Why Guidance Counseling Needs to Change
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  • 1.  April  2010  |  Volume  67  |  Number  7    Reimagining  School        Pages  74-­‐79    Why  Guidance  Counseling  Needs  to  Change    Jean  Johnson,  Jon  Rochkind  and  Amber  Ott  Recent  surveys  of  young  adults  make  a  compelling  case  for  reinventing  high  school  guidance  counseling.  The  meeting  with  the  high  school  guidance  counselor  is  expected  and  routine—a  time  set  aside  for  students  to  talk  about  goals  and  plans  with  an  adult  trained  to  offer  advice,  options,  and  assistance.  At  least,  thats  the  goal.  Unfortunately,  the  reality  sometimes  falls  short.  One  young  man,  now  in  his  early  20s,  summed  up  his  experience:  "Theyd  look  at  your  grades  and  then  say,  Oh,  you  can  get  into  these  schools."  Such  meetings  are  impersonal,  perfunctory,  and  more  common  than  you  might  think,  according  to  a  2009  survey  of  young  adults  ages  22–30  conducted  by  Public  Agenda  for  the  Bill  and  Melinda  Gates  Foundation  (Johnson,  Rochkind,  Ott,  &  DuPont,  2009).  The  findings  from  this  survey,  along  with  several  others  we  have  conducted  in  recent  years  (see,  for  example,  Johnson,  Duffett,  &  Ott,  2005),  offer  one  clear  message:  As  education  focuses  its  attention  on  bringing  todays  high  schools  into  the  21st  century,  the  guidance  counseling  system  is  a  prime  candidate  for  innovation  and  reform.  A  Basic  Support  Structure  Some  of  the  results  of  these  recent  Public  Agenda  surveys  are  heartening.  The  vast  majority  of  young  adults  recognize  the  value  of  knowledge  and  know-­‐how  in  todays  world.  They  understand  the  financial  benefits  of  continuing  their  education  beyond  high  school.  Most  (77  percent)  say  that  their  parents  actively  encouraged  them  to  attend  college,  and  more  than  80  percent  say  that  even  if  they  knew  there  were  lots  of  good  jobs  for  people  without  degrees,  they  would  still  make  the  decision  to  go  to  college  because  what  one  learns  there  is  so  important.  The  results  also  suggest  that  educators  are  playing  an  important  role  in  inspiring  young  people  to  go  on  to  college  and  continue  learning.  Solid  majorities  of  young  adults  from  diverse  ethnic  and  racial  backgrounds  (75  percent  overall)  say  they  had  a  teacher  or  coach  who  "inspired  them  and  motivated  them  to  do  their  best."  Most  (67  percent)  report  that  they  had  a  teacher  who  "took  an  interest  in  them  personally  and  encouraged  them  to  go  to  college."  Moreover,  schools  seem  to  have  put  a  basic  system  in  place  to  offer  advice  and  guidance  to  young  people  leaving  high  school.  Only  3  percent  of  young  adults  who  graduated  from  high  school  report  that  they  didnt  have  a  high  school  guidance  counselor  or  never  met  with  one  to  discuss  their  postsecondary  plans.     1  
  • 2. For  N  Through  Z  Only  Yet  Public  Agendas  most  recent  survey  shows  that  many  young  people  give  the  high  school  guidance  system  stunningly  poor  reviews  (see  fig.  1,  p.  76).  Among  young  adults  who  have  graduated  from  high  school  and  at  least  started  some  form  of  postsecondary  education,  a  surprising  6  in  10  give  their  high  school  guidance  counselors  ratings  of  fair  or  poor  for  helping  them  think  about  different  careers  they  might  want  to  pursue.  Sixty-­‐seven  percent  give  their  counselors  fair  or  poor  ratings  for  helping  them  decide  which  school  to  attend,  with  35  percent  giving  the  lowest  possible  rating  of  poor.  Figure  1.  Poor  Reviews  for  High  School  Guidance  Counseling      Source:  Adapted  from  Johnson,  J.,  Rochkind,  J.,  Ott,  A.  N.,  &  DuPont,  S.  (2010).  Can  I  get  a  little  advice  here?  How  an  overstretched  high  school  guidance  system  is  undermining  students  college  aspirations.  New  York:  Public  Agenda.  Used  with  permission.        Respondents  give  similarly  low  ratings  for  how  much  counselors  helped  them  find  ways  to  pay  for  college,  with  33  percent  of  young  people  saying  their  counselors  performance  was  actually  poor.  Although  the  ratings  are  marginally  better  on  helping  students  with  the  college  applications  process,     2  
