Counseling: The Missing Link

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We must address the critical missing link in education reform: the need for more school counselors.

Siris Barrios and her family fled to California to escape the brutal civil war in El Salvador. As a junior high school student in central Los Angeles, she was nearly overwhelmed by racial tension, neighborhood violence, pressures to join a gang, and flashbacks to the horrors of the war. But when she entered Jordan High School, she was rescued by a caring teacher who recognized her intelligence and an attentive counselor who guided her through the college- preparation and -application process. She is now a straight-A student at California State University-Northridge, while holding part-time jobs and enduring a three-hour commute each way via public transportation.

Siris Barrios was extremely fortunate. Most California school students never see a counselor of any kind. The American School Counselor Association recommends a student-counselor ratio of 250-to-1. The current national student-counselor ratio is 561-to-1, and the California average is 1,021- to-1.

At a time when politicians and the public are devoting an increasing amount of attention to education, our country's schools are making important strides in class-size reduction, higher standards, greater accountability, and teacher preparation. Yet our work will not be complete until we address the critical missing link in education reform: the need for more school counselors. We should be doing as much to reduce student-counselor ratios as we are to reduce student-teacher ratios.

Unfortunately, our educational system takes a very cavalier approach to the identification and development of talent. We seem to presume that, somewhere along the way, a teacher, administrator, counselor, or coach will take a special interest in each student, help the young person recognize his or her strengths and abilities, and encourage the student to plan for the future. But this haphazard approach means that many young people never connect with such a mentor. The fact that counselors are the first staff members to go in many school districts when budget cuts are imposed says we haven't understood the critical importance of ensuring that all students have access to counseling.

The limited number of counselors is stretched way too thin.

Complicating the situation is the fact that the limited number of counselors is stretched way too thin. At one end, they are badgered by knowledgeable, ambitious parents who want to make sure their children get honors courses, extracurricular activities, and letters of recommendation for admission to prestigious colleges. At the other end, they are called upon to assist the most troubled students, whose very survival may depend on a counselor's intervention. The students who lie somewhere in the middle are essentially on their own when it comes to college planning, meaning that those students whose families have no prior experience with college are likely to be left behind.

The value parents attach to college counseling is evidenced by their willingness to pay $500 to $1,500 for special assistance to enhance their children's chances of getting into their colleges of choice and obtaining financial aid. The demand for this service has created a new profession of private college counselors.

Young people and their families are inundated with information about educational opportunities. Without adequate counseling, high school students have no choice but to revert to self-selection, and, too often, that is based on long-standing myths. Families of first-generation college-goers must be assisted if we are to substantially increase the number of students of different races, cultures, and backgrounds in higher education.

Thus, it is hard to overstate the importance of counselors in helping students assemble inormation and navigate the complexity of the available educational opportunities.

Good counselors are far more than academic advisers or guides in choosing a college.

Good counselors are far more than academic advisers or guides in choosing a college. They work the intersection where students move from class to class, year to year, adolescence to adulthood, confusion to a clearer sense of direction. They develop an awareness of the school climate and the need for attention to emerging problems. And, as adult role models who are not giving out grades or enforcing rules, they often earn the trust and confidence of the students they advise.

In addition, at a time when there are heavy demands on the education dollar, an investment in counseling can yield important returns for taxpayer dollars. An effective counseling program enables schools to accomplish more with the money spent on instruction and to move students toward their objectives more efficiently. The payoffs can be relatively quick and obvious: fewer dropouts; students enrolled in the right courses; earlier help for disturbed students; fewer discipline problems; higher college-going rates; more students receiving financial aid; and students more likely to enroll in appropriate postsecondary education programs.

Counseling can be the glue that holds it all together. We have been working on class-size reduction, higher standards, and greater accountability. We are now beginning to address the importance of preparing more and better-qualified school administrators. To complete the job, we need to be sure we have enough qualified counselors. They function at the nexus of good teaching, enlightened administrative leadership, and active parental and community support. With enough counselors on hand, teachers and administrators can better focus on their primary responsibilities.

An investment in counseling can yield important returns for taxpayer dollars.

Last year's shootings at Columbine High School drew much-needed national attention to the importance of counseling. That tragic incident helped the American public recognize that properly trained counselors can help schools identify and arrange appropriate treatment for emotionally volatile and potentially dangerous students.

Now is the time to focus on the importance of counseling for all our students, especially those young people like Siris Barrios whose talents have yet to be discovered. Everyone sharing responsibility for young people—governors, legislatures, school boards, parents— should carefully consider the benefits of heavier investment in counseling. The provision of high-quality, readily accessible counseling must be at the heart of a culture that is committed to enabling each individual to realize his or her full potential. With adequate counseling, we will reap the full benefits of education reform.

Charles W. Lindahl is the associate vice chancellor of academic affairs for the California State University system in Long Beach, Calif.

Vol. 20, Issue 7, Pages 37, 41

Published in Print: October 18, 2000, as Counseling: The Missing Link
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