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What the Research Says (or Doesn’t Say): The Importance of School Counselors

Full-service community schools typically provide on-site, comprehensive academic, social, mental, physical, and vocational programs and services to both children and families. Such schools often extend their hours beyond the school day and make the school building a communitywide resource. School counselors often play a central role in such comprehensive programs, but even in schools that are not as comprehensive, a growing research base supports the importance of counselors in several critical areas, including supporting students in the transition from middle to high school and preparing high school students for postsecondary and career opportunities. Even in today’s climate of budget cuts, schools are retaining counselors using American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds. For example, a YouTube video created by the U.S. Department of Education illustrates how a North Carolina school district saved 58 school counselor positions using Recovery Act funds.

In this installment of What the Research Says (or Doesn’t Say) we present a small sampling of the research reports and practice guides that highlight how effective counselors—functioning as part of a school team—can help schools stay focused on student competencies in academics, personal/social development, and the preparation for college and careers. Several of these studies also look at how working conditions and job responsibilities affect counselors’ ability to help students. Because practitioners value promising practices from other educators, we have included a report that surveys effective principal-counselor relationships in schools around the country.

Bangser, M. (2008). Preparing high school students for successful transitions to postsecondary education and employment [Issue brief]. Washington, DC: American Institutes for Research, National High School Center. Retrieved from http://www.betterhighschools.com/docs/PreparingHSStudentsforTransition_073108.pdf

This issue brief reviews selected policies and programs designed to improve students’ preparation for life after high school. An important part of this preparation is “early and ongoing counseling for students and their families,” especially for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Counselors can help instill a college-going culture for incoming ninth-graders, which “is enhanced if counselors have reasonable case loads, are held accountable for college enrollment, and receive specific training in college counseling.” Counselors should be trained to identify postsecondary opportunities that offer appropriate support and accommodations for students with disabilities, and to find opportunities for workplace readiness, such as internships, career days, and job shadowing, as well as advisory and/or mentoring opportunities.

Dounay, J. (2008). Counseling [Special issue]. Progress of Educational Reform, 9(3). Denver, CO: Education Commission of the States. Retrieved from http://www.ecs.org/clearinghouse/78/25/7825.pdf

This special issue summarizes five research studies related to the variation of college counseling access across high schools; the impact of schools, districts, postsecondary institutions, and states on the availability and type of college counseling; the type of information underserved students need for postsecondary success; and the varying types of guidance students receive depending on their academic pathways or backgrounds.

Lapan, R., & Harrington, K. (2008). Paving the road to college: How school counselors help students succeed. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Center for School Counseling Outcome Research. Retrieved from http://www.umass.edu/schoolcounseling/PDFs/TheChicagoReport.pdf

This study examines the benefits to Chicago Public Schools students when schools implemented key components of a comprehensive school counseling model. In lower performing schools and in schools with a higher percentage of students receiving free and reduced-priced lunch, the counselors were “inundated” with nonguidance tasks and less likely to provide comprehensive educational, career planning, and counseling services. Counselors in higher performing schools, on the other hand, were less likely to have nonguidance tasks and more likely to provide career- and college-planning services. In these high-performing schools, counselors developed personal relationships with their students and families, promoted a college-going climate by helping to plan coursework for postsecondary preparation, organized advisory support periods for each ninth-grader, and had face-to-face meetings with students and their parents. The report recommends that all high schools implement comprehensive counseling programs, reduce counselors’ nonguidance tasks, have counselors establish working alliances with eighth-graders to help with the transition to high school, and hold counselors accountable for carrying out components of the program.

McGannon, W., Carey, J., & Dimmitt, C. (2005). The current status of school counseling outcome research (Research Monograph No. 2). Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Center for School Counseling Outcome Research. Retrieved from http://www.umass.edu/schoolcounseling/PDFs/OutcomeStudyMonograph.pdf

This is a comprehensive review of issues in school counseling outcome research. It includes a summary of comprehensive school counseling program evaluations and a review of the literature on research in this area. It also discusses the lack of high-quality research on counseling outcomes.

Sink, C.A., Akos, P., Turnbull R.J., & Mvududu, N. (2008). An investigation of comprehensive school counseling programs and academic achievement in Washington state middle schools. Professional School Counseling, 12(1), 43–53. [This article is available in hard copy upon request to the Reference Desk]

This study compared Washington state middle schools with comprehensive school counseling programs (CSCP) to schools without such programs and found, as with previous studies, that although the “mere introduction” of a comprehensive counseling program doesn’t result in greater student achievement, the “longevity, integrity and quality of CSCP implementation are critical to fostering a learning environment that is conducive to improved student learning.”

Tierney, W.G., Bailey, T., Constantine, J., Finkelstein, N., & Hurd, N.F. (2009). Helping students navigate the path to college: What high schools can do (IES Practice Guide, NCEE 2009-4066). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance. Retrieved from http://ies.ed.gov/ncee/wwc/pdf/practiceguides/higher_ed_pg_091509.pdf

This What Works Clearinghouse Practice Guide recommends that teachers, counselors, and administrators “offer hands-on assistance and guidance” to prepare students for college. Although the practice guide stresses the important role counselors can play in all recommendations, it specifically suggests that for students to be prepared for college-level work by the ninth grade, counselors should work with individual ninth-grade students to “develop a four-year course trajectory … that leads to fulfilling a college-ready curriculum.” Other important roles identified in the practice guide include assisting students in the completion of college application forms and helping them find appropriate financial aid opportunities.

Hale, J. (2009). Finding a way: Practical examples of how an effective principal-counselor relationship can lead to success for all students. New York, NY: College Board, National Office for School Counselor Advocacy, Alexandria, VA: American School Counselor Association, & Reston, VA: National Association of Secondary School Principals. Retrieved from http://professionals.collegeboard.com/profdownload/finding-a-way.pdf

The College Board conducted a survey of principals and counselors across the nation, focusing on principal-counselor relationships. From this survey, 10 characteristics of effective relationships emerged and were grouped into three broad areas: mutual trust and respect, principal-counselor communication, and shared vision and decision making. The report profiles seven principal-counselor teams that had either received national recognition or had proven effective in creating a college-going culture. The report includes a “self-assessment tool” based on the 10 characteristics.

For additional research on school counselors, the Center for School Counseling Outcome Research provides the latest research on this topic. For more information about this article or to make research inquiries, please contact Jennifer Klump at Education Northwest’s Reference Desk, info@educationnorthest.org or 503.275.0454.