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Action research and school counseling: closing the gap between research and practice.

Action research can be a valuable resource for strengthening the link between theory and practice in school counseling. Action research emphasizes practitioner action for change in conjunction with rigorous reflection on practice and careful gathering and analysis of data. This article presents background information on action research as well as the case for the relevance of action research to the situation that school counseling now faces as an emerging profession.


Action research is emerging as a potentially significant perspective within school counseling. From a colorful and at times controversial past, action research has evolved both as a method of inquiry and as a means to mobilize and guide communities, classrooms, and professionals in taking action to improve social conditions and conditions of practice. In school counseling, initial references to action research go back 25 years (e.g., Pine, 1981). Pine called for a "renaissance of the field-based research that characterized the progressive era in education" (p. 496). Although Pine's opinion piece outlined a comprehensive approach to rethinking the relationship between research and practice in school counseling, one cannot find reference to major initiatives adopting an action research orientation for school counseling in response to his proposed model. Nevertheless, action research has continued to receive some attention in the school counseling literature (Gillies, 1993; Ponte, 1995; Rowell, 2005; Whiston, 1996; Zinck & Littrell, 2000). For example, Whiston argued that counselors need to develop an awareness that "practice and research are not two mutually exclusive activities" (p. 616), and she advocated action research as a way to bridge the gap between counseling practice and research.

In a recent article, I asserted that collaborative action research holds great promise for helping school counselors adjust to the accountability environment in public education and for strengthening counselors in their efforts to advocate for further professionalization within their ranks (Rowell, 2005). In general, however, action research continues to be discussed more often as a tool for teachers (e.g., Arhar, Holly, & Kasten, 2000; Johnson, 2005; Sagor, 1992), with the tradition of using action research for improving classroom practice now able to claim more than 50 years (Smith, 2001). No evidence of such a tradition taking root in school counseling can be found.

However, growing recognition of the importance of outcome data in school counseling (Whiston, 2002; Whiston & Sexton, 1998) coupled with increasing pressure for accountability in counseling interventions and programs (e.g., Dahir & Stone, 2003; Fairchild & Seeley, 1995; Isaacs, 2003) have led to an increase in critical reflection on the relationship between research and practice in school counseling (e.g., Bauman, 2004; Brown & Trusty, 2005) and the state of school counselor training (e.g., Astramovich, Coker, & Hoskins, 2005; Bauman; Hart & Jacobi, 1992; Rowell, 2005), as well as to an intensified search for stronger collaboration between university researchers and practitioners in the field (e.g., Rowell; Thomas, 2005). At the national level, the American School Counselor Association (ASCA) convened research summits in 2003 and 2004 to explore these issues, and states are now following suit with state school counseling research summits (Arizona School Counselors Association, 2004; Center for Student Support Systems, 2005).

The purpose of this article is to discuss the position of action research on the pallet of methods available for conducting research in school counseling. Background is provided on action research as a form of inquiry and as a tool for social change, with a particular emphasis on change efforts in school counseling. The article recognizes traditions of action research and describes the practical implications of school counselors as action researchers and as "practitioner partners" (Rowell, 2005, p. 39) in collaborative action research with counselor educators and graduate students in counseling. It ends with a discussion of why action research is particularly important in the effort to strengthen the profession of school counseling.


Action research emerged as a challenge to traditional methods of scientific inquiry. Kurt Lewin (1890-1946) first gave voice to this challenge in the context of post-World War II social change in America, but the stirrings of dissatisfaction with the limits of research models borrowed from the physical sciences and applied to human science have roots much deeper than that (Polkinghorne, 1983). Lewin is acknowledged as the founder of action research (Anderson, Herr, & Nihlen, 1994; Smith, 2001), and although his contributions to our understanding were limited due to his relatively short life (he died at 56), his influence continues to be felt. For example, in counseling, the introduction to a 1981 special issue of The Personnel & Guidance Journal on bridging the gap between research and practice begins with a quote from Lewin: "No research without action. No action without research" (cited by Minor, 1981, p. 485).

