Illustrations by Brian Stauffer
They have unbearable caseloads. They’re often asked to monitor hallways and fill in when a teacher calls in sick. They are usually the first to go during budget cuts. What is it going to take for us to reimagine the pivotal role of school counselors?
When Russia launched Sputnik in 1957,the unmanned satellite struck a coldchord of fear in the U.S. government and the country at large. Public schools — the training grounds for those who would build an answer to Russia’s first salvo in the space race — were suddenly a sound strategic investment to safeguard the nation’s strength and security. The following year, President Dwight Eisenhower signed the National Defense Education Act into law, funneling millions of dollars of government funds into scholarships and programs to encourage the study of science, mathematics, and foreign languages.
Included in those provisions was expanded funding for counselors, a profession with roots dating back to the turn of the 20th century that initially focused on vocational guidance before evolving over the decades to encompass students’ academic studies as well as their social and emotional health.
“The launch of Sputnik coincides with the launch of what was an emerging profession,” says Senior Lecturer Mandy Savitz-Romer, director of the Ed School’s Prevention Science and Practice Program and a former school counselor.
It’s the nature of the counselor’s job to listen, connect, and problem solve. So perhaps it comes as no surprise that counselors, ever helpful and devoted to their work, have adapted over the decades to address the needs of students in an increasingly complex world where everything from homelessness to confusion over gender identity to immigration status can negatively influence a student’s ability to succeed at school.
“As outside forces put new demands on schools, counselors began to take on and absorb the responsibility of addressing barriers to learning, especially in the social-emotional realm,” says Savitz-Romer, author of Fulfilling the Promise: Reimagining School Counseling to Advance Student Success.
At the same time, counselors’ responsibilities in the domains of academic and postsecondary development also have become increasingly demanding. Stressed-out high school students are packing their schedules with more honors and AP classes than ever before, hoping to gain entry to a top-ranked college or university. (This year’s college admissions scandal, with the F.B.I code name “Operation Varsity Blues,” drew back the curtain on the pervasive, damaging nature of that fever.) Meanwhile, first-generation college students rely almost entirely on school counselors to navigate the thicket of financial aid forms and application requirements their parents have never seen or experienced.
Those increasing demands, however, have not been met with a Sputnik-like infusion of funding. All too often, in fact, counselors are the first to be cut when budgets get tight. This year, Education Week reported that 1.7 million students attend schools with police but no counselors. And counselor caseloads can be impossibly high, exceeding the recommended number by hundreds of students. Only three states — Vermont, New Hampshire, and Montana — currently meet the ratio of 250 students per counselor suggested by the American School Counselors Association (ASCA), with the national average standing at 455-to-1. (Arizona is currently the highest, at 905-to-1.) Finally, school leadership doesn’t always understand the fundamental role counselors can play in the life of a school and its students, instead overloading them with test proctoring, hall monitoring, and a host of administrative duties, all of which eat away at precious time with students.
Counselors have pushed through and adapted to this reality — the way they do — making the most of available time and resources to meet students’ needs. But the situation is far from ideal. “We’ve put counselors in an impossible position,” Savitz-Romer says. “These are people who love students, they care about education, they’re warriors for social justice. Their aim is to be the academic conscience of the school, and yet the structures aren’t always there for them to fulfill that goal.”
The drumbeat to reassess how to strategically deploy these trained professionals is growing louder, however, as leadership at the state and national levels tunes into the cost-saving, data-driven difference counselors can make in the lives of students across the country. It has the potential to be another Sputnik moment of evolution for the profession, but it may require counselors to take on yet another task, this one completely unfamiliar — that of advocating for themselves.
