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Introduction

Public school counselors provide a broad range of guidance services to support student achievement. These skilled professionals are key staff members on every Texas campus. Recent tragic events in our nation's history, such as multiple school shootings, have underscored the critical role that counselors play in the mental health and academic achievement of Texas students.

Texas State Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander's Texas School Performance Review (TSPR) reviews a variety of school district programs, including guidance and counseling services. Counselors in districts reviewed by TSPR, such as the Dallas Independent School District, have consistently raised concerns about the excessive amount of their time that must be devoted to non-counseling duties.(1) This concern also has been relayed to the Texas Legislature by counselor associations and other counseling professionals.(2)

In response to these concerns, the 2001 Texas Legislature passed Senate Bill 538, which required the State Comptroller's office to determine student-counselor ratios on Texas elementary, middle and high school campuses; conduct a statewide survey of how school counselors spend their time; and develop recommendations for future improvements. A copy of this legislation appears as Appendix A of this report.

The Comptroller's office conducted the statewide survey of school counselors in January and February 2002. While developing the survey, Comptroller staff met with the Texas Counseling Association, the Texas Education Agency's (TEA) Guidance and Counseling staff and school district counselors to develop data collection strategies. More than 4,000 grade K-12 counselors from across the state responded to the Comptroller's survey.

The first part of this report outlines state requirements for counselors and analyzes counselor-to-student ratios in Texas public schools. The second part analyzes the results of the survey of public school counselors, as well as related issues that have arisen during TSPR's school reviews.

Counselor Requirements in Texas

Two sections of state law address the roles and responsibilities of school counselors. The first requires counselors to work with school staff to develop a counseling and guidance program. The components of the program must include:

  1. a guidance curriculum that addresses students' interests and career objectives to help them develop their full educational potential;
  2. a responsive services component to intervene on behalf of any student whose immediate personal concerns or problems put his or her educational, career, personal, or social development at risk;
  3. an individual planning system to guide students as they plan, monitor and manage their educational, career, personal and social development; and  
  4. system support to support the efforts of teachers, staff, parents and other community members to promote the educational, career, personal and social development of students.(3)

State law also states that the primary responsibility of a school counselor is to counsel students to fully develop their academic, career, personal and social abilities. Counselors must:

  1. participate in planning, implementing and evaluating a comprehensive developmental guidance program to serve all students and to address the special needs of students who are at risk of dropping out of school, becoming substance abusers, participating in gang activity or committing suicide; who are in need of modified instructional strategies; or who are gifted and talented, with an emphasis on identifying and serving gifted and talented students who are educationally disadvantaged;
  2. consult with student parents or guardians and make referrals as appropriate, in consultation with the parents or guardians;
  3. consult with school staff, parents and other community members to help them increase the effectiveness of student education and promote student success;
  4. coordinate people and resources in the school, home and community;
  5. with the assistance of school staff, interpret standardized test results and other assessment data to help students make educational career plans; and
  6. deliver classroom guidance activities or serve as a consultant to teachers, offering lessons based on the school's guidance curriculum.(4)

In addition to these responsibilities, school counselors must advise students and parents of the importance of higher education and recommend strategies for preparing for college, academically and financially.(5)

TEA's Office of School Guidance and Counseling oversees Texas' school counselors, provides them with technical assistance and sponsors annual training seminars for them around the state.

Grant Counselors

TEA's Office of School Guidance and Counseling also administers a special grant program that helps fund elementary school counselor salaries, the Developmental Guidance Program on Elementary Campuses for Students in At-Risk Situations.(6) This program is part of the state's compensatory education program funded from federal Title 1 money at $7.5 million annually.(7)

School districts must apply with TEA to receive funds from this grant program. TEA gives preference to districts with high concentrations of at-risk students, as well as those that received this funding in the preceding school year. More than 200 school districts applied for these funds for the 2000-01 school year; of these, 64 received funding to employ 240 counselors.

This grant program restricts counselors to working solely on guidance activities.(8) TEA can track counselor activities because counselors funded through this grant program must file quarterly reports with TEA on their activities to remain eligible for funding.(9) TEA collects and organizes this information by district and makes it available to the public in hard copy although no routine analysis is conducted.