According to Kolb (1984), the consistent theme in all Lewin's work was his commitment to the integration of theory and practice. This was perhaps best captured in his most widely recognized quote, "There is nothing so practical as a good theory" (Lewin, 1951, p. 169). Of course, "theory" to Lewin was not something to be kept at a safe distance from community life and practices in education and other domains. As he saw it, "research that produces nothing but books will not suffice" (Lewin, 1946, reproduced in Lewin, 1948, pp. 202-203). Research was to inform practice in a close-up and necessarily flexible and continuously evolving way (see Figure 1).


Reason (1994) described the two primary objectives of participatory action research as the production of "knowledge and action directly useful to a community" (p. 48) and empowerment through "consciousness-raising" (p. 48). Although sometimes criticized because its findings are localized, its data are sometimes thought to be suspect (i.e., action research practitioners often are not highly trained researchers), and it is identified with the political activism of the 1960s (Stringer, 1999), action research has continued to be seen as an important tool in community-based organizing and in community development efforts based on participatory designs (e.g., McTaggart, 1996, 1997; Wilkinson, 1996). In education, a fairly strong tradition of action research linked both to education change and to professional development has emerged, with British educators taking a good part of the lead in reinvigorating the notion of teacher as researcher (e.g., Atweh, Kemmis, &Weeks, 1998; Elliott, 1991).

As an orientation toward inquiry and the human capacity to take action to make changes, action research is by nature collaborative, realistic, and empowering. The use of action research in school counseling can help build community among practitioners and contribute to ending the isolation many practitioners feel (Rowell, 2005), and it can help counselors adopt a continuous improvement orientation that keeps their practices fresh and reinforces a deep commitment to high standards of professionalism. In the sections that follow, I examine these issues more specifically and indicate how collaborative action research in particular holds promise for school counseling.


Operational Research

In blending traditional scientific inquiry, with its value of careful observation and accurate reporting, and the need for reflective practice by educators "in the trenches" (Holly, Arhar, & Kasten, 2005), action research in school counseling reminds us of other times in which extraordinary circumstances altered the boundaries between inquiry and action. Operational research, defined by a British physicist as "thinking scientifically about operations" (cited in Wright, 1968, p. 246), became a key part of Allied strategy in World War II. The extraordinary circumstances faced by school counseling also suggest that a more efficient approach to research based on a shorter gestation period between critical research findings and the application of new knowledge is needed. Operational research in school counseling would require researchers to work more closely with practitioners in the field. It would lead to the immediate application of findings to strengthen practice and to increased dialogue among practitioners and researchers regarding results of changes implemented and areas for further follow-up.

In the post-Columbine environment of late-20th-century American education, it was easy to find headlines stressing "more counselors needed in schools" (National School Boards Association, 1999, p. 5). This was quite a change from the anxious moments of the late 1980s through the mid-'90s when some asked, "Is it possible for counselors to remain an integral part of the educational system, or are they, like the rain forest, disappearing forever?" (Anderson & Reiter, 1995, p. 268). Even when temporary gains have appeared, however, school counseling has continued to face marginalization, if not outright elimination, both from budget cuts and from increased pressure for higher academic standards, for more than two decades.

Following publication of A Nation at Risk in 1983, more than 30 other major reports and examinations of public education in America were released over a 10-year span, all decrying the poor state of American education and proclaiming the need for urgent action to better prepare America's students (Pulliam & Van Patten, 1995). Throughout the 1980s and 1990s and now into the first decade of the new century, education has been a top national priority. Improved classroom instruction and school management have been the focus of attention in school reform efforts, and programs and services addressing barriers to learning and promoting healthy development for all students have continued to be seen both as supplementary items and as interference with activities directly related to instruction in reformed schools (Center for Mental Health in Schools, 1999; Emery & Ohanian, 2004). The call for higher standards, accountability, and strengthened competencies in education has put enormous pressure on educators, including teachers, counselors, and school administrators, to change practices and adopt a data-driven orientation. (See Emery & Ohanian for a scathing critique of the entire school reform agenda. For other macro-view discussions of the school reform agenda, see, e.g., Gross, 1999; Lieberman, 1993; Ouchi, 2003; Schrag, 2003.)

In response to these pressures, school counseling has sought to align itself with the larger school reform effort by adopting national standards (Campbell & Dahir, 1997) and by developing a new model for school counseling programs (ASCA, 2005) that emphasizes data and accountability. Campbell and Dahir, for example, explicitly linked the national standards to "the current educational reform agenda that focuses on raising expectations for teaching and learning" (p. 1).

