Adolescents in high schools today are a vulnerable population prone to personal and school-related obstacles that can impede their success. High school counselors are in a position to help students succeed because of their training in social/emotional, academic, and postsecondary counseling. Unfortunately, there is much evidence to suggest that school counselors are not living up to their potential. Between an extraordinarily imbalanced student-to-counselor ratio of 470-to-1 and an extensive breadth of both counseling and non-counseling duties, counselors are often cited as failing to serve students adequately due to being overworked.
Yet what the focus on the overworked nature of school counselors fails to consider is how deeply embedded the conflict between their counseling and non-counseling roles is within the structure of the profession and the schools as the organizations in which they work. To understand the school counseling profession and its impact on students, what is needed is a theoretical research approach that incorporates the institutional and organizational influences and constraints on the school counseling profession, and the agency through which counselors choose to work. This will help reveal how high school counselors work, and by extension, how their work impacts the students they serve.
In this dissertation, I explored how school and counseling organizations and institutional frames of counselor work structure the profession of school counseling and the counselors themselves. I conducted a comprehensive, multiple-method study of high school counselors in two public, urban high schools. I incorporated interviews with counselors and school administrators with 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, and observations of school counselor conferences. Together, these multiple data sources combine to create an uncommon and systematic look into how the work of school counselors is structured, and how this might impact student outcomes.
In Chapter 2, 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. Evidence from this study suggests that there are two main logics that govern the work of high school counselors which compete for the time and attention of counselors – a student-centered logic and a school-centered logic. In Chapter 3, I connect these rules and guidelines of the profession with how high school counselors, as street-level bureaucrats, are actually utilized and how their value to the school is communicated through the allocation of resources. I find that high school counselors must contend with high caseloads and task allocation that preferences school-centered tasks at the price of student-centered attention, provoking burnout and alienation.
In Chapter 4, I find that the structure of schools and the loose coupling between the graduate programs that train counselors and the high schools that employ them leave counselors vulnerable to role ambiguity and role conflict through misaligned expectations of the position, misaligned goals of the counselors and the schools, and poor evaluative and reward structures. Without an accurate and consistent definition of their work across schools – and thus without an appropriate evaluative framework – the high school counselors in this study suffered from poor boundaries, inconsistency in tasks, underutilization, and reduction of their role to class schedulers.
In Chapter 5, I observe how high school counselors navigate the constrained resources, conflicting logics, and role ambiguity when deciding how to spend their time and how they interact with students. I find that the high school counselors developed both student-centered and school-centered techniques to manage their work, but engaged in school-centered strategies more often, leaving less time for students.