School-Counseling Programs Gain New Focus from a National Model

The ASCA defines the job, sets goals, and measures results.

The ASCA defines the job, sets goals, and measures results.
Female student talks to counselor in part of the image, and holds up a test with her math teacher next to her in the other part of the image

Academic Boost:

School counselor Tammi Mackeben (left) talks to sixth-grade student Judith about her classwork. Shortly thereafter, Judith does well on a math test given by teacher Dora Gurany.

Credit: Courtesy of Gregoria Calderón

Defining the job of a school counselor can be a difficult task, one that calls to mind the parable of the six blind men who are asked to describe an elephant. In both cases, the answers will vary depending on which part of the animal you come into contact with. Students working through emotional rough patches may see the counselor's job as a therapeutic one, whereas parents may think counselors should be dedicated to kids' college prep. Meanwhile, teachers may hold counselors responsible for encouraging and enforcing good student behavior on campus.

The reality is, school counselors do all of those things and more. But the general confusion about what they are and are not responsible for has been bad for the profession. "I think there's still a stigma that we sit behind our desks and drink coffee all day," says Julia Taylor, an eighth-grade counselor at Apex Middle School, in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Since it began a century ago, the school-counseling profession has "lacked a consistent identity from state to state, district to district, and even school to school." That's according to the American School Counselor Association (ASCA), which in 2003 took a major step toward rectifying the problem by publishing a national model for school-counseling programs. (What qualifies an educator to become a school counselor still varies by state and school district.)

The ASCA model defines the role of the counselor, places counseling programs in the context of districts' larger academic missions, and sets up data audits to track results. The model grew out of the accountability measures imposed by No Child Left Behind and was also based on the mounting evidence that school counselors can have a dramatic influence on student academic performance.

Success on Campus

"The ASCA model gives us a focus," says Tammi Mackeben, a school counselor at Ernesto Serna School, in El Paso, Texas. "I think that's the biggest thing -- it has defined my role as a school counselor." The model has done this, Mackeben adds, by refining what counselors are expected to do. "We don't do any administrative tasks. We don't do lunch duty and hall duty, and we don't administer tests," she explains. "We have a specific role on our campus. Our role is to be with the students 100 percent of the time, in the classroom doing guidance lessons, seeing the kids individually and in groups, doing planning with them." For its part, the ASCA recommends that school counselors spend about 80 percent of their time in direct contact with students.

Mackeben, who was named the 2008 ASCA School Counselor of the Year, learned about the model early on and fully embraced it about four years ago. "It reaches all students, which is what we were trying to do anyway, but the model gave us the tools to do it," she explains. "Before, we were working hard, but we didn't have a focus. Now, we have competencies that we teach the students, and they build on them from year to year, so I know that we're making a difference."

The ASCA model's focus on data collection dovetails with her school's overall mission, Mackeben says. She cites eighth-grade reading-test scores as an example: Students must pass the reading test to advance to high school, and performance at her school was unacceptably low. Mackeben and her colleagues began working with the students who had failed. "Most people would say that's not something a counselor would traditionally do, because you're not in the classroom teaching them," she says. "But we knew that there had to be something else going on with these students."

The counselors at Ernesto Serna found that many of the struggling students were first-generation U.S. immigrants enrolled in English as a Second Language classes. Many lived with relatives who weren't members of their immediate family. "They didn't have a strong support network, because their parents were not living with them," Mackeben states. "Also, many of them were failing the standardized test year after year, so their self-confidence was low."

Following the ASCA's guidelines, Mackeben and her colleagues set out to improve the reading scores by 25 percent within a year. The students were terrified of test taking after so many failures, so the counselors began holding small-group workshops. They helped students develop self-esteem, relaxation techniques, and goals for the future. "Many of them didn't have goals," Mackeben says. "They didn't see themselves going anywhere, because they had been so unsuccessful academically." The workshops began early in the 2007-08 school year and targeted twenty students. The counselors led the program, which also included teachers and the district's literacy leader. In the end, the students' scores jumped by 80 percent, more than triple the initial goal.

Going Further Afield

Carol Turner, a counselor at Center Street Middle School, in Birmingham, Alabama, implemented the ASCA model in 2004 and says it is still a work in progress. She particularly took to heart the model's standards for student career development, which state: "Students will understand the relationship of academics to the world of work." The standards also say, "Students will acquire the skills to investigate the world of work in relation to knowledge of self and to make informed career decisions."

Turner realized that her urban middle school students had little concept of what many careers were really like or how a college education contributed to career advancement, so one of the first changes she made was to bring in guest speakers and plan a series of college field trips that begin in the sixth grade. "We try to go to different colleges each year," Turner notes. "So, if you start going as a sixth grader, by the time you're an eighth grader, you've been to six different college campuses."

The clearly stated ASCA goals helped Turner garner administrative support for the field trips. "The model empowered me to get these field trips going," she points out, adding that the activity helped her cultivate a relationship with the University of Alabama. Nine of her students now attend the university on full scholarships.

Far-Reaching Influence

The ASCA model has become such an empowering tool for counselors that it's even influencing where some seek employment. Julia Taylor says she accepted her job at Apex Middle School because of the district's strong support for the ASCA model.

"There's a giant debate going on," Taylor says. "Are we school counselors, or are we mental health counselors inside of schools? I think we're educators. We're in a school setting, and I'm here to help students be academically successful. Part of that is, if a kid is being bullied or having problems at home or problems with friends, then they're not learning. So, we're here to help them through that process.

"The model brings awareness to key educational stakeholders about what school counselors do," Taylor adds. Mackeben agrees. "The biggest piece for me is you're not just a counselor," she says. "You're a leader, an advocate. You really do bring about change."

Traci Vogel is a freelance writer and editor based in San Francisco.

This article originally published on 1/20/2009

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Comments (27)

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Lindsey Braaten (not verified)

powerpoint

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I am a high school counselor in North Dakota.
Your PowerPoint sounds very interesting. Could you please send it to me?
Thanks for sharing!

Lily (not verified)

powerpoint presentation

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Thank you for your post. Can I please have a copy of your presentation?

Susan Poetzel (not verified)

counseling

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Fernando, Please send me power point of ASCA model.

Susan Poetzel
Pre3 - 8
St. Giles School
Chicago

Sandy Vernon (not verified)

Hi, Fernando, read your

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Hi, Fernando, read your comments on Edutopia & would like to see your PowerPoint. Thanks!

Julie Borum (not verified)

Power Point Presentation

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I am interested in your power point presentation. Could you please send me a copy?

Thank you,

Julie Borum

Fernando Romero (not verified)

It is true that we

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It is true that we counselors are often underrated, that staff and community members do not have a clear understanding of what we do. It is our responsibility, however, to ensure that we publicize what we do, be visible on campus, partner with community/parents, and have a comprehensive guidance plan in place. Of course, this is easier said than done, so the ASCA model helps to develop a clearer focus for the entire school community. If you are interested, I have a nice Powerpoint presentation that provides an overview of guidance procedures that correlate with ASCA's standards.

Frank Burtnett (not verified)

Counselors are Critical to Student Success

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Thanks to Edutopia for calling attention to the important work performed by professional counselors in support of the academic, social and career development of students in the nation's schools. Your acknowledgement of the ASCA national model for school counseling programs and accompanying story should be "must" reading for parents, teachers, educational administrators and those deciding public policy issues at every level of government.

Frank Burtnett, Ed.D.
Education Now
Springfield, VA
http://www.ednow.org

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