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Minnesota's School Counseling Crunch

September 15, 2009 By John Fitzgerald, Education Policy Fellow

Executive Summary

Minnesota school children's mental health and academic counseling needs have dramatically increased in the last two years; however, funding and hiring of school counselors has not kept up with this growing demand. Compounding the problem for children is that Minnesota has traditionally lagged behind the rest of the nation in student-to-counselor ratios, ranking 49th out of 50 since the beginning of this decade. As a result, student's academic, social and mental health problems are going unaddressed.

Consider this:

  • Minnesota lawmakers have cut state aid to schools by an inflation-adjusted 13 percent since 2003, cutting the number of teachers, administrators, aides and paraprofessionals whose duties now fall to school counselors;
  • With all of these cuts, plus layoffs among school social workers and nurses, counselors are often the school official of last resort helping students deal with problems at home and in school that might lead to dropouts;
  • Counselors are also responsible for a bigger chunk of administering standardized tests, forcing them to divert their attention from traditional counseling tasks for about 10 school days in metro areas and up to 30 days in rural districts.
One counselor put it this way:

"The number of students in my school has doubled to tripled with the same number of counselors. I am now doing more recordkeeping and lunchtime supervision. I was able to meet the needs of students in the building ten years ago. Now there are more students with significant needs and less time to meet those needs."

A survey by Minnesota 2020 and the Minnesota School Counselors Association sought to explore these issues and their consequences. The study found that student mental health care needs have increased in the past 24 months, including interpersonal and family problems, depression, aggressive or disruptive behavior, anxiety and ADHD. About half of counselors say they spend less than 10 percent of their time with students on mental health issues or helping with career guidance. Increased testing and administrative workloads are cutting into counselors' time with students most at risk of dropping out, and while Minnesota's dropout rank is among the middle of the states, it is well below Iowa and Wisconsin.

Morale is also low among counselors, with almost 75 percent saying they did not feel completely supported by their school board.

If school counselors are doing the best with the numbers they have, one has to ask: How many dropouts could be prevented if counselors could spend more time helping students with career and educational decisions? How many students would have mental health problems spotted at a younger age and receive the counseling to work through these issues in appropriate ways? How many students would attend college if they were aware of financial opportunities? How many would advance to their full potential if they had a career plan?

"I asked a group of sixth-graders how many were planning to go to college. One student answered 'I didn't know I could go to college!' It's never even an option for so many students until they hear from an adult that they can do it."

The 21st century workforce requires more students to attain degrees from higher education institutions. School counselors are a linchpin in the process of getting students through high school to college. If Minnesota's leaders are serious about making the state viable for the 21st century, why are the most critical agents of advice and counsel being restricted from students and their families?

Key Findings

  • Among the nation's worst
Minnesota's student-to-counselor ratio is among the nation's worst, and has been for years. Since the 2000-01 school year, it has been second to last among all states.
  • Mental health care needs are exploding
The need for mental health care is expanding. More than 90 percent of Minnesota counselors say they have helped students deal with interpersonal and family problems, depression, aggressive or disruptive behavior, anxiety and ADHD in the last 12 months. More than 76 percent say student mental health care needs have increased in the past 24 months.
  • Testing demands skyrocket
The dramatic increase in administering standardized tests has fallen almost completely to school counselors. Nearly 50 percent of counselors say they spend at least 10 days each year directly involved with federal- and state-mandated testing, and more than 10 percent say they spend at least 30 days or more each year administering tests.
  • Budget cutbacks, staff cuts reduce time spent with students
The state has cut aid to schools an inflation adjusted 13 percent since 2003. This has caused schools to drastically reduce staff, which in turn has moved many duties previously performed by teachers, paraprofessionals and secretaries onto school counselors. Instead of helping students get into college or helping them with personal problems, counselors are performing minor duties such as hall monitoring and parking lot supervision.
  • Less help for students with mental health problems, career guidance
Because of inadequate staffing and an increase in duties, about half the counselors say they spend less than 10 percent of their time with students on mental health issues. More than half of counselors say they spend less than 10 percent of their time helping students with career guidance.
  • More dropouts
Minnesota's dropout rank is among the middle of the states and well below neighbors Wisconsin and Iowa. The lack of counselors results in a greater risk of students dropping out, engaging in dangerous behaviors, receiving less knowledge about how to handle common problems at different developmental levels, and less knowledge about higher education and financial aid.
  • Lack of state funding
When asked what factors affect the current state of school counseling, 92 percent point the finger at lack of funding from the state. About 60 percent said they don't get enough support from the Department of Education and 70 percent said there is a lack of support from state elected leaders.

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