Sunday, January 19, 2014

Wrong Question and Quick-Fixes

This past week, educational leaders met here in the Washington D.C. area to tackle the problem of assisting low-income students with the college process.  There were concerns ranging from students not understanding that they would be able to attend college at all, students not having enough support to navigate the lengthy college application and acceptance process, and students who are "under-matching," meaning that academically strong students are applying to and attending colleges and universities that are not perceived to be rigorous enough for the level of student.  Heavy issues, indeed, and ones to which all of us in education, in fact in society, should be giving thought.

However, from here the conversation and solutions seemed to have taken a course that has me concerned on a variety of levels.

As reported in this Washington Post article, one of the major solutions is to expand a program known as the College Advising Corps, a group of recent college graduates who go into identified low-income schools to serve as mentors and supports to students through the college selection, application, and admissions process.  Here is a link to the Virginia College Advising Corps, which includes program details as well as frequently asked questions which share information about the training and commitment expectations of the program.  In short, those selected to go into schools will be given a four-to-five week training, as well as continued professional development throughout the year.  The commitment for the program is two years.  One of the major points brought up in both the Post article as well as on the VCAC website is that the members of the corps are close in age to the students they serve in the schools:
"...students are 'more willing to listen to us than to a guidance counselor or teacher who is 30 or 40 years their senior.  Honestly, it's true.  We look like them, we talk like them. We kind of dress like them.'" (source: www.washingtonpost.com)
Further, the Post article shares that the College Advising Corps is being expanded because:
"The corps aims to supplement what high-school counselors do.  Often those counselors have huge caseloads and are unable to give individual students enough attention." (source: www.washingtonpost.com)
Additionally, to coincide with this education summit, the radio program Marketplace did a story about school counselors and college advising.  This report again highlighted the high counselor-to-student ratios as a barrier to more individualized student attention through the college admissions process.  However, it also brought in the concern of counselor training to support students in the college admissions process:
"'So by and large, most counselors are leaving their master's degree programs with no formal training at any level of depth about how to help student...' That means they're often unprepared to advise students on things like financial aid, or finding the right fit." (source: www.marketplace.org)
This is further emphasized by an anecdote that Michelle Obama has been sharing about her own experiences with her former school counselors:
"...counselors warned her that she was too ambitious.  'They told me I was never going to get into a school like Princeton...I still hear that doubt ringing in my head.'" (source: www.washingtonpost.com)
Based on this information, if we work backwards, we find that the question being answered here is:

Because school counselors lack strong training as it pertains to college advising and opportunity gaps and have limited time to work with individual students because of large case-loads, what new program and new personnel do we need to bring into schools to make sure our low-income students, and all students, are aware of the pathway to a college education?

I would challenge you to read that through a second time, because I am about to offer a different question.  To me, there seems to be an inherent disconnect in the question above.  Should the question not rather be:

Because school counselors lack strong training as it pertains to college advising and opportunity gaps and have limited time to work with individual students because of large case-loads, what can we do to insure better training both at the graduate level and school-district level as well as make sure that counselor-to-student ratios fall more in line with those recommended by the American School Counselor Association (1:250 at the high-school level), insuring more time for one-on-one academic and college advising and support?

These are very different questions in my mind, but perhaps not in those of others.  Why not have college advising taken on by groups of younger recently-graduated college students?

Why not, indeed.  First, let's compare the training of a College Advising Corps member to that of a certified school counselor.  Most states require that school counselors have around a 48 credit Master's degree that includes coursework in counseling theory, strategies, groups, assessment, ethics, etc.  This also includes a school counseling internship that typically lasts one full year where school-counselors-in-training are receiving almost daily supervision and advisement from supervisors within their school as well as at the university level.  Overall, school counselors, at a minimum, spend about two full years training to work independently in schools.  Additionally, ask any school counselor and they will tell you that their strong counseling skills and knowledge of ethics come into play on a regular basis as part of the college advising process, which can often involve social-emotional and family concerns beyond simply sharing college resources.  It is hugely important to see students within the context of many systems that intersect: college admissions, family, high-school, social-emotional concerns, etc.  College Advising Corps members have a four-to-five week training focused on college advising.  Secondly, according to their website, College Advising Corps members are in for about a two-year commitment.  As this New York Times article highlights, high-teacher turnover within schools offers diminishing returns over time.  It discusses how programs such as Teach for America, a program that trains young college graduates for five weeks and then places them in a school, with high-turnover, are a short-term solution to a long term problem.  School counselors often put down roots in the school communities that they serve.  They not only know a student for two years, but they may have known a student for four or more years.  Over time, school counselors get to know whole families, and are able to incorporate that knowledge and use those strong relationships built over time to better support students through the college-advising process.  Further, they have knowledge of the student and family within the context of their entire community, which again adds to the depth of understanding that they bring to the table as they explore post-secondary planning.  Third, College Advising Corps members, at least in Virginia, serve in high-schools.  Yet, we have come to know that the college exploration, advising, and planning process is one that begins prior to high-school, with recommendations even being made to start at the 6th grade level.  This is vital.  As students move from elementary to middle school, they begin to make choices about courses in math and world-languages that will have a direct impact on their high-school course sequence and transcript.  This in turn has a direct impact on their college admissions pathway.  College advising is not simply a two to three year process.  Rather, students and families need information, resources to include financial planning, and individual attention well before they enter 9th grade.  School counselors, because of their relationships within schools and communities, are well poised to provide that information and guidance.

