Current education reform initiatives and reports are fueling new debates among national and state education leaders and policymakers about the viability of U.S. schools and solutions to pervasive education problems. Initiatives such as the U.S. Department of Education’s Race to the Top program and President Obama’s Blueprint for Reform of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act focus on four core areas:
- Enhancing and rewarding principal and teacher effectiveness
- Building data systems that inform parents and educators about student achievement while also guiding instruction
- Developing college- and career-ready standards as well as assessments aligned to those standards
- Implementing effective interventions that will improve academic achievement in the lowest-performing schools
These initiatives are transformative in nature, but documents associated with these initiatives do not mention school counseling as a means to transform education, nor do they mention school counselors as essential to increasing student achievement or strengthening college and career readiness.
Although these aforementioned initiatives do not mention school counseling, school reform groups have been increasingly critical of school counseling services. For instance, the 2010 Public Agenda report done for the Gates Foundation, “Can I Get a Little Advice Here?” highlighted young adults’ perceptions of school counselors during their college-going process. The report indicated that between 54 percent and 67 percent of young adults rated school counselors as “poor” or “fair” when it came to helping them find ways to pay for college (such as financial aid and scholarships), decide what school was right for them and think about different careers, as well as in explaining and helping them with the college application process. Almost 50 percent of the young adults surveyed felt school counselors merely saw them as “just another face in the crowd,” while 47 percent thought school counselors made an effort to get to know them as individuals. In response, the American School Counselor Association asserted that the report “illustrates what can go wrong when there are not enough school counselors to support students and when school counselors are placed in positions preventing them from performing the functions they were trained and hired to do.” Although student-to-counselor ratios are high and school counselors have many non-counseling-related responsibilities, the Public Agenda report joins a body of research and literature that highlights school counselors’ lack of attention to the college search, application and enrollment process (for example, see “Higher Education Access for Undocumented Students: Recommendations for Counseling Professionals,” written by William Perez for the Winter 2010 Journal of College Admission).
Given the rise of educational reform as a major priority among education policymakers and the absence of school counseling in those policies, we believe that a knowledge and skill shift in the profession is warranted to ensure our viability. As such, we are proposing that school counselors claim college and career readiness as a dominant knowledge and skill domain. We are not advocating for less counseling or a non-counselor professional identity. In fact, we are advocating for a stronger school counselor identity that includes career and college readiness counseling as a dominant focus of practice and research.
We would like to offer the following school counselor practice recommendations that, if implemented, would create more school counselor engagement in educational reform, particularly in regard to college and career readiness.
Recommendation #1: Make school counseling central in district organizational structure. In many school districts, the placement of school counseling is often within departments or divisions of student personnel services, student support services or, in some cases, special education. Although such positioning might seem appropriate, these placements render school counseling as an ancillary service rather than central to the academic mission of schools. If school counselors are to be a foundational part of schools, these professionals need to be in a position that engenders centrality.
Recommendation #2: Make advocacy/outreach a major role of school counseling. School counselors need to understand and implement advocacy. This means actively seeking out families to assist rather than waiting for families to approach school counselors. We believe the college and career readiness of all students can be increased when school counselors reach out to parents and create a school community that extends beyond the walls of a school building.
Recommendation #3: Use a systems perspective. From a systems perspective, school counselors must view the school community as their client, grasping both the big picture and each interrelated part of the system and its impact on individuals, especially those who are most often underserved.
Recommendation #4: Use school counseling methods and delivery systems that ensure that all students are college ready. School counselors fill an important role when they assist students with the completion of college and federal student financial aid applications. However, college and career readiness is a P-20 (preschool through graduate school) process that involves increasing student aspirations, linking aspirations and academics, increasing one’s social capital, engaging in academic and life planning, encouraging civic engagement (for example, service learning) and developing personal responsibility. School counselors must also examine how current practices contribute to the disparities in college access and begin to make needed changes without blaming caseloads, administrators, parents or the community.
