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Redefining School Counseling

Mandy Savitz-Romer talks about the misconceptions around school counselors, and shares how she reimagines this vital role in schools.
Mandy Savitz-Romer

Senior Lecturer Mandy Savitz-Romer believes a new day has come in school counseling. As more students face issues of school violence, gender identity, and increasing anxiety, Savitz-Romer sees school counselors as a natural resource for students experiencing these challenges. But first, it’s going to require a reimagining of the school counselor’s role.

In her new book, Fulfilling The Promise: Reimagining School Counseling to Advance Student Success, Savitz-Romer explores what it’s going to take to reinvent the field of school counseling. While she acknowledges the fact that schools need far more counselors — the highest ratio consists of one counselor to almost 900 students —  Savitz-Romer says that solving that problem will only go so far. Administrators need to better define the scope of the work of these professionals and, more important, clearly communicate the role of the counselors to the school community.

“Just putting more counselors in an outdated model is problematic for kids. We need to reimagine school counseling not as a numbers problem but a framing problem," she says. "What do we want them to do? Do we see them as therapists? Do we want them only doing social and emotional mental health work? Academic supporters or are they college planners? The truth is I see them sitting at the nexus of all three. Students don’t have academic problems in one room, and personal friendship issues in another room, family troubles in another room, and then think about their future somewhere else. It’s all connected to who they are in schools.”

In this edition of the Harvard EdCast, Savitz-Romer speaks about the misconceptions around school counseling, and shares how finding inspiration in healthcare models could help to redefine this vital role in schools.


Jill Anderson: I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast. Harvard professor Mandy Savitz-Romer believes it's a new day in school counseling. As more students face issues of school violence, questions about gender identity, and rising anxiety, Mandy sees school counseling as a logical answer to tackle challenges facing kids. 

But in order to get there, it's going to require a reimagination of the school counselor's role. She's been around the country and says beyond the fact that there aren't enough counselors, schools just don't use them to their fullest capabilities. She shared with me how she reenvision the school counselor. But first, Mandy started by telling me more about some of the misconceptions we already have about school counseling. 

Mandy Savitz-Romer: What we needed in 1950 was people who were doing vocational guidance, who were charged with preparing students for particular careers in math and science. We didn't have the demands on schools that we have today-- school shootings, school violence, students exploring their sexual identity. The need for counseling in its truest sense, as it belongs in schools is different. And so I think we have to drop that old name, because it conjures up an image of a group of professionals that no longer exist. They're not trained as guidance, and the work that they're being asked to do or that they need to do for young people is very different. 

Jill Anderson: Do you actually still see that title being used in practice at schools? 

Mandy Savitz-Romer: Far too many places. In schools, in the media, in policymaker's speeches — it is so pervasive. And I have tried to challenge people in a way that doesn't seem like I'm just taking issue with the term, but also educating them and recognizing that it's not homework anymore. We say family and consumer science. 

The schools and the kinds of things that students are bringing to schools demands a different kind of model. And I think school counselors and changing the name is part of bringing everybody else outside the school counseling profession up to speed. 

Jill Anderson: So where are we with school counseling in the U.S.? What is sort of the state of things? 

Mandy Savitz-Romer: I think one of the things that characterizes a state is that it's so different across the country. And between rural, suburban, and urban settings, you'll see very different things. You'll see differences between elementary, middle, and high school. I think in some places, school counselors are doing college planning and that's it. 

I think in other places they're doing innovative classroom lessons; they are building partnerships, they're using data to identify students who are off track and are struggling. It's the unevenness of the profession that defines it, the fact that in some places counselors and their school partners have been able to build really robust programs that are data driven, that are matching the needs of students. In other places, it is testing and covering classes, doing administrative duties, and doing almost no counseling. So, I think it's hard to say what it is broadly, except that it's incredibly uneven. 

Jill Anderson: So, you call school counselors the most underutilized personnel in education. Why? 

Mandy Savitz-Romer: Because I see that we have folks who have training in counseling that draws from the discipline of psychology who have master's degrees — everyone who is a counselor must have a master's degree in counseling-- and they're not using those skills. Well, I certainly don't want to let higher ed off the hook, I think there's a lot of room for growth. I think that what I've found teaching graduate programs and graduate students in school counseling is that they leave here armed with a set of skills that they're not able to use. 

