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Ind. Study Ignites Debate Over Counselors' Role

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Indiana's high school guidance counselors could be steered into new professional roles themselves in the wake of a statewide study showing that the job they do leaves most students adrift.

The study has generated widespread interest with its findings of a mismatch between the aspirations and the preparation of Indiana students--much of which it links to a lack of proper guidance.

Forums on the study, which was funded by the Lilly Endowment and published by the Indiana Youth Institute, have been held throughout the state. Counselors' associations and business groups have become heavily involved in discussions of how the job of guidance counseling should be changed.

Citing the study, state education department officials have suggested changing state rules to split the counselor's job into two positions. Counselors would continue to focus on students' personal needs, under this idea, but their responsibility for helping students pick courses, colleges, and careers would be transferred to a new position requiring less education and training.

Many counselors strongly oppose the proposal, however, and they have flooded the office of the state schools chief with hundreds of letters of protest.

Stephen L. Davis, the director of student services for the state department, conceded that he has "zero support'' from counselors' organizations and counselor-educators in proposing the change. But he said his effort still has the backing of State Superintendent of Public Instruction Suellen Reed.

'All Things to All People'

All sides of the debate agree that the high school counselors' job, as currently defined, leaves those in the position overwhelmed.

This observation was recently borne out in the Indiana Youth Institute study, which surveyed more than 5,100 students, 4,700 parents, and 380 counselors.

Guidance counselors, each of whom is responsible for from 300 to 700 students, are "cast in the no-win role of trying to be all things to all people,'' the study suggests.

The counselors are "faced with myriad duties, some of which they may be overqualified or underqualified to perform,'' the report says.

Responding to the perceived desires of principals, many counselors said they devote up to three-quarters of their day to scheduling classes, helping students with personal and social problems, attending to clerical and supervisory chores, and performing discipline-related duties. But helping students plan for the future occupies less than 20 percent of most counselors' time.

Although more than two-thirds of seniors said they need information about jobs and training requirements, only 20 percent of counselors said they have enough time to supply all or most seniors with such information.

Lack of Information Cited

The impact of the counselors' priorities was evident in several of the study's other findings:

  • Less than a third of parents said they received the information they needed to help children select the right high school academic programs, and just 18 percent of high school seniors recalled counselors playing a key role in such decisions.
  • More than a third of 10th-grade counselors said the 9th-grade counselors in their schools did not design course-selection plans to meet students' education and work goals.
  • Twenty-eight percent of seniors who said they wanted to be professionals were not taking a full college-preparatory curriculum. Students desiring professional careers accounted for 39 percent of general-program and 20 percent of vocational-education enrollments.
  • Most students overestimated college costs and said they needed more help in understanding how to apply for financial aid.
  • While families said they wanted counselors to provide expert advice on colleges and the job market, the counselors often relied on over-the-counter guides available in bookstores. Fewer than half of the counselors reported having current information about the state job market, and many erred in assessing the health of various sectors of the job market.

'An Equity Issue'

The ways in which counselors spent their time contrasted with the desires of students and parents, three-quarters of whom thought Continued on Following Page
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counselors should be focused on helping students plan their futures, rather than on dealing with students' personal or social problems.

"There are guidance functions that students and their parents want and need that appear to be falling in the cracks,'' said Joan Lipsitz, the program director for education at the Lilly Endowment.

Ms. Lipsitz said she sees the failure of counselors to provide such services as "an equity issue.'' Students with affluent, well-educated parents tend to fare much better without such guidance than those at the other end of the socioeconomic spectrum, the study notes.

Training programs and certification requirements for guidance counselors, almost all of whom have master's degrees, tend to focus on the mental-health-related aspects of the job. Of the counselors surveyed, 40 percent felt inadequately trained to counsel students about college, while 10 percent felt they lack training to help students with personal problems.

Counselors Seek Support

Most counselors said they want to spend more time helping students with personal problems. Among 12th-grade counselors in the survey, 76 percent would like to spend more time in that area, while few wanted to devote more attention to meeting college recruiters or helping students find jobs or apply for college.

To relieve overburdened employees, the Indiana Counseling Association argues that schools should provide counselors with more clerical help and that other sectors of the community should be involved in helping students plan their futures.

Fred Chandler, the executive director of the association, said counselors need to remain responsible for both guidance and counseling because "some of the students have personal needs that are blocking their interest in looking at career and educational goals down the line.''

Besides, Mr. Chandler noted, the training guidance counselors receive in helping students plan their futures "gives us a lot more credibility in dealing with our peers'' in the mental-health field.

"We are competing in the marketplace with school psychologists and social workers,'' he observed.

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