2019 is off to a strong start when it comes to school counselors. An avalanche of columns, stories, and evening news shows are devoted to the need for more school counselors, based in large part on the release of the Safe Schools Report from the US Department of Education in December.
The story isn’t new to most of us, but just in case, here’s the summary:
- In order for school counselors to do what are trained to do, they need to have a caseload that isn’t more than 250 students.
- In a vast majority of states, that just isn’t the case. For 2015-16, the average caseload in the US is 464 students per counselor, with Arizona leading the nation with an average of 904. Only three states are at or below the recommended ratio of 250 students.
- The recommended ratio of 250 assumes counselors spend 80 percent of their school day working directly with students. Since most counselors are assigned duties that have nothing to do with counseling—think schedule changes and standardized test supervision—that 80 percent level is a distant dream for most counselors.
Scattered among the media releases calling for more counselors are reports of states trying to improve the counseling picture. Utah has called for placing at least one college adviser in every school. (Advisers are not typically counselors, but they help counselors with the college readiness part of the counseling curriculum.) Arizona’s governor has proposed a budget that includes more funding for school counselors, and Michigan has introduced a bill requiring a counselor ratio of not more than 450 to 1.
This kind of momentum is vital, and long overdue—but it also isn’t new, since calls for more counselors crop up about every 3-4 years. What could make this year’s efforts different? Consider these three steps.
Focus the need on students, not counselors More than a few policy makers at the state and national level tell me they are tired of hearing about the need for more counselors. Instead, they’re interested in hearing about the need for more services for students. The difference may seem small, but it’s vital. There are far more students and parents in a legislator’s district than school counselors. Framing the need based on the folks back home makes the argument more real to legislators, and the need more urgent. Keep the message on the students.
Seek the support of the business community Legislation to upgrade counselor training in college and career advising had been introduced in Michigan for four years, and failed each time. Once the business community entered the discussion, and talked about the role school counselors play in making sure students knew about the vast array of career options in the state, legislators paid attention in a new way, and the bill became law. Sure, more school counselors will build students with stronger self-esteem, but pointing out the more tangible aspects to society isn’t a bad idea, either. Employers can do that.
Bring the data Studies abound showing the difference counselors make in college attainment, career development, mental health, and more. Even better, these studies are written with policy makers in mind, so they’re rich with statistics everyone can relate to (“Add a school counselor, and college attainment increases by ten percent.”) Individual stories of student success warm the heart and inspire, while data paints a broader picture that points out the benefit to society as a whole. Bring both when talking to legislators—and don’t forget to seek out the help of the principals’ and superintendents’ organizations to show complete educational support of this vital goal.