This is not to say that I do not support the idea of groups such as the College Advising Corps working with students in schools.  There is always value in students being able to hear from and work with those who have recently been through the process, and who may have similar stories and backgrounds to theirs.  However, I worry that there are those that will come to see programs such as this not as a supplement to the work of seasoned and highly-trained school counselors, but eventually as a replacement.  There is a large difference between a program that is meant to support the work versus replace the work.  I would also challenge the notion in the Post article that students are less likely to listen to the thoughts and receive assistance from those who are older than they are.  I have seen school counselors in their sixties have strong relationships with students from all walks of life, and who bend over backwards to help low-income students access higher-education.  Those students, because they have had a relationship with their school counselor over many years, and because the counselor has built a strong reputation over time within the community, trust and value their expertise.  Further, there is a level of knowledge about the college admissions process that one gains the more years you support students and families and the more years that you interact with colleges and universities.  You begin to see trends.  You begin to see some of the nuances with particular schools.  You begin to build a network of trusted contacts at universities and in the field that can give you and your students straight-forward information in the moment so that families can make more informed decisions.  School counselors like Jeremy Goldman, quoted in the Marketplace segment, even visit college campuses as part of vacations in order to bring that information back to their students.  All students from all backgrounds and in all schools should have access to highly trained and experienced school counselors who are invested in their communities and students' post-secondary success.

Thus, we come back to the question I posed earlier, the one I think we should be asking versus the one that is being asked:

Because school counselors lack strong training as it pertains to college advising and opportunity gaps and have limited time to work with individual students because of large case-loads, what can we do to insure better training both at the graduate level and school-district level as well as make sure that counselor-to-student ratios fall more in line with those recommended by the American School Counselor Association (1:250 at the high-school level), insuring more time for one-on-one academic and college advising and support?

Here are some thoughts as to answers:
  • Training:  The time has come for CACREP, school counseling graduate programs, and school-districts to have serious conversations about the training school counselors receive in the post-secondary planning and college admissions process.  Given that this information is important at all levels of education, elementary through high-school, all school counselors would benefit from coursework that provides them with solid theory, resources, and considerations with regards to the needs of low-income and first generation students.  If graduate programs are unable to or unwilling to require and/or provide this training, then school districts need to look at their offerings and professional development to insure that school counselors are properly informed to support all students with post-secondary planning.  For example, in our district we provide opportunities to take coursework about college admissions, offer internships that place school counselors in college admissions offices from a variety of schools, and incorporate the goal of post-secondary planning into our regular professional development offerings.  In fact, a few weeks ago my co-resource counselor and I focused on "Closing Opportunity Gaps" as part of the academic advising process during a session with our new K-12 school counselors. This was an effort to get them to consider students who are "undermatching" with regards to coursework or college options and then provide appropriate guidance and resources to support their decision-making process.
  • Advocacy:  We are a maligned people, school counselors.  Sadly, Michelle Obama's story of being told she would not get into Princeton is similar to other stories I have been told by friends, colleagues, and families.  Additionally, from shows like Glee to movies like Easy A, we are consistently portrayed as incompetent, unethical, lazy, or worse.  Often, it is drawn from experiences and images of school counselors from one or two generations ago.  We must take charge and change this narrative.  In my new role, I am witness daily to the powerful work that school counselors are doing.  School counselors do not just have an impact on individual students, they are now having an impact on schools, academic success, and in communities as they use their training and the ASCA model to support student achievement and close gaps.  Where are the stories of school counselors who have helped low-income or first generation students navigate the college process?  Where are the stories of school counseling teams who have collaborated to tackle issues like "summer melt" or "opportunity gaps" with strong results that are supported with data?  They are out there, and yet we rarely hear of them within our own community, let alone the larger public.  Our ratios are high across the country, which does limit our ability to support students individually through the college process.  This will not change unless we are more able to demonstrate our effectiveness on a district, state, and national level.  I think of the counselors in Philadelphia, one of whom presented at the ASCA conference last summer.  She had done extensive work in supporting undocumented students through the college admissions process, with strong outcomes.  Her position was cut, and overall the students in Philadelphia are suffering as a result in this current admissions season.  On a micro-level, every school counselor needs to continue to find ways to share the work they are doing with their stakeholders--students, parents, teachers, administrators, and community members.  This is especially important as it relates to post-secondary outcomes. On a macro-level, we need to explore ways to begin to share our strong work with larger communities.
These solutions are not quick-fixes.  They will take time and many conversations in order for perceptions to change and for foundations to be laid.  However, over the long haul, better college-advising training for school counselors and a reduction in the average student-to-counselor ratio as a result of advocacy can result in better outcomes for students and more stable communities and resources for years to come.