More Standardized Training Will Fix that Problem

According to a new paper by the National Association for College Admission Counseling, it’s time for guidance counselors to have “standardized training” in order to prepare “secondary school graduates for entry to and success in higher education.” This professional development recommendation, while superficially reasonable, doesn’t make any sense given the jobs guidance counselors actually have.

The paper, “Professional College Knowledge: Re-envisoning How We Prepare Our College Readiness Workforcee,” by Mandy Savitz-Romer, argues that:

At present, the college admission/access field includes school counselors, professionals from community-based organizations, independent counselors, and college and university staff. Their involvement in this field varies by type of involvement (i.e, instrumental, emotional or family support), degree of involvement Identifying a set of topics and/or competencies to guide college admission and readiness professionals requires a strong theoretical foundation that includes aspects of adolescent development, motivation and choices, the influence of contexts and relationships, decision-making behaviors, and policy contexts, to name a few relevant areas.

This paper is intended to start the academic and policy conversation necessary to create a common set of professional competencies to define, coordinate and improve the work of college counseling and admission professionals across multiple contexts. The paper first identifies the landscape of current professional development in the field, both in pre-service and in-service settings. Next, it groups the key knowledge in the field into topical areas that are essential to successful practice. Finally, based on this existing professional development and topical framework, it suggests a set of competencies and policy recommendations for starting the consideration and adoption of such a set of professional benchmarks to guide the preparation, development and support of professionals in this field.

In other words, now that so much of American education policy is focused on metrics and high school outcomes, guidance counselors might benefit from training to help schools meet those outcomes. So far so good.

But good standardized training, according to Savitz-Romer, would provide guidance counselors with preparation in the following, really soft, things:

  • 1. Psychological processes associated with college readiness
  • 2. Social environments that affect students’ resources for succeeding in college
  • 3. Microeconomics, especially related to individual decision-making behavior
  • 4. Educational reform policies related to college readiness
  • 5. Higher education research, including college access and enrollment and college choice theories
  • 6. Family engagement models

Wait, why?

This recommendation seems a little questionable. No one really knows what effective guidance counseling looks like. While the list above seems to have some relationship to the factors that actually impact where students go after high school, there’s no reason to think more guidance counselor training in things like “family engagement models” would have any meaningful effect on postsecondary success (or even actual family engagement).

Can standardized training improve guidance counseling? Perhaps, but—if one accepts that guidance counselors are important to high school success, which is debatable—standardized training is probably not the most meaningful policy change to make to the profession.

The major problem with guidance counselors in American high schools is not that they’re poorly trained or they don’t know what they’re doing with regard to “social environments that affect students’ resources for succeeding in college.” No, the profession’s effectiveness is undermined by the fact that there simply aren’t enough professionals per school.

The average guidance counselor is in charge of 460 students, despite the fact that they’d be most effective with about 250 students. Guidance counselors, in fact, spend most of their time just scheduling students for classes. Some 15 percent of their jobs are devoted to administering, interpreting, and planning for standardized tests. Guidance counselors only spend 23 percent of their time helping students with planning for life after high school.

That use of staff time is a real barrier to effective student assistance. And standardizing what guidance counselors need to know isn’t going to fix that.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer