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Advocacy as a critical role for urban school counselors: working toward equity and social justice.

The academic achievement gap of students of color and low-income students as compared to middle and upper socioeconomic students and White students has been clearly documented. Historically the long-standing role of the school counselor has contributed to the status quo of these inequities, inadvertently maintaining educational and social disparities. This has been reflected in school counselors' training, role or job descriptions, and actual practice. This article explores the need for a change of the school counselor's role to incorporate advocacy as a key component in decreasing the achievement gap and fostering social justice and equity for all students. Challenges in being an advocate are discussed along with recommendations for school counselors.


In today's society, educational achievement gaps of poor students and students of color as compared to middle and higher socioeconomic classes and European American students have been clearly documented (Education Trust, 2000; Haycock, 1998). Although this can be attributed to many facets of public education in the United States, school counselors have the potential to play a major role in eliminating academic inequities. This article addresses the importance of K-12 urban school counselors in assuming an advocacy role as part of their work with the aim toward creating social justice in the school environment that will ultimately lead to decreasing the achievement gap. The article will begin with a brief history of the role of advocacy in counseling as it relates to school counselors, followed by a discussion of inequities in schools and how the school counseling profession has maintained the status quo. The importance of a role shift that includes school counselors becoming advocates and strategies to empower school counselors will be discussed. Finally, recommendations will be made for school counselors to infuse advocacy into their work and training.


After decades of school counselors being in a stationary position in schools, there has been some recent movement to change this role. The changing role involves an effort to evolve from simply addressing the needs of individual students to becoming leaders, change agents, and advocates (Bemak, 2000; Lee, 1998; Stone & Hanson, 2002). We would strongly suggest that advocacy be an integral part of the school counselor's changing role. To better understand modern-day advocacy, it is important to briefly review the history of advocacy in the counseling field and the role of the school counselor.

Advocacy can be defined as the belief that, to fight injustices, individual and collective actions that lead toward improving conditions for the benefit of both individuals and groups are necessary (House & Martin, 1998). Advocating for clients or students can be viewed as an act of speaking up or taking action that leads toward environmental changes on behalf of clients (Kiselica & Robinson, 2001). Although advocacy is just reemerging in the counseling field, it has been present in mental health work since the 1700s when there was a movement to improve the conditions of mentally ill people (Brooks & Weikel, 1996). It took another two centuries for advocacy to emerge in schools. The guidance programs of the early 1900s aimed to help students develop personal and moral character while assisting them in locating good jobs that would contribute to the social good. Frank Parsons (1909) introduced vocational counseling as a means to address unemployment for youth who left school. During the same time period, Clifford Beers became an advocate for people suffering from mental illness (Kiselica & Robinson). More recently during the 1970s, the community mental health movement advocacy gained recognition as a component of counseling only to lose ground in the late 1980s and 1990s, when advocacy and social change diminished in importance as counselors strove for professional credibility and narrowly defined scientific research standards (McClure & Russo, 1996).

During the past 15 years, with the exception of multicultural counseling and feminist counseling, the term advocacy has regularly been used to affect legislation and policy and enhance the credibility of the profession, rather than to promote change that addresses social inequities and institutional changes affecting clients and students. Important strides were made in promoting advocacy with the development of the multicultural counseling competencies by Sue, Arredondo, and McDavis (1992). Four years later, the competencies were operationalized (Arredondo et al., 1996). Even with the call for advocacy in the recent literature (Bemak, 1998, 2000; House & Martin, 1998; Kiselica & Robinson, 2001; Lee, 1998; Lewis, Lewis, Daniels, & D'Andrea, 1998; McWhirter, 1994; Myers, Sweeney, & White, 2002), there is still a significant gap between the theoretical discussions about the need for advocacy and actual training and practice. This article addresses the importance and practice of advocacy for school counselors.


