A recent report released by the National Association for College Admission Counseling found that only 29% of public schools surveyed had a full-time or part-time counselor who is solely focused on college admission counseling, compared with 48% of private schools. Furthermore, public school counselors across the U.S. in the 2016-17 school year were responsible for an average of 455 students each—well over the student-to-counselor ratio of 250:1 recommended by the American School Counselor Association. If we expect our students to be well prepared and have the necessary tools to enter college or other postsecondary education and training after high school, we must do better.
The school counseling profession has gone through tremendous growth and change since the early 1900s, when Frank Parsons and his Bread Winners Institute in Boston advocated for the need to assist students in finding a career. The school counseling movement accelerated considerably upon completion of World War II, when returning veterans sought higher education opportunities and needed assistance in that process, as Congress saw a need to have more workers enter the math and science field to keep up with the Russians in the Space Race. School counseling—while proud of its history rooted in career and vocational education—has also developed alongside the tremendous growth in the academic and social/emotional needs of students.
Our increasingly complex society and lifestyle has created many more issues that today’s young people must navigate in order to be successful and productive citizens. The National Alliance for the Mentally Ill reports than one in every six youth today has a mental health disorder, often undiagnosed and not treated. Furthermore, half of all children under age 17 have experienced some sort of traumatic event and nearly a third have experienced two or more such events, according to ACESTooHigh, a news site that reports on research about adverse childhood experiences. The site also reports research showing that students experiencing mental health challenges and who have experienced traumatic events early in life are much more likely to struggle in school and find it harder to overcome daily tasks compared to students who have not had such experiences.
New England can be proud of school counselors who are working differently from those in the past to support all students achieving their fullest potential. The school counselor of today wears many hats but most importantly serves all students, not just the ones who have the skills, maturity and drive to seek help. School counselors are transforming the way students succeed. Whether it is advising individuals, small groups or an entire classroom, today’s school counselor delivers a proactive program focusing not only on career and postsecondary goals, but also on improving academic performance, dropout prevention and responsive services dealing with issues such as depression, suicide and loss.
Counselors support families navigating the often-challenging pathway to higher education. They are change agents who are critical to the reform efforts that are currently underway to ensure New England remains a leader in high-quality postsecondary education. Additionally, school counselors are leaders in their schools with specific training in data collection and interpretation to accomplish the school’s mission and provide interventions that give students the targeted help that they need.
Gone are the days of the “guidance counselor” sitting in his office waiting for the student to voluntarily seek out assistance or telling a student he will never get accepted to college. The Massachusetts School Counselors Association has produced a counseling model or formal a uniform and consistent way for counselors to better provide services to students and families.
Similar to curriculum frameworks that teachers use to know what to teach in each subject at each grade level, the MA Model provides counselors across all grade levels the major activities which they should and should not be doing. Using data more effectively to provide targeted services to those who need it the most, providing classroom lessons about reducing stress and anxiety and advocating for underrepresented students who need more support are in. Covering lunch duty, coordinating and proctoring tests and performing disciplinary actions are out.
The problem is that, as the data suggests, far too many students are assigned to a counselor who does not have the adequate time or resources to provide them the services they need and deserve. While student-to-counselor ratios in New Hampshire and Vermont are fairly respectable (220-1 in N.H. and 197-1 in Vt.), caseloads in Connecticut (460-1), Rhode Island (424-1), Massachusetts (410-1) and Maine (322-1) are unacceptable. There is no possible way that any one person can realistically provide the necessary services and support to such a high caseload of students.
Effective school counselors have a pulse of the school. What makes them unique is that they work with all school constituencies—students, parents, staff, administration, school boards and community members—differently from other educators. School counselors are often in the position to know what is happening because of these unique relationships, and that makes them critical cogs in any reform movement. For example, school counselors might find that low-income students are not taking Advanced Placement courses and tests like their upper-income peers. By advocating for this group, counselors can ensure equal access to higher level coursework which can lead to significant advantages in college.
Additionally, what is being asked of overworked school counselors usually makes no sense. Often, the only person in a school who is has to earn 48 or more graduate credits in career and college development, mental health disorders or dropout prevention, the counselor also the first person to be asked to cover lunch duty, organize the state testing program or cover a class when no other substitute is available. This is counterintuitive when those “other tasks” can be done by someone with little or no formal training.
It’s time for school district leaders and policymakers to get serious about changing these disturbing trends. If we really care about whether Johnny is able to successfully navigate the demands of high school and the college application and admission process, Suzie feels safe enough to come to school and Chris does not threaten the safety of the school building, then we have to do more. Do we want New England to be a leader or a follower? The status quo is no longer an option. What can we do to change this narrative?
Bob Bardwell is executive director of the Massachusetts School Counselors Association and director of school counseling & school-to-career coordinator with the Monson (Mass.) Public Schools.
National School Counseling Week, February 3-7, will feature events all across the country. In Massachusetts, the 2020 School Counselor of the Year, school counselors and their supporters will gather for a special recognition ceremony at the State House on February 4 to celebrate and receive a proclamation from the Executive Office.