Counselor/Student Ratios, 2001-02

To determine public school counselor/student ratios, the Comptroller's office used data from TEA's Public Education Information Management System (PEIMS) database for the 2001-02 school year. TEA uses the PEIMS database to analyze the information submitted annually by school districts. The database includes a significant amount of educational data by district, including information on enrollment and the number of counselors employed. From this information, the Comptroller's office computed the average counselor/student ratio across the state.

The Comptroller's review of PEIMS data was subject to several limitations. First, the PEIMS data are self-reported by districts, and there is no guarantee that the data are free of reporting errors, either due to mechanical errors or misinterpretations of TEA's data request. Second, the computation of the district counselor/student ratio may not necessarily reflect ratios on specific campuses; the counselor/student ratio may vary widely from campus to campus in the same district.

Moreover, the PEIMS data indicate that, in the 2001-02 school year, 233 of the state's 1,034 total districts (22.5 percent) did not have even one full-time equivalent (FTE) counselor. Although these 233 districts served only 52,607 students, or 1.2 percent of the student population, combining this student population with the general population could have an impact on averages by skewing results to make statewide ratios higher than they may actually be. According to PEIMS, during the 2001-02 school year school districts had 4,093,630 students served by 9,673.6 counselor FTEs. The overall counselor/student ratio for 2001-02, then, was one counselor for every 423 students.

The statewide counselor/student ratio has shown a slight but steady decline over the past five years (Exhibit 1). In the 1997-98 school year, the counselor/student ratio was 1/442. By 2001-02, the ratio was 1/423.

Exhibit 1
Students per Counselor Statewide
1997-98 to 2001-02
School Year Enrollment Number of
Counselors
Students per
Counselor
1997-98 3,891,877 8,799 442
1998-99 3,945,367 9,031 437
1999-2000 3,991,783 9,221 433
2000-01 4,059,619 9,507 427
2001-02 4,093,630 9,673 423
Source: TEA, PEIMS 1997-98 through 2001-02.

Counselor/student ratios can vary by type of school. Exhibit 2 shows the ratio of counselors to students by high school, junior high/middle school, elementary school and other grade groups. Counselor/student ratios are highest in elementary schools and lowest in high schools.

Exhibit 2
Students per Counselor by School Type
School Year 2001-02
School Type Enrollment Counselors Students per
Counselor
Elementary 2,041,766 3,678 555
Middle/Junior High 900,800 2,233 403
High 1,094,943 3,343 328
Elementary/Secondary 65,504 282 232
Other Grade Group 749 138 5
Source: TEA, PEIMS, 2001-02.

An earlier TEA counselor study also computed counselor ratios by type of school (Exhibit 3). In the 1994-95 school year, counselor/student ratios were higher at every type of school than in 2001-02.

Exhibit 3
Students per Counselor by School Type
School Year 2001-02 and 1994-95
School Type 2001-02 1994-95
Elementary 555 593
Middle/Junior High 403 404
High 328 331
Elementary/Secondary 232 388
Other Grade Group 5 N/A
Source: TEA, Texas School Counseling and Guidance Programs:
Final Study Report, August 1996; TEA, PEIMS, 2001-02.

As mentioned above, statewide counselor/student ratios can serve as a simple tool for data comparisons, but the data are limited in important ways. For instance, data from school districts with fewer than one FTE counselor skew computations of counselor/student ratios. To minimize the impact of these districts on its detailed analyses, the Comptroller's office separated districts with fewer than one counselor FTE from the other districts. (An alphabetical list of districts with fewer than one FTE counselor is provided in Appendix B.)

Counselor/Student Ratios by Enrollment

For its analysis of counselor/student ratios, the Comptroller's office divided districts into nine categories by enrollment size. These are the same enrollment categories that TEA uses in reporting district statistics.(10)

Exhibit 4 shows counselor/student ratios by enrollment size for the 2001-02 school year. The average ratio ranged from a low of 1/286 in districts with fewer than 500 students to a high of 1/420 in districts with student populations of between 5,000 and 9,999.

Exhibit 4
Average Students per Counselor by Enrollment Size
School Year 2001-2002
(Includes only school districts with at least one FTE counselor)
District
Enrollment
Size
Number
of
Districts
Aggregate
Student
Population
Average
Students per
Counselor
Fewer than 500 123 43,073 286
500 - 999 200 148,188 369
1,000 - 1,599 116 149,086 389
1,600 - 2,999 126 277,658 398
3,000 - 4,999 82 314,774 406
5,000 - 9,999 71 484,808 420
10,000 - 24,999 47 758,920 406
25,000 - 49,999 23 805,513 431
50,000 or More 13 1,059,003 420
Source: TEA, PEIMS, School Year 2001-02.

