By STEPHANIE HERNANDEZ McGAVIN
Capital News Service
LANSING — A new law creating a statewide teacher evaluation system was a win for many educators because it limits the effect of standardized tests, but it left out a group of important players — school counselors.
Although counselors have expanded their role in schools, many find it difficult to receive an appropriate progress report, which is essential to continued improvement, according to the Michigan School Counselor Association (MSCA).
Shawn Bultsma, MSCA director of headquarters in Grand Rapids, said he worked as a school counselor for 10 years and administration assessed him with ill-fitting teacher evaluations. It started in 1995 when he was in New Jersey.
“I was evaluated with a teacher’s evaluation that took, probably, 50 percent of ‘the variables do not apply,’” Bultsma said. “It was appropriate for teachers and since I was on a teaching contract, the administrators didn’t have anything else to use.”
After starting as a school counselor in Michigan in 2000, Bultsma said he encountered the same problem.
“Administrators also used a teacher evaluation tool and it wasn’t helpful for my professional growth, and I wasn’t sure that it was helpful for students either,” Bultsma said.
In 2015, the Department of Education endorsed the American School Counselor Association National Model. The model, never officially implemented in Michigan, outlines an effective school counseling program.
Bultsma said the real challenge is that only a small percent of public schools are even aware that model exists.
The MSCA promotes counselor work in three areas: career development, social and emotional development and academic development.
In 2015, it created a counselor evaluation tool to assess counselors on their direct and indirect services, ranking from “ineffective” to “highly effective,” in the three areas of counselor work.
Direct services are group sessions, class presentations, one-on-one advising and counseling. Indirect services refer to consultations with teachers or parents about student concerns and making referrals for students.
A counselor rated “highly effective” in direct services will plan core counseling goals, encourage students as career advisors and create a “warm” but “professional” relationship with them.
Indirect service evaluations are based on understanding professional limits in the willingness to refer students who need help, using an attitude of inclusiveness and working to close achievement and opportunity gaps.
Bill DiSessa, communications director at the Department of Education, said the State Board of Education released a statement in June supporting the importance of counselors.
The statement said the board backs training and legislation to benefit school counselors. It also recognized difficult student-to-counselor ratios. Counselors, on average, work with 700 students.
“Our overarching goal is to make students in Michigan career- and college-ready by graduation,” DiSessa said. “School counselors play a large part in that, and the Board of Education recognizes that. We need more well-prepared counselors in our school system.”
Christina Lindberg worked as a counselor at Lakeland High School in White Lake, the first school in the state to adopt the national association’s model program known as RAMP.
Lindberg is creating an online RAMP course through a class at Michigan State University. The course will assist counselors in implementing RAMP into their own schools, with a lesson outlining each of the 12 components of the national model. She plans to finish it in December and said she wants to take the course statewide.
Lindberg said the role of school counselors is important in identifying all the needs of a student.
“When I was a school counselor, we could see the bigger picture. I was a teacher as well. We’re looking at all their classes and strengths and weaknesses,” Lindberg said.
Counselors identify struggling students and “give them extra support and help them improve or find what they’re missing that they needed, and also communicate that with teachers,” she said.
Gary Miron, a professor specializing in evaluation, measurement and research in the College of Education and Human Development at Western Michigan University, said that collaboration among teachers, and between teachers and other school officials, like counselors, is essential for the professional growth of educators.
“We know that if teachers work together and they build professional communities and support one another, it makes for better performance areas,” Miron said. “The system’s attribution of test scores to teacher evaluation should be in a way that rewards come back to teams, not individuals.”
Counselors and gym, music and art teachers are among public school educators left out of the accountability system, Miron said. They can’t be evaluated by test data or by the academic performance of the large number of students whom they don’t teach.
Miron said that’s why team evaluations are especially important in schools.
“These teachers that aren’t directly teaching kids would still be part of a team and be accountable for the results,” Miron said. “Arts instructors should be aware of and support what’s going on. Librarians and counselors all have a role. Let them have credit as a team, and reinforce them to work in teams, rather than compete.”
David Crimm, the communications director at the Michigan Education Association (MEA), said that, while school counselors didn’t gain a new evaluation process under the legislation, the new law is a win for teachers.
The MEA is the largest union of teachers and other education professionals, like counselors, in the state.
Twenty-five percent of teacher evaluations will be based on student growth for the next three school years, and after that will rise to 40 percent. Of that student growth, only half will be based on standardized test scores. Individual school districts will decide how to assess the other half of student growth.
“Standardized testing was seen as this magic wand for the last decade in improving student achievement. Educators, experts in academics and teachers in the classroom have all said that way too much reliance has been given to standardized testing and it has taken up too much time,” Crimm said.
The trend in relying on standardized tests to evaluate teachers is reversing, Crimm said, which means progress in education, and is a movement the MEA supports “whole-heartedly.”
The MSCA’s Bultsma said the role of counselors should be valued by all educators.
In 2015, the Center for Michigan, an advocate for public participation in current events, surveyed residents and found career counseling and college advising in high schools as the top public priority for education.
“Until all education professionals understand the valuable role of a fully implemented school counseling program, I suspect that student outcomes will continue to be less than what they otherwise might be,” Bultsma said.
Resources for CNS editors:
The Center for Michigan’s Survey on career navigation, career affordability and upward mobility: http://cdn.bridgemi.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/GETTING-TO-WORK-FINAL.pdf
By STEPHANIE HERNANDEZ McGAVIN