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Anne O’Brien is Deputy Director for Learning First Alliance. She previously worked for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Southeast Louisiana, where she managed first school-based mentoring and then...
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Strengthening College and Career Readiness: New Evidence on the Impact of School Counselors

There is precious little research demonstrating the value of school counselors on student achievement~ with good reason it is difficult to demonstrate the impact of counselors on standardized test scores~ which have come to define achievement in recent years. But as a result~ when it comes to making tough budget decisions~ school counselors are not a priority. And that has real consequences for children. As Mindy Willard~ an Arizona school counselor named the American School Counselor Associations (ASCA) 2013 School Counselor of the Year~ pointed out in a recent interview:

[T]he biggest challenge school counselors are faced with right now~ on all levels~ are our ratios. Currently~ Arizona is 49th in the nation for counselor to student ratios with a ratio of 1 counselor to 861 students; ASCA recommends a ratio of 1:250! With numbers like this it is virtually impossible for school counselors to meet all of the personal/social~ academic and career developmental needs of all the students on their caseloads.

But as we turn to new measures of school quality including production of college and career ready students there is new space for advocates to research and promote the benefits of school counselors. And an ongoing longitudinal study in Massachusetts can help.

At the ASCAs (ASCA) annual conference earlier this summer~ Rich Lapan (from the University of Massachusetts Amherst) and Tim Poynton (Suffolk University) discussed research that their institutions were undertaking in partnership with the Massachusetts School Counselor Association. Designed to facilitate both program evaluation at the school level and research and advocacy at the state level around the role of school counselors in college and career readiness~ their study provides a detailed look at the school counseling programs at 17 high schools~ ranging widely in setting (urban~ suburban and rural)~ demographics and performance.

While they still have to complete the longitudinal phase of their study~ they have collected the first round of data they have surveyed current 12th graders and school staff. And what they have learned so far provides some interesting food for thought both for participating schools (the researchers provided a individual report to each) and for the school counseling profession as a whole.

A number of key findings have emerged that can help school counseling advocates promote their cause. The research shows that when students receive more frequent and helpful College and Career Counseling Services~ they:

Are more motivated to do well in school
Are more connected to their school
Get along better with others
See their school as being a more civil and safe space to be

These findings are particularly meaningful because they show that school counseling~ in addition to helping students prepare for college and career~ can serve as a key aspect of the school improvement process student motivation~ student connectedness and school climate have long been identified as important factors in student achievement.

The study also brought to light concerning equity issues around guidance programs~ finding that school counselors in lower income schools do less individual planning and carry out more non-guidance tasks than their colleagues in higher income schools. This finding is especially distressing given that lower income students are likely to benefit more than their higher income peers from receiving individualized attention~ particularly as regards to college and career readiness.

In addition~ the research has identified areas that school counselors can target to strengthen their efforts to prepare students for life beyond high school. For example:

As late as April and May of their senior year of high school~ there is a lack of knowledge among students about how they will pay for college
There are substantial gender and socioeconomic differences evident in choosing STEM majors
Parents and friends are key sources of support for postsecondary transition planning that need to be fully utilized
On average~ students dont see college and career readiness counseling services as being as frequent or helpful as do their counselors and principals in terms of social and emotional development~ financial planning~ college and career planning and scheduling.

Taken as a whole~ these findings have a number of implications for both policy and practice. The key takeaway: School counselors have an impact on both individual students and the school as a whole. As we continue efforts to improve education~ we would do well to remember that.

This content originally appeared by Anne O'Brien on Learning First Alliance's blog and is posted here with permission.