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School counselors, comprehensive school counseling programs, and academic achievement: are school counselors promising more than they can deliver?

The ASCA National Model[R] (ASCA, 2003) suggests that the school counselor's primary mission is the improvement of academic achievement. This article examines the research literature regarding school counselors' efforts related to academic achievement and concludes that there is little support for the supposition that comprehensive school counseling programs improve achievement. Conversely, there is a growing body of evidence that suggests that school counselors can use strategic interventions to improve academic achievement.


In 2003, the American School Counselor Association (ASCA) published The ASCA National Model: A Framework for Comprehensive School Counseling Programs. Clearly, ASCA's intent was to stimulate school counselors to develop comprehensive school counseling programs (CSCPs) and to align the goals of their programs with the primary mission of today's schools, which is increasing the academic achievement of all students. By inference and assertion, ASCA suggests that CSCPs, if properly designed and implemented, will lead to increases in student achievement. Recently, we (Brown & Trusty, 2005) examined one portion of ASCA's assertion--being that fully implemented CSCPs increase academic achievement. Our goals in this article are (a) to broaden the scope of our previous inquiry by reviewing the research literature that focuses on the impact of school counselor-led strategic interventions on academic achievement, and (b) to conduct an analysis of the proposition that comprehensive school counseling programs increase academic achievement.

At the outset, we wish to share our belief that school counselors can increase academic achievement by the use of carefully crafted, targeted, and implemented strategic interventions. We are less than confident that fully implemented CSCPs will increase academic achievement based on our earlier review. This lack of confidence regarding the efficacy of CSCPs as a vehicle for increasing academic achievement seems to be shared by Whiston (2002) and Sink and Stroh (2003), and perhaps others. If we and these authors are correct, the implications for school counselors are profound. At the conclusion of this article, we will make recommendations that will inform school counselors' efforts as they strive to enhance academic achievement.


A strategic intervention is one in which there is a match among the needs of the students, the hoped-for outcomes (objectives), and the intervention selected. In the best of all worlds, strategic interventions would be chosen based on empirical evidence that the intervention selected produces the desired outcome when used with the intended audience, but this will not always be possible given the status of the research on various interventions used by school counselors (Whiston & Sexton, 1998). As noted above, we believe that when school counselors carefully design and deliver strategic interventions aimed at increasing academic achievement, the likelihood that they will produce the hoped-for outcomes is substantial.

For example, Tobias and Myrick (1999) explored the impact of peer-led groups that focused on sixth-graders' self-concept, attitude toward school and others, attendance, and improving grades. They found that the students in the experimental group significantly increased their grades, attended school more regularly, and were less likely to be referred for disciplinary problems. Although the alpha level used in this research (.10) is questionable because it increases the likelihood of drawing an erroneous conclusion (chances are 1 in 10 instead of the traditional 1 in 5), it nonetheless supports the presumption that strategic interventions can be used to increase academic performance. The findings by Tobias and Myrick are not surprising given the rather broad empirical support for peer tutoring programs at all academic levels (see Corn & Moore, 1992; Greenwood, Terry, Utley, Montagna, & Walker, 1993; Lazerson, Foster, Brown, & Hummel, 1988; Vacc & Cannon, 1991). In a related study, Edmondson and White (1998) found that an intervention composed of tutoring plus counseling, compared to tutoring alone or no treatment, was an effective means for increasing the academic achievement of middle-school students. Tutoring, whether conducted by peers or others, appears to be an effective method for increasing academic achievement, and the organization and delivery of these programs are well within the scope of school counselors' roles as set forth in the ASCA National Model (2003). More studies such as the one conducted by Edmondson and White are needed to determine whether components such as self-concept improvement or counseling add significantly to the efficacy of the intervention.

Tutoring can be used to significantly improve academic achievement, but research suggests that a number of other approaches may be useful as well. Brigman and Campbell (2003) used the Academic and Social Support: Student Success Skills Model (Brigman & Goodman, 2003) as the basis for classroom guidance and group counseling in their attempt to influence the academic achievement of 180 students. The students involved in the research scored between the 25th and 50th percentiles on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT). In reading and math, respectively, 61% and 82% of the students showed improvement on the FCAT and their overall scores increased significantly on both dependent measures. Parental involvement also seems to be an effective means of improving students' achievement. Studies by Campbell and Mandel (1990), Floyd (1996), and Keith and Lichtman (1994) support the efficacy of parental involvement as a means of improving academic achievement. Other studies--by Carns and Carns (1991), who focused on teaching study skills; Hadley (1988), who used a self-esteem intervention; and Lee (1993), who studied the impact of classroom guidance units--also support the premise that strategic interventions can be used to increase academic achievement.

We should note that some of the interventions used in the studies cited in the previous paragraphs are not as carefully designed as we would prefer, and the designs used to test them did not allow the researchers to draw conclusions about the influence of the various components on the outcomes. For example, we wonder which of the components in the Tobias and Myrick (1999) research influenced the outcomes? Was it the focus on self-concept, the portion that targeted attitude toward school and others, the emphasis on attendance, or some combination of these components that made the difference? The aforementioned Edmondson and White (1998) study is an example of a study that was designed to partial out superfluous aspects of the researchers' interventions in an attempt to identify those factors that made the difference in the outcome of their study. They found that a combination of components (group counseling plus tutoring) was most effective. In their article they also provide an outline of the topics covered in their group counseling session. School counselors should follow Edmondson and White's paradigm as they seek to identify and verify interventions that increase academic achievement.