Counselor/Student Ratio by District Wealth

Another method for comparing counselor/student ratios is to analyze the data by district wealth. The Comptroller derived the figures used for wealth per district by dividing taxable property wealth by total enrollment for each district. Districts then were arrayed from lowest to highest in terms of wealth per student and then divided into ten groups with roughly similar enrollments. Within each group may be a mix of districts with small, medium or large enrollments. TEA employs a similar method in its annual district profiles.(11)

The counselor/student ratio by wealth index appears in Exhibit 5. Average ratios ranged from a low of 366 students per counselor in the poorest districts to a high of 518 students per counselor in districts with average per-student property wealth ranging from $334,217 to $371,021.

Exhibit 5
Average Students per Counselor by District Wealth
Fiscal 2001-02
(Includes only school districts with at least one FTE counselor)
Category
(District Property Value
per Student)
Number
of
Districts
Total
Enrollment
Average
Students per
Counselor
Less than $89,596 95 399,866 366
$89,596 to < $134,319 173 398,150 396
$134,319 to < $154,629 81 397,073 430
$154,629 to < $178,112 80 403,848 402
$178,112 to < $203,321 69 399,841 419
$203,321 to < $234,597 66 399,701 393
$234,597 to < $276,606 69 391,748 456
$276,606 to < $334,217 39 319,769 413
$334,217 to < $371,021 26 483,860 518
$371,021or more 103 447,167 423
Source: TEA, PEIMS, School Year 2001-02.

The exhibit does not highlight any obvious linkage between counselor ratios and district wealth; ratios do not necessarily decline as district wealth increases. The high 518/1 ratio in the $334,217 to $371,021 wealth category was significantly affected by two districts accounting for more than three-quarters of the student enrollment in that category: Houston ISD and Dallas ISD. Houston ISD has 210,670 students and 305 counselors, while Dallas ISD has 163,562 students and 366.5 counselors.

Students-per-counselor ratios by school district appear in Appendix C. This exhibit also contains ratios by grade level for each district as required by S.B. 538.

The Counselor Survey

In response to S.B. 538, the Comptroller's office developed the Texas School Counselor Survey in cooperation with the Texas Counseling Association and TEA's Guidance and Counseling Office. The survey instrument was reviewed by counselor focus groups held in the Laredo and Austin ISDs.

According to the counselor focus groups, the last week of January could be considered as typical of how school counselors generally spend their time throughout the school year.

In mid-January 2002, the Comptroller's office mailed the survey instrument and a postage-paid return envelope to public school counselors throughout the state. The mailing included a cover letter from Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander that explained the legislative mandate for the survey and provided a toll-free telephone number counselors could use to call Comptroller staff with any questions.

Survey Instrument

The survey instrument (Appendix D) comprised three sections: demographic data; a weekly timesheet for the period of January 28, 2002 to February 1, 2002; and open-ended questions for counselors to express opinions about how their time is used. The first section asked counselors to identify their districts, their years of experience, the type of school they served (high school, middle school, elementary or other), the counselor/student ratio at their school and other information about their office environments.

The timesheet section divided counselor time into five major categories: Guidance Curriculum, Responsive Services, Individual Planning, System Support and Non-Guidance Activities. These five categories consolidated several categories listed in S.B. 538. (For an analysis of how these categories match the language of S.B. 538, see Appendix E.) These categories were selected because they are similar to common time accounting categories counselors use, according to TEA, the Texas Counseling Association and individual counselors who reviewed the survey with Comptroller analysts.

The survey asked respondents to use the following definitions to determine how to record time.

Guidance Curriculum: Basic life skills help, including self-confidence development; motivation to achieve; decision-making, goal-setting, planning and problem-solving skills; interpersonal effectiveness (including social skills); communication skills; cross-cultural effectiveness; and responsible behavior.

Responsive Services: Services addressing the immediate concerns of students in areas such as academics, tardiness, absences, truancy, misbehavior, school-avoidance and dropout prevention; relationship concerns; physical/sexual/emotional abuse as described in the Texas Family Code; grief; substance abuse; family issues; harassment issues and coping with stress.