As a result of the overall poorer quality of education and subsequent achievement gap experienced by students of color and lower socioeconomic students in the United States, there is a self-fulfilling expectation fbr their low academic performance (American Association for Higher Education, 1992). The National Initiative to Transform School Counseling was a first systematic attempt to examine the school counselor's role as a means for contributing to equity and services for all students. As a result, a redefinition of the school counselor's role emerged. Part of this role redefinition included a strong advocacy component contributing to systemic change aimed toward improving academic performance for all students. The attempt of the National Initiative was to decrease the achievement gap between students of color or low-income students and middle/upper socioeconomic groups of White students, leading to social and academic equity.


School counselor training and practice has been in a position of perpetuating the status quo and maintaining the inequities that currently exist in our schools. School administrators and school systems have externally defined the job of the school counselor. In many instances, school counselors have adopted and then internalized these roles, with little or no input or discussion. In turn, entire school systems adopt these job specifications and provide supervision and job performance evaluations based on that definition. The great risk here is that the system, the administrators and supervisors, and the school counselors themselves implicitly and explicitly agree to maintain the traditional and externally defined school counselor's role, thus maintaining the status quo. In fact, we would suggest that the achievement gap that now exists for poor students and students of color not only is based on the inadequate funding and the subsequent poor quality of many schools serving these populations, but is also, in part, due to the negligence, low expectations, and job goals and outcomes adopted as important by school counselors and other school personnel. This is not to say that school counselors lack commitment and dedication to their work, but rather to suggest that school counselors, similar to disenfranchised students, have been in some cases inadvertent victims of the systems in which they work, adopting values and practices conducive to bringing about categorical discrepancies in achievement. Even so, it is our firm belief that school counselors can make a difference by becoming proactive and assuming responsibility to adopt a position as an advocate who no longer tolerates these discrepancies.

Criticisms of counseling have centered on the focus on individualism, the maintenance and perpetuation of the current societal power structures, and the disregard for social and political issues facing clients and students (Bemak, 1998, 2000; Kantrowitz & Ballou, 1992; Prilleltensky, 1997; Sue & Sue, 1999). To continue to emphasize the individual without regard to the ecological context of the individual's world (Bemak & Conyne, 2004)--which includes factors such as poverty, discrimination, racism, sexism, violence, and bullying--is to ignore significant contributing influences that impact on one's school life, academic performance, and long-term career. We would suggest that it is imperative that school counselors pay close attention to social, political, and economic realities of students and families, with an aim to simultaneously address these as critical elements within the school counselor's role. For school counselors to ignore the impact of inherent power structures that contribute to the achievement gap is to participate in the insidious cycle of low performance and failure for poor students and students of color. To break away from traditions that tenaciously maintain the status quo, it is critical for school counselors to become advocates who challenge old paradigms and power structures.


It is not easy to move from being a well-liked and friendly school counselor to being an advocate. Because the role of the school counselor has been consistent for the past 40 years (Baker, 2001), the expectations for whom the school counselor is and what the school counselor does are well established in school systems. Notably this does not include advocacy. The recent attention regarding a shift in responsibilities and role is more evident in the profession of school counseling but is less prominent in the education field among school administrators and teachers. House and Martin (1998) described the need to change the school counselor's role to include social advocacy that aims to eliminate the obstacles for academic success for all students. We would concur that for effective school counselors to be capable and focused on providing services for all students, an essential aspect of their job must be social advocacy. To not advocate is to uphold social and academic inequity, hence doing an injustice to selected groups of clients and students.

In contrast, to advocate for all students means challenging the system, which has the potential to produce personal and professional difficulties. "Taking on" a system to become an advocate for social equity means assuming a dramatically different position as a school counselor. Resistance and resentment for "rocking the boat" are bound to occur. For example, advocating may require confronting teachers who hold low expectations for students of color or poor students and who consciously or unconsciously discriminate against these student groups by harboring lower academic demands or giving lower grades. Or, advocacy may mean directly challenging administrators who promote policies and practices that are overtly and covertly nonsupportive of all students or talking to peers and administration about instituting school-wide or system-wide policies that promote academic success for all students, not just some students. One potential outcome for this type of activity is that school counselors are viewed as disruptive or as troublemakers. The aim of a school counselor, of course, is not to be seen in that light, but rather as a team player who challenges the team to improve, to not accept historical practices as "given practices," and to fight and advocate for fairness and equity that will benefit all students.

