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Posted at 5:00 AM ET, 01/12/2011

A critical shortage of school counselors

By Valerie Strauss

Look at these statistics on the number of students that counselors in American public schools are expected to help:

Though the recommended number per counselor is 250 students, the American School Counselor Associations shows that the national average is actually one counselor for every 457 students. And those figures were from 2008-09, the latest available, but before many states slashed school budgets last year.

Some states have much higher ratios than the national average, including Arizona, the home state of Jared Lee Loughner, the 22-year-old charged with killing 6 and wounding 14, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.

In 2008-09, there were in Arizona’s public schools on average 743 students for each counselor, the third biggest gap. California had the largest gap: 814 students per student. Coming in second was Minnesota, with 759 students per counselor.

Five states met the recommended ratio: Louisiana, 238 students per counselor; Mississippi, 234 students per counselor; New Hampshire, 233 students per counselor; Vermont, 207 students per counselor; Wyoming, 197 students per counselor.

But the news gets worse: According to a study published last year, at least one in five young children in the United States has some mental disorder, but fewer than half of the states require public elementary schools to hire mental health professionals.

The study, conducted by Assistant Professor Randall Reback of Barnard College and Columbia University, showed:

*Students in states with more aggressive elementary counseling policies make greater test score gains.

*Elementary counselors substantially influence teachers’ perceptions of school climate.

*The adoption of state-funded counselor subsidies or minimum counselor–student ratios reduces the number of teachers who report losing instruction time because they have to deal with student misbehavior. And there is a decline in the number of teachers who report problems with students who are physically fighting, skipping class, stealing or using drugs.

The results imply that there may be substantial public and private benefits derived from providing additional elementary school counselors. The study, titled “Schools’ Mental Heath Services and Young Children’s Emotions, Behavior, and Learning,” was published in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management.

It's too bad that mental health issues often get their closest attention when it is too late.


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By Valerie Strauss  | January 12, 2011; 5:00 AM ET
Categories:  Research, Student Life  | Tags:  counselors, jared lee loughner, jared loughner, loughner, loughner and mental health, mental health, mental health issues, mental illnesses, school counselors  
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A nice plug for elementary school counsleors, but from what I've read Loughner's troubles didn't turn up until after he was out of high school.

More relevant, and not mentioned is what's the state of college counselors and how come someone who was crazy enough to get thrown out of community college, no easy feat, skated on without any intervention.

Posted by: RedBird27 | January 12, 2011 6:11 AM | Report abuse

There is a critical shortage of money to pay the salaries for counselors. We might consider that the cost of eduction is so great because we continue to believe that the schoolhouse can solve all of the problems faced by society. Not to sound mean, but sometimes children are just plain bad and they don't belong in a school, any school.

Posted by: topryder1 | January 12, 2011 7:36 AM | Report abuse

I can't speak for Arizona's community colleges, but at Northern VA C.C., there are no mental health counselors. The counselors at NVCC are there to help students choose courses, majors, plan for transfer, etc. Community college students live in the community and are expected to use resources there.

Posted by: drl97 | January 12, 2011 7:50 AM | Report abuse

It would be interesting to find out more about how junior high and high school counselors are utilized within the school. If assistant principals and principals were free from athletic detail, they would be less inclined to expect counselors to tend to the fine tuning of student class schedules, letters of reference, test data, etc. How much of their time is actually devoted to the true nature of counseling teens with issues other than that of general education (yet quite important too)? Also, what is the common perception of students regarding the nature of assistance the counselors offer? A safe place to seek help or administrative extender?

Posted by: shadwell1 | January 12, 2011 9:23 AM | Report abuse

This is in response to shadwell's comment about principals and athletic detail:

There is probably more natural interaction with students at athletic events than at any other time. This is where AP's and principals see students outside of the classroom environment and get to know them better. Sadly, some students don't attend these events and may be the ones flying "under the radar." I would hope that the counselors also stop by the drama rehearsals, roam the cafeteria from time to time, and talk to the teachers about the students they don't know. I imagine that there are those who do and those who don't.

Posted by: mmkm | January 12, 2011 9:48 AM | Report abuse

Schizophrenia often begins in the early twenties. Schools do need more counselors, but people with serious mental illnesses need counseling and medications to help with chemical imbalances in their brains.
Since many insurance plans don't cover mental illness, the choice is often medicaire. But, the family needs to get a diagnosis. Many people don't realize they have a problem until it is too late. It sounds like with this guy his mental illness was confused with drug use. The drug use was seen as a police issue and no one ever bothered with the possibility of mental health. I think the new health care plan includes mental health services. Of course, you will need insurance to begin with.

