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A Counseling Dilemma

November 11, 2008 By John Fitzgerald, Education Policy Fellow

Minnesota has our nation's second highest student-to-school counselor ratio. That's why counselors didn't find new results by the Minnesota Minority Education Partnership surprising: The achievement gap is as vast as it ever was.

While the causes of the achievement gap are enormous and seemingly intractable, counselors say they lack the sheer numbers to regularly help students much less help students get into college. One high school counselor determined that if he met once with every student to whom he was assigned, he could meet for only 10 minutes per student per year.

Minnesota is among the worst in the nation in providing counselors to students.

  • The American School Counselors Association recommends a ratio of 250 students to one counselor in a school district. In 2004-05, the national average was 479-1. Minnesota's average was 795-1, 49th in the country. Click here for a graph. (PDF)
  • Minnesota's high school counselor to student ratio was 351-1, short of the 250-1 ratio suggested by the ASCA and 10th-worst in the nation. Click here for a graph. (PDF)
  • The state's K-8 counselor to student ratio was 4,942-1, 49th in the nation and far short of the 250-1 recommended average. Click here for a graph. (PDF)

Counselors say it is no secret that their numbers have been crushed by the devastating education cutbacks since 2003. To be sure, school counseling is only a piece of the achievement gap, but it's an important piece that has been neglected.

They say that while it is important to look at high school counselors and the number of students they help prepare for college, K-8 counselors make as great a difference. They not only help classroom teachers spot and help children in distress; they can open doors to higher education.

"Kids need attention earlier than they're getting it," said Walter Roberts, a professor of counselor education at Minnesota State University, Mankato. "This is related to the fact that we don't have the people in the earlier grades to give them this information on their opportunities."

Sheryl Kuznia, a counselor in the St. Paul Public Schools, told of a colleague who balked at a program in which counselors spoke to fifth-graders about college access.

"She really didn't want to do it," Kuznia said, "but when she told a class in a high-needs school that they could go to college, their faces lit up. No one ever told them about college before or that it was an option for them."

Kris Moe, another SPPS counselor, agreed: "Kids tell me they won't go to college because their parents can't afford it. No one has ever told them otherwise."

The report by MMEP, released last week, found that while at least 70 percent of all ninth graders aspire to attend college, only 12 percent of African Americans and 17 percent of American Indians take the ACT, compared to 59 percent of white students.

The ACT, which also measures a student's preparedness for classes in four study areas, found that only five percent of African American students and 18 percent of American Indian students were ready for college-level writing, social science, math and biology classes, compared to 34 percent of white students.

There is no easy answer to closing the achievement gap or increasing college access but, clearly, conservative state educational funding policy is making the situation worse rather than better. It's time for a change.

A comprehensive strategy that is well funded and looks for long-term results is likely the only cure to these ailments. But any cure must start with "boots on the ground" in the form of counselors who can help our children maximize their potential by intervening in early grades and facilitate college access in later grades. To do anything less does Minnesota a disservice.

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