Nearly every time Martha Wiseman tries to take lunch,her break is cut short because someone needs her.
But that's O.K. for Wiseman,a guidance counselor at Carl Sandburg High School in Orland Park,Ill. After all,she quit teaching English because she thought her students weren't learning. They were too preoccupied with personal problems to pay attention.
“Kids can't learn when their heads aren't together,” she said.
Wiseman is one of 11 counselors who assist 3200 students at the high school. That's about 320 students per counselor,which Wiseman thinks is a pretty good ratio.
Yet that exceeds the 1:250 counselor-to-student ratio recommended by the American Counseling Association,which is concerned about a recent shortage in the number of counselors in the nation's elementary and high schools,said Joan Wodiska,assistant director in the Office of Public Policy and Legislation for the American Counseling Association.
And the education field,collectively,is worried about the shortage,Wiseman said.
Most schools have too few counselors to adequately help students,Wodiska said,and many have ratios as high as one counselor per 500 students.
In 1999,more than 46 million students attended public schools in the United States and there were 95,000 counselors – totaling 490 students per counselor. California showed the widest margin,with 994 students per counselor; Wyoming had the lowest at 252 students per counselor,according to April data from the U.S. Department of Education.
“What happens when there's this ratio is that students are not getting the help they need and the help they deserve,” Wodiska said.
Students turn to counselors for a variety of reasons: career planning,scheduling,advice on personal problems,and sometimes,crisis intervention. Not only do students seek out counselors,counselors monitor student behavior and look out for their general well being.
“In a lot of schools today with big ratios,counselors are only available on an emergency kind of triage basis,where they can help only students that need immediate help,” Wodiska said.
Because counselors are too busy,at-risk students can get away with skipping school,bullying and fighting,Wodiska said. Some people have tied school shootings and suicides to the counselor shortage.
“The warning signs stop being warning signs,but start being real,” she said.
Schools that are known for struggling students,violence and low salaries have a difficulties drawing counselors,Wiseman said.
Wodiska said the shortage stems from low funding and a generation of counselors facing retirement. As older counselors leave,their positions are not being filled because some administrators believe they are unnecessary,Wodiska said.
Some potential counselors shy away from the training needed for the job,Wiseman said. In an effort to hire better counselors,some states require applicants to have several years of training.
For example,almost all states require a master's degree in counseling and guidance or a related field. Twenty-eight states and the District of Columbia require a practicum or school-based internship ranging from 200 to 700 hours,Wodiska said.
Teachers who want to transition to a counseling job must rely on a spouse or their family to financially support them while they complete the training,Wiseman said.
“While that's very valuable experience and makes them stronger,it can be a difficult sacrifice,” she said.
Some states,including California,are considering legislation to boost funding and hire more counselors,but the problem probably will worsen before it improves,Wodiska said.
“The problem will remain serious until we take the type of action to address an issue as large as this. The steps we've made,as incremental and small as they are,will not fix the problem on their own,” she said.