Tucked into a residential street of Boston’s Hyde Park neighborhood, New Mission High School is home to 460 students in grades 7–12. Some students are taking AP exams and state standardized tests this morning, so Valduvino Gonçalves has already made the rounds to ensure all is going smoothly. After a two-year internship at New Mission as a graduate student, he’s been at the school for five years, working with one other counselor who focuses exclusively on shepherding juniors and seniors through the college application process. Now, settled into his office with guidance director Kelli Jones Kyller, Ed.M.’07, C.A.S.’08, he reflects on how his role has grown to encompass an increasing number of administrative tasks. Because this is his first job out of graduate school, he’s glad for the experience and increasing responsibility. Yet it’s a little ironic that he’s doing very little face-to-face counseling, he says: “I feel like much more of a coordinator. I could easily sit here all day and say, ‘Take a ticket.’”
New Mission is fortunate to have partnerships with local nonprofits that provide supports to students — from financial aid advising to summer internship placement — but someone has to serve as the liaison, and Gonçalves is it. In fact, he has a student support team meeting scheduled with representatives from various organizations in another hour, right after he meets with a parent whose senior is not on track to graduate next month.
Somehow, Gonçalves, like so many other tapped-out counselors interviewed for this article, still finds ways to get facetime with students — that, he says, is what keeps him going. And given his open, warm demeanor, it’s easy to imagine students seeking him out, too. Earlier in his tenure, when New Mission was smaller, he prided himself on knowing all 260 students and one thing about each of them. But as the school has grown, that’s no longer true. “I love helping students figure out not just their school, but their world,” he says. But Gonçalves wonders how sustainable his situation is, especially once he and his wife start a family; any work that requires concentration, like student evaluations, has to be brought home, and often he stays late to finish tasks put aside for an unexpected crisis.
Kyller nods; even in a school where counselors are respected, they are often the go-to adult by default when something pops up, simply because they aren’t tied to a classroom schedule. With three young children, she’s on a partial schedule at the moment, coming in for a few hours each week to check in with school leadership and support Gonçalves. Kyller considers New Mission her home, having arrived straight out of the Ed School to help build the counseling program from the ground up. Now in her 13th year, she has seen the hard realities of district-level financial decisions.
“When you don’t have enough paper to finish out the school year, it can be hard to come up with money for additional staff,” she says. And the benefits a counselor provides can be less readily apparent than those of an additional instructor: “When you hire a Spanish teacher, you know what you’re getting: five classes and an advisory.”
That automatic assumption feeds into an overarching emphasis on standard-based assessments, says Gretchen Brion-Meisels, Ed.M.’11, Ed.D.’13, a lecturer at the Ed School. “What we have right now is a system with a narrow perspective on what it means to educate students,” she says. “We’re hammering the same nail harder, instead of considering how to open up our approach in a way that fully supports all people. The shortage of counselors is a symptom of that issue.”
“In general, the work that counselors do is not well understood,” says Claudia Martinez, Ed.M.’13, C.A.S.’14, a counselor at Boston Latin Academy with a caseload of 280 seventh graders. That’s especially true of the social-emotional domain. “If a student fails or passes, that’s very tangible. But the magic of the conversations, of making someone feel seen, cared for, and valued, is harder to put into concrete terms.” And it takes time, she adds: “I can meet with a student all year, and it won’t be until the following school year that an observable change takes place.” That can make it difficult for those outside the profession to see the value counselors bring to the table.
Data helps. Last year, Martinez reduced the number of students on her “at risk” list (a composite of attendance, grades, and disciplinary action) by 75 percent through biweekly check-ins. “For most students, the intervention is simply about awareness — sometimes students don’t know their GPA,” she says. “For the next level it’s about increasing contact, accountability, and ensuring they have access to resources, like a computer to do homework. Or if they don’t feel comfortable talking to a teacher, I can meet with him or her and be an advocate for them.” The dramatic results of those simple interventions make a clear financial case for counselors when the cost of remediation is considered.
Including information about the the role of counselors — what they actually do — in the training of school leaders and administrators is another fix. Last February, current Ed.L.D. student Danielle Duarte, a former counselor in San Diego County, used the occasion of National School Counseling Week to raise awareness about that information gap by asking the 25 or so members of her Ed School cohort to raise their hands if they had an administration credential. Now, she said, leave them up if you received instruction in your programs about the job of school counselors.
