School counselors too busy to counsel 

Lesley Weidenbener
INDIANAPOLIS - A new report finds school counselors in Indiana are focusing an increasing amount of time on work that's not associated with their primary roles as advisors and less time helping kids deal with life issues or college and job preparation.

The survey by the Indiana Chamber of Commerce Foundation reports that counselors last year spent nearly 40 percent of their time administering tests, covering the cafeteria or classes, creating schedules and on other duties.

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That number has increased from roughly 18 percent two years before.

Indiana Chamber Vice President Derek Redelman said the issue is one of counseling, "not a problem with counselors." He said the study shows the professionals want to spend more one-on-one time with students.

Chamber officials want them to spend that time preparing students for the workplace, college, or post-secondary education.

However, they also acknowledged Tuesday that some of the changes they've advocated in recent years may be distracting counselors and schools from achieving that goal. And chamber officials said the study did not indicate that schools need more money to help free up counselors to focus on advising.

"The things we're focused on are trying to maybe redirect resources," Redelman said. That could mean getting businesses involved in helping to tell more students about college and career options.

"A common approach in the Statehouse is that when you see a problem, you try to direct some money to it," he said. But "we also recognize resources are limited and so we need to be focused on things we can do with current resources."

The chamber survey showed that counselors spend 15 percent of their time on actual counseling, which includes dealing with social, personal or family problems, and about 21 percent on guidance, which includes academic and career development and preparation.

About 32 percent of their time is spent on programs and behind the scenes activities that can include communicating with parents, working on school improvement teams, and developing plans to help all students achieve.

And 40 percent is spent on duties considered unrelated to counseling, which could be administrative or secretarial work, test administration, state reporting, fundraising or other activities.

The report is meant to build on a study done 20 years ago by the Lilly Endowment and the Indiana Youth Institute, which found disparities in the way counselors provide college and career advice to students.

click to enlarge Amy Marsh, director of college and career readiness initiatives for the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, said Tuesday that some duties undertaken by school counselors could be moved to secretarial or administrative staff. Marsh claims that would free counselors to work more with students on college and career readiness. - LESLEY WEIDENBENER
  • Amy Marsh, director of college and career readiness initiatives for the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, said Tuesday that some duties undertaken by school counselors could be moved to secretarial or administrative staff. Marsh claims that would free counselors to work more with students on college and career readiness.
  • Lesley Weidenbener
"The current research has found that not much has changed," said Amy Marsh, the chamber's director of college and career readiness issues.

The chamber sent surveys to every school counselor in the state and received responses from 426 of them, about one-fifth of the total number. About 73 percent of the respondents worked in high schools.

Roughly 90 percent of counselors reported that they spent half or less than half of their time on college and career readiness activities. And 81 percent said they'd like to spend more time on those issues.

"This challenge is pervasive," Redelman said.

The report also found that when counselors do give advice about post-secondary education options, they tend to focus on four-year schools, at the expense of community college and technical options.

Redelman said that appears to be because the state's grading system for high schools focuses so much on four-year college measures, including success on the SAT exam and advanced placement tests.

"We acknowledge our school accountability system is a challenge to this," Redelman said. "Testing administration and other kinds of issues related to accountability are a challenge. At the same time we do not want to back off our advocacy for accountability for schools. We remain a strong advocate of that."

Still, he said, the current system may be a "disincentive" to advising students about non-baccalaureate options.

Testing issues came up repeatedly in the comments counselors made on the survey. Some said they are busy administering tests while others say the students and teachers are too busy with them to make kids available for counseling.

"With all the standards the teachers need to cover, testing and reading block, I cannot get in the classroom as often," one counselor said.

"Lots of instructional time with testing, testing, testing has made teachers very protecting of class time, leaving less and less opportunity to target college and career readiness activities," another said.

Other counselors said they're too busy dealing with student problems to put more effort into college and career prep.

"With the change in bullying laws this year, the majority of time is dealing with bullying/meanness follow-up," one said.

Another said that he needs more time with students who are ready for college and careers: "I feel we spend so much time with kids who are failing classes that we don't have much time to spend on more positive things such as career and college planning."

Many counselors talked about their overwhelming caseloads. But Redelman said that's not a sign that schools need more money to hire additional counselors.

"If we have more counselors still doing non-career counseling activities... still coming to us with little training that arena, we're not necessarily going to address the issue in our schools," he said.

And Marsh said that many of the secretarial duties now done by counselors should be pushed off onto administrative staff instead.

But some counselors said in the survey that the reason their workloads had changed was because the school had cut staff elsewhere. "Our department has been reduced so there is no longer a secretary or registrar," one counselor said. "I function in those capacities as well as being the counselor."

Lesley Weidenbener is managing editor of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news service powered by Franklin College journalism students and faculty.

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