Glaciers and Guidance Counselors

I recently had occasion to vacation in Glacier National Park.  Did you know that according to recent predictions, the glaciers in the park will be completely melted by 2020?  Rangers (darkly) joked with us that they’ll need a new name for the park.

But did you also know that a similar change is happening to guidance departments in public schools?  A new report just released by the College Board Advocacy and Policy Center includes a startling look at what guidance counselors actually do – and don’t do – in today’s schools.  As it turns out, their traditional role has melted away just as surely and inexorably as have those pearly caps on our American Alps.  So much so, in fact, the title “guidance counselor” may no longer be appropriate.

Bigger Mountains = Smaller Glaciers

Let’s start with the core issue: Guidance counselors are completely overloaded.  According to the report, the national average ratio of counselors to students is 467 to 1.  This is actually down from a ratio of 506 to 1 in 1997.

Things are worse in Indiana, which ranks 44th with a ratio of 543 to 1.  The recommended ratio is 250 to 1, but only four states (Louisiana, New Hampshire, Vermont and Wyoming) actually meet this guideline.    But impossible caseload ratios only tell part of the story.

From Icebergs to Sno Cones

When most people think of guidance counselors, they probably think of helping students get ready for college.  In reality, however, only 22.8% of public school counselors’ time is spent on post-secondary admission counseling (compared to 54.4% in private schools).

It’s hard to believe that less than a quarter of a full-time guidance counselor’s time is enough to help 500 or so students and families climb the mountain of post-secondary planning, including choosing programs, applying to schools, filling out college applications, and obtaining financial aid.  Ironically, the need for some kind of post-secondary training continues to grow.

But the cold, slushy facts don’t stop there. 

Public school counselors only spend 20.2% of their time on “personal-needs counseling.”  That is the ‘counseling’ part of guidance, or probably the kind of work that inspired many counselors to choose their profession in the first place. It includes building trusting relationships, discussing life, likes/dislikes, problems at home or with peers, how to stay motivated, problem solving skills, etc.

Freaks and Geeks was a wonderful (but short-lived) NBC television show about life in high school.  In this 1980 period piece, Mr. Rosso is a guidance counselor who spends every day roaming the school, cornering students, and telling them to drop by his office to “rap.” Rosso is out of touch, to be sure, but in almost every episode he manages to drive home an important point about sex, drugs, grades, college, etc.  The kids listen, partly because they have to, but also because his advice, however lame the delivery, is on target.

In this video clip, Mr. Rosso attempts to bridge his credibility gap with a group of angst-ridden teens by singing “18” by Alice Cooper.   Before he launches in, he says “I know you’re struggling.  That’s what guidance counselors are for.”  That may be true, and it maybe even was true back in 1980.  But today, at a ratio of 467 to 1, they simply can’t provide that level of attention.

When glaciers melt, it affects more than just the scenery.  The downstream effects of less snow at the top means roaring streams become occasional trickles below.  That’s an apt analogy for the next category, Occupational Counseling and Job Placement.

According to the report, the contemporary guidance counselor spends only 7.9% of his or her time on such vital tasks as helping students explore career interests, explaining the educational requirements and salaries of various jobs, and preparing for entry into the workforce.  Career exploration should be a continual process throughout one’s life, not a one-time or even once-a-year event.  Yet out of necessity, that is exactly what it has become.

So far we’ve accounted for about 50% of the average guidance counselor’s time.  What about the other 50%?  As it turns out, they fill a number of roles that have little to do with actual counseling.

Scheduling: 25%

According to the report, public school counselors spend 24.8% of their time scheduling students for classes.  Presumably this includes resolving scheduling conflicts, making sure students are taking the classes they need, and ensuring juniors and seniors are on track for graduation.  These are obviously important tasks, elements of which require thoughtful consideration of students’ interests, college plans, and career aspirations – exactly the kinds of things that guidance counselors are trained to do.

Yet a large part of scheduling is purely logistics.  Core subjects are required, so a big part of scheduling is not whether a student needs math or English, or even what level math or English they should take, but which classroom they will be in during what period.  In short, counselors spend a lot of time matching up the rest of their schedule with the seats available in various classrooms throughout the day.  As complex as this job may be, it doesn’t require an advanced degree (with associated higher pay), and has little to do with counseling per se.

Meanwhile, private school counselors spend only about half as much time on scheduling (12.3%) as their public school counterparts.  It would be interesting to explore the reasons for this difference in more detail, but that’s for a different time.

Testing: 15%

What most people probably don’t realize is how much time (14.8%) public school guidance counselors spend administering academic tests like ISTEP, advanced placement, and other tests used by local school districts to assess interim academic progress.  When the standardized testing requirements of No Child Left Behind came along, they didn’t come with the funding necessary to actually administer all those tests.  The job fell to guidance counselors (and administrators) because there was no one else to do it.

Of course, testing has to be done correctly.  ISTEP results are widely published and are key to evaluating adequate yearly progress (AYP).   Cheaters need to be foiled, and tests need to be distributed, proctored and collected.  You can’t afford to lose so much as one test booklet without creating major headaches.

But is this work so complex as to require the relatively high training and salary requirements for guidance staff?  Is it a good match for their skills and expertise?  Why not have certified testing professionals who are paid half of what a guidance counselor makes, thus freeing up counselors for higher level jobs?

As a footnote, high-level administrators are also pulled into the minutiae of testing.  The level of complexity involved in testing students system-wide demands strict attention to detail, accountability, and chain of custody.  Believe it or not, it’s not unusual for assistant superintendents to actually handle individual test packets and put identifying stickers on booklets.

Finally, just in case you’re interested, the remaining 10% of guidance counselors’ time is spent on teaching (4.5%) and other non-guidance activities (5.0%).

Less Talk, More Rock

Is it any wonder students are dropping out of school by the tens of thousands in our country?  The people who used to provide consistent, supportive adult relationships throughout the high school years have been relegated to largely administrative roles.  Meanwhile, without dedicated efforts to show young people the relevance of school to college, careers, and the lifestyle they want as adults, how can they stay motivated?   If you don’t know where you’re going, then any road will take you there – so why not take the easiest road?

Perhaps the roles traditionally served by guidance counselors have shifted to classroom teachers.  The Chamber’s Franklin Initiative works with a number of superstar teachers who go to great lengths to offer real-world career learning opportunities for their students.  But notice I said “great lengths” – convincing teachers that spending precious classroom time on career exploration will improve standardized test scores is a hard sell, and it takes a special person indeed to go beyond what they are held accountable for.

The Chamber’s Graduation Coach Initiative is largely a response to the evisceration of guidance departments.  In this innovative school-community partnership, we marshal outside funding to hire professional social workers who work in the schools alongside regular guidance staff.  As Chamber employees, Grad Coaches don’t get pulled in to all the non-counseling tasks, and only meet with the students who need it the most to provide crucial one-on-one support and attention.  It is their one and only job.

But it’s an imperfect solution.  In an ideal world, our Graduation Coaches wouldn’t be necessary and guidance counselors would still provide that level of support and encouragement in-house with base funding.  But as the College Board report makes abundantly clear, the world is far from ideal.

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