  • 3. even  on  this  dimension,  more  than  half  of  the  survey  respondents  (55  percent)  assign  ratings  of  fair  or  poor.  In  an  episode  of  The  Simpsons,  Homer  recalled  his  visit  with  a  guidance  counselor  who  told  him  that  he  was  glad  to  help  any  student  whose  last  name  started  with  a  letter  from  N  through  Z.  The  shows  writers  latched  onto  a  common  perception  among  students—  that  guidance  counselors  do  not  see  them  as  individuals  and  regard  them  as  little  more  than  a  name  on  a  file  that  somehow  wound  up  on  their  desk.  In  the  Public  Agenda  study,  nearly  one-­‐half  of  young  people  (48  percent)  say  they  usually  felt  like  "just  another  face  in  the  crowd"  in  dealing  with  their  high  school  guidance  counselor—slightly  more  than  the  47  percent  who  say  that  their  counselors  really  made  an  effort  to  get  to  know  them  and  work  with  them.  In  focus  groups  conducted  as  part  of  the  research,  young  people  often  described  experiences  that  can  only  be  described  as  jarringly  bureaucratic  and  impersonal.  "We  had  to  take  a  test,"  one  young  woman  from  New  York  told  us.  "It  asked  about  all  these  scenarios  and  how  you  would  react  or  what  your  preference  was  on  a  certain  topic.  It  was  terrible  because  it  told  me  I  should  be  a  bus  driver.  They  looked  at  that  when  you  sat  with  your  guidance  counselor."  A  young  man  from  New  York  talked  about  how  his  guidance  counselors  prioritized  their  time  on  the  basis  of  who  they  thought  was  more  likely  to  go  to  college:  "My  guidance  counselors  didnt  care  about  me.  You  could  see  other  kids  getting  called  in  and  being  asked,  What  are  you  going  to  do  after  high  school?  Those  kids  would  come  for  college  day  with  suits  and  ties,  and  their  parents  would  come  with  them.  Then  there  was  everybody  else."  An  individual  from  St.  Louis  echoed  this  view,  saying  he  had  given  up  on  expecting  the  counselors  help  because  "they  really  dont  care  about  you."  He  turned  instead  to  his  advanced  biology  teacher  because  "some  teachers,  they  care  …  you  can  just  tell."  Beleaguered  and  Overworked  These  are  harsh  judgments—perhaps  too  harsh—of  a  group  of  professionals  who  must  routinely  feel  besieged  and  overworked,  scarcely  able  to  keep  up  with  the  demands  and  expectations  placed  on  them.  The  American  School  Counselor  Association,  a  professional  group  representing  the  field,  recommends  a  student-­‐counselor  ratio  of  100  to  1  but  points  out  that,  on  average,  in  public  schools  across  the  United  States,  the  ratio  is  more  than  twice  that—265  students  for  every  counselor  (Clinedinst  &  Hawkins,  2009).  Some  states  have  much  higher  ratios.  In  California,  each  counselor  serves  nearly  a  thousand  students.  In  Minnesota,  Arizona,  Washington,  D.C.,  and  Utah,  the  numbers  are  above  700.  Whats  more,  studies  have  shown  that  guidance  counselors  do  not  necessarily  spend  most  of  their  time  advising  students  (McDonough,  2004a,  2004b;  U.S.  Department  of  Education,  2004).  Much  of  their  day  is  devoted  to  administrative  tasks,  discipline  issues,  and  untangling  scheduling  snafus,  according  to  experts  on  the  profession.  Many  counselors  are  involved  in  overseeing  testing  programs,  along  with  lunch  duty,  attendance  monitoring,  and  substitute  teaching.  Under  the  current  system,  public  schools  often  seem  to  assume  that  counselors  can  juggle  a  whole  roster  of  duties  and  still  effectively  assist  hundreds  of  students  in  planning  their  futures.  This  kind  of  system  might  have  worked  reasonably  well  when  fairly  small  numbers  of  students  went  to  college  and  a  high  school  diploma  was  all  that  graduates  needed  to  find  a  good  job  in  manufacturing  or  to  enter  fields  like  firefighting  or  police  work.  But  such  a  system  is  almost  certain  to  misfire,  given  the  rising  numbers  of  students  pursuing  postsecondary  education  and  an  economy  in  which  the  vast  majority  of  good  jobs  require  some  college  or  some  kind  of  certification.     3  
