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.
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.
Cornerstones of Counseling: How the ASCA Model Works
The American School Counselor Association (ASCA) national model has four interrelated components that provide a step-by-step process for implementing school-counseling programs and tracking their progress.
Step 1: The Foundation
First, schools should identify how students will benefit from a counseling program. All staff involved in creating and overseeing the program must reach consensus on its guiding principles before they implement it. The ASCA encourages schools to develop a mission statement that clearly defines the program's goals and ensures that the program fits under their school district's umbrella for student achievement.
Step 2: The Delivery System
Counselors should put together a series of structured developmental lessons designed to help students achieve core competencies. Counselors will reinforce the lessons through individual planning sessions in which students set personal goals. Counselors should also focus on traditional duties such as counseling, consultation, referral, and peer mediation. The administrative and management staff will give the support needed to run the program.
Step 3: The Management System
Counselors and management should define how they will organize the counseling program and what it is supposed to accomplish. An advisory council made up of students, parents, teachers, counselors, administrators, and community members should review the results. Counselors and their support staff must track results, and they should use the collected data to create action plans. A published master calendar will help the staff, students, and community understand how the counselors are spending their time.
Step 4: Accountability
School counselors should look at the data to evaluate how well their efforts are aligning with their original goals. The advisory council should also analyze the results. A year-end program audit helps guide future planning.