White House Listening/Learning on School Counseling (Pt.1)

School Counseling: Challenges and Barriers (Pt. 1) 

It is now only two days before the July 28th event and it's time to share some history.  On May 2014, I was incredibly honored to be invited, with a few national leaders, to come to the White House for a Listening and Learning Conversation about School Counseling. We were asked to provide thoughtful contributions regarding the challenges and barriers faced by school counselors today. Below are excerpts (Part 1) from my very candid and passionate contributions.

Marginalized Professionals Advocating For Marginalized Youth

Today’s school counselors struggle to provide equity and access to college opportunities for students while simultaneously working to secure their own legitimate position as an integral member of the school’s leadership team, connected to the educational mission of the school. These challenges are due in part to the lack of consistent language delineating the necessity for and appropriate and necessary role and function of the professional school counselor. Coupled with this is the uncertainty about the value of school counseling and the impact of the program on student outcomes. Although it is widely accepted that teachers and administrators are central to achieving quality educational outcomes, opinion is less clear in the case of school counselors. Ironically, school counselors, who serve as advocates for marginalized youth, often experience their own marginalization within the educational system. School counselors have not been afforded the social or institutional legitimacy of their professional peers (e.g. teachers, and administrators). State and national legislation, funding opportunities, reform documents, blue prints, and conversations about K-12 education speak primarily of teachers and administrators, not school counselors. School counseling is simply not required in this country, not even in high school. Thus, there is no guarantee that any student will receive any school counseling service. Even when additional funding is provided to support college and career readiness for at-risk and legislatively protected youth, no assurances exist that funds will support the hiring of a school counselor. School counselors must therefore advocate not only for what their students deserve to receive, but also for their positions and their profession.

Lack of Federal/State/County/District/School Policies Protecting Qualified School Counselors

Unlike teachers who must have the proper credentials to teach their subject or in their grade level, individuals without the proper credentials are often hired as school counselors, because in many states there are no policies prohibiting this, and/or no systems of reporting or accountability to ensure the proper placement of highly qualified school counselors. In on district I visited, a graduate student shared she was hired as a full time school counselor after taking only one class. In other districts high school counseling positions are filled by non-credentialed social workers and family therapists who are not trained to function as high school counselors.

Most School Counseling Programs Lack Administrator Knowledge or Support at Site or Central Office

Even in states where students are legislatively guaranteed access to services, school counselors often operate independently without the mentoring, leadership and accountability expectations an appropriately trained administrator could provide. Administrative services credentials authorize development, coordination, and supervision of student support services, including pupil personnel services credentials. However, there are no standards that require course content in school counseling in most administrative masters degree or credential programs. Consequently, many administrators, most of whom were teachers previously, have no knowledge of: a) the appropriate role and function of school counselors; b) how to hire, lead, manage, mentor, support, evaluate or remediate school counselors; or c) the value of partnering with school counselors as leaders advocating for student needs or evaluating student outcomes.

Professional School Counselors Express the Challenge of Institutional Racism

I often hear stories from school counselors about the challenges they face advocating for students against deeply rooted institutional racism. They tell me: “…we attend meetings where unprofessional, elitist, horrible comments are made about students. It’s a good ‘ol boy system of incestuous prejudice and racism. Staff members are making comments that financial aid is a handout and no one challenges them! Unless people lived in our roles, they wouldn’t understand the magnitude of issues on campus we deal with as school counselors. We are working to redefine the role of the school counselor and to help teachers understand, but this shift is hard for some of them. A few years ago they used to just tell the school counselors to take kids out of their class. We don’t believe in removing students without a meeting to determine what’s in the best interest of the students. We are here for students first.” Many of these new school counselors were hired to create change, to be the student advocates their ethical standards call on them to be. Yet, they know all too well that there is no requirement for school counselors in their state. Paradoxically, they advocate for student access, while knowing all too well that their the faculty will have a voice in whether not to include school counseling positions in their budget next year.

School Counselors Need Proper Pre-Service Training, Professional Development and Support to Lead

Far too many school counselors lack the resources, training and support to meet expanding expectations. Today’s school counselors must complete their programs with the knowledge, attitudes, and skills they need to create college-going environments, use data to effect change, and ensure each and every student, particularly the traditionally underserved, is provided the support and assistance they need to be graduate college and career ready. Inconsistent pre-service training programs result in school counselors who possess very different preparation experiences and expectations for what and how they will provide services to students and parents.

School counselors need training to use data to promote and support a school climate where the bias of low expectation, social inequities and negative stereotypes can be professionally challenged. They must learn the skills needed to partner with administrators and other school leaders to advocate for and create policies, practices and procedures that promote access and opportunity for all students in underrepresented and often disenfranchised subgroups (e.g. limited income, English learners, foster and LGBTQ youth). School counselors must learn how to create and support policies that ensure college access partners are working within a system of comprehensive programs under the school counseling program umbrella, and not in separate silos of overlapping work.

College access partners are greatly needed and their services must be coordinated, supervised, and monitored for accuracy of content. They need to be examined to protect against unintentional duplication or lack of services, and evaluated to determine their impact. Appropriately trained college students and graduates must work collaboratively within the systems that are structurally designed to ensure all students receive a variety of accurate, necessary and appropriate curriculum and intervention services under the umbrella of the credentialed school counselor.