School Counselors Do More Than You'd Think

Adding just one counselor to a school has an enormous impact on discipline and test scores, according to a new study.
(Photo: construct/Flickr)

(Photo: construct/Flickr)

Hiring just one additional school counselor in an average American school could have about a third of the effect of recruiting all the school’s teachers from a pool of candidates in the top 15 percent of their profession, according to a new analysis. That’s also about the effect you’d expect from lowering class sizes by adding two teachers to a school of around 500—either way, not too shabby.

School counselors do a lot more than help kids figure out what classes to take. Their primary role, in fact, is to help students work through behavioral problems, mental health concerns, and other issues that might hamper kids' success in school and in life. But despite considerable recent attention to factors that might improve education in underperforming schools, researchers have largely ignored how much of an impact counselors have on academic performance.

An increase of one standard deviation in teacher quality is thought to result in an improvement of about one-tenth of a standard deviation in test scores.

Economists Scott Carrell and Mark Hoekstra took a stab at figuring out that impact by studying third, fourth, and fifth graders at 22 elementary schools in and around Gainesville, Florida, which happens to be the home of the University of Florida’s Department of Counselor Education. As part of their training, graduate student counselors intern in the area, providing extra support to the lone staff counselor in schools where they’re placed. In addition to that data, Carrell and Hoekstra knew students’ percentile ranks on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills and the Stanford 9 test, both standard measures of academic progress, as well as students’ disciplinary records—most everything they needed to see what a counselor could do for a school’s academic performance.

Surprisingly, just one extra counselor can do quite a lot. After controlling for factors including school size, the proportion of students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch, and median family income in the neighborhood—all shown to be correlated with academic achievement—Carrell and Hoekstra estimated that each additional counselor intern in a school reduced the number of reports of disruptive behavior by 20 percent for boys and 29 percent for girls. Test scores also rose by a little less than one percentile point—a little more for boys, and a little less for girls.

That little one percentile point is something to write home about, too. Education researchers usually report their results in terms of the standard deviation, or the amount of variation, in student test scores or teacher quality, which is typically measured in terms of teachers’ students’ test scores. For instance, an increase of one standard deviation in teacher quality is thought to result in an improvement of about one-tenth of a standard deviation in test scores—about two and a half percentile points in Carrell and Hoekstra’s study.

Put it all together, and that means it would take a massive, widespread improvement in teacher quality to improve test scores more than a single additional counselor would, or, as the authors write in Economics Letters, “this suggests that hiring counselors may be an effective alternative to other education policies aimed at increasing academic achievement.”