Public school counselors find themselves caught in cross fire. Two different ideas about the role they should play

Guidance counselors in the nation's public schools may need some guidance themselves, a new study suggests. Currently, public school counselors are caught in a cross fire between two different ideas about the role they play in school, say members of a College Board Commission on Precollege Guidance, a study group that released an interim report yesterday on the condition of counseling in the nations schools.

On the one hand, counselors are being asked -- in the wake of recent education reform efforts across the country -- to provide more professional academic guidance for students.

On the other hand, they are vouchsafed the responsibility of handling personal and emotional problems among students -- including drug and truancy cases, teenage pregnancy issues, special education, and family problems, such as beating, students bring to school with them.

The result is ``basic role confusion,'' says commission member Michael Kirst of Stanford University. ``The counselors are being asked to do everything and nothing, and their effectiveness suffers.''

While excellent guidance can be ``critical'' in shaping a student's future, the study found that students who need counseling most are the least likely to get it. Also, counselers themselves are the first school staff to be cut during a fiscal pinch. In some inner-city school districts, the commission found, the ratio of students to counselors is 700 to 1.

Commission member George Hanford of the College Board says, ``It would be ironic, if after spending all that effort on school reform, many students didn't know how to take advantage of it.''

Former U.S. Commissioner of Education Harold Howe II, who chaired the College Board study, says that without the necessary guidance, schools are ``wasting an enormous amount of human talent.''

Howe says an unexpected finding of the commission is the amount of precollege guidance necessary during the junior high years -- guidance many students don't presently receive.

``The decision whether or not to take Algebra 1 in junior high,'' says Howe, ``often sets an academic pattern that shuts the door on college. Students and parents deserve to at least be told what such a decision means.''

The basic problem, say experts, is that in today's school reform atmosphere, hard-line school boards and administrators demand accountability. Because counseling results are hard to measure, and because what they do is often not understood by principals, counselors are seen as expendable.

Many experts in the field say such a view is misinformed.

But what parents and principals correctly perceive, says Scott Thomson of the National Association of School Board Principals, is that ``counselors are not delivering the academic direction kids need.'' While Thomson agrees that demographic and social changes have created a greater need for personal support in schools, he says counselors should ``stop playing Little Dutch Boy at the Dyke with student problems, and refer them to agencies that know what they are doing.''

Counselors could begin ``to be an academic and career catalyst'' for students, says Dr. Charles Marshall, of the National Association of College Admissions Counselors. Dr. Marshall says they could act as advance scouts in colleges and workplaces. Instead, these important ``lobbyists for kids'' get caught up in ``a minutia of paperwork.''

Dr. Frank Burnett of the American Association of Counseling and Development challenges the entire academic/personal dichotomy now faced by counselors. He feels the two categories are ``closely related.'' ``Education reform has simply looked at learning, and not at human development,'' he says.

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