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Report: Counselors' Promise Being Squandered

While they are eager to help students build strong academic records for good jobs and college admittance, school counselors report that their training doesn't prepare them well enough to do that, and that their day-to-day job duties don't match up with those goals.

The study, issued last week by the College Board's Advocacy & Policy Center, offers a promising picture of what counselors can contribute to students' success, and of their commitment to doing that. But it also offers sobering evidence of what gets in the way of that promise.

On both counts, it echoes the findings of last year's inaugural survey. Both studies were done for the College Board by Civic Enterprises and Hart Research Associates. (See the story I wrote about last year's study.) This second study, however, plumbs administrators' attitudes about the role of counselors in schools, an important element to consider in arranging job duties, evaluations, school goals, professional development, and other key elements necessary to maximize the counselors' value.

The data in the study show a counseling corps that believes it could make a big difference—and is committed to zeroing in—on key elements, such as college-application rates and student access to challenging coursework. And 98 percent of administrators surveyed said they support counselors taking a leadership role in such areas. Interestingly, counselors in the most challenged schools—the ones with more than 75 percent of students in poverty—come through as those with the keenest commitment and best training to press ahead in these areas.

So what gets in the way?

Inadequate training emerges as a central problem. While eight in 10 counselors hold master's degrees, most report that their preservice training was not well matched with the demands of their job. Fewer than half report that their training "adequately covered" seven of eight key areas of good college and career counseling identified by the College Board, such as academic planning for college and career readiness, or transitioning from high school graduation to college enrollment. Two of the most pivotal areas of counseling—college- and career-admissions processes and college-affordability planning—were the two in which counselors reported the weakest preparation. A similar pattern emerged when counselors were asked about professional development.

"The relatively extensive training measures in which counselors participate, both during preservice and in-service training, are not providing counselors with what they need to know or preparing them to deal with the issues to which they feel most committed," the report says. "This represents an important missed connection between professional school counselor training and practice."

The day-to-day expectations placed upon counselors interfere with the college- and career-readiness work that they see as crucial to student success. How counselors are held accountable reflects this conflict.

Fewer than half of the surveyed counselors said that they are evaluated on things like dropout rates, college- application or -acceptance rates, students' access to challenging courses, or their completion of a college-preparatory course sequence. Only 16 percent said that students' completion of federal financial-aid forms—known to be an important leaking point in the college pipeline—are factored into their evaluations.

Far more counselors listed things like "program development" as part of their evaluations (74 percent). Nearly seven in 10 said "administrative and clerical tasks" were considered, and six in 10 said their roles as test coordinators were a part of their evaluations. One-quarter to one-third listed scheduling individualized education plan meetings, creating master schedules, and checking attendance as part of their evaluations.

Counselors expressed willingness to be judged on many of the student-outcome-driven factors that are currently absent from judgments made about them. About six in 10 said it was fair to evaluate them on transcript audits of graduation readiness, completion of college-prep course sequences, and students' access to advanced coursework. More than half said it was fair to judge them on college-application and high school graduation rates. Support declines for things counselors see themselves as having less control over, such as state test scores and graduate employment rates (though only one-third of counselors felt it was fair to be judged on FAFSA completion rates, something they could play a pivotal role in).

While counselors' bosses expressed strong support for helping them play leading roles in their schools' college- and career-readiness missions, the study shows gaps between their views and the views of the counselors they're trying to help. Two-thirds of high school administrators, for instance, said they align counselors' work with the school's goals for closing the achievement gap in rigorous coursework, but only 48 percent of high school counselors saw it that way. Eighty percent of high school administrators said their administration supports the monitoring of FAFSA application progress, but only 53 percent of counselors said that they saw it that way.

The study points to areas of promise‐and weakness—in a system that could play a powerful role as schools try to improve outcomes for students. Counselors, it notes, have largely been left out of training for implementing the Common Core State Standards. It argues that inclusion in such central parts of a school's mission is crucial, as is better preservice and in-service training.

More information about this year's counselor survey can be found on a special page of the College Board's website.

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