High school counseling and individualized plans are key to student success

Note: This is my entry to the Thomas B. Fordham Institute Wonkathon contest.

   Exactly two years ago, March 2016, I was in the trenches as a high school special education teacher. I would leap from classroom to classroom, borrowing them from the general education teachers during their prep time. I was trying to balance my job as an expert in mathematics, life science and physical science with learning the ropes of classroom management and IEP (Individualized Education Plan) creation and implementation. I was exhausted and determined, but in the end, I didn’t have what it takes. One day, my graduate school professors realized I was more of a one-track mind, better at working one on one than a classroom full of kids. The next day, I left the trenches for good, leaving myself exposed but confident in using my experiences to shape our nation’s education policies.

   If schools are to raise outcomes for every student, they need to provide more 1-1 counseling interactions that leave them with a set of actionable goals. Students should graduate high school based on them receiving a base-level liberal arts education and achieving a self-created action plan, akin to the IEPs we provide students in special education. Requiring these personal development plans would mean that schools are responsible for providing the resources for everyone’s success. I know all too well that as kind-hearted as we are in the education field, often the only thing that compels a school to offer more resources to a student is the menacing legal document of the IEP that’s ready to drop a gavel of them.

   Graduation scandals where half the students are absent for more than three months cannot happen in places where counselors are actively building relationships with their students. In my work as a college counselor at a smaller secondary school, I am fortunate to have the chance to build detailed and personalized plans that address personal ambitions and tie them to specific academic and career interests. For instance, when a student is interested in journalism, their plan might include taking a creative writing course, publishing on Medium, dream journaling and submitting an entry to the Signet Classics Student Scholarship Essay Contest. Entrepreneurially minded students always pull my mind in different directions. Their plan can include actions as varied as starting a store on Etsy, researching agricultural trends, taking AP Economics, learning computer programming or investing in cryptocurrencies.

   For high school to be as useful and enriching as possible, guidance counseling needs to be put at the forefront of the graduation requirements debate. Research by Sink and Strough and Gysbers and Sun has found a correlation between strong college counseling and academic performance.

   According to the American School Counselor Association (ASCA), the average student-to-school-counselor ratio is around 480:1, well above the recommended ratio of 250 to 1. The hesitation to add more counselors comes from their misguided lumping with “administrative costs” and the common trope of school counselors being random people who just stumbled onto the job. In the episode Morty’s Mind Blowers from the show Rick and Morty, Morty says, “I’m sure he’s qualified to be a guidance counselor. I mean, who isn’t?”. And to be fair, I’m probably not helping the cause by going into the profession right after my gig as a teacher.

   In reality, counselors are experts and lower student-to-counselor ratio is key to making sure students feel they have a place within their school. An expertly trained person can come up with a plan for anyone. Schools with an action plan requirement will be doing their part to make sure that the “average student” is getting serviced, when they are often overlooked in favor of highly talented and high behavioral kids.

   In the case of my community, the counselors are a major driver for students to choose the smaller charter school I work at. Uziel Gomez ’19 said, “The teachers here give you more attention. They prepare you and help you meet your goal. If I have to say the people that affected me the most, it would be [the counselors] Mrs. Chavez and Ms. Brown. I like that I can really talk to them. They would encourage me to go far away for college and to not let the money stop me from going. Now I’m not scared to go to an out-of-state college.”

   On a policy level, the way the plans would work is that each year, students will be required to create a set of goals (at least one each) in the realms of mental health, wellness, education, and career. These realms are pulled from the American Counseling Association (ACA) governing council’s official definition of counseling. The plans created from 9th to 11th grade would be non-binding, although they would be reviewed together with their high school counselor. That way a student can put in their plan that they want to sign up for the talent show and take first place at the Battle of the Bands and not be afraid to fail. High school graduation would be contingent on passing the liberal arts curriculum and meeting the goals outlined in the 12th grade action plan.

   To ensure transparency and accountability, every senior’s plan would be uploaded onto the high school’s website with the names blacked out. Community members, taxpayers, and outside agencies would be able to track what students are doing and what directions they tend to head towards. Every graduating senior would also create a resume that’s published publicly in a lookbook in PDF format on the schools’ website.

   It’s my hope that as this idea continues to get scrutinized that policymakers realize how realistic and helpful it is. Rather than fearing a nightmare scenario where a girl puts in her plan that she wants to literally be Cinderella, fails, and then sues the district for a million dollars, I would like to have faith in the power of expertise. After a healthy dialogue, I expect there to be guidelines as to what constitutes a goal that is binding for graduation and legal purposes.

   And if there was anyone hand wringing when reading this piece, I would like to bring us back to why this matters. In this digital age, all too often “personalized learning” has come to mean a software program with an intelligent algorithm. We can’t forget the original personalized learning: one-on-one, human to human interactions. High school counseling, done by a person, is still important. I have seen with my eyes the power of counseling and creating action plans. It’s time that every high school student in America sees it too.



MyOn: A Review

Bottom Line: The children’s e-book site MyOn is enjoyable, in the way a bowl of sugary cereal is. There are reasons to be cautious about it.