Posted by: ubblybubbly | January 12, 2011 10:10 AM | Report abuse

School counselors have always been outnumbered. We had a counselor for each grade in high school. The sad thing for many was not knowing the value of a counselor "aside from" being in trouble. That is the only time I saw the counselor. Only years later did I understand the value of having someone to speak with regarding education/training AFTER high school.

Posted by: jbeeler | January 12, 2011 10:36 AM | Report abuse


I understand what you are saying, and I essentially agree. However, athletic detail also entails much behind the scenes. Consider frequent division meetings (some all or most of the day), travel to many away games, sorting out issues between coaches and parents about playing time during games and other concerns, double checking schedules for conflicts of all sorts (i.e., trainers available), issues surrounding elgibility requirements (grades, transfer students, etc.), staying abreast of off season practice regulations and compliance, and more. Ask around....many a AP or principal would catch you know what for missing a big game (football/basketball), but miss a band concert, school play, or science fair, art show, big tennis match/swim meet, seemingly, no problem.

Posted by: shadwell1 | January 12, 2011 11:23 AM | Report abuse

This post seems poorly titled. I'm not convinced there is an actual shortage of counselors, rather there is a shortage of MONEY to hire these counselors. If more states passed requirements, how would they be funded? Districts are already stretched so thin they are cutting into basic services for students. Sadly, this is another area where there is a need and not enough money to meet it. Look at Florida's attempt to legislate smaller class sizes - principals are scrambling to figure out a way to meet the requirements with no added funding and it is NOT working.

Posted by: acasey3 | January 12, 2011 9:12 PM | Report abuse

The main reason there is a shortage of school counselors is due to the additional non-counseling duties they are responsible for like scheduling, testing, and other paper work. Some districts have gone to hiring counselor facilitators that take these duties off of the counselors hands so they may actually counsle students who are in need of assistance.

Posted by: Crespo1 | January 13, 2011 12:10 PM | Report abuse

I am a very discouraged school counselor. I am one counselor at an elementary school with 810 students. This is my 14th year as a school counselor and things are getting worse, not better, for our profession. I am responsible for ESL, 504, TELPAS, state testing, RTI, and everything besides what I was trained to do. We are MENTAL HEALTH professionals, not clerks. Our society, however, does not make children's or adult's mental health a priority. As for funding, I think that if a school district wants another athletic coach, they find the money to hire them. I have had 4 suicidal students this year; one of my second graders was hospitalized. I have advocated for my profession with school- board members, administrators, legislators, and colleagues---all to no avail. The system is broken and I don't know who will have the courage and tenacity to fix it.

Posted by: klym | January 15, 2011 12:29 AM | Report abuse

I am an Academic School Counselor - not a licensed mental health professional. I have little training in mental health practices but can recommend students to local providers. I did not become an Academic School Counselor to provide mental health but guidance and information on future planning and expectations for self.
As a member of the American School Counselor Association I understand there are some people who believe Academic School Counselors are mental health professionals but most of us are not licensed professional counselors.
There are differences between the two callings.
I serve 401 students looking at post secondary options for themselves and the means to achieve them. We are lucky in that most do leave my school with plans in place and options if the initial plans turn out to be bad choices.
Yes I do state testing, SAT Test Center, 504 & RTI - if you don't know what to do with it send it to the Counselors Office appears to be the mantra of administration. There are so many ways you can do things right but Counselors really don't have much say in where the responsibilities get assigned.
Oh - don't tell me about all the options available to my child either because no way are you setting them up to go anywhere except the 4-year university on a full-ride scholarship so I don't have to pay for anything.
I love my dream world.

Posted by: joneseagle | January 17, 2011 7:51 AM | Report abuse

I am currently a student assistance counselor. After working both in the private and public sector for about 30 years I can clearly see the difference between the two. Mostly everything in the public sector is geared towards academic achievment. We have really strayed away from educating the whole child. We teach to "THE TEST" now. Is that not a form of cheating? We must get back to the basics.
Our schools must be treated as a community. Our students must feel safe and secure. We must create an environment where students want to come and learn. We must get away from all this testing. Is that how we measure our students success? I see our student of today a lot more stressed then those of 10-20 years ago. A part of their day daily should include some experential learning, team building and problem solving time with a reflection piece. We must work on improving their social-emotional being and being a person of character. Some educators believe that a student should just come into their classroom and magically want to learn as if they are on automatic pilot and all the other stuff going on with them socially and emotionally should just be left at the door. I guarantee you that if we take care of those needs first the result will lead to greater academic success. We need to develop a different mind-set about what is important. I believe it is all about the the climate and culture of our schools. If we create a positive culture where they are valued and respected they will want to learn and we then get what we want which is a motivated student and a high achieving one.

Posted by: oceansounds | January 18, 2011 12:07 PM | Report abuse

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