“Not a single person kept their hand up,” she recalls. “That has really stayed with me.”
Some of the confusion around what counselors do, and the value they bring, can also be attributed to how differently the role is defined from school to school. A counselor at one high school might focus exclusively on guiding students through the college application process. Another might concentrate solely on social and emotional support. Clara Yom, Ed.M.’14, C.A.S.’15, began her career at an alternative charter school in the Los Angeles area.
“I was pigeonholed into only doing postsecondary work,” she says. “I don’t have a problem with the work itself, but I wasn’t happy because it didn’t feel like I was being properly utilized.” Now working in Chicago at Lake View High School, Yom says her role is much more dynamic, allowing her to work across the academic, social-emotional, and postsecondary domains (as is recommended by ASCA) with three levels of involvement that range from school- and district-wide supports (a career fair, for example) to small group counseling to one-on-one interactions with students. “I’m more of a generalist,” she says. “I identify the issue and conEGANnect students to the right support.” (That fits with the increasingly popular view, advocated by Savitz-Romer and others, of the counselor as a sort of primary care physician — one with a strong, trusting relationship with students who can then connect them with appropriate resources.)
At Denver North High School in Colorado, Joanna Wood, Ed.M.’14, C.A.S.’15, is responsible for about 200 seniors she’s looped with since their freshman year, a low caseload that puts her in a coveted minority. Numbers aside, Wood also mentions the support of Samantha Haviland, the district’s director of counseling support services, as a significant factor in her job satisfaction and effectiveness. As cited in Savitz-Romer’s Fulfilling the Promise, Haviland sees her job as “getting anything out of counselors’ way that would prevent them from being successful with students” while providing support in the form of advocacy, collaboration, curriculum development, grant writing, and data-driven practices. Those supports come with expectations, but Wood says she is also given freedom to shape her work to the needs of her students, whether that means leading a weekly boys leadership group with one of the school’s campus safety officers or collaborating with the school’s social worker on a lunchtime grief group.
“My work is in alignment with the asca framework of academic, social-emotional, and postsecondary,” Wood says, “yet each of those domains is so huge — how you support a student academically could be a full-time job in itself. One of the challenges is thinking strategically about counselor capacity and how to build programming that aligns with the needs of the school.”
That’s certainly true for Suji Chung, Ed.M.’12, C.A.S.’13, the only credentialed school counselor serving a student population of 3,000 students at Huntington Beach High School in Huntington Beach, California. (Chung does work alongside a team of three “guidance specialists” focused on course selection and scheduling, as well as another staff member who oversees the school’s college and career center.) She has an annual touchpoint with each student, where she introduces herself and familiarizes students with requirements for graduation and college readiness, as well as postsecondary options and school resources; beyond that, Chung relies on data to determine which students to prioritize. “Now that I’m in my second year here, I’ve seen how it can work and where I have a more limited ability to check in regularly with students.
“I love the relational part of the work, which is ironic because I don’t get to do much of it here,” Chung says. “I love having conversations with young people about the impact they want to have in the world and how to map that out.”
That love comes through again and again in talking to other counselors, like Lauren Alexander, Ed.M.’14, C.A.S.’15, who says she is drawn to the “mooshy” quality of her 335 students in grades 6 to 8 at Bayside Academy in San Mateo, California, just outside of San Francisco.
“Students at this age have two halves,” she reflects. “In some ways they’re like little kids, but they’re also at this interesting point of figuring out who they are and who they want to be.” Sometimes, she continues, they just want to talk and ask random questions (for example: “Will I have acne forever?”). The openness of those moments might not happen as easily if she was seen as a disciplinarian, Alexander adds, which is why she appreciates her administrative team’s effort to keep her out of that role as much as possible. And Alexander supports them in turn: “I try to be seen by staff, not stay holed up in my office,” she says. “It’s easy to be seen as ‘just for students.’ You want to be a collaborator and consultant for your teachers.”
Those connections are an important piece of the puzzle when it comes to creating needed awareness and support for counselors, Savitz-Romer says. “If you’re a teacher, and you don’t know what counselors do, it appears that much of the work is done with students one-on-one behind closed doors,” she says. “In that case, a teacher wouldn’t know to call on a counselor to say, ‘Would you mind observing this particular student in class? Because I’m really struggling with him or her.’ My commitment is to training counselors to do their work effectively, but also to training the people who work with them.” High caseload numbers are often cited as one of the biggest roadblocks to counselor reform, she notes, and they do play a clear role. But it’s really the structures around counselors that can be the biggest lever for change.
Those structures include administrative support at the school, district, and state levels that frees up counselors from test proctoring and other administrative tasks to do the work they’ve been trained to do, as well as relevant professional development opportunities and performance assessments tailored to counselors, not just teachers. One encouraging trend can be seen in the increasing number of states that have passed legislation mandating that counselors spend at least 80 percent of their time with students and no more than 20 percent on administrative tasks. But there’s still much to be done. In more than half of U.S. states, counseling isn’t even mandated or is mandated only at the high school level; licensing requirements differ from state to state; and only some have an office of school counseling, which can make it difficult to roll out statewide policies that a counselor might have a hand in implementing.
Creating systemic change will require counselors to play against type. “We’re not horn tooters,” Duarte says. Yet her experience in California as a grant project director shows how effective documentation and advocacy can be in obtaining increased funding. In a presentation to her district’s superintendent, Duarte outlined the number of suicide assessments, bullying reports, and child services reports she’d completed in the last 21 days while working at her school as the sole counselor for 900 seventh and eighth graders. Much like Martinez, she could also call on data that showed significant reductions in students who were failing classes through a series of relatively simple interventions. Her advocacy increased the number of counselors working in her 11-school district from two to seven — although the additional positions were not refunded after she left. “I was so frustrated and upset,” Duarte says. “Then, after a year of increased absences and suspensions, they did rehire the counselors.” Presenting data and building a case for the benefit even one counselor can provide ultimately made a difference.
Colorado’s School Counselor Corps Grant Program offers a statewide case for the kind of counselor impact Duarte demonstrated on the district level. Signed into law in 2008, its purpose is simple: to increase the availability of effective counseling in diverse, economically challenged middle schools and high schools through four-year grant cycles, with the goal of increasing graduation rates as well as the percentage of students who continue to postsecondary education. Updated and renewed in 2016, the program has delivered on those goals; a $16 million grant to 59 schools in the 2010–2015 cohort kept nearly 1,000 at-risk students in school and helped many more students go on to college. As reported in 2016 by Colorado’s Department of Education, that means every $1 invested resulted in a $20 savings to taxpayers when the potential costs in lost income taxes and increased spending on social services typically associated with a high school dropout were considered.
“That’s the craziest return on investment, ever,” Savitz-Romer says. “Why would anyone not do this?”
Colorado’s program has received national coverage in the press, and there are other signs — maybe not Sputnik-like in their drama and size, but promising nonetheless — that the counselor role is slowly getting the attention and funding it so urgently needs. In the second term of Barack Obama’s administration, former First Lady Michelle Obama’s Reach Higher Initiative centered on encouraging more students to focus on postsecondary education and highlighted the part counselors play in helping students realize that goal. In her final public remarks as first lady, Obama tearfully addressed a roomful of school counselors. “You see the promise in each of your students,” she said. “You believe in them, even when they can’t believe in themselves, and you work tirelessly to help them be who they were truly meant to be.”
That self-knowledge is fundamental to all other learning, too, with direct ties to success by any measurable standard.
“If students don’t have someone they can talk to about existential, identity-focused issues during the time they’re developing and changing the most, how can you expect them to learn geometry?” asks Alexander. “How can you expect them to learn to write a five-paragraph essay if all they can think of is, I’m gay and I can’t tell my mom? It’s hard to learn any of those skills if you don’t feel you’re put together as a person. Counselors are people whose specific job it is to help you learn how to be a person.”
Julia Hanna is associate director and senior content producer at the HBS Alumni Bulletin.