  • 4. What  Happens  to  Students?  Many  students,  especially  those  with  college-­‐educated  parents,  will  get  plenty  of  advice  and  considerable  help  thinking  about  different  careers  and  different  kinds  of  postsecondary  education,  making  sure  their  high  school  coursework  positions  them  to  pursue  their  goals,  and  accumulating  the  financial  resources  they  will  need.  In  some  families,  planning  for  college  and  career  begins  the  moment  a  child  is  born.  But  not  all  students  come  from  families  in  which  college  attendance  is  routine.  Nearly  6  in  10  students  in  public  schools  are  from  families  in  which  neither  parent  has  completed  college  (U.S.  Department  of  Education,  2008).  How  does  a  less-­‐than-­‐optimal  counseling  process  affect  the  lives  and  prospects  of  such  students?  Many  factors  go  into  a  students  long-­‐term  educational  success  or  failure,  so  its  neither  fair  nor  accurate  to  blame  a  lack  of  good  counseling  for  student  disappointment  later  in  life.  Nevertheless,  analysis  of  the  Public  Agenda  study  of  young  adults  reveals  some  disturbing  patterns  that  warrant  a  closer  look.  These  suggest  that  students  who  dont  have  access  to  good  counseling  are  not  making  the  most  advantageous  choices  about  postsecondary  education  and  work.  For  example,  compared  with  young  people  who  say  their  counselors  really  made  an  effort  to  get  to  know  them,  those  who  say  they  felt  like  "a  face  in  the  crowd"  when  talking  with  their  high  school  counselor  are     • Less  likely  to  say  they  chose  their  college  because  they  believed  that  it  would  help  them  get  a   good  job  on  graduation  (48  percent  versus  64  percent).   • Less  likely  to  say  that  they  chose  their  college  on  the  basis  of  financial  aid  that  was  offered  to   them  (32  percent  versus  44  percent).   • More  likely  to  say  that  they  would  have  gone  to  a  different  college  if  money  were  not  an  issue   (46  percent  versus  35  percent).   • Less  likely  to  say  that  they  chose  their  college  on  the  basis  of  its  academic  reputation  (41   percent  versus  51  percent).   • Less  likely  to  go  to  college  directly  after  high  school  (39  percent  versus  54  percent).  A  Striking  Gap  in  the  System  Our  mission  in  reporting  these  results  is  not  to  bash  counselors,  who  in  many  cases  lack  the  support  or  time  necessary  to  assist  and  counsel  students  adequately.  Instead,  our  aim  is  to  focus  on  a  striking  gap  in  the  education  system—one  that  students  themselves  recognize  and  take  to  heart.  When  our  survey  asked  young  adults  to  rate  a  broad  array  of  different  ideas  that  might  help  them  successfully  complete  college  and  other  postsecondary  programs,  72  percent  said  that  "the  opportunity  to  talk  with  advisors  who  know  all  about  the  different  college  and  job  training  programs  so  you  can  make  a  good  choice"  would  help  a  lot.  Those  numbers  rise  to  91  percent  among  black  students  and  83  percent  among  Hispanics.  Among  reforms  and  proposals  that  could  help,  improved  advice  and  counseling  in  high  school  ranks  at  least  as  high  as  ideas  like  having  better  access  to  student  loans,  providing  daycare  for  college  students  who  are  parents,  and  improving  teaching  at  the  college  level  so  that  the  classes  are  more  interesting  and  relevant.     4  
