Systematic Evaluation of Professional Performance: Legally Supported Procedure and Process. (Current Issues)

Article excerpt

Counselor educators and supervisors are required to evaluate students' personal behaviors and clinical skills relative to their effect on professionally accepted standards of practice. Sometimes, interrupting the student's studies or even dismissing the student from the counseling program is necessary. However, legal challenges to dismissal that are based on interpersonal or clinical incompetence require sound systematic academic evaluation and adherence to procedural and substantive due process. An examination of professional competency from both counselor education and legal perspectives, an evaluation procedure and process, and a case description in which a student legally challenged a dismissal are presented.

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Educational programs that prepare persons for careers in the helping and human service professions (e.g., counselors, psychologists, social workers) must require that individuals in these programs demonstrate competencies beyond the acquisition of theoretical and factual content. Personal characteristics, clinical skills, adherence to ethical codes, and professional standards of practice are observed and evaluated in didactic and experiential course work, as well as in interpersonal relationships with students, clients, and faculty. Objective evaluation procedures and processes are necessary to communicate both strengths and areas of concern to the student. If there are challenges regarding performance, it is essential for program administrators to have systematically derived documentation of the student's lack of competency.

In this article, we discuss the systematic academic evaluation of counseling competencies that include the personal and professional characteristics of students in counselor education programs. Topics include establishing the importance of the assessment of professional practice skills in counselor education programs, the reluctance of counselor education faculty members to dismiss students, and legal issues related to a student's dismissal for professional performance deficits. We describe the development of the Professional Counseling Performance Evaluation (PCPE) procedure and process for evaluating, communicating, and remediating competency deficits in both counseling skills and personal/professional characteristics and the validation of the competency evaluation procedure and process through a legal challenge to a dismissal. We also present conclusions and describe some of the lessons we learned about the evaluation of professional practice competencies.

Importance of Identifying Professional Performance Deficits

Although counseling programs use admissions criteria to select students who, they believe, will be successful in their programs, it is unrealistic to rely entirely on screening procedures during the admissions process to identify students who do not have the necessary personal characteristics to become competent counselors. Personal qualities of competent counselors include the capacity for empathy, genuineness, acceptance, access to and appropriate sharing of feelings, giving and receiving feedback effectively, honesty, and establishing and maintaining relationships (Aponte, 1994; Kitchener, 1984; Sklare, Thomas, Williams, & Powers, 1996). Individuals who apply to counseling programs may have issues or characteristics that are not readily identifiable through admissions procedures, but these can be issues, such as biases, lack of impulse control, or information-processing deficits, that may impair the ability to practice effectively.

A review of the counseling literature indicates that approximately 3% of students are identified by faculty as "problem students" (Olkin & Gaughen, 1991). Olkin and Gaughen conducted a study of 100 randomly selected clinically oriented master's programs in mental health. The programs that were surveyed included clinical and counseling psychology; counseling; counselor education; community psychology; and marriage, family, and child programs. …