Individual Planning: Helping students plan for and manage their educational, career and personal development. This includes educational development, such as study skills, awareness of educational opportunities and appropriate course selection; lifelong learning and using test scores to determine strengths and weaknesses; career development, such as knowledge of potential career opportunities, career and technical training and positive work habits; personal/social development, such as the development of healthy self-concepts; and the development of acceptable social behavior.

System Support: Providing program and staff support in areas such as guidance program development, parent education, teacher/administrator consultation, staff training for educators, school improvement planning, counselor training, research and publishing, community outreach and public relations.

Non-Guidance Activities: Performing duties not related strictly to counseling, such as bus, lunchroom and playground duty; balancing class sizes; building a master schedule of classes; substitute teaching; calculating grade-point averages and class rank; discipline; and clerical duties, including those related to standardized tests.

The Comptroller's open-ended questions consisted of the following:

  1. Does the survey timesheet capture or reflect your regular duties during the school year? (Yes or no.) If no, what is different?
  2. What could be done to ensure that your time and skills are directed toward students' educational, career and personal needs?
  3. Are there any comments you would like to share?

The Comptroller's office mailed the counselor survey to every school counselor in the state, as identified in TEA data. Counselors were asked, on a voluntary basis, to keep a log of their work time for a one-week period between January 28 and February 1, 2002. Counselor work time was measured in terms of hours spent in the five major activity areas outlined above.

Counselors were not asked to provide their names to ensure confidentiality. Instead, they were asked to identify their district, regional education service center and the type of school (high school, middle/junior high, elementary school) they serve. Counselors were asked to return the survey to the Comptroller's office no later than February 6, 2002.

Survey Limitations

The limitations of the Comptroller Survey of Public School Counselors relate primarily to the brevity of the time period sampled (one week) and the extent to which this period is typical of how counselors spend their time throughout the school year. Again, counselor focus groups felt the week should be typical, but cautioned that some counselors might be involved in administering standardized tests, a duty not representative of their usual weekly workload.

Counselors also noted that any one-week period might not be perfectly reflective of their year-round duties, but that a longer time period might not increase the data's reliability and could discourage counselors from completing the survey. A longer survey period also might affect the accuracy of the counselors' reporting, encouraging them to enter broad estimates of how their time was spent over the survey period rather than keeping a true daily log.

To offset these potential problems, the survey asked counselors whether the week recorded accurately reflected their responsibilities. In addition, the survey provided open-ended questions to allow counselors to discuss activities that might not be reflected in the timesheet.

Survey Results

Of 9,942 surveys mailed, 4,045 counselors (40.7 percent) returned a completed survey. Not every question was answered in each survey; the following responses reflect only respondents who answered each question.

District Size and District Wealth

Exhibit 6 illustrates the distribution of survey respondents by district size.

Exhibit 6
School Counselor Survey Responses by District Enrollment
District
Enrollment
Percent of
Respondents
Fewer than 500 2.7%
500-999 4.6%
1,000-1,599 4.0%
1,600-2,999 7.8%
3,000-4,999 8.9%
5,000-9,999 11.9%
10,000-24,999 16.6%
25,000-49,999 20.8%
50,000 or more 22.7%
Total 100.0%
Source: Comptroller School Counselor Survey, January/February 2002.

Counselors from school districts with 10,000 or more students made up more than 60 percent of the respondents. Their response rate closely corresponds to their share of the total number of school counselors (63 percent).

The Comptroller's office also compiled response rates by district wealth (again, by dividing property wealth by total enrollment to create a per-pupil wealth index). Exhibit 7 shows the distribution of responses by wealth category. As with the counselor/student ratios, districts were arrayed by wealth and then grouped into sections roughly equal to 10 percent of the state's public school population.

Exhibit 7
School Counselor Survey Responses by District Wealth
Wealth
Per Student
Percent of
Respondents
$18,768-$88,427 8.4%
$88,546-$132,459 10.6%
$132,509-$152,475 8.8%
$152,610-$171,136 11.3%
$171,197-$199,960 12.0%
$200,987-$234,111 7.8%
$234,195-$272,271 10.8%
$272,275-$333,264 10.0%
$334,217-$354,054 6.2%
$354,267 or more 14.1%
Total 100.0%
Source: Comptroller School Counselor Survey, January/February 2002.

