The analysis of counselor-to-student ratios indicates that the statewide ratio for the 2001-02 school year of one counselor for every 423 students is higher than the Texas Association of Secondary School Principals' and the Texas Elementary Principals and Supervisors Association's recommended ratio of 1-350.(12) Counselors in general, however, did not cite the counselor-to-student ratios as the most difficult part of their jobs. In addition, the counselor-to-student ratios have exhibited a modest improvement in the past five years, from a ratio of 1:442 in 1997-98 to a ratio of 1:423 in 2001-02.
The Legislature, however, should take particular note of the growing student enrollment. Projections of public school enrollment in Texas suggest the state's student population could reach 4.4 million by 2009, an increase of about 20 percent.(13) TEA has the information to monitor whether the growth rate in the number of counselors mirrors the growth rate of students.
A statewide survey has certain limitations. The counselors' timesheets only covers one week of activities. According to many counselors, there are no typical weeks for counselors, and time spent in many areas such as non-counseling can vary drastically from week to week. The Comptroller's office, however, deemed the one-week survey the best method to collect a snapshot of how counselors spend their time. Any longer period would have placed a significant burden on counselors without ensuring any additional accuracy in the results.
Another limitation is that a self-monitored survey like this one relies on counselors accurately reporting how their time is spent. Those counselors who record their time frequently throughout a given day may be providing a more accurate reflection of how they spend their time than those who record their time less often. Both of these problems, however, can be addressed by allowing counselors to suggest how they may improve the time they allocate to various activities.The survey's open-ended questions allowed counselors to describe how their time is used if they thought the timesheet did not accurately portray this information.
The survey results indicate many counselors believe that duties other than strict counseling responsibilities impair their ability to serve students. State testing duties surfaced as a time drain for many counselors. When the Comptroller's office asked for suggestions for improving counselor effectiveness, counselors overwhelmingly replied that the state could help by relieving them of the clerical and administrative demands on their time.
Texas' case is not unique. A 1999 study in Arizona found similar problems in the use of counselor time.(14) The study recommended Arizona to encourage public schools to stop using qualified counselors for non-guidance activities.
The state education agency in North Carolina also conducted a study of school counselors yielding similar results.(15) The report, covering the 2000-01 school year, concluded that about a third of school counselors spend from 10 to 40 percent of their time on test coordination alone, with other non-counseling duties taking up significant amounts of time. Even sample counselor comments from North Carolina were similar to those in Texas.
- We need testing coordinators. These vast responsibilities are taking up nearly ALL our time!
- Last year, I was also the testing coordinator. Testing is a full time job. I would work most weekends to keep my head above water. This year, my school hired a testing coordinator. I'm still working like a dog , but it is great. I love counseling!
- In 1979, I had 1,500 student s and two schools. Back then, I had more student contact and knew my students and their parents. Not now-all I do is push paper/testing! Sad!!(16)
The North Carolina report went no further than to recommend that the information be shared with the local school districts and the state legislature and that further staff development for counselors be provided.(17)
These two recent studies indicate that other states are recognizing the impact of non-counseling activities on the ability of counselors to meet student guidance needs. In both cases, however, neither state report recommended mandated changes from state government.
In the Texas survey, most counselors conceded that spending some time on administrative and other duties was reasonable given that all school employees face these demands. The issue that troubled many counselors, however, was the type of non-counseling duties and the length of time needed to perform them. If, for instance, counselors were to continue administering state standardized tests, then administrative or clerical assistance would be helpful. Again, the amount of "relief" from non-guidance duties and the strategies to do so would vary from district to district. The fact that this debate might require some hard decisions is no reason to avoid the discussion at the local level.
The Legislature can take several steps to improve the effectiveness of counselors in Texas public schools.
- Require each school district to adopt a policy on the appropriate use of counselor time in the district.
School districts would be expected to adopt policies within a year, effective for the 2004-05 school year. The Texas Association of School Boards (TASB), to which every school district belongs, could assist in developing standard policies and templates. TASB already plays a role in developing draft policies for school districts. According to TASB, most districts already have local policies for counselors, and these could be amended to address how counselor time is spent in the district.(18)
By permitting local districts to decide how best to use counselor time, the Legislature would encourage local control and would allow all the stakeholders-counselors, campus personnel, teachers and the residents of the district-to participate in devising a policy that would affect their children.
A local policy also could outline a counselors' role in administering state tests, which was a significant area of concern among counselors in the Comptroller's survey. Finally, a local policy would allow school districts to assess exactly how counselor time is used in their district and what changes may be necessary to ensure that their students' guidance needs are met.
The only responsibility at the state level would be to monitor whether districts had adopted a policy, so the state should be able to implement the proposal with existing resources. Local school boards also should be able to adopt the new policy with existing resources.
- Expand TEA's District Effectiveness and Compliance (DEC) visits to include a review of a district's local guidance and counseling policy.
This charge could be as simple as requesting each school district scheduled for a DEC visit to perform a self-assessment on how well it is complying with its local policy on the use of counselor time. TEA personnel conducting the review could analyze counselor time use through interviews of a sample of counselors to determine if the district is carrying out its own policy.
The added responsibility to the DEC visits would be minor, and TEA should be able to implement this recommendation with existing resources.
- Require grant counselors to file their quarterly timesheets with TEA electronically. This information can then be analyzed and reported to the Texas Legislature.
TEA already requires the 240 counselors whose salaries are paid from grant funds to submit timesheets and other information quarterly. The information, however, is not aggregated and analyzed. Instead, it is simply filed in hardcopy format.
TEA continues to require grant-funded counselors to complete timesheets to remain eligible for funding under this program, so the agency should ensure that the timesheets can be compiled and analyzed. The Comptroller survey revealed that more than 95 percent counselors have access to computers and to the Internet, so TEA could require counselors to submit their timesheets electronically.
TEA could use the information from the 240 grant counselors to evaluate the grant program, and if entered into a database, the results could be used to measure counselor performance and how certain strategies affect student behavior. Since the program targets at-risk students, the results of the analysis of counselor timesheets may be helpful to other school districts.
Compiling the information from online submissions should be no more difficult than maintaining paper files. There could be upfront costs to develop the database on which counselors could enter their information. Based on the Comptroller's experience in developing its counselor survey, which was used to analyze more than 4,000 surveys, TEA should be able to create the database with existing resources for the 240 grant counselors to enter their information.
(12) TEA, A Model Development Guidance and Counseling Program for Texas Public Schools: A Guide for Program Development Pre-k-12th Grade. Third Edition, p. 42.
(13) U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, "Projections of Education Statistics to 2009" (Washington, D.C., 1999) (http://nces.ed.gov/pubs99/1999038.pdf). (Last visited June 10, 2002.)
(14) Morrison Institute of Public Policy, Arizona State University, Are Arizona Public Schools Making the Best Use of School Counselors? April 1999.
(15) North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, How North Carolina School Counselors Spend Their Time (Raleigh, North Carolina, August 2001). http://www.ncpublicschools.org/curriculum/guidance/time.htm. (Last visited June 15, 2002.)
(16) North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, How North Carolina School Counselors Spend Their Time (Raleigh, North Carolina, August 2001) Appendix C. http://www.ncpublicschools.org/curriculum/guidance/time.htm. (Last visited June 15, 2002.)
(17) North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, How North Carolina School Counselors Spend Their Time (Raleigh, North Carolina, August 2001) p. 10. http://www.ncpublicschools.org/curriculum/guidance/time.htm. (Last visited June 15, 2002.)
(18) Interview with David Dunn, Associate Director for Government Relations, Texas Association of School Boards, Austin, Texas, August 13, 2002.