Although the strategic alignment of new directions in school counseling with the larger school reform makes a good deal of sense as a response to the current political climate of education, school counselors need to be careful that they are not, as Brown and Trusty (2005) cautioned, "promising more than they can deliver" (p. 1). As Whiston (2002) has framed the current situation, without strong evidence that school counseling programs "produce positive results for children" (p. 153), the profession of school counseling is at risk. Yet, as Brown and Trusty indicated, the diversity of components in fully implemented school counseling programs confounds attempts to show that such programs "are responsible for specific outcomes" (p. 2). Instead, the kind of positive results that counselors need to produce may be limited to "strategic interventions aimed at increasing academic achievement" (Brown & Trusty, p. 1). Yet, from another perspective, perhaps the larger problem is the insistence on limiting the notion of positive results to academic achievement interventions.

What the issues above suggest is a need both for increased attention to research and for fuller discussion of school reform issues within counseling communities of practice. Action research, and collaborative action research in particular, holds promise for addressing these needs. Given the overall circumstances of school and school counseling reform, addressing the divide between practice and research needs to be assigned a much higher priority. The totality of the pressures within education and school counseling suggests that we simply do not have the luxury of long gestation periods between critical research findings and the application of new knowledge. This is not only true in relationship to the issue of the efficacy of counseling interventions but also holds true regarding the need for better linkages between university researchers looking at large-scale educational and social policy issues and practitioners in the field struggling for the survival of counseling positions in school sites and school districts.

As Whiston (1996) suggested a decade ago, action research can help generate an awareness that "practice and research are not two mutually exclusive activities" (p. 616), and given the difficult situation that counseling is in, this awareness needs to be brought to the forefront urgently. Action research as a form of operational research may be an excellent fit for addressing the need for economy of effort and for increasing the dialogue between those in the field engaged in operations and those in universities, research centers, and think tanks engaged in theory building, program design, and program evaluation.

Building a Profession

Action research addresses a second, and closely related, dimension of the current situation facing school counseling, that is, the effort to further develop the profession. As Heppner, Kivlighan, and Wampold (1992) asserted, "To be credible, reliable and effective, a profession must be built on dependable facts or truths" (p. 5). Here we find the link between a solid research base and the knowledge claims of a profession. In this context, scientific thinking plays a crucial role in the counseling profession, and without the application of good scientific thinking, the profession suffers.

The seriousness of the school counseling profession's deficiencies in this regard cannot be overemphasized. Fundamentally, as previously mentioned, the profession lacks substantial research demonstrating the positive results of school counseling interventions, and this condition places the entire profession at risk (Whiston, 2002). The situation is made even more difficult by the relatively low level of practitioner concern about the lack of research. Bauman (2004) recently concurred with Loesch's (1988) earlier conclusion that research has not been "valued, emphasized, or endorsed as an important role function for school counselors" (p. 170). Sexton's (1996) and Whiston and Sexton's (1998) findings also indicated that little had changed to counter Loesch's conclusion that school counseling would continue to have a difficult time gaining recognition and respect among professions as long as it lacked a base of empirical research.

Action research holds promise for increasing the quantity of school counseling research, for generating increased awareness that "practice and research are not two mutually exclusive activities" (Whiston, 1996, p. 616), and for promoting a more critical awareness of the relationship among knowledge claims, expertise, and empowerment of practitioners. As we have seen, in a very practical vein, increasing the base of empirical research in school counseling is vital if school counselors truly wish to be recognized and respected as professionals. However, other aspects of the standing of school counseling as a profession also indicate the value of action research. Let us consider these points a bit more in relationship to the challenges faced by school counseling.

Ultimately, as indicated above, building a profession involves much more than establishing a foundation of empirical evidence in relationship to the practice of the profession. As Stipek (2005) put it, "When evidence, however rigorous, is pitted against politics, politics always wins" (p. 44). This statement points to the place of politics within professions, in the relations among professions, and in the conflicts among the social domains of professions, government, and business/industry. In this context, school counseling reform represents a political contest between a profession concerned about its marginalization and other organizational actors. According to Laumann and Knoke (1987), organizational actors, rather than individual actors, possess the resources needed to reshape modern institutions. Professional associations such as ASCA represent organizational actors playing crucial roles in the political contests to shape institutions such as education. Overall, it seems clear that the school counseling field has both benefited from and contributed to "the united effort called professionalization" (Sweeney, 1995, p. 117). It also should be clear that the process of professionalization is only partially defined by the development of a research base.

