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Education Lab is a yearlong project to spark meaningful conversations about education solutions in the Pacific Northwest.

July 4, 2014 at 5:00 AM

Mrs. Obama: School counselor among country’s toughest jobs

First Lady Michelle Obama addresses members of the American School Counselor Association during their annual conference in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., on Tuesday. AP photo.

First Lady Michelle Obama addresses members of the American School Counselor Association during their annual conference in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., on Tuesday. Photo by Phelan M. Ebenhack / The Associated Press.

School counselors — that oft-maligned group expected to perform emotional triage, academic guidance and college advising for millions of students every year — are attracting increased attention from some pretty high-profile folks.

First Lady Michelle Obama noted earlier this month:

While we talk a great deal about the role of teachers and principals and parents in preparing kids for higher education, often, engaged school counselors … are the deciding factor in whether young people attend college or not.

She reeled off a typical counselor’s day: Perhaps ministering to a girl who’s been bullied, then dealing with “the kid who’s been kicked out of every class.” Later, meeting with a distrustful parent and finally, trying to convince a promising student who refuses to apply to college, that “she has what it takes to succeed in life.”

Despite the necessity, 20 percent of high schools have no counselors on staff, and those that do assign them to handle about 471 students each, though the recommended number is 250.

“Outrageous,” Mrs. Obama said.

An Education Lab story in April detailed the ways that overloading counselors appears to have a dramatic and detrimental effect on college-going, particularly among lower-income students.

To address this, Mrs. Obama announced an “ambitious new agenda” to improve training, professional development and support for school counselors. She noted that few counselor-certification programs include any training on college guidance.

“Those of you at the high-school level are expected to help students choose between thousands of colleges and certificate programs and countless financial aid packages, but hardly any of your master’s degree programs included training on college and career readiness,” she said, to applause.

Her comments followed a letter sent June 30 from U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan to school chiefs in every state, noting that “the role of school counselors has never been more important” and urging increased professional development for them.

Mrs. Obama, always adept with the personal touch, brought the message home:

“You all have one of the hardest, most stressful, most important and most underappreciated jobs of anyone in this country — and I live with the President of the United States. So frankly, when I think about what you all do on an average day, well, quite frankly, I’m amazed.”

Comments | More in News | Topics: counselors, Michelle Obama, Obama

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