School counselors and accountability

The mission of schools has become very clear with No Child Left Behind, standards-based reform measures and school improvement initiatives. It’s all about accountability. School counselors, however, have not always been included as an integral part of standards-based reform measures.

Why have school counselors been excluded from the mission of the school? One reason is beca use the role of the school counselor has been ambiguous. School staff, parents and administrators view the roles of the school counselor differently.

Another reason school counseling programs and school counselors have not been considered part of the educational accountability quotient is reticence of school counselors to change the way they work, as well as the reticence of school principals to change the way they think school counselors should work.

For years, school counselors have only been asked to document the numbers of services and the number of students served. The attitude toward accountability has been that guidance services are offered on the basis of faith, hope and charity. We have faith in the effectiveness of programs, hope that important but non-specified needs can be met and charity in not demanding more evaluative evidence that the faith and hope are j ustified.

Governor Schwarzenegger has stated that 2008 will be his “Year of Educational Reform,” identifying his number one priority as “needing better data.” Counselors m ust not only be purposeful in the types of activities offered, but must be able to measure the results of the services and how students are different.

In the spring of 2007, the California Results-Based School Counseling and Student Support Guidelines were published by the California Department of Education. The guidelines’ premise is that by analyzing student data (e.g., attendance, achievement, course taking patterns, discipline referrals, etc.) counseling programs can design programs that address specific student needs. Those needs include important transitional issues (elementary- to middle- to high-school transitions, high school graduation and college entrance requirements, career exploration, etc.) that m ust be addressed for all students, as well as issues that address closing the gap between the level of knowledge and skills and support systems available to significant subgroups of students.

School counselors m ust use preventive, developmental and systematic approaches to support teachers, students and families. They must disengage themselves from activities not related to counseling (whether clerical or administrative) that do not provide direct services to students and are not measurable in terms of student results.

Finally, to promote the modern identity of the school counselor as an educational leader and to increase the accountability of the school counseling program as an integral part of the mission of the school, school counselors m ust work with and gain the support of school principals. School principals determine the role and function of the school counseling program. In a 2004 study on the perceptions of school counselors and school principals about appropriate tasks for school counselors the top three inappropriate tasks school counselors performed were the same as those endorsed by more than 80 percent of the school principals in the study.

Teamwork of school counselors and principals is the decisive factor in determining the effectiveness and accountability of the school counseling program. School counselors m ust be clear about appropriate roles and define and articulate their roles and the skills they bring to those roles so that others won’t define roles for them. Other steps to take are:

  • School principals and other officials m ust change the mindset that teaching experience be a requirement for hiring school counselors. According to research, teaching experience is not related to school counselor effectiveness. Administrators can provide induction and orientation to support new school counselors to learn the ropes regarding school policies, procedures and unspoken rules and norms.
  • Change the practice of hiring school professionals in guidance-related positions that have not been trained as school counselors. Learning director positions that require administrative services credentials and guidance technicians with only a bachelor’s degree, and sometimes less, are not appropriate replacements for school counselors.
  • Reassign inappropriate duties—administrative and clerical duties are not cost-effective duties for a school counselor. School counselors m ust be allowed to devote their time and energy to appropriate counseling-related duties that provide direct and measurable services to students, parents/guardians, faculty and staff.

Counseling programs can and do contribute to educational accountability and school improvement. It’s going to take school counselors and school principals working together to ensure that it happens.

Diane Talbot directs the Pupil Personnel Services Division in the Fresno Pacific University School of Education, which includes the school counselor and school psychologist programs. She has served as a school counselor in the Valley and is past president of the California School Counselor Association, the California Association for Counselor Education and Supervision and the San Joaquin Counselor Association.