Given that school counselors do not have administrative authority within schools, coupled with their dependency on administrators for their professional livelihood, it is important to have a good working relationship with administrators. The reality for school counselors is that by and large they are hired and evaluated by principals and school administrators. The administrators are their professional lifelines within a school system, deciding on contracts, promotions, and other personnel actions, so that assuming the role of an advocate within schools may create potential difficulties for school counselors. To advocate, to challenge, to confront, and to take a leadership role in moving a school system forward toward social equity is to risk tension and discord with supervisors and peers. In fact, advocacy may create a threat to school settings by challenging the politics, procedures, and structure of the school itself, which may lead to negative repercussions (Lee, 1998). Yet, the goal of equity and social justice for all students is so important that we would strongly encourage that advocacy toward these goals become an integral aspect of the school counselor's role. One important aspect of successful advocacy by school counselors, therefore, is understanding how to sustain good professional relationships while challenging school systems to adopt goals that benefit all students, including those who have been marginalized or discriminated against in the educational system.

Thus it is important to anticipate the personal and professional ramifications of being an advocate rather than simply adopting advocacy as part of one's role without any preparation or advanced consideration. The school counselor who is an advocate must walk a fine line, supporting the causes of inequity, injustice, and unfair practices within a school and advocating for and promoting educational equity, for all students, while keeping his or her job. It is essential for school counselors to have the skills to balance the institutional realities of working within systems where they may have minimal power yet have the ethical and moral responsibility, to advocate for social justice and equity for all students. Critically important is to be aware of the realities that school counselors must face as advocates and introduce strategies to deal with the institutional and individual barriers.


To become more effective as advocates, urban school counselors need to have the skills to manage complex and oftentimes resistant systems. To meet this end, we would propose the necessity of addressing three different levels of training for school counselors. First is pre-service training, graduate-level training for those up-and-coming school counseling professionals. Second is in-service training, for those school counselors already in the field. Third is the provision of supervision with a focus on social equity and advocacy for current school counselors. Each of these levels is discussed below.

Level 1: Pre-Service Training

The first level would assist in the preparation and training of school counselors as advocates. It would be ideal if school counselors were trained during their university education to be advocates for dealing with systemic obstacles to social equity and unsupportive, disinterested, and even hostile administrators. Unfortunately, the preparation and training for school counselors as advocates has been woefully inadequate. Advocacy is markedly absent from most graduate school counseling training curricula, and social change, social reform, and school reform are not typically discussed at all. Internship and practicum placements remain the same as decades ago, with a focus on guidance activities and individual counseling. We would propose that the starting point for future school counselor advocates is university training programs, where the adoption and integration of advocacy into the curricula is imperative. This is essential if we are serious about and committed to eliminating educational unfairness, injustice, and inequalities.

The infusion of advocacy in graduate-level university training programs can be done in one of two ways. First, university programs that have difficulty in adding new courses, securing support by colleagues, or acquiring administrative support to incorporate advocacy or social justice courses into the curricula can add components for advocacy training to already existing classes. For example, an introductory counseling class may incorporate information on the theory and practice of advocacy by counselors; a principles and practices school counseling class can include a section on advocacy and examine how social equity comes into play in various aspects of the job; and a practicum or internship class can include assignments about developing advocacy projects as part of the field experience. If training programs are committed to advocacy as a core aspect of the school counselor's job, it makes sense to include content and skill development along with other basic theories and skills.