Building a profession is a complex historical, political, economic, and sociological phenomenon, and action research shows promise for helping to establish an intellectual and political environment within which issues associated with a profession's development can be discussed, debated, reflected on, and resolved through action. Ironically, perhaps, the lack of research in school counseling may prove to be a benefit to the establishment of traditions for combining thought and action and for orienting the profession of counseling toward a vision of empowering individuals and communities. As Greenwood (2004) indicated, to the extent that conventional social science methodologies dominate a field and the higher education settings that support research in this field, action research is marginalized. In that regard, the lack of research in school counseling opens up a social space, so to speak, in which action research can take root and action researchers--university faculty and practitioner partners--can work together in the center of the page, rather than in the margins.

Here also, there is promise for creating a different intersection between dependable facts and truths and the development of the structures and politics of a profession. This potential of action research shows itself in the need for a broader discussion of purpose and mission in school counseling, as these relate to, and perhaps stand in conflict with, counseling's emergence as a fully dimensioned profession. As McKnight (1995) discussed, a chief contradiction to be faced in the proliferation of modern professionalism and the reshaping of institutions related to education and social services is the effect of increasing specialization in human services on the community-building capacity of ordinary citizens. In McKnight's view,
 Human service professionals with special
 expertise, techniques, and technology push
 out the problem-solving knowledge and
 action of friend, neighbor, citizen, and association.
 As the power of profession and service
 system ascends, the legitimacy, authority, and
 capacity of citizens and community descend.
 (p. 105)

McKnight's critique raises the question of whether school counseling can be a profession while also validating and honoring the capacity of students, parents, and communities to find creative solutions to problems of personal and social functioning.

In seeking an answer to this question, the school counseling profession may need to rethink its ties to the progressive reform heritage out of which it emerged nearly a century ago (Gladding, 1988; Stone, 1986). As Gladding described, counseling "developed out of a humanitarian concern to improve the lives of those adversely affected by the Industrial Revolution of the mid to late 1800s" (p. 5), and "most of the pioneers in the early guidance movement ... were social reformers" (p. 9). As a relatively young profession, counseling may be at an important crossroads in its development, and action research may be a more helpful orientation than traditional research orientations at this junction. Action research, particularly the combining of knowledge production and action useful to communities (Reason, 1994), provides a frame of reference that links social reform with scientific fact-finding. With its attention to combining practice and reflection, furthermore, action research holds promise for raising consciousness about issues of empowerment and solidarity among practitioners and researchers. It strikes me that this combination is essential in navigating the intellectual, ethical, theoretical, and philosophical issues that mark the crossroad we face.

Ultimately, all counseling research passes through the crucible of politics. By politics I am simply referring to individual and organized actions affecting the distribution of power within various social systems. From a practice as well as research perspective, all new models, programs, and techniques in school counseling are either brought into practice or assigned to institutional backburners by the political decisions of legislatures, governors, licensing boards, school boards, superintendents, principals, and others. Whether at the state, district, or school site level, we ignore these politics at great risk to both practice and to the profession as a whole. Action research recognizes the relationship between knowledge and power and opens up possibilities for linking new knowledge with concrete changes in practice that are realizable and beneficial within the context of particular schools in particular communities. Collaborative action research brings people together in the service of change, and it can be both an informative as well as empowering experience. Helping skills are indeed an honorable set of tools for use in all aspects of human relations. But such skills simply do not exist in a vacuum. Collaborative action research takes note of the particular conditions that impact a school counselor's practice and provides a social space within which those collaborating to strengthen practice can reflect, plan, and take action to change conditions.

The Action Orientation

Action research is a form of applied research tied to the efforts of practitioners to improve their practice (Sagor, 1992). In education, this form of research utilizes the scientific method of fact-finding, yet its distinguishing characteristic is the linkage of grassroots activity with educational improvement (Gillies, 1993).

