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Refocusing Counselors on Academics


Q. Our high school employs several guidance counselors. But we have been appalled at how little the counselors knew about college choices. It was as if academic counseling is no longer part of a counselor's job description. She could have gotten a full ride at a great school because of her high test scores. But since she is well-behaved and has no problems, her school counselor pretty much ignored her. So she just went to our state university and accepted the modest scholarship it offered. We were very disappointed. Isn't the key task of a high-school counselor to help kids make the best matches and the best deals for the future that they possibly can?


You've noted another symptom of the "one-stop shopping" distortion that has a hold of our schools. It has pushed academics to the back burner in favor of all the "affective," or social-emotional, problems that kids have today. Of course, there are many excellent counselors out there doing the very things you wish your daughter had had. But yours is a story that is being heard more and more.


No one disputes that kids who have personal problems need help. In some schools, that includes needs as extreme as SHOES and COATS in the wintertime. But it is unfortunate that so many school boards neglect to see the impact of providing little or no counseling services for the higher end of the student population. It's a red flag of poor quality that will certainly drive away promising students in the future, if not rectified, and quickly.


Over the past few decades, school counseling has been distorted away from its original purpose - academic guidance - into an impossibly big smorgasbord of social services that leaves most of them doing too many things, and none of them very well.


The counseling caseload may be heavy with kids who are very troubled, have chaotic home lives, serious addictions, problems with the law, and complicated special needs. There are all kinds of drains on a counselor's time, such as zero tolerance issues, safety issues, teen depression, sexual orientation confusion, and endlessly on.


Counselors often are busy running standardized tests, which have greatly increased in number and duration in recent years, as well as course scheduling and lots of paperwork.


Meanwhile, they sponsor "encounter groups" for students on everything from grief to anger management, and troubleshoot with them on horrendous problems such as incest, abortion and drug abuse.


All this is with an untenably high "caseload" of too many students to adequately form relationships with individuals. Counselors doing these things also tend to have an obvious lack of credentials required for such serious situations as counseling a teen with multiple problems. For example, in many states you can become a school counselor with just six extra college credit hours in psychology.


You would never be allowed to put up a shingle and counsel individual adults off the street. But somehow, you're supposed to be competent to counsel kids in school. Ill-prepared counselors thus may tend to mislabel academic problems as social problems because their training is more along those lines than perceiving why kids aren't learning well.


A case can be made that this near-amateur counseling is making things worse, not better, for many kids in schools today.


As a result, school counselors generally don't know very many students very well and lack sufficient time and training to render much significant academic or career guidance to very many. And that hurts the "back-burner" students, such as your daughter, who deserve the counselor's time and attention just as much as any other student.


Consequently, the school counselor work overload has created a cottage industry for private college counselors, charging families big bucks to do what the tax-funded school counselor should be doing for them for free.


Result: more people want a shift away from mental-health services and back to using the counselors' helping hearts and persuasive skills for academic purposes, such as encouraging and supporting students capable of taking tougher classes and steering qualified students toward scholarships and higher-level opportunities.



Homework: The Education Trust,, operates the Transforming School Counseling Initiative that promises reforms.


By Susan Darst Williams Other Staff 04 2010




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