A second way to include an advocacy curriculum in a graduate-level university training program is to redefine the mission and rebuild courses around the new mission. This requires greater support from faculty and administration. It may be helpful to introduce one example of this by illustrating the redesign of a graduate program that dramatically changed to include a mission of social justice and advocacy. Three years ago the two authors of this article arrived at George Mason University (GMU). The decision to accept the faculty positions at GMU was largely based on administrative support for the redesign of the entire counselor education program. The outcome was that the Counseling and Development Program at GMU created a new mission statement emphasizing social justice, multiculturalism, advocacy, and leadership.

The GMU program redesigned 90% of the courses to reflect the new mission and now has a course on counseling and social justice that includes the theory and practice of leadership, social change, and advocacy as well as internship classes in leadership and social justice. In addition, aspects of the mission statement were infused into the content of all the classes; the practicum and internship were redesigned to require assignments that include advocacy toward social justice through the development of prevention projects and the evaluation of existing programs using data. The end result is that counselors in training are taught about social justice and advocacy and through the training they gain an understanding about systems as well as the tools to use as advocates and change agents of systems.

Level 2: In-Service Training

A second way to ensure that urban school counselors are advocating for parity for all students is to provide in-service training. Typically, in-service training emphasizes specific issues or information and procedures about changes in the school system. In-service training is a reflection of the defined role of school counselors, and markedly absent from in-service workshops are sessions related to social equity, leadership skills, or advocacy. Emphasizing advocacy for the success of all students inclusive of poor and ethnic students would be a critical area of training to include for school counselors.

One example of this type of training is illustrated by a training conducted by the first author. As one of the principal investigators of a DeWitt Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund National Initiative to Transform School Counseling grant, this author set up an in-service training program for school counselors in Columbus, OH. The training program was an ongoing weekly program that focused on advocacy through the use of skill development, projects, and data. Issues and theories in advocacy, leadership, and social justice were presented and discussed. Skills in these areas were introduced and practiced by the participants. Each school counselor identified an issue particular to their school that focused on improving academic achievement for students of color and poor students. In concert with the instructor, targeted evaluations and interventions were developed. This was done through a case study format that included designing evaluative methods, collecting data, and analyzing the data. School counselors then discussed intervention advocacy strategies or ways to introduce the findings from the evaluations to appropriate parties in their schools and school systems. Through an in-service training of this nature, school counselors learned about advocacy on the job.

Level 3: Supervision

The third level of supporting school counselors to become advocates is through supervision. This involves a person in a supervisory position who includes advocacy as an element of supervision with the school counselor. This position is best assumed by a supervisor within an urban school system who is aligned with the goals for social justice or an outside counselor supervisor or university professor who is attuned to the issues inherent in advocating for the success of urban students. The supervision is different from other supervisory relationships in that it incorporates advocacy as an important aspect of the job.


In order to become advocates, school counselors must change their role. Currently, many school counselors remain rooted in traditional roles that have been existent since the 1960s, focusing on the three "C's"--counseling, consultation, and coordination. In contemporary times this old definition of the school counselor's role has become outdated, and it perpetuates a situation whereby counselors are unable to serve all students as advocates and leaders with a focus on social and educational equity. The present focus continues to be narrow with an emphasis on mental health that frequently neglects academic goals and achievement; individualized concerns and services; record keeping and "clerk work" activities; and little accountability (Bemak, 2000; Erford, House, & Martin, 2003; Martin, 2002). The result of maintaining the current role leaves schools with guidance counselor rather than school counselors, an important distinction that supports the continuation of old practices that are outdated and obsolete in terms of being effective for all students (Bemak).

The call for a new and transformed role places school counselors more in line with educational reform (Bemak, 2000; Erford et al., 2003) by becoming advocates and leaders. To assume these roles, we would recommend the following 13 guidelines for becoming advocates:

1. Define one's role as contributing to academic success for all students. All roles, responsibilities, and tasks should lead toward this goal.