   MyOn promises to spread literacy by offering any kid with an internet connection access to more than 20,000 books. But how does it stack up?

   Every review I’ve read on the program has said nothing but praise. Therefore, I have to be the person that breaks up the parade.

   I get that it’s difficult to critique MyOn because it’s a program kids love. They have smiles on their faces when the teachers give them their 20 minutes with it a day. It is a total lifesaver during standardized testing because it keeps the early finishers perfectly placated. For the lowest kids who can’t read on their own, MyOn reads any book out loud to them. So when looking for online learning programs to put on trial, MyOn has managed to slip by.

   So where are the problems? Why do I get frustrated with a program that allows kids to read for free? The issues are: MyOn is mistakenly placed on the same level or higher to print books, is devoid of classic children’s books, is saturated with low-quality books, contributes to the fragmentation of our culture, and is sometimes used as a replacement for libraries.

   Because the elementary students using MyOn have never seen a time before the program’s existence, the usually see it as equal or even better to reading physical books or books published by major publishers like Scholastic. (One notable exception is my student I’m a 1-1 aide for who finds MyOn books “boring”.) Students often prefer MyOn because it makes it easy for them to load up their queue with as many books as they want. For instance, if a student’s favorite subject is say, cars, they can spend the whole period looking up cars books, adding them to their list and scrolling back and forth through their covers (For any gamers out there, it’s like the famed people who spend more time adding to their Steam collection than playing the games they bought.).

A small sampling of the searching rabbit hole that kids find themselves in with MyOn. They can spend the whole time adding books onto their collections as if they were collectables.

Most of the books on MyOn are straightforward, with zany fonts and fun facts about the chosen topic. You aren’t going to find any world-renowned authors or proven non-fiction brands like National Geographic or TIME.

   I once had a student pout when I pulled him out of MyOn time and into guided reading. I usually wouldn’t care to entertain him, but I’ve had the program on my mind. I asked him why he preferred reading books on MyOn. He stated with confidence that MyOn books are more educational. I asked, “How so?” He replied, “There are more history books. Like I just read all of the books on UFOs and I learned that though people sometimes don’t believe they’re real, they’re real.” I wish there was a way for students like him to distinguish these TMZ-like barely history books and more substantial ones.

   When I say “substantial” books, I mean exposure to literary classics. As a woman of color, I know that often what is called a classic is based off of male Eurocentric standards. But this does not mean that all books have the same merit. There is such a thing as classics, and in my definition I include works written by women and people of color. American culture is enriched when students from disparate parts of the nation all have a common understanding of the classics, like A Wrinkle in Time, The Snow Queen, Winnie the Pooh and Their Eyes Were Watching God. These are stories with valuable messages and deep philosophical undertones that every child deserves to know about. With MyOn, it is too easy to skip over these works and get trapped only reading Where’s Waldo type hidden objects books or that 6th Bigfoot fact or fiction book.

   My last concern with MyOn stems from some teachers and students believing it is a replacement to physical libraries, rather than a supplement. When faced with the problem of kids not reading enough at home, my teacher started giving out home reading logs. Because she was afraid that some kids wouldn’t have books at home, she said they could use MyOn or Get Epic! (A MyOn competitor). Not once did she recommend they get a library card.

   Worse of all, USA Today reports that for the Emma Jewel Charter Academy school district, “a traditional ‘bricks and mortar’ library was not financially feasible.” MyOn was deemed a good enough replacement for all of these kids. Even with the traditional concerns about too much screen time, this is an unacceptable solution.

   Every child deserves exposure to the larger variety of books that MyOn does not offer. Being low-income should not mean not having access to the wonders of a library and to the brain-stretching powers of reading print books.

   Luckily, my school has not gone that far; the above was more of a cautionary story. However, we can do better to promote a balanced literary diet that can have both the quick, sugary MyOn fix and the heartiness of cozying up to a book that inside contains a tale as old as time.



Welcome and Introduction!

Hello everyone!

If you are reading this, I first want to say thank you for giving me a chance 🙂 For now, this blog will be anonymous and so my job in this post is to make myself sound as credible as possible without giving too much of myself away.

I am currently an Instructional Aide at a high-performing charter school. This is after I’ve had a hectic two years post-graduation working in four different districts besides this current one. I wanted to become a teacher. And I tried. I really tried and I know my graduate school really tried too, as they moved me from school to school finding the right spot for me. But at the end of the day, teaching, at least in the format of having a dedicated classroom of 30-130 students each day, wasn’t for me.

I’m still completely submerged in the education system, working at an elementary school and occasionally at a high school as a college counselor. I debated when was the right time to share my thoughts on what’s going right and wrong with the education system. I thought about waiting until I was out of the system so that I can be free to share my opinions. However, I feel now is the right time as my memories can still be fresh and I can react in real time to any evolving trends as they happen.

My ultimate goal in life is to be an advocate for students, so that they can have a better education system. Currently, I am trying to study the Law, so that one day I can pass new laws and repeal unnecessary ones.

Join me as I take you through my experiences working in the best and worst school environments (Hint: It’s pretty good right now). I will show you how what they are doing connects with current trends regarding education policy as a whole. We might also have more general education, technology or politics posts, so look out for those too!