percentage of its class from these programs, or open up more slots to students who apply on a regular deadline. The answer is the first—colleges jones on Early programs like you get a buzz on Aunt Marie’s oversalted stuffing—but given the uncertainties of the economy, that could in turn lead to more Early defaults, if students get to this spring and find they just can’t afford their first choice.

Juniors are in need of some guidance—er, counseling. Many colleges made ACT and SAT scores options for this year’s seniors for one simple reason—not enough seniors could take the test, since test dates were being cancelled with the last-minute panache of an absent-minded valedictorian. With December testing cancelled in most of the US, juniors are wondering if they’re going to get the same assistance, not having to choose taking a test you say doesn’t matter this year over, say, their health.

These issues won’t need answers by December 1, but they will need the benefit of fully recharged hearts and minds, just the kind of break we’re used to getting at Thanksgiving. Family and friends may be quarantining this year instead of gathering around our hearth—or, sadly, gone from us too soon—but there is still much to be grateful for.

Justice Department or not, ours is largely an ethical and thoughtful profession, not because it has to be by some code of ethics, but because we choose it to be. This is the same reason why efforts to diversify college campuses will continue in every legal way possible, no matter where the appellate path of the Harvard case may take us. And, happily, there is no sign of any Christmas movie trailer where Taylor Swift is holding a Fiske Guide.

So let’s take a page from a different Christmas movie, and be grateful for the chance to right some new wrongs, and know we are there for each other as we move forward. Aunt Marie’s stuffing may have to wait, but our gratitude for our ability to change the world in our work makes a pretty nifty meal all its own.

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Why Johnny Can’t Remotely Learn

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

There is nothing—and I mean nothing—more mind numbing on this earth than educational data. Don’t believe me? Answer this question:

Your country is humming along, business as usual, when a worldwide pandemic knocks at your door. Thinking it might be a good idea to make sure your children are safe, you close the schools for a while, but keep teaching the students. Some students are now learning online, and some are learning through remote lessons they pick up and drop off, but one thing is certain—they have never, ever, learned like this before.

Here’s the question. Do they learn as much from this new way as they do from the way they’ve known for their entire life?

Take your time.

Right. This is kind of like asking, would you score as many points if you bowled with your other hand? And yet, now that data is out with average grades and test scores (yes, they are lower), the wailing and gnashing of teeth in certain corners of the world would lead you to believe this issue is the pandemic, not one of its byproducts. Just what, the critics shriek, were we thinking?

Happily, since we’re talking education here, there are two answers. First and foremost, we were thinking we didn’t want to kill our students. Even if the testing and the grades are right, and America’s future doesn’t have as tight a grip on the Pythagorean Theorem as we’d like, we still get to see their smiling faces at dinner, and tuck them in their beds at night. So there’s that.

The second answer is a little less obvious—we weren’t thinking. In what couldn’t be a better example of how NOT to do something, our educational complex was so busy converting everything to remote instruction, no one stopped and asked, Are the students gonna know how to use this stuff?

If you don’t think that’s important, think about what would happen if all bakeries in the US had to start using the metric system. In a day.

Are you going to buy bread there for a while, or wait until they worked things out?

Never mind that most teachers have never taught remotely (that’s a huge factor) and we were asking them to start doing it and be great at it in a week. At what point did we sit the students down and say “Part of this will seem the same, but most of it is different. Here’s how to handle that.” When did we say the same thing to parents? Nannies? Elderly neighbors who watch the kids while the parents cling to their jobs?

But wait—it gets better. Not only did we not think of this last spring; it also didn’t occur to us over the entire summer. Knowing most schools were going to still use some kind of remote learning this fall, did we convene blue ribbon panels on best practices for remote teaching and offer online seminars to all teachers for free? Did we secure the support of movie stars who have lots of time on their hands and produce social media products on TIkTok and YouTube, showing students the importance of how to learn, not just what to learn? Did we produce 30 minute seminars that offered gift card giveaways for students to try these skills out before they actually needed them?

And we’re worried the kids don’t know the Pythagorean Theorem.