We also believe training school counselors so they will have the knowledge and skills to increase college/career readiness should be a primary goal for the next generation of counselor educators. We believe this can be accomplished by implementing the following recommendations.
Recommendation #5: Develop admission criteria aimed at performance required in the field. Recruiting and selecting assertive, culturally competent and social-justice-minded individuals who can readily address difficult educational issues with courage and integrity is essential for the future of school counseling. Among the possible admission requirements that would increase faculty members’ insights into an applicant’s readiness for enhancing all students’ college and career readiness are extensive individual and group interviews, writing samples on critical school-reform issues and opportunities to speak about opportunity gaps in education.
Recommendation #6: Counselor educators must teach in ways that will result in performance that can be measured in schools. We must monitor the ability of graduate students to deliver outcomes (for example, increased numbers of students who are college ready) in “real-world” schools, particularly the lowest-performing schools.
Recommendation #7: School counselor training programs should engage in interdisciplinary training with teacher and principal trainees to ensure that teaming and collaboration skills are acquired prior to graduation. Some may argue that this type of training would diminish the professional identity of the school counselor. We think it would do just the opposite. The power of an interdisciplinary team approach to training is that it allows trainees an opportunity to learn different perspectives, knowledge and skills. This type of training would require school counselors to clearly identify which skills and knowledge are shared and which are distinctly the domain of counselors.
Recommendation #8: Counselor educators must build a college and career readiness knowledge base. Currently, college and career readiness counseling is not a training requirement prescribed by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs. We believe that not only should it be a requirement, but counselor educators should be highly engaged in professional development to gain the knowledge and skill necessary to teach, train and supervise for college and career readiness counseling.
Recommendation #9: Actively integrate college and career readiness concepts and knowledge into existing school counseling curricula. In doing this, counselor educators must seek out professional development and partnerships to build their capacity and knowledge in this area of training.
Recommendation #10: Counselor educators, in collaboration with school districts, should build partnerships with community colleges and universities so that large district, state and national policies about college and career readiness can be addressed collaboratively. In addition, building partnerships with community action groups, foundations and education reform organizations can invite different perspectives and ideas that will significantly strengthen a school community and allow for greater impact on federal policy related to college and career readiness.
Recommendation #11: Counselor educators need to engage in research that demonstrates the efficacy of training and practice in college and career readiness counseling on student outcomes. We believe school counselor training programs should be held accountable by demonstrating that program graduates engage in effective practice after they become employed in schools.
We believe that school counselors can no longer afford to be disconnected from educational reform initiatives. We further propose that ASCA, the American Counseling Association and other education reform and college readiness organizations such as the National Association for College Admission Counseling, The Education Trust, Achieve and The College Board continue to work together to promote an extensive network of professional development for practicing school counselors who have little to no training in college and career readiness. Through this increased collaboration, we would hope that more research and funding opportunities would evolve for counselor educators and researchers. We believe school counseling researchers are in the best position to conduct rigorous studies related to the effectiveness and practice of school counselors in relation to college and career readiness.
School counseling is at a critical crossroads. More than ever before, students need school counselors who are trained to provide them with the necessary skills and knowledge to be successful in life. At the same time, school counselors are being criticized for not doing enough to get students ready for their futures. We believe school counselor skills in college and career readiness are key to closing gaps in student achievement, bringing positive reform to schools and preserving our profession’s positive future.
Cheryl Holcomb-McCoy is professor and chair in the Johns Hopkins University Department of Counseling and Human Services and author of School Counseling to Close the Achievement Gap. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Vivian Lee is director of counselor advocacy at the College Board National Office for School Counselor Advocacy.
Julia Bryan is an assistant professor in the University of Maryland at College Park Department of Counseling and Personnel Services.
Anita Young is an assistant professor in the Johns Hopkins University Department of Counseling and Human Service.
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