Indiana lawmakers want a renewed focus on workforce in schools. What role should counselors play?

For years, Indiana lawmakers and education leaders have grappled with a major shortage in school counselors, and this week that conversation will dovetail with one of Indiana’s favorite topics lately: workforce.

A committee of lawmakers is set to discuss on Thursday how Indiana can improve how it counsels students for life after high school, a topic that neatly aligns with Gov. Eric Holcomb’s recent push to get more people trained and ready for available jobs. Legislators urged discussion of workforce counseling in an education bill passed during the last legislative session, where workforce issues were central, even to education.

This focus on counseling comes amid a major shift in the state’s graduation requirements, which now include new “pathways” that aim to offer students more ways to show they’re ready to leave high school and pursue college or jobs. As part of those changes, also included in the overarching education bill, lawmakers were asked to explore how the new graduation pathways rules could affect counselor workloads and what current funding levels are like for counselors.

Rep. Bob Behning, House Education Committee chairman and the bill’s author, has been a strong proponent of initiatives bridging workforce issues and education, especially ones that mirror programs he’s observed in other countries, such as Germany and Switzerland.

“The rest of the world does a much better job in terms of leading (career and technical education) than what the U.S. does,” said Behning, an Indianapolis Republican. “The reality is that kids only know what they know, and if they don’t know what the universe is out there, they are much less likely to choose that.”

Behning said that on a recent trip to Switzerland he talked to an American woman living there who said her 11-year-old nephew was already deciding on a job-shadow opportunity. When Behning came back to the U.S. and participated in a mock job interview at a local charter school, he was struck by the difference in how American students and European students thought about future jobs.

In the school’s mock interview group of eight 12-year-olds — five boys and three girls — all but one of the boys wanted to be basketball players, he said. It was a signal that Indiana needs to do more to support how schools counsel students and help them discover their options, including ones that might not necessarily lead to a four-year college.

“When I was in school, factory work … you were working in dirty, hot conditions,” Behning said. “A lot of that has changed, and our perceptions haven’t. How do we help coach these students so that they might be better prepared for that kind of job?”

In Indiana schools, counselors often have large caseloads. In 2014-15, Indiana had an average of 543 students per counselor — more than the recommended 250 students per counselor according to the American School Counselor Association.

Indiana’s counselor shortage has been well-documented and the focus of major donations over the past several years. The Lilly Endowment, a prominent Indianapolis-based philanthropy, launched the Comprehensive Counseling Initiative for Indiana K-12 Students in 2016. The more than $50 million-effort aims to improve counseling in Indiana. Experts say meaningful counseling can help schools support students as they navigate problems both at home and in the classroom. (The Lilly Endowment also supports Chalkbeat. Learn more about our funding here.)

In the past, when legislation about increasing school counseling staffs has been brought up, it’s been tough to move any of the policies forward. Part of that stems from the complicated nature of what school counselors are expected to do — they are part social-emotional support, part college advisor, and often a catch-all for other school tasks, such as standardized testing planning and oversight.

Many counselors said in their Lilly Endowment grant applications that they were so caught up in social-emotional issues that it was difficult to find time to focus on students’ futures.

But this conversation, which could result in recommendations for lawmakers to consider next year, isn’t just about giving schools the means to hire more counselors, Behning said. He hopes the discussion includes brainstorming about how to more efficiently use existing counselors and thinking about how new career-oriented counselors could function.

In Switzerland, Behning said, “career coaches” are based in different regions, not in individual schools. They travel and talk with employers to learn about what kinds of options are available for students. And they then work with students to figure out how to get there.

Behning said both areas — future planning and wraparound support — are important, and he’s aware of the fact that educators probably don’t need one more new thing to be responsible for. That’s why he’s hoping this week’s discussion, which will include presenters from Ivy Tech Community College, can move beyond what counselors are already expected to do.

“Today, with the serious concern over school violence and over the things that have occurred in our schools, the role of counselors, social workers, and psychologists are probably elevated even more,” Behning said. “To assume that you can just say, ‘OK, you have this role and we’re going to dump another thing on you,’ may be more than what is appropriate. But I think that’s one of the reasons we’re studying this.”

Lawmakers will meet at 9 a.m. Thursday in Senate Chambers at the Indiana Statehouse.