Let guidance counselors actually guide students

Published February 3 2013

Guidance counselors in schools play an important — even critical — role in the success of students during their school years, and after. Often, however, counselors can't fulfill this role because there are too few of them, and the ones available are overburdened with administrative assignments that divert them from their professional responsibilities.

The squeeze on the time of guidance counselors is exemplified in Pinellas County, which recently announced it intends to use FCAT standardized test scores to automate the placement of middle school students in math classes. The reason, district officials say, is that counselors are too bogged down in clerical work to adequately work with students in selecting their courses.

It is hard to believe that automating guidance counselors' work is preferable to having them fulfill their professional responsibilities of helping students identify their goals and take the right courses to meet them.

Other guidance responsibilities being given inadequate attention include helping teachers with lagging students; helping students solve personal and academic problems; consulting with students and parents to help students stay in school and graduate; helping college-bound students identify schools appropriate for them (and knowing them well enough to write a meaningful letter of recommendation); and helping non-college-bound students explore and grasp available career opportunities.

Pinellas County may be a reflection of the situation in the entire state, where the small number of available counselors is disturbing. In Florida K-12 education, according to annual data from the National Center for Education Statistics, there is only one counselor for every 433 students. With that ratio, it is hard to imagine how counselors would have enough time to fulfill their professional responsibilities, even if they were not diverted by administrative assignments that spread them even thinner than the high student-to-counselor ratio indicates.

Although some financially well-off school districts are likely to be more adequately supplied with counselors than in Pinellas County, counselors across the nation are increasingly tagged with test administration as students are given more standardized tests. For example, a recent headline in a Nashville, Tenn., newspaper read, "High school counselors spend 40 percent of day on tests;" in another Tennessee county, it was 47 percent.

A statewide survey conducted in Missouri, which has been a leader in improving its guidance programs and reducing its student-to-counselor ratio, identified nine nonguidance tasks that counselors were performing. Leading the list was managing schedule changes at 83 percent, followed by coordinating testing programs at 74 percent. Other nonguidance tasks included handling transcripts, balancing class loads, testing for special education and gifted students, coordinating management files, and copying/mailing new student enrollment records.

A study in Michigan by the Joyce Ivy Foundation found that only 16 percent of recent high school graduates said they were helped by guidance counselors in choosing and enrolling in postsecondary institutions.

The professional role of guidance counselors is critical to the success of students, and should be given priority commensurate with national standards being established to make students ready for college and career. A start in Florida would be to conduct a statewide study similar to the one in Missouri. This would establish the facts and spark statewide consideration of both improving student-to-counselor ratios and divesting guidance counselors of clerical duties.

Paul E. Barton lives in Dunedin. He is former director of Educational Testing Service's Policy Information Center in Princeton, N.J., and author of "National Education Standards: Getting Beneath the Surface." He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.