Throughout my career as a practicing counselor and counselor educator, I have admired and appreciated the contributions of school counselors and the central role they have played in the development of our profession. In many states, school counselors were the driving force behind successful counselor licensing efforts.
As one of 19 national divisions chartered by the American Counseling Association, the American School Counselor Association was created by ACA members to serve the professional interests of school counselors. Over the years, ASCA has done an outstanding job promoting the interests of school counselors. As a counselor educator who has played a central role in training school counselors for almost three decades, I have always encouraged my students to become members of both ACA and ASCA. I believe that division membership, concurrent with ACA membership and state branch membership, is a responsibility of all members of the counseling professional.
For most of its history as a national organization, all ASCA members were also members of ACA. However, about 10 years ago, ACA policy was changed so that joint divisional and ACA membership were no longer required. Many recognize that this policy change resulted in some unintended and unfortunate consequences for the counseling profession. At present, ASCA has approximately 23,000 members, but only about 3,500 ASCA members currently hold joint membership in ACA.
The affiliation between ACA and its member divisions has always been and remains a voluntary association. Contrary to a common misconception, ASCA never “disaffiliated” from ACA. ASCA remains an important part of the “ACA family” — with all the rights and responsibilities of a fully chartered national division, including full voting rights on the ACA Governing Council.
The professional diversity of our 19 national divisions is a strength of ACA. However, it is not always easy to strike a balance between our collective association and the autonomy of our national divisions. At times, it has seemed like a “Federalist” versus “states’ rights” issue (something which, in the mid-19th century, led to the secession of the Southern states and the subsequent “War of Northern Aggression,” or the “War Between the States,” depending upon one’s regional perspective).
An emerging professional identity model in the field of counseling is that “counselors” are, first and foremost, members of an identifiable “profession of counseling,” even though most specialize in a particular practice area or work setting (marriage and family counseling, college counseling, school counseling and so on). This model is similar to that of the medical profession, in which all members are “medical doctors,” although they typically specialize in a particular area of practice or work setting (for example, emergency room physician, internist, psychiatrist, etc.). This model presents a common professional identity and a unified voice while concurrently respecting areas of specialization. For the field of counseling, this “single profession” model reflects the national accreditation standards of the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs. It has been the professional identity model behind successful counseling licensure in 49 states.
At present, ASCA leadership holds a different notion of professional identity — one that advocates for “multiple professions” of counseling rather than a single profession with multiple specializations. It is important to acknowledge that the ASCA professional identity model is not “wrong” — it is merely different — but it conflicts with the single profession model championed by ACA and most other professional counseling groups.
I have great respect and admiration for ASCA leaders, who are all members of ACA as well. I believe they have brought innovative leadership to ASCA. Reasonable people sometimes disagree on important issues. As such, it is important that we avoid a “them and us” position as we work toward a solution to the present impasse over professional counselor identity.
While I am a strong advocate of ASCA and the important work it does, on the issue of professional identity, I find myself in strong disagreement with my ASCA colleagues. If we are to advance as a profession and better serve the needs of society, I believe a single profession of counseling, with areas of specialization, provides a unified voice and the best model.
One area in which this professional identity issue is being played out is at the state branch level. In many states, school counselors remain seamlessly integrated into the larger ACA-chartered state branch. However, in some states, school counselors have seceded from their state branch, choosing a separate professional identity within that state. In some states, there are now two school counselor associations, with one group holding the traditional single profession/specialization model and the other embracing a school counselor identity more aligned with the teaching profession — separate and distinct from “professional counseling.”
Confounding this issue, one of ASCA’s initiatives is to draft a “unified dues” program in some states. This is an attractive membership plan — one in which a school counselor writes a single check covering annual membership dues to both ASCA and the ASCA state branch. Unfortunately, the plan excludes state branch membership, exacerbating the problem of professional unity.
Many within ACA question whether a professional identity model that holds school counseling as a separate and distinct profession, and not as a specialization of a larger profession of counseling, appropriately meets the needs of the majority of school counselors. This is of particular concern for those school counselors who did not emerge from the ranks of teachers and do not identify with the teaching profession. It is also problematic for school counselors who, in addition to certification, have obtained independent professional status as licensed professional counselors or the equivalent and wish to have professional options beyond the school setting.
While I cannot predict with any certainty what the future may hold for the counseling profession in general or the specialization of school counseling in particular, I do know that ACA will continue to support the needs and interests of our members who are school counselors. I believe this can best be accomplished in collaboration with ASCA leadership. It is my hope that we will continue to work collaboratively as we address these and other important issues that affect the future of professional counseling and school counseling.
Contact me with your thoughts via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.