So, we may train them in restorative practices and how to collaborate and consult with teachers. But if they go into a school where counselors are marginalized and told that they can't take students out of class, they're not able to work with teachers because teachers don't understand what they do, then they're not able to enact all the knowledge and skills that we've trained them in. That said, I think if I were to look at where the problem falls, higher ed's training models do also need some updating. Traditionally, counseling training programs have been heavy in counseling-- clinical training with an emphasis on counseling. 

And the truth is that it's not clinical work in schools. Counselors need to be able to identify students who need deeper intensive counseling. They need to know how to use screening tools to identify students who may be suicidal or may have mental health issues. They need to know how to have a difficult conversation with a student, with a family member, and how to recognize signs that are worrisome with regard to academic struggles or something else. 

But they also need to know how to use data to identify what students aren't being served well. They need to know how to lead teams of outside providers who can provide the intensive support. And those are different skills. And I'm not sure that all counseling programs are emphasizing the leadership, skill building, and the data-driven work, and how you build partnerships, and how you advocate for systems of inequity that don't serve students well. 

Jill Anderson: You're talking a lot about sort of this reimagining school counseling and school counselors really being the first point of contact for students. Can you talk a little bit more about what you mean? 

Mandy Savitz-Romer: So, let me start with the reimagining part. I think some would say we have a professional organization that has offered a national model. We have a model out there. 

One of the things I'm hearing, which is very good, is that we have policymakers and state leaders saying we need more counselors. That's great. We should lower the caseload. The caseloads that exist across the country are problematic. But just putting more counselors into an outdated model is not going to do very much for young people. 

Jill Anderson: I think those are astonishing. 

Mandy Savitz-Romer: The professional organization, the American School Counselor Association, or ASCA, recommends a case load of 1 to 250. It may be interesting to your listeners to know that that number came from James Conant, former Harvard University president, when he wrote about the American high school. He recommended that caseload. 

And that doesn't exist in most places. In the state of Arizona, the number is 1 to 924. California, Arizona, Minnesota have some of the highest caseloads. And just a step back and think about that for a moment. That means that if I'm a student in a school with a counselor who is responsible for let's even say 800 students, I have to compete with 800 other students for time with somebody to let them know that I'm struggling. I'm not sure that's happening. 

We certainly know that in the state of Massachusetts it's just a little over 1 to 400. But the caseloads are misleading, because in elementary schools, you may have one counselor for the entire school. In a rural community, you may have one counselor for the entire district. So, the caseloads are a problem, and it's important that people hear that. And to hear policymakers and teacher strikes calling for lower caseloads, I applaud that and I support it. 

And it seems to me that putting more counselors in an outdated model is still not going to be enough. So, we have to do both. We have to lower the caseloads so counselors can be accessible to students, so they feel like counselors have time for them, because of students perceived counselors as being overburdened or too busy, they're not going to want to bother them. And that couldn't be farther from what counselors want. They've gone into this field because they want to support students. 

And the truth is, they're spending their time on things that are not as satisfying to them and they're not the things that draw on their skills. So, that's the first part about why we need to sort of reimagine school counseling as not a numbers problem, but really a framing problem. And that is, what do we want them to do? Like, do we see them as therapists? Do we want them only doing social, emotional, mental health work? 

Do we see them as academic supporters? Or are they college planners? And the truth is, I see them sitting in the nexus of all three, because students don't have academic problems in one room and personal friendship issues in another room, family troubles in another room, and then think about their future somewhere else. It's all connected to who they are in schools. 

And so, I think that the only way counselors can work at the nexus of all three is to think about themselves as the first point of contact, knowing there are lots of other valuable people in schools — teachers, staff, support providers, the nurse, psychologists, as well as outside of schools — families, community programs. One of the things that's happened, because I believe is a weak counseling model, is we've had this development of lots of community-based programs in all three of those areas. Academics, we have tutoring programs and academic engagement programs, we have college access programs, and we have social service agencies — counselors, social workers who come in. 

That's great. And I believe we need those partners. But we need someone to be the point guard who is thinking about how the sum is greater than its parts and how everyone fits together. And that doesn't exist. I think counselors could do that. 

Jill Anderson: So, I'm to ask you how that would look, this like, network of support that would prevent students from falling between the cracks? And you are referencing a lot about — that we could borrow some models from health care for this. So do you want to talk a little bit about that? 

