High school counseling and individualized plans are key to student success

Nancy C. Herrera

Editor's note: This post is a submission to Fordham's 2018 Wonkathon. We asked assorted education policy experts whether our graduation requirements need to change, in light of diploma scandals in D.C., Maryland, and elsewhere. Other entries can be found here.

Exactly two years ago, in March 2016, I was in the trenches as a high school special education teacher. I would leap from classroom to classroom, borrowing them from the general education teachers during their prep time. I was trying to balance my job as an expert in mathematics, life science, and physical science with learning the ropes of classroom management and Individualized Education Plan (IEP) creation and implementation. I was exhausted and determined, but in the end, I didn’t have what it takes. One day, my graduate school professors realized I was more of a one-track mind, better at working one-on-one than a classroom full of kids. The next day, I left the trenches for good, leaving myself exposed but confident in using my experiences to shape our nation’s education policies.

If schools are to raise outcomes for every student, they need to provide more one-on-one counseling interactions that leave them with a set of actionable goals. Students should graduate high school based on them receiving a base-level liberal arts education and achieving a self-created action plan, akin to the IEPs we provide students in special education. Requiring these personal development plans would mean that schools are responsible for providing the resources for everyone’s success. I know all too well that as kind-hearted as we are in the education field, often the only thing that compels a school to offer more resources to a student is the menacing legal document of the IEP that’s ready to drop a gavel of them.

Graduation scandals where half the students are absent for more than three months cannot happen in places where counselors are actively building relationships with their students. In my work as a college counselor at a smaller secondary school, I am fortunate to have the chance to build detailed and personalized plans that address personal ambitions and tie them to specific academic and career interests. For instance, when students are interested in journalism, their plan might include taking a creative writing course, publishing on Medium, dream journaling, and submitting an entry to the Signet Classics Student Scholarship Essay Contest. Entrepreneurially-minded students always pull my mind in different directions. Their plan can include actions as varied as starting a store on Etsy, researching agricultural trends, taking AP Economics, learning computer programming, or investing in cryptocurrencies.

For high school to be as useful and enriching as possible, guidance counseling needs to be put at the forefront of the graduation requirements debate. Research has found a correlation between strong college counseling and academic performance.

According to the American School Counselor Association (ASCA), the average student-to-school-counselor ratio is around 480 to 1, well above the recommended ratio of 250 to 1. The hesitation to add more counselors comes from their misguided lumping with “administrative costs” and the common trope of school counselors being random people who just stumbled onto the job. In the episode “Morty’s Mind Blowers” from the television show “Rick and Morty,” Morty says, “I’m sure he’s qualified to be a guidance counselor. I mean, who isn’t?” And to be fair, I’m probably not helping the cause by going into the profession right after my gig as a teacher.

In reality, counselors are experts, and lower student-to-counselor ratio is key to making sure students feel they have a place within their school. An expertly trained person can come up with a plan for anyone. Schools with an action plan requirement will be doing their part to make sure that the “average student” is getting serviced when they are often overlooked in favor of highly talented and high behavioral kids.

In the case of my community, the counselors are a major driver for students to choose the smaller charter school I work at. One eleventh grader said, “The teachers here give you more attention. They prepare you and help you meet your goal. If I have to say the people that affected me the most, it would be [the counselors] Mrs. Chavez and Ms. Brown. I like that I can really talk to them. They would encourage me to go far away for college and to not let the money stop me from going. Now I’m not scared to go to an out-of-state college.”

On a policy level, the way the plans would work is that each year, students will be required to create a set of goals (at least one each) in the realms of mental health, wellness, education, and career. These realms are pulled from the American Counseling Association (ACA) governing council’s official definition of counseling. The plans created from ninth to eleventh grade would be non-binding, although they would be reviewed together with their high school counselor. That way a student can put in their plan that they want to sign up for the talent show and take first place at the Battle of the Bands and not be afraid to fail. High school graduation would be contingent on passing the liberal arts curriculum and meeting the goals outlined in the twelfth grade action plan.

To ensure transparency and accountability, every senior’s plan would be uploaded onto the high school’s website with the names blacked out. Community members, taxpayers, and outside agencies would be able to track what students are doing and what directions they tend to head towards. Every graduating senior would also create a resume that’s published publicly in a lookbook in PDF format on the schools’ website.

It’s my hope that as this idea continues to get scrutinized, policymakers realize how realistic and helpful it is. Rather than fearing a nightmare scenario where a girl puts in her plan that she wants to literally be Cinderella, fails, and then sues the district for a million dollars, I would like to have faith in the power of expertise. After a healthy dialogue, I expect there to be guidelines as to what constitutes a goal that is binding for graduation and legal purposes.

And if there was anyone handwringing when reading this piece, I would like to bring us back to why this matters. In this digital age, all too often “personalized learning” has come to mean a software program with an intelligent algorithm. We can’t forget the original personalized learning: one-on-one, human-to-human interactions. High school counseling, done by a person, is still important. I have seen with my eyes the power of counseling and creating action plans. It's time that every high school student in America sees it too.

Nancy C. Herrera is a special education instructional assistant and college counseling intern at Aspire Public Schools.