How big is the school counselor shortage? Big

A recent survey taken in California showed that a majority of voters there believe that the best approach to preventing violence in schools is through improving mental health services and emergency response training for school staff. But in the midst of a national debate about how to keeps kids in school safe, one thing we aren’t hearing much about is the serious shortage of school counselors.

How big is it? It’s so big that President Obama’s new plan to provide 1,000 new school resource officers, school counselors and other mental health workers to schools around the country won’t even come close to meeting the need.

The American School Counselor Association recommends  a ratio of 250 students to each counselor. But in the latest statistics available from around the country (the 20010-2011 school year), the average ratio is one counselor for every 471 students. That means that for the 49,484,181 public school students, there were 105,079 counselors — a sharp rise from the year before, when there were 459 students to every counselor.

What’s more, some states have a far bigger divide:

*In California, it is 1,016 students for every counselor
*Arizona, 861-1
*Minnesota, 782-1
*Utah, 726-1
*Michigan, 706-1

The states with the lowest ratios:

*Wyoming: 200-1
*Vermont: 235-1
*New Hampshire: 236-1
*Hawaii: 284-1
*Montana: 310-1

In the greater Washington area:
*Washington D.C.: 274-1
*Virginia: 315-1
*Maryland: 357-1

A 2010 study,  which was the first nationally representative study of the provision, financing, and impact of school-site mental health services for young children, shows why this matters so much. It concludes that at least one in five young children in the United States has some mental disorder. But many states don’t require public elementary schools to hire mental health professionals, and, as we’ve seen, many states don’t even have enough counselors who might be able to flag problems with children. The abstract of the study says:

The adoption of state-funded counselor subsidies or minimum counselor-student ratios reduces the fraction of teachers reporting that their instruction suffers due to student misbehavior and reduces the fractions reporting problems with students physically fighting each other, cutting class, stealing, or using drugs.  These findings imply that there may be substantial public and private benefits derived from providing additional elementary school counselors.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.

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Valerie Strauss · March 20, 2013