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Move Counseling Off the Back Burner of Reform

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Since the release of A Nation At Risk a decade ago, few aspects of American education have escaped the reach of one or another reform initiative. Conspicuously missing, however, has been the work of the school counselor and the counseling programs available to students in the K-12 years.

Why, in an increasingly complicated age, should counseling be relegated to the back burner of school reform? There are a number of possible reasons, from the relatively small size and scant political clout of the counseling community to the poor public and professional understanding of the roles performed by counselors (a deficiency for which counselors themselves must unfortunately bear much of the blame). In far too many schools and districts, counseling services are categorized as ancillary, adjunct, or auxiliary in nature; meaning "nice but not necessary'' to many.

In addition, however, the education-reform movement caught school counseling in a period of drift, a search for identity. On the one hand were those who believe that counselors should view the child or adolescent in purely holistic terms--that they should be "generalists'' and address a host of personal, social, emotional, educational, and career-development matters. Proponents of this view have gone so far as to suggest that the school counselor isn't even an educator, but rather a mental-health professional who happens to work in a school.

An opposing view--and the one to which I subscribe--is that school counseling should focus first on the child or adolescent as a student, a learner, and that counseling activities should be designed and delivered in ways that promote educational success. This view fully appreciates the personal, social, and emotional aspects of student development--and how they affect learning--but it would have counselors address such issues in collaboration with psychologists, social workers, and related health and mental-health professionals, both in the school and through community delivery systems.

This view presents the school counselor as an educator, one clearly associated with promoting academic achievement and facilitating educational and career transitions. Ironically, it was this definition that was prominent during the 1960's and 70's, a time when the counseling ranks quadrupled--from 14,643 in 1959-60 to 63,973 in 1980.

Counselors, who numbered about 89,500 in the last federal count, are fortunate that the reform movement has been so slow in launching change. Had change been rapid, they could have been left at the starting gate. Now, with the whole of education engaged in a broad-based reassessment of structures and assumptions, the counseling community has an opportunity to become an active player in reform. But to do so, it must clearly establish its identity--and its relevance.

That process might well begin with a thorough evaluation--and answers to the following important questions:

  • Is counseling serving the needs of students?
  • Are counselors equipped to perform the important responsibilities associated with their work?
  • Is the counseling program efficient, effective, and fair?
  • How can counselors and counseling programs change to be more viable and visible in the future?
  • How can the counseling program become more integrated into the mission of the school and the role of counselors be made more integral to the learning experience of students?

Too many American students do not receive adequate assistance in how to study, how to choose courses in secondary school, or how to decide what they want to do after high school--including future education and employment. A 1990 study by the U.S. Education Department found that while two-thirds of 8th graders in the nation planned to finish college or beyond, only one-third planned to enroll in a college-preparatory program in high school. One-fourth of the 8th-grade students did not know what high school studies they should pursue.

In the 1987 study High School, Ernest L. Boyer reported that one-half of the secondary students interviewed said they did not have enough facts to make informed decisions about which postsecondary institutions they would apply to for admission, and parents expressed an even stronger need to be informed.

However, the most significant evidence that counselors are not adequately responding to the needs of students comes directly from the mouths of the current senior class. When asked where counselors should focus greater attention, three-fourths of those responding to a recent survey by the National Association of College Admission Counselors and Careers and Colleges magazine cited one of the following areas of educational assistance: college and postsecondary education plans (30 percent), high school course selection (28 percent), and study skills and habits (17 percent). Only 11 percent of the seniors surveyed called for greater attention to personal and social matters.

All of these findings are indicative of the unfocused counseling programs too common in the nation's schools--and of the cadre of school counselors whose professional knowledge, skills, and competence need to be redirected.

Schools or counselors that want to bring the counseling and guidance function more in line with where education reform is going in America must, in my estimation, do the following:

  • Refocus the philosophy by which guidance and counseling services are offered in the school. I miss the old days when guiding students was our first priority. For many students, counselors would become more viable and a whole lot less mysterious if they would simply engage in some form of assistance that points the student toward a set of reasonable educational goals or options and identifies the path or paths that should be followed to get from point A to point B.

If schools were to create guidance and counseling initiatives that focus on the promotion of academic achievement and the facilitation of educational and career transitions, they would take a giant step in bringing those initiatives in line with the educational-reform movement. Counselors would then be integral to the mission of educational reform, not ancillary, adjunct, or auxiliary.