Mandy Savitz-Romer: I had this experience. I'm a former high school counselor in Boston, and I think about the students with whom I connected. And I think about the students that I didn't connect with all the time, and the students that I feel like, no matter how hard I worked, I just didn't have time for. And I often find that sometimes education borrows from business or medicine in a way that is not helpful. 

But I was sitting in my primary care's office, and I was struck by the fact that she was able to see that I had seen a specialist. And she had that information available. And she could bring it into our conversation. And it was reminding me of what I wished were true when I was a counselor. 

I would refer students to programs never to hear from them again. And then what happened, it was a little more like a pass off. But it doesn't work when kids are in schools for four, six years to not know what the supports are happening and how what they're learning could help what we're doing. 

And so, I dug into the medicine literature and was reading about the model of medical homes. And medical homes came from a field that felt fragmented and that people weren't being served well. And the things that really characterize the medical home are comprehensive care — that you can go to one person and that they can refer you to specialists. But that one person sees you over time and knows your history. 

Counselors work with students all the years they're in a school. Teachers change every year, sometimes they change per day. Who's the one person that students stick with all four years or all six years? Their counselor. 

And so I was thinking about counselors being able to provide comprehensive care. I think the medical home model puts a heavy emphasis on the building of teams and networks. There are lots of people who play a key part in students' academic experiences. 

And I am not thinking that counselors can replace them. I just think they are in a better position to coordinate them. And that's a key piece of the medical home. 

So, I adopted the medical home concept, and I began to think about who's in a position to create an academic home for students. And I write about counselors providing an academic home by using teams, whether they are student support teams, where students are being discussed who may be struggling, or post-secondary leadership teams, where college access programs and counselors are looking at data to see which students are off track for planning for their future, whether it's teams of teachers who are looking at the kinds of things that come up. In 7th grade, lots of social emotional issues are coming up for kids. It's a time of intense development socially, and we know this from all of what we read about bullying. 

Teachers often get together to talk about, what do we do? Counselors could be helping with those conversations. So, I see counselors leading teams, using data, and really bringing in the skills that they have from their training program in schools of education where they're trained alongside principals and teachers and policymakers and bringing that into an academic home. 

Jill Anderson: So, this is really like a whole new world. 

Mandy Savitz-Romer: Some would say that. Some counselors will probably say that's what I do. And I think that's great. And I think some counselors will say, this sounds a lot like what the national model calls for. And that may be true. 

The difference is that for all of the advances that have happened in the school counseling profession, it has remained largely invisible to anyone outside. So, if you meet a counselor and you say school counselor and not guidance, they're going to be very grateful, because what's happened is that the field has been very innovative. There are other counselor educators like me and other graduate schools who are doing great work, who have robust training programs. There are principals and counselors who work together as teams. But it hasn't extended beyond that. 

And so, part of my writing this book was to take the good work that's underway and the new ideas that many have started and try to communicate them to policymakers, to the philanthropic community, to principals, who are just not well trained in this area — and superintendents. Most principals and superintendents have been teachers. That's where their training is. And that makes sense. 

They have a strong background in instruction and sometimes, one discipline. But they don't know what to do with their counselors. They don't know what they don't know. And as a result, they are missing opportunities to support them. 

Jill Anderson: What would it take to actually create this system that you write about? 

Mandy Savitz-Romer: I think it's going to take the will of many people who maybe don't see themselves as relevant in this space. And so chief among them are philanthropists and our funders in education — the Gates Foundation, the Lumina Foundation. One of the things that we see in college access and in the social emotional learning and supports domains is that there's a lot of money that's funding community-based programs, or they're funding programs that exist outside of schools to address the things that counselors work on. 

Yet, there's almost no investments in school counseling reform. And there need to be. Most recently, in the Lilly Endowment in Indiana has invested $30 million in school counseling, because the chamber of commerce in Indiana called attention to the fact that the students were not prepared for the workforce. So, Lilly Endowment, noticing that and recognizing that the student data on wellness were really troubling, realized they needed to build a better system. And so they've invested in that. 

And importantly, they've not just invested in school counseling reform, they've also invested in better preparing principals and better training programs at the graduate level. I think they're leading the charge in better investments in school counseling reform. And we need other funders to follow suit. 

Jill Anderson: Mandy Savitz-Romer is a senior lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education where she leads the Prevention Science Practice Program. She is the author of the forthcoming book, Fulfilling The Promise, Reimagining School Counseling to Advance Student Success. I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast produced by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. 


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