  • 5. What  kinds  of  changes  are  we  actually  talking  about?  One  possibility  is  to  improve  student-­‐counselor  ratios  and  relieve  guidance  counselors  of  some  of  the  other  chores  they  now  assume.  Another  option  would  be  to  improve  the  preparation  and  training  of  counselors.  Research  has  shown  that  counseling  education  programs  do  not  include  instruction  or  coursework  on  how  to  help  parents  and  students  navigate  the  financial  aid  system  or  on  advising  students  about  college  selection,  apprenticeships,  or  other  postsecondary  options  (McDonough,  2004a).  Relatively  few  public  high  schools  require  ongoing  professional  development  for  counselors  (Clinedinst  &  Hawkins,  2009),  so  even  this  avenue  for  bolstering  counselors  skills  and  knowledge  is  not  widely  available.  Asking  More  Fundamental  Questions  Perhaps  the  moment  has  come  to  ask  broader,  more  basic  questions  about  how  schools  help  students  plan  for  their  futures  and  what  roles  counselors,  teachers,  and  others  should  play  in  that  enterprise.  Here  are  some  questions  educators  may  want  to  consider:     • When  should  students  begin  thinking  about  their  overall  education  and  career  goals?  Is  high   school  too  late?  Or  is  it  actually  too  early  for  some  students?   • What  kinds  of  opportunities  should  we  provide  for  students  to  try  out  different  ideas  about  their   future  careers?  How  can  we  give  them  multiple  chances  to  reconsider  and  change  their  minds  as   their  skills  and  personalities  develop?   • Should  we  encourage  all  students  to  go  to  college?  What  do  we  actually  mean  by  "going  to   college"?  How  can  we  ensure  that  students  and  their  families  have  a  chance  to  understand  and   think  about  a  diverse  set  of  options?   • What  should  we  do  when  a  students  academic  skills  simply  do  not  match  his  or  her  career   goals?  How  do  we  intercede  to  help  such  students  prepare  for  what  they  say  they  want  or  to   help  them  find  another  goal  that  will  also  lead  to  a  satisfying  and  productive  future?  Leaders  in  government,  business,  and  education  have  set  some  ambitious  college  completion  goals  for  the  United  States—  namely,  to  have  60  percent  of  high  school  graduates  complete  a  college  degree  or  other  certification  program.  (See,  for  example,  www.luminafoundation.org/goal_2005.)  But  what  do  public  schools  owe  to  the  remaining  40  percent  of  graduates?  Do  we  leave  them  to  navigate  their  entry  into  the  work  force  on  their  own?  Should  business  or  other  institutions  step  in?  And  what  about  the  profession  of  counseling  itself?  Perhaps  its  time  to  reimagine  the  counselors  role  as  one  that  extends  far  beyond  laying  out  a  menu  of  postsecondary  programs  for  students  to  pore  over.  Should  counselors  be  more  specialized,  with  some  focusing  mainly  on  short-­‐term  issues  like  preventing  students  from  dropping  out  of  high  school  and  helping  troubled  teens,  while  others  focus  on  helping  students  plan  their  future  education  and  careers?  What  can  the  profession  do  to  individualize  and  personalize  the  services  it  offers?  Needed:  Partners  and  Ingenuity  During  the  last  few  decades,  schools  have  repeatedly  taken  on  difficult  new  missions  that  range  from  assuming  responsibility  for  preschool,  afternoon,  and  summer  programs  to  fighting  child  abuse,  substance  abuse,  and  obesity.  Reenvisioning  the  counseling  process—in  fact,  reenvisioning  students  transition  from  school  into  their  future  lives—is  another  difficult  challenge,  and  a  historic  one.     5  
  • 6. But  schools  dont  have  to  do  it  alone.  A  wide  range  of  allies  and  potential  hands-­‐on  helpers  exist—families,  to  be  sure,  but  also  institutions  of  higher  education,  the  business  community,  professional  associations,  unions,  philanthropic  organizations,  and  community  groups.  (For  examples  of  integrated  efforts,  see  "Resources  for  Helping  Students  Transition  to  Higher  Education"  on  p.  77.)  The  difficulty  we  all  face  in  this  enterprise  is  letting  go  of  the  staid,  routine  rituals  of  high  school  and  garnering  the  ingenuity  and  resourcefulness  required  to  consider  a  dramatically  different  approach.   