Response rates roughly mirrored the distribution of counselors in Texas school districts. Counselors in the 23 school districts comprising the $334,217 to $354,054 per student wealth category were underrepresented in the respondent pool, while counselors in the 13 school districts comprising the wealth category of $354,267 or more per student were overrepresented.

Demographic Breakdown: Type of School

Respondents also were also asked to identify the grade level of their schools (Exhibit 8).

Exhibit 8
Respondents by Type of School
Grade Level Percent
Elementary 39.1%
High School 37.2%
Middle/Junior High 22.0%
Alternative 1.7%
Total 100.0%
Source: Comptroller School Counselor Survey, January/February 2002.

Elementary schools counselors were the largest group of survey respondents; high school counselors were the next largest group. Responses from counselors serving more than one campus are not included in this exhibit (See Exhibit 10.)

Demographic Breakdown: Counselor/Student Ratio

The Comptroller's survey also asked respondents to estimate the counselor-to-student ratio at their schools (Exhibit 9).

Exhibit 9
Respondents' Number of Students per Counselor
Number of Students
per Counselor
Percent
300 or fewer 17.8%
301-500 55.3%
501-700 18.7%
More than 700 8.2%
Total 100.0%
Source: Comptroller School Counselor Survey, January/February 2002.

More than half of the respondents indicated that they serve between 300 and 500 students. Less than 20 percent serve 300 students or fewer. More than a quarter serve more than 500 students.

Demographic Breakdown: Multiple Campus Assignments

The Comptroller's school counselor survey also asked counselors to indicate whether they worked at more than one campus. In some cases, school districts assign counselors to multiple campuses to smooth out the workload. Exhibit 10 indicates the percentage of counselors who work at more than one campus.

Exhibit 10
Counselors and Number of Campus Assignments
Are you a
counselor at more
than one campus?
Percent
No 90.1%
Yes 9.9%
Total 100.0%
Source: Comptroller School Counselor Survey, January/February 2002.

Demographic Breakdown: Years of Experience

In the survey, counselors were asked for their total years of service as counselors. Exhibit 11 shows the responses from the survey participants. More than half of the respondents had 10 or fewer years of experience. Less than 30 percent of these had five or fewer years or experience, so the statistics indicate that responses were generally received from experienced counselors.

Coupled with the fact that these employees must have at least three years of classroom teacher experience before they can become counselors, the statistics indicate that the respondents were an group of educational professionals with extensive experience in a campus setting at public schools.

Exhibit 11
Respondents' Years of Experience
Years of Experience Percent
0 - 5 28.8%
6 - 10 28.0%
11 - 15 17.9%
16 - 20 11.4%
More than 20 13.9%
Total 100.0%
Source: Comptroller School Counselor Survey, January/February 2002.

Demographic Breakdown: Type of Counselor

Survey respondents were asked what type of counselor they were: regular education, special education or Career and Technology Education (CATE) (Exhibit 12). Almost 95 percent of the counselors who responded were regular education counselors.

Exhibit 12
Type of Counselor
Type of Counselor Percent
Regular Education 94.6%
Special Education 3.7%
CATE 1.7%
Total 100.0%
Source: Comptroller School Counselor Survey, January/February 2002.

The Comptroller collected several types of work-related data in the survey. These data indicate that more than 95 percent of the respondents were full-time counselors; had access to a computer; had a telephone in the office; and had a private office. About two-thirds of the respondents indicate that their privacy was good for meeting discreetly with students when necessary. These data are found in Appendix F.

ENDNOTES

(1) Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts, Texas School Performance Review, Dallas Independent School District, June 2001. (http://www.window.state.tx.us/tspr/dallas/ch02.htm). (Last visited August 7, 2002.)

(2) Testimony in support of Senate Bill 538, 77th Texas Legislature.

(3) TEC, Section 33.005.

(4) TEC, Section 33.006.

(5) TEC, Section 33.007.

(6) TEC, Section 42.152.

(7) TEC, Section 42.152(i).

(8) TEA, Request for Continuation Application for Developmental Guidance Program on Elementary Campuses for Students in At-risk Situations, July 13, 2001, p. 5.

(9) Interview with John Lucas, Director of Programs, School Guidance and Counseling, Texas Education Agency, November 11, 2001.

(10) TEA, Snapshot 2000: 1999-2000 School District Profiles, Winter 2001.

(11) TEA, Snapshot 2000: 1999-2000 School District Profiles, Winter 2001, p. 40.