In some frameworks for research methodologies (e.g. Mertens, 1998; Robson, 2002), action research is included as part of an emancipatory research paradigm. This paradigm focuses on groups marginalized in society, the analysis of power inequities, linking analysis of power inequities with social action for greater equality, and the use of critical consciousness regarding oppression to frame research (Mertens). Here, action research again shows its connection to the heritage of progressivism. The reform ideology, of the progressive era was broad in scope, with reformers active in education, children's rights, treatment of the mentally ill, women's rights, workplace safety and workers' rights, food inspection, electoral reform, and challenges to the growth of monopoly capital (Zinn, 1980). To the extent that action research flows from an emancipatory research paradigm, it represents continuity with the spirit of reform rooted in the progressive era. Lewin's (1946) addition to that reform spirit was that reforms need to be based on careful investigation of the existing situation and ongoing reflection on the impact of reforms put in place, so that other reforms can be made as needed.

In a further differentiated perspective on action research, Reason and Torbert (2001) discussed the importance of "skills and methods [that] address the ability of the researcher to foster an inquiring approach to his or her own life, to act awarely and choicefully, and to assess effects in the outside world while acting" (p. 17). This statement points to the kind of personal orientation and preparation needed to conduct action research. It clearly positions the action researcher as someone with intent to influence or change something, as differentiated from someone who wishes to describe, understand, and explain a phenomenon (Robson, 2002).

As Holly et al. (2005) put it, "what gives action research the power for cultural transformation is the structure that keeps the conversation in existence" (p. 14). This remark references the action research cycle previously mentioned in that initial thoughts about change are followed by concrete actions to make change, which then are followed by further observation and analysis of what has taken place to prepare for the next action steps, and so on. In other words, what sustains the action orientation in action research is the structure of action-reflection-action. Conversely, what makes the action effective in the long run is the insistence on careful collection and analysis of data regarding the impact of the action. If the data indicate that the action taken has not resulted in the desired outcome, new action is planned and taken. The research element sustains, so to speak, the action element, and vice versa. This formulation also points to the centrality of collaboration in the process. Keeping the conversation going cannot be accomplished by a solitary researcher submitting his or her manuscripts for publication. Again, as Lewin (1946) put it, "research that produces nothing but books will not suffice" (Lewin, 1946, reproduced in Lewin, 1948, pp. 202-203). As previously indicated, "No research without action, No action without research" (Lewin, as cited by Minor, 1981, p. 485).

These descriptions raise the question of how action researchers in school counseling might position themselves in relationship to the current situation the profession finds itself in. The dominant school reform scenario today is perhaps not as gruesome a scenario as Zinn's (1980) description of the treatment of indigenous people on the island of Haiti by Columbus, but it has its parallels. In one Haitian province, the Spanish conquerors were convinced that vast amounts of gold could be found and everyone 14 or older was ordered "to collect a certain quantity of gold every three months. When they brought it, they were given copper tokens to hang around their necks. Indians found without a copper token had their hands cut off and bled to death" (Zinn, p. 4). I find myself wondering more and more if too close of an alignment with the dominant agenda of contemporary school reform threatens to identify counselors with an emerging corporate-oriented education system that, when it comes to the poor and disadvantaged in particular, metaphorically cuts off their hands.

Without strong and broader advocacy for those increasingly marginalized by the rush to higher standards and standardized tests--an advocacy that must hearken us forward in our thinking as well as back to our progressive heritage--those who do not bring in the gold of high test scores, so to speak, will be left to bleed to death (often quite literally) on the mean streets of urban decay, gang warfare, and chronic unemployment and underemployment. In this regard, the school counseling profession's possible alignment with action research may hold much more promise for fundamental change than alignment with the current reform agenda. It seems to me that when counseling policies and practices do not empower people, they should be subjected to change. Furthermore, it is overall preferable to have practitioners working in solidarity with youth and families to take the lead in realigning school reform with a more humane educational agenda than to pursue aligning with school reform narrowly focused on raising test scores.