  • Establish a K-12 guidance and counseling program as a part of a comprehensive, articulated pupil-service effort that serves all students. A program that begins in preschool or kindergarten and continues throughout the schooling experience for all students can truly serve in a developmental, preventative manner. It can identify educational and developmental concerns while they are still concerns: before they blossom into fullblown problems requiring remediation or crisis-intervention strategies.

This approach also suggests that all students are viewed and served equally. It focuses on inclusion rather than the separation and treatment of students by some type of classification (for example, potential dropout or college-bound underachiever). It permits the counselor to work more effectively throughout the educational experience with parents, teachers, and administrators, and with the psychologists, social workers, and other service providers in the school and community. Then, and only then, can our schools address the complex personal, social, and emotional matters that affect our students.

  • Establish reasonable counselor-pupil ratios. When I hear of a case of poor counselor effectiveness, I question whether those engaged in the criticism are evaluating the quality of counseling or the availability of counseling. There is a difference. It is not unusual today to see counselors in our urban and rural communities working with 500, 600, and greater numbers of students.

Counselors need to work with reasonable numbers of students and both the N.A.C.A.C. and the American School Counselor Association have recommended that the ratio be between 1 to 100 (ideal) and 1 to 300 (maximum). Schools must also provide adequate clerical and support staff to insure that the counselor's full attention is devoted to student service. Students should also have access to a full range of services offered by psychologists, social workers, and related health- and special-service providers offered through the school and in collaboration with public and private agencies in the community.

Until workable counselor-pupil ratios exist in every school and school district, counselors must first learn and then use techniques that maximize their exposure with students, employing "brief intervention'' strategies with individuals as well as creative uses of group counseling and guidance techniques.

  • Pay particular attention to the underserved. One of the more telling findings of the College Board report Keeping the Options Open was that school counseling programs address students' needs for counseling differentially: that is, "an individual's race or economic status may affect the quality and/or availability of services rendered.'' This failure to serve has been a contributing factor, in my estimation, to the underrepresentation of students of color and the economically disadvantaged in postsecondary education. Until the "have nots'' are exposed to the same counseling assistance as the "haves,'' the goal of equal opportunity and access for all of our students will not be achieved.
  • Change the pre-service and in-service training of counselors. Much of what counselors do can be traced to their personal educational experiences in the counselor-education programs in our colleges and universities. Those experiences have failed to view the counselor as an educator, one whose primary responsibility is to assist the student in realizing his or her full potential as a learner.

Counselors are prepared today with generic skills that may or may not have application with students in an educational environment. Very few counselors are taught learning theory or the relationship of learning to human growth and development. A recent master's-degree graduate of a well-known counselor-education program told me of taking a graduate course in educational measurement and never once hearing the term "admission test.'' As the executive director of an educational association of counselors, I find it appalling that practicing counselors must attend workshops of my association, the College Board, and other educational organizations to acquire the basic tools and knowledge required to help students explore educational alternatives and make decisions about their educational and career futures. Sadly, the counselor-education community has been challenged about these matters and has chosen to ignore them. Schools and school districts should refuse to hire their graduates if they are incapable of responding to the educational-counseling needs of students.

Until we bring about this much-needed change in the way counselors are educated, the institutions that employ counselors and their professional organizations must bear a special responsibility for filling these preparation voids through in-service and professional-education programs.

Counseling could have been left at the starting gate in 1983, or at any of the consequent points when one or another of the many reform reports called for change in our educational structure and in the manner in which we educate our students. That has not happened, and counselors have a renewed opportunity to make our work integral to the mission of American education. We must begin by identifying student needs and then constructing counseling programs and services that are clearly responsive to those needs.

We must experiment with new and innovative ways of promoting academic achievement through guidance and counseling activities. We must help our students understand the full range of educational and career options and how to access these opportunities. We must engage in the ongoing evaluation of our work to show us how to become more effective and more capable of extending our reach. Finally, we must join hands with teachers, administrators, fellow student-service providers, and others who contribute to making American education better for our students and for all those who follow. This could be our last chance.

Frank Burtnett is the executive director of the National Association of College Admission Counselors. He has been a teacher, counselor, guidance director, and state counseling supervisor.

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