The tough part? Experts already exist in these fields. We’re a couple of phone calls away from organizing a dozen online conferences that can produce meaningful change in remote learning and teaching in a matter of hours. Handel wrote the Messiah in three weeks. The late great funkmaster Rick James allegedly wrote a million selling album overnight. We’re about 20 hours away from turning the educational tide for the better, and what’s really on our minds? Who the next Secretary of Education will be.

No offense, but if you’re looking for educational leadership, start by looking in the mirror and picking up the phone.

Or not.

Wednesday, November 4, 2020

Bearing Witness to the Birth of a Dream

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

High school students have this interesting way of announcing themselves. Most of them stop at the office door, say hello to me by name, and wait to be invited in. Those that don’t do that tend to simply hover, hoping their mere presence will inspire me to look up from my computer screen and see them there. (One or two—all boys—simply walk in to the office and sit down, saying nothing. This only happens once.)

That’s why I was expecting to see an adult when I looked up to see who was knocking on my office door—what 17 year-old knocks? It was one of my high school seniors, a fabulously bright, good-natured girl, who never caused anyone any trouble. She usually didn’t knock; combined with the way she was clutching her books tightly about her, it was clear something was on her mind.

I pushed aside the paperwork that was engaging my time—a school administrator once told me this is way to show someone you are paying attention to them—and the senior started with her story.

“I sent my application into State U, and I still haven’t heard anything from them. I know it’s only been three weeks, but some of my friends have already heard, and I was wondering if…you could check on my status.”

My caseload was insanely high that year, but I remembered this student for several reasons. Her grades were immaculate, and her test scores were about twice the average for State U, so I knew she was going to be admitted, or I was going to have to walk the 80 miles to State U and kick some sense into someone. I also knew that her being incredibly bright was news to her, which meant it was killing her and her awful self-esteem to ask for help like this.

That was all the reason I needed to support her wish. This was a time when we could pick up the phone—a rotary dial phone, thank you—and call the secretary of the admissions office, who would gladly tell me anything I wanted to know about any student, provided I knew the student’s Social Security number. The FERPA police would have a field day with all of this today, but back then, that’s how things got done.

And so it went this time. I told the secretary why I was calling, and my student perked up considerably when I asked her to provide me with her SSN, three digits at a time.

“Let me see” the secretary said, tapping her way through a couple of computer screens, until she evidently found one with the student’s grades and test scores. “Oh my yes, I would think… let me see if they’ve… yes, they read her file yesterday, and we’ll get her welcome letter out in the mail tomorrow.”

This entire transaction took about 90 seconds, and I have to admit, the results were so predictable to both me and the secretary, my heart didn’t exactly skip a beat when she told me State U was smart enough to admit this student. Instead of being a gushing counselor-cheerleader, I hung up the phone and turned towards my file drawer to pull out this student’s record—but in doing this, my back was now to the student. “OK” I said over my shoulder, eager to keep up with the paperwork of her file, “Congratulations. You’ve been admitted.”

The only sound in my office for the next few seconds was that of my pen scraping against the tagboard form in her file, the one where college decisions are recorded. It was broken by a voice even too meek to be hers, and yet it was.


I turned to see two full tears streaming down her cheeks, and a self-effacing smile that told me, her best dream had just come true. I put down my pen, and we just sat there, basking in the glow of acceptance for a while.

I was always in less of a hurry to keep up with the paperwork when working with students after that. Sure, her grades and scores told me she was going to college, but that was my job, while this was her dream. How often does anyone get to bear witness to the birth of a dream?

Fast forward, and I came home from work one day, where my wife greeted me with some news. “We’re invited to a graduation party. It’s this Sunday, and the invitation is from Lisa, your student.”

I have to admit, the food didn’t appeal to me much—too many vegetables and way too much eggplant. But the look on Lisa’s face made the day worthwhile, and I was humbled by the chance to join her in wishing the very best to the guest of honor. The party was for her daughter, about thirty years after that day in the office. She was heading to nursing school, the next generation in her family to go to college.

My name is Patrick O’Connor, college farmer, dream weaver.