Whether a counselor interested in action research wishes to focus on operational research, contributing to strengthening professionalism, or establishing solidarity with parents and students in creating a new agenda for school and school counseling reform, it requires a bit of soul searching. Once a decision has been made to engage in action research, however, the formal learning should begin. Most practitioners have not been trained in action research, so getting started will require becoming familiar with new methods and principles. A good set of basic guidelines can be found in Sagor's (1992) pamphlet How to Conduct Collaborative Action Research. If starting alone, the counselor will need to seek out collaborators, which might include a colleague, an interested parent, local graduate students engaged in fieldwork, or a professor at a local university. If the work is initiated through a university training program, faculty and graduate student researchers will need to identify "practitioner partners" (Rowell, 2005, p. 29) from among the ranks of local school counselors. In my experience, partners are not hard to find. Increasingly, practitioners show interest in gathering data and using it to strengthen practice. Once a team has been assembled, some readings should be completed and discussions conducted about possible topics for action research. A set of guidelines for problem formulation is available (Rowell, 2004) and can be utilized for yearlong collaborative action research projects.

Sharing results of action research is an important part of building a culture of inquiry within school counseling. I have found that locally organized events that bring together practitioners, graduate students, university faculty, and other interested stakeholders provide an excellent vehicle for dialogue regarding change efforts, support to ease the frustrations associated with changing practice, and dissemination of action research findings (Rowell, 2005). The annual event that my students and I created at the University of San Diego grew from 70 to 170 participants over a 4-year period. More recently, our practitioner partners have begun using the results of the action research projects for presentations at school board meetings, site professional development sessions, and district counselor meetings. Establishing an event for presenting the work requires, of course, some additional effort. Yet, bringing together "people who want to do something to improve their own situation" (Sagor, 1992, p. 7) and sharing the results of work done to investigate issues relevant to their interests is invigorating and is an effective way to develop the awareness that, once again, "practice and research are not two mutually exclusive activities" (Whiston, 1996, p. 616).


In the account presented above, action research is discussed as a promising practice that can generate valuable additions to the research base of school counseling. In addition, action research is assigned a strategic role both in building closer connections between research and practice and in initiating and keeping alive important conversations about the future of the profession. Lastly, this account asserts that the action focus in action research holds promise for reinvigorating counseling's ties with a progressive reform agenda.

Action research is not a panacea for the problems of school or school counseling reform. The work is difficult and opposition to the combining of action and research can come from many directions (e.g., funding sources, higher-education administrations, school districts; see Cherry & Borshuk, 1998; Eikeland, 2003; Jahoda, 1989). Furthermore, the demands of combining action with research often pull action researchers toward localized action and away from visibility in the larger research discourse, thus limiting the contributions of action research in the fields in which it is being practiced (Levin, 2003). Recently, discussion within the action research community has begun to address these issues (e.g., Eikeland; Levin), and more discussion can be anticipated. In the meantime, school counseling can learn much from the advanced work in action research found in the fields of teaching and nursing.

Reestablishing a progressive agenda for the future of the school counseling profession means fostering a sense of critical consciousness among counselors and among those they serve. In the view of legendary Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, literacy was the crucial vehicle for the development of a "critical consciousness" among the poor, and it was from this consciousness that new personal meanings as well as common purpose among the oppressed could be created (McClaren, 1999). Perhaps it is in the domain of a kind of emotional literacy that counselors will be able to better help children, youth, and parents with problems of everyday living. In this sense, helping may be better understood as a learning process. As Gerard Egan (2002) characterized it, "in the helping process, learning takes place when options that add value to life are opened up, seized, and acted on" (p. 57).

The current culture of school reform reflects a "reform mill" (Oakes, Hunter Quartz, Ryan, & Lipton, 2000, p. 265) environment in which dominant interests in business, industry, government, and the professions impose change after change at a dizzying pace, leaving teachers, principals, counselors, and administrators "shell-shocked" (Brydolf, 1999, p. 24). As an alternative, Oakes and her associates asserted the importance of reinfusing a sense of "civic virtue" (p. 261) into school reform. In their view, the process of transforming American schools "must itself be educative, socially just, caring, and participatory" (p. 262). Here, a relevant question for the future of counseling: Are school counselors the political actors in education best situated to take leadership in a reform process that is socially just as well as caring and that combines the legitimate expertise of helpers with genuine participatory practice in relationship to parents and students? I believe this is a question that can be best answered through the use of action research.


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Lonnie L. Rowell, Ph.D., is with the School of Leadership & Education Sciences, University of San Diego, CA. E-mail:
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Author:Rowell, Lonnie L.
Publication:Professional School Counseling
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2006
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