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Students' Self-direction and Autonomy: Educating vs. Directing
Carolyn Stone, Ed.D.
Saturday January 01, 2005
by: Carolyn Stone, Ed.D.

Section: Inside Insight

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You are a high school counselor in an urban school with a diverse student population. One of your seniors, Sidney Ferguson, comes to you and requests your help with her application to Harvard. Sidney has an 86.6 average, is on the yearbook staff, has spent two years on the track team and is enrolled in four advanced placement classes. Sidney says, “I know Harvard may not be a sure thing, but I have to try.” Your frustration rises as once again you are forced to look a student in the eye and explain that it is the practice and policy of the school’s administration that only the top five students in each graduating class can apply to an Ivy League school. How do your profession’s ethical codes support you to advocate for a change of policy?

The New York Times article, "Amid Policy Confusion, Senior is Allowed to Apply to Harvard" (Oct. 18, 2004) describes the all-too-real case of Kimberly Cummins, a senior in a Brooklyn public school. Kimberly, who ranked 11 out of 400 seniors in her class, had a solid academic and extracurricular activity record. Kimberly sought help for her Harvard application only to be told she could not apply as the officials of her high school only allowed the top five students to seek an Ivy League education. Shocked, Kimberly’s older sister rallied her fellow NYU law-school students, and together they raised the issue with school/government officials and advocacy groups. Kimberly was allowed to apply, but what about the other “Kimberlys” who have dreams deferred but no savvy advocates to help them? 

Self-awareness, autonomy and independence are watchwords for school counselors who value their role in helping students move toward functioning, self-directed adults. We work with students to help them see the potential of their lives and gently push them toward being informed, solid decision-makers. It is infinitely easier to mete out advice and to just “tell” students what they need to do in personal/social, career and academic issues. However, our professional ethics tell us to eschew the easy way and to help students make informed choices while being careful to promote their dreams.

The just-retired principal of Kimberly’s school said that it is school officials’ obligation to discourage students from applying to colleges out of their reach. This gatekeeper behavior is often pinned on school counselors, sometimes rightly so, sometimes not. We’ve all heard stories of wildly successful adults who were, at one time, told by a school counselor that they weren’t college material. In today’s schools, this type of counselor is the exception, not the rule; our profession bristles at the idea of shifting and sorting students, relegating some to narrow options.

This New York Times article came just a few months after the ASCA membership overwhelmingly declared at the June 2004 Delegate Assembly that it is our ethical imperative to provide all students with equity of service. The ethical codes were revised to add equity standards that say we will survey the school landscape for practices and policies that adversely stratify students’ opportunities and we will responsibly tackle those policies to make change to benefit students. The following codes are just a sampling of our resolve to speak to the ethical imperative of equity:

The professional school counselor advocates for counseling plans supporting students’ right to choose from the wide array of options when they leave secondary education. Such plans will be regularly reviewed to update students regarding critical information they need to make informed decisions (A.3. b.).

Each person has the right to receive the information and support needed to move toward self-direction and self-development and affirmation within one’s group identities, with special care, with special care being given to students who have historically not received adequate educational services: students of color, low socio-economic students, students with disabilities and students with nondominant language backgrounds (Preamble).

Each person has the right to understand the full magnitude and meaning of his/her educational choices and how those choices will affect future opportunities (Preamble).

The professional school counselor is concerned with the educational, academic, career, personal and social needs and encourages the maximum development of every student (A.1.b).

The professional school counselor provides students with a comprehensive school counseling program that includes a strong emphasis on working jointly with all students to develop academic and career goals (A.3.a).

The professional school counselor assesses the effectiveness of his/her program in having an impact on students’ academic, career and personal/social development through accountability measures especially examining efforts to close achievement, opportunity and attainment gaps (A.9.g).

Each person has the right to be respected, be treated with dignity and have access to a comprehensive school counseling program that advocates for and affirms all students from diverse populations regardless of ethical/racial status, age, economic status, special needs, English as a second language or other language group, immigration status, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity/expression, family type, religious/spiritual identity and appearance (Preamble).

Supporting Dreams
School counselors at all levels, behaving as advocates, systemic change agents and career and academic advisors, help students dream from the time they are in elementary school and assist them in understanding what they need to do to in school to fulfill their dreams. Basic to self-direction and autonomy is students’ right to understand the full weight and meaning of their decisions, the interrelatedness between what they do in school and their future economic opportunities and to be supported to do the program of study and to have the safety nets to be able to fulfill their dreams. Providing educational and career planning from elementary school to graduation will present students with quality post-secondary opportunities and help close the information gap.

Productive adults come to self-awareness and self-understanding not by smooth roads but by trial and error. Perhaps Sidney will suffer the disappointment of not being accepted to Harvard.  A bigger travesty would be if Kimberly would not risk rejection, unthinkable would be if school officials who are in the business of promoting student’s self-direction and autonomy told her she had to always take the road of least resistance.

Carolyn Stone, Ed.D., is an associate professor and school counseling program leader, University of North Florida, and chair of ASCA’s Ethics Committee. She can be reached at cstone@unf.edu. This article is adapted from “Negotiating the Legal and Ethical Landscape of Working with K-12 Students,” The College Board, National Office of School Counselor Advocacy, Legal and Ethical Module, 2004.