2. Emphasize social and educational equity and equal opportunity for all students. This requires equal and fair treatment, support, and time allocation; an equal distribution of resources; and advocacy for each and every student in one's school.

3. Given the large ratios of students assigned to each counselor, refocus intervention strategies to work with groups of students, parents, and teachers. Individual counseling is not conducive to limited time and assigned student caseloads. The same holds true for individual consultations with teachers and parents on a regular basis. Adjust accordingly, emphasizing the work with groups of students, teachers, and parents, and the larger community, rather than with individuals.

4. Teach students and parents about their rights and provide them with the tools to promote constructive changes for themselves that lead toward social justice, equal opportunities, and parity (Kiselica & Robinson, 2001).

5. Formulate partnerships with students who may lack the requisite skills and knowledge to advocate for themselves (Lee, 1998).

6. Align with parents who may lack the skills and knowledge about how to gain access to existing resources within the school and community. This requires knowledge about organizational systems and schools that may be helpful in promoting positive and healthy change toward educational and academic equity, (Bemak & Cornely, 2002; House & Martin, 1998).

7. Forge partnerships with principals and administrators in schools and school systems who will assist in working toward social change and decreasing the achievement gap for poor and ethnic minority youth.

8. Utilize data to change one's role and incorporate advocacy. It is not enough to approach administrators and suggest that one redefines one's role as an advocate. Rather, gather data and factual information that support the changing role and actually advocate for that change. For example, facilitating a group for children of divorced parents should lead to improved grades, better attendance, reduced tardiness, and fewer disciplinary referrals. Successful data about student changes should be presented to administrators and teachers to further solidify. their support for school counselor interventions.

9. Get training in leadership and advocacy skills. This requires knowledge about organizational change, how school systems work, the politics of change in educational arenas, and leadership skills. School counselors can encourage school counseling district coordinators to build this into the in-service training programs, while students in graduate training programs can advocate within their universities to include advocacy, social change, and leadership in their programs.

10. Join with other school counselors in one's own school and larger school system to compile data that can be presented to school-based administrators and central office administration. The transformation of the role requires advocacy at the system level as well as in one's own school.

11. Volunteer and participate in school reform efforts. Most often school counselors have not been considered or included in broader reform efforts within their schools or school systems. Advocate to become a participant who contributes to these important efforts. An example of this can be seen in Virginia where the School Counseling Leadership Team was formed with university professors and school counseling directors from various districts in Northern Virginia. The team sent letters to the Virginia superintendent of education and the Virginia Board of Education with concerns and recommendations relevant to school counselors throughout the state. A meeting with the president of the Board of Education resulted in a commitment to have school counselors represented on all future statewide education committees.

12. Understand how to promote social action within a sociopolitical context (Bemak & Conyne, 2004; Lee, 1998).

13. Become highly active in collaborating with community agencies that provide other services (Bemak, 1998). Agencies provide additional services such as counseling, social support, and prevention programs that school counselors do not have time for in their hectic days. Having clear and good working relationships with outside resources generates a team approach to meeting the needs of all students and more effectively contributing to their academic success.


We are in a critical time in our history with regards to the plight of impoverished and ethnic students. Data show a marked achievement gap, social inequities, and social, economic, and politically based problems that are associated with race, ethnicity, and poverty. School counselors are in a unique place and pivotal moment to make a difference. In this article we have highlighted the absolute need for school counselors to assume a dramatically different position in their work and to become social change agents and leaders by adopting an advocacy role and working toward social justice. In our opinion, as reflected in this article, the hard facts are a calling to our profession, leaving us little option but to proceed on this path.


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Fred Bemak, Ed.D., is a professor and program coordinator and Rita Chi-Ying Chung, Ph.D., is an associate professor. Both are with the Counseling and Development Program, Graduate School of Education, George Mason University, Fairfax, VA. E-mail:
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Author:Chung, Rita Chi-Ying
Publication:Professional School Counseling
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2005
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