With generous funding from the William T. Grant Foundation for my dissertation, I use institutional theory to analyze how the rules and guidelines of the school counseling profession and the high schools where they work determine how they allocate their time and attention to students for academic, college, and social/emotional counseling. Below are summaries of my methods and select chapters:
My methods included interviews with school counselors in and around a diverse Midwestern city; daily observations of counselors in two public, urban high schools in that city throughout an academic year; interviews with school administrators in those high schools, and interviews with students in those high schools, as well as repeated surveys of these students regarding academic and college-going behaviors and counselor interactions. I contextualized these observations with interviews with faculty members in school counseling graduate programs within the focal state, and observations of school counseling professional conferences.
An Institutional Analysis of the School Counseling Profession
The effort that educational school counselors expend in their jobs is largely dictated by the rules and guidelines of the organizations in which they train and work. These guidelines are manifestations of, and legitimized by, the logics of the institutions in which they are embedded, institutions such as the profession and the bureaucratic state. In this study, I discern the rules, guidelines, and practices that oversee school counselors within public high schools to determine which logics frame their utilization, attention, and behavior. I use qualitative data (see above) to gather the information and meanings inherent in that information to determine the institutional frames and logics that high school counselors are embedded in.
Evidence from this study suggests that there are two main logics that govern the work of high school counselors: a student-centered logic, and a school-centered logic. These logics dictate the amount of time and attention counselors spend on the multiple facets of their job. Counselors are operating under these sometimes conflicting and contradictory logics. I lay out what each of these logics means, how each developed, evidence of these logics in my study, and the role of the counselor in maintaining or pushing back on each logic (showcasing their agency). By viewing the counselor as embedded in multiple logics, this approach allows me to view how change and conflict may impact how a counselor acts toward students. In doing so, I look to determine how these frames – as governing principles of their training in the profession and work within schools – might explain why high school counselors are commonly perceived as ineffectual by students.
Beyond Caseloads: The Burden of Resource Constraints on School Counselors in an Accountability Era
The work of school counselors is often derided as being inefficient or ineffective. Why do school counselors face such a negative reputation? It is unlikely school counselors go into the profession with the hopes that they will be inaccessible or unhelpful to students, nor are all school counselors merely bad at their jobs. Like teachers who face large classrooms and other resource constraints (Gamoran and Dreeben 1986), school counselors too face high caseloads and multiple tasks that require work after-hours, or leave work undone. Like teachers, school counselors enter the profession with the best of intentions to provide academic, college and social/emotional counseling to students, but have to work under various resource constraints that make it difficult for them to achieve their potential. And the struggle is not in consequential for students.
More research is needed connecting the structure of the work of school counselors with how they do their jobs. In this study, I connect the rules and guidelines of the profession with how counselors are actually utilized and how their value to the school is communicated through the allocation of resources. I combine research on school counselors as “street-level bureaucrats” with year-long observations and interviews with high school counselors to define the problem of how resource constraints limit the ability of high school counselors to reach students in ways that both sides expect. I take this analysis a step further by observing how counselors navigate constrained resources when deciding how to spend their time and how they interact with students. Doing so provides insights into how actors in general and school counselors in particular approach resource constraints that prevent them from attending to all parts of their job expectations (whether stated or implicit). It also allows me to focus in on the role counselors play in schools and in the lives of students, and provide suggestions of how to maximize their potential impact on students.
Other Duties as Assigned: The Ambiguous Role of the High School Counselor
Utilizing organizational and social psychological theories, I establish in this study how the work of high school counselors is structured by the organizations that oversee them, and theorize how this structure may impact the work of counselors and their relationships with students. Based on qualitative methods including interviews with and observations of counselors, school counseling graduate faculty, and administrators, I find that the structure of schools and the disconnect between schools and the graduate programs that train counselors leave them vulnerable to role ambiguity and role conflict in two main ways. First, constraints placed on schools by the state, and in turn districts and schools, restrict the amount of time counselors have to spend on anything but administrative tasks. Second, role ambiguity and role conflict are indicative of the field due to this utilization as administrators rather than as the academic or social/emotional counselors that they were trained to be. Because of how resources are allocated to counselors, and the role ambiguity of the position, counselors act more as administrators than guidance professionals and are not able to do their jobs as they see fit. This ultimately hurts the student, who does not receive adequate academic, college, or social/emotional counseling. In particular, this lack of time spent on advising and guiding students has been shown to increase inequality in college enrollment as low-income and minority students have few other avenues for guidance on the college and career process.
If the Wheel Doesn’t Squeak: How High School Counselors Manage Challenging Work Conditions
School counselors join the profession to help students succeed academically, socially/emotionally, and in their adult lives. However, as street-level bureaucrats, public high school counselors work in an environment of scarce resources, large caseloads, limited time, and role ambiguity and conflict. Faced with these obstacles, school counselors have to balance issues competing for their attention in complicated situations that arise in their day-to-day work in order to serve students’ needs, but in an efficient manner so that as many as possible could be seen. In this study, I examine the techniques counselors utilize to manage their workload. These ways speak to the efforts most high school counselors must exert to manage their jobs – mostly in a sub-optimal way.
Disadvantaged Students and High School Counselors: Organizational Barriers to Academic, College, and Personal Counseling
Due to their ubiquity in schools and their access to all students, high school counselors are in a position to provide their students with information and guidance on college preparatory courses, application requirements, and college fit to regarding the college transition all students. Disadvantaged students in particular are more likely to need the college counseling services of school counselors because they typically do not have parents with college-going knowledge. However, they are least likely to indicate they have received adequate counselor support. Therefore, one of the most promising routes to reduce racial/income inequality in college-going is to identify the barriers that prevent counselors from delivering the necessary information and support to disadvantaged students regarding the path to college.
In order to identify these barriers, I incorporated interviews with counselors, students, and key school and district administrators with student surveys and extensive observations of counselors and counselor-student interactions. This in-school data was supplemented with interviews from local and national counseling graduate faculty and counselors. Together, these multiple data sources combine to create an uncommon and systematic look into the role of counselors in public, urban high schools and the impact they have on the college-going process of minority and low-income students.
As this study illustrates, the competing demands of non-counseling administrative work and inadequate training precludes counselors at public, urban high schools from adequately engaging in personal, academic and college counseling, which disproportionately hurts disadvantaged students. Lack of counselor time and resources, lack of student knowledge, and the role ambiguity of the school counselor position lead to poor student perceptions of the role of counselors, and little concrete support of their academics, personal lives, or college/career plans. Low-income and minority students in particular flounder as they fail to receive the individualized attention and advice needed to navigate the complicated college decision and application process, and are therefore at a disadvantage compared to more privileged peers. Suggestions for how counselors, schools, and other stakeholders can address these barriers are provided.