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School Counselors Should Be Integrated Into Reform Efforts, New Book Argues

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Public school counselors typically lack a coherent philosophy and adequate training, and they are often inaccessible, two researchers argue in a book published last month by the College Board.

Although the number of school counselors is dwindling nationwide and their responsibilities are mounting, the authors contend that counselors nevertheless must be integrated into the school-reform effort.

"Counselors are pivotal in helping to reduce the considerable waste of [students'] human talent ... when they are willing to make waves instead of accepting the status quo,'' said Phyllis Hart, one of the authors of From Gatekeeper to Advocate: Transforming the Role of the School Counselor.

In 1990, public schools had a student-counselor ratio of 551 to one, according to the U.S. Education Department. The American School Counselors Association considers one counselor for every 300 students the maximum acceptable ratio.

Numbers vary, but in urban areas like Los Angeles, for example, counselors who once advised 250 students now have 650 under their care, according to a survey cited in the book.

The counselor's role today involves more than scheduling classes, monitoring attendance, advising on college, and reporting to parents, the authors say. They must police for drugs, monitor hallways, and act as surrogate parents to students with increasingly complex problems and needs.

Because of these additional pressures, counselors have tended to be more reactive than proactive in their methods, the authors argue.

Rethinking the Profession

The increased needs of students necessitate a revision of the entire guidance system, the authors say. They call for more stringent professional preparation and licensing requirements, increased in-service training, and a new attitude on delivering services to students.

"The leading cause of school dropout is alienation,'' said Ms. Hart, the book's primary author and manager of school services for the Achievement Council, a nonprofit group that promotes educational equity.

"The underlying philosophy of the counselor should be to enable students to achieve at the highest possible level,'' added her co-author, Maryann Jacobi.

But the majority of counselors have been trained to play the role of therapist and are not taught to deal with such practical educational issues as college admissions, classroom teaching styles, and staff development, the authors contend.

When they do address academics, counselors sometimes do more harm than good, as when they enforce a tracking system mandated by the school, the authors argue. Tracking, they say, encourages counselors to differentiate between students and serves to limit student achievement.

"If [vocational] tracked students want to attend college, they may not have access to information about admissions requirements, testing, and financial aid,'' Ms. Hart added.

The vague job description of the school counselor is another impediment to success, the authors note.

"Because they don't carry a roll book, and they don't teach geometry, people think they just sit around and drink coffee,'' Ms. Hart said.

Since they are not trained to provide direct psychological care, counselors should coordinate rather than deliver services, Ms. Hart said, and they should serve as advocates for their students by working with parents, training teachers in counseling approaches, and helping set school policy.

"When counselors are armed with strategies, they can become the academic conscience of the school,'' Ms. Hart said. "But most of the time, they are left out of the equation.''

Copies of the book may be ordered by calling Anne Buckley at the College Board at (212) 713-8000.

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