Saturday, January 26, 2013

Are We Gatekeepers?

I was recently having a conversation with a colleague in which they were talking about their experience with their high-school counselor, "back-in-the-day."  This colleague described how the one time that they sought out their high-school counselor for some advice on the post-secondary process that they were told they were "not college material."

This colleague has gone on to get a Master's degree and an Education Specialist degree and is having a strong impact upon their own students as a school counselor.

While there are many things that are concerning to me about this story, one of the points that gives me pause is that this experience was only about ten years ago.  As a school counselor, I have heard from many friends and acquaintances over the years of similar interactions with their own school counselors.  My own experience with my assigned school counselor was one in which she handed me my ACT scores, asked me if I was thinking of going to college, and pointed to some books on a shelf that was falling apart in the hallway in case I needed any help trying to come up with ideas.  However, these are typically indicative of situations that happened 20 or so years ago--we've come a long way since then.  Right?  As I pondered my colleague's story this week, I began to wonder if this happened to them only ten years ago, how much of this is still going on today?  Are we, as school counselors, supposed to be acting as "gatekeepers," telling students what classes they can and cannot take, and deciding if they are going to go to college, a trade school, or straight into the work-force?

The answer is a resounding, "no."  If you look at the American School Counselor Association (ASCA) Code of Ethics, it states: 
From the Preamble: 
Each person has the right to receive the information and support needed to move toward self-direction and self-development and affirmation within one’s group identities, with special care being given to students who have historically not received adequate educational services, e.g., students of color, students living at a low socio-economic status, students with disabilities and students from non-dominant language backgrounds. 
Each person has the right to understand the full magnitude and meaning of his/her educational choices and how those choices will affect future opportunities. 
From A.3:
b. Ensure equitable academic, career, post-secondary access and personal/social opportunities for all students through the use of data to help close achievement gaps and opportunity gaps.
c. Provide and advocate for individual students’ career awareness, exploration and post-secondary plans supporting the students’ right to choose from the wide array of options when they leave secondary education. 
e. Promote the welfare of individual students and collaborate with them to develop an action plan for success.  (source:
Our code of ethics is telling us that we have a responsibility to make all of our students aware of all of their possible options but that the choice is ultimately up to them.  We collaborate with the student and the family to make decisions and plan for the future.  It is not enough, anymore, to choose on our own, what is best for a student with regards to class selections and post-secondary options.  Rather, as school counselors it is now incumbent upon us to educate a student and family about what options they have, what the possible ramifications and outcomes might be from their choices, and then to allow the student and family to make the best decision for them based upon the information they have been given.  As I've written about before, during academic advising my role would be to look at the available information (grades, test scores, teacher feedback) with the student, discuss the pros and cons of each choice, examine the student's post-secondary and long-term goals, and give my thoughts and recommendations.  Ultimately, though, the choice is up to the student and family as to how they would like to proceed.  Post-secondary planning is no different.  I work with my students to show them all of the available options to include four-year schools, two-year schools, military options, and gap years, we talk about how they stack up based on available statistics, and then they make their own choices as to where to apply and what they might do.

Our profession has transformed from one in which we guard the doors, deciding who gets to go through the one marked "college-bound" versus "trades" or "military" into one in which we provide students access to all of the possible doors and paths available, with a mind that some portals may be accessed at a later time.  This shift in our role is now more important than ever before.  The College Board recently released a study that discussed how many students are "undermatched" with regards to their college choice.  The study argues that there are students with the strong academic ability who do not access more "selective" colleges that would perhaps provide stronger rigor and educational opportunities.  Some of the factors that may be at play with this are the location of the school (city vs. suburban or rural), number of colleges and universities within a close radius of the school, and the number of adults in the area who have attained four-year degrees.  However, the study also acknowledges that more research needs to be done to determine why some schools have higher rates of "undermatching" than others.  Further, one needs to be careful with the idea of college-match and fit, as the best school for a student may not be the most competitive college to which they are admitted, as is discussed in this open letter.  Nevertheless, the study should give us pause as to think about whether we are challenging our students and encouraging them to take rigorous courses.  It should cause us to reflect upon whether we are providing our students with the full-range of post-secondary choices, including competitive state and private schools.

In addition, one of our goals is to help our students become college-and-career ready.  A recent review of data by ACT shows that many of our students are entering college without having met the benchmarks necessary in English, Reading, Math, and Science to be fully prepared for college-level work.  Those students who took a core-curriculum, defined as four years of English, and three each of Social-Studies, Math, and Science, met these benchmarks at a much higher rate.  As post-secondary training of some kind, whether it is a four-year school or a two-year school, becomes necessary for economic sustainability throughout one's lifetime, we must continue to strongly encourage our students to engage in a rigorous curriculum in order to insure that once they get to that post-secondary place, they are successful.  I have heard many times in education the comment that for those kids who are not four-year college bound (maybe not right away, and who decides this?), some of these higher-level classes and additional years of courses are not necessary.  I would counter that they are.  For example, here in Northern Virginia we have a very strong community college program with a variety of degrees and certificates available to our students.  However, regardless of whether a student's goal is get a degree that will allow them to transfer to a four-year school or to go through a year-long program that will allow them to work in an auto-body shop, they still have to meet minimum educational standards to begin taking courses that will count for credit towards a degree or certificate.  The math placement test for all students contains Algebra 2 content.  If students graduate without having taken this class and do not perform well on this test, they will have to enroll in and pay for non-credit skill-building classes until they have gained that knowledge.  This has become a real issue, as students graduate with high-school diplomas, but enter into colleges needing to take and pay for these skill-building courses for years, in some instances, before they can start on a degree or certificate.  Many of these students will simply give up, as a result, either of frustration or because of the cost.  As school counselors, we must insure that our students have access to these classes and advocate for systemic supports to help students be successful in these courses, perhaps double-blocking in the upper-level math classes, providing an additional support class, asking for classes that use these skills in real-world hand-on applications, or finding access to additional tutoring.  It is no longer enough the get them through a high-school diploma--they need to possess the skills and knowledge necessary to engage from the start in their post-secondary plan.

As we enter the season of academic-advising to include post-secondary planning, I would challenge you to think about your approach with students.  Do you stand by the gate, deciding who gets to enter and who does not, or do you open the doors for all of your students, giving them the information necessary to make informed choices for themselves, both for the short and the long term?  As we continue to build to a K-16 model of education, your answer is more important now than ever before.

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