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School Counseling at a Crossroads

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Co-authored by Gaston Capterton.

Tight budgets mean tough times, but pinching pennies should not mean less money for children in schoolhouses across America. One in four children fails to graduate from high school with their peers. We need "all hands on deck" and a smarter use of existing resources to ensure achievement gaps continue to close, graduation rates continue to rise, and more students are ready for college and career. Among those valuable and underutilized resources are our nation's school counselors.

There are more than 100,000 school counselors in America's middle and high schools. Yet, they are among the least strategically deployed education professionals and are almost entirely missing from our education reform debates and accountability discussions. This is a national loss, especially given that school counselors are uniquely positioned to build a complete picture of the dreams, life circumstances, challenges and needs of their students -- and to provide these students the resources they need, when they need them, year after year. It's time for a sea change in how schools view, utilize, and evaluate school counselors -- informed by the voices of counselors themselves.

To raise the volume of those critical voices, the College Board, Civic Enterprises and Hart Research partnered to conduct a survey of more than 5,000 middle and high school counselors. The largest and broadest national project of its kind, the survey shares the perspectives of school counselors on the state of their schools, their missions and unique roles, their views of accountability for their work, and their interest in driving toward exactly what our economy needs -- better educated students who will become skilled workers.

School counselors see a broken system in need of reform. Eighty-five percent of school counselors believe that, ideally, a top priority of schools should be ensuring all students graduate from high school ready to succeed in college and careers; however, only 30 percent of all counselors and 19 percent in high poverty schools see this as their school's mission. Nearly all counselors (99 percent) want to exercise leadership in advocating for students' access to rigorous academic preparation, including college and career-readiness counseling, even if other educators do not envision counselors playing this role.

But why shouldn't they? Three out of four counselors (74 percent) see themselves as unique student advocates, creating pathways and offering support to ensure all students reach their post-secondary goals. Yet only a minority (42 percent) believes their schools take advantage of this contribution. Strong majorities want to see more college and career exploration, admission and academic planning that will boost the life prospects of students in a globally competitive economy.

Accountability can be the third rail -- especially in education reform -- but a majority of counselors support fair and appropriate accountability measures that create a college-going culture in schools. A majority of counselors supports measures for their own success, such as transcript audits of graduation readiness; completion of a college prep course sequence; students gaining access to advanced classes and tests; and both high school graduation and college application rates.

We are at a crossroads in American education -- and in defining the role of our nation's school counselors. At a time when resources for schools are more constrained than ever and America is losing ground in educating students, we need to more effectively use the precious resources offered by our school counselors, so they can help prepare the next generation for a globally competitive world.

John M. Bridgeland is CEO of Civic Enterprises and former Director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, and Gaston Caperton is a former two-term governor of West Virginia and President of the College Board. They released a report today entitled, Counseling at a Crossroads: The Perspectives and Promise of Schools Counselors in American Education found at http://nosca.collegeboard.org.