Resources  for  Helping  Students  Transition  to  Higher  Education     Admission  Possible,  www.admissionpossible.org   Admission  Possible  is  a  nonprofit  organization  that  provides  college  advising  services  to  more   than  1,400  low-­‐income  students  in  the  Minneapolis–St.  Paul,  Minnesota,  and  Milwaukee,   Wisconsin,  metropolitan  regions.  Recently  praised  by  President  Obama  for  having  sent  99   percent  of  its  2008  program  participants  to  college,  Admission  Possible  assists  students  in   the  college  application  process  by  offering  after-­‐school  programming  focusing  on  test   preparation  for  the  SAT/ACT  college  admission  exams,  intensive  support  in  preparing  college   applications,  help  in  obtaining  financial  aid,  and  guidance  in  the  transition  to  college.  The   majority  of  program  staff  members  are  AmeriCorps  members,  and  most  are  recent  college   graduates.   Talent  Search,  www.ed.gov/programs/triotalent   Talent  Search,  a  federally  supported  outreach  program,  identifies  disadvantaged  youth  who   have  the  potential  to  excel  in  postsecondary  education  and  provides  comprehensive  services   to  help  them  succeed  in  both  secondary  and  postsecondary  education.  Program  services   include  academic,  financial,  career,  or  personal  counseling,  including  advice  on  entry  or   reentry  to  secondary  or  postsecondary  programs;  career  exploration  and  aptitude   assessment;  tutorial  services;  mentoring;  information  on  postsecondary  education;  exposure   to  college  campuses;  information  on  student  financial  assistance;  assistance  in  completing   college  admissions  and  financial  aid  applications;  assistance  in  preparing  for  college  entrance   exams;  and  workshops  for  participants  families.   KnowHow2Go,  http://knowhow2go.org   Launched  in  2007  by  the  American  Council  on  Education,  Lumina  Foundation  for  Education,   and  the  Ad  Council,  KnowHow2Go  is  a  comprehensive  multimedia  campaign  aimed  at   students  from  middle  school  through  12th  grade.  The  program  provides  interactive  tools  to   encourage  students  to  go  to  college  and  to  help  them  choose  the  right  college,  find  financial   aid,  and  get  help  from  adults  around  them  in  applying  to  college.       6  
  • 7. References  Clinedinst,  M.,  &  Hawkins,  D.  (2009).  State  of  college  admission.  Alexandria,  VA:  National  Association  for  College  Admission  Counseling.  Johnson,  J.,  Duffett,  A.,  &  Ott,  A.  (2005).  Life  after  high  school:  Young  people  talk  about  their  hopes  and  prospects.  New  York:  Public  Agenda.  Available:  http://www.publicagenda.org/files/pdf/life_after_high_school.pdf  Johnson,  J.,  Rochkind,  J.,  Ott,  A.,  &  DuPont,  S.  (2009).  With  their  whole  lives  ahead  of  them:  Myths  and  realities  about  why  so  many  students  fail  to  finish  college.  New  York:  Public  Agenda.  Available:  www.publicagenda.org/theirwholelivesaheadofthem  McDonough,  P.  (2004a).  Counseling  matters:  Knowledge,  assistance,  and  organizational  commitment  in  college  preparation.  In  W.  Tierney,  Z.  Corwin,  &  J.  Colyar  (Eds.),  Preparing  for  college:  Nine  elements  of  effective  outreach  (pp.  69–88).  Albany:  State  University  of  New  York  Press.  McDonough,  P.  (2004b).  The  school-­‐to-­‐college  transition:  Challenges  and  prospects.  Washington,  DC:  American  Council  on  Education,  Center  for  Policy  Analysis.  U.S.  Department  of  Education,  National  Center  for  Education  Statistics.  (2004).  The  condition  of  education.  Washington,  DC:  Author.  U.S.  Department  of  Education,  National  Center  for  Education  Statistics.  (2008).  Parent  and  family  involvement  in  education,  2006–07  school  year,  from  the  National  Household  Education  Surveys  Program  of  2007–2008.  Washington,  DC:  Author.  Jean  Johnson  (jjohnson@publicagenda.org)  is  Director  of  Education  Insights  and  Director  of  Programs,  Jon  Rochkind  (jrochkind@publicagenda.org)  is  Vice  President  and  Director  of  Research,  and  Amber  Ott  (aott@publicagenda.org)  is  Research  Manager,  Public  Agenda.     7