In the absence of empirically supported approaches to the improvement of academic achievement, school counselors should choose interventions that seem to be logically related to the problem being addressed. For example, it seems apparent that the reason why peer interventions are successful is that they focus on the teaching of organizational skills, note taking, and other skills needed for academic achievement. Finally, the studies reviewed in this section, when taken as a whole, illustrate the impact that school counselors can have on academic achievement when strategic interventions are used. The next section will address the issue of the impact of CSCPs on academic achievement. It could be argued that CSCPs composed solely of empirically supported academic achievement interventions would positively influence achievement, and we might agree with this argument. However, the fact is that not all of the components of CSCPs can or should be devoted to improving scholastic improvement; and it is the diversity in the program components that confounds efforts to demonstrate that CSCPs are responsible for specific outcomes. At this point, we turn to a review of the literature that examines the impact of CSCPs on academic achievement.


Recently, Gysbers (2004) reviewed attempts to demonstrate that school counseling programs positively influence student behavior including academic achievement. The four most recent studies identified by Gysbers as providing empirical support for CSCPs are examined in this section with the intent of critiquing both the designs used and the outcomes of the studies. These studies asked and attempted to answer the following question: Will comprehensive school counseling programs produce increases in student achievement? Lapan, Gysbers, and Sun (1997) published the first of these, which is an impressive study in many regards. Their research looks at the impact of various levels of CSCP implementation on a number of variables including self-reported grades. The sample in their study consisted of 22,964 students from 236 Missouri high schools. The data were collected from 1992 to 1996 as a part of the Missouri School Improvement Program accreditation review that occurs every 5 years.

The state of Missouri adopted the Missouri Comprehensive Guidance Program (MCGP) (Gysbers & Henderson, 2000) as its official model in 1984. According to the authors, school districts have been encouraged to implement the model since that date. School counselors' ratings were used to determine the extent to which the MCGP had been implemented, and the researchers took steps to eliminate the impact of the socioeconomic status of the students because of its documented effects on achievement (Berliner & Biddle, 1995). As noted above, student self-ratings were used as dependent variables. The researchers reported the following findings based on a hierarchical linear modeling analysis:

* Students who attended schools with more fully implemented comprehensive school counseling programs reported earning higher grades.

* Students who attended schools with more fully implemented comprehensive school counseling programs reported that their schools were better preparing them for the future.

* Students who attended schools with more fully implemented comprehensive school counseling programs reported that they perceived their school climate more favorably and that they felt safer in school.

The second study (Lapan, Gysbers, & Petroski, 2001) used the same data set and research methodology. However, the focus of this research was on seventh-grade students. The findings reported in this study were as follows:

* Students who attended schools with more fully implemented comprehensive school counseling programs reported that they earned higher grades than those in other schools.

* Students who attended schools with more fully implemented comprehensive school counseling programs reported that they had better relationships with their teachers, were getting a more relevant education, and had a more positive view of the school environment.

The purpose of research generally is to rule out alternative hypotheses. In the case of the research being reviewed here, researchers hoped to demonstrate that school counseling programs are responsible for the observed results. This cannot be accomplished with most correlational research designs. Multiple correlation coefficients tell us the size of the relationship between a dependent variable and a set of other variables, but not whether the variables being studied caused the dependent variable. For causal path analysis and longitudinal correlational studies to effectively support the existence of cause, all the variables that influence the outcome must be included; and this is often a difficult task to achieve (e.g., see Asher, 1983).

We (Brown & Trusty, 2005) identified several other approaches to establishing causality, the most common of which is the use of experimental and quasi-experimental designs (Creswell, 2005; Tawney & Gast, 1984). Experimental designs require the use of control groups and the random assignment of students to control and intervention groups. One type of quasi-experimental design involves a control group, but students are not randomly assigned to intervention and control groups. Rather, the researcher attempts to identify a group that is equivalent to the group in the intervention and use it as the control group. Time series and multiple time series designs are also quasi-experimental research designs. A common type of time series design, N = 1 (single-subject design), requires repeated replication of the intervention with the same problem to establish causality. Multiple time series design may take several forms, but a common one involves identifying students with the same problems (e.g., a low incidence of homework completion) and introducing the intervention with student 1 while simply collecting data about the other students. After the first student reaches his or her target behavior, the second student receives the intervention, and so forth. Other time series designs include using an intervention with one student who has a number of uncorrelated problems and using the same intervention with three or more students in different settings (Martella, Nelson, & Marchand-Martella, 2003). It should be noted that many postmodern researchers doubt the likelihood of establishing causality. However, the entire history of the development of parametric statistics and much of the attention directed to research design has been devoted to establishing causality (see Tabachnick & Fidell, 1989).

As already noted, the researchers (Lapan et al., 1997; Lapan et al., 2001) took important steps to eliminate the impact of some variables that might have biased their results, such as socioeconomic level and the size of the schools involved in the study. However, they neglected to control for several important variables that might have influenced the outcomes given that one of the dependent variables being explored was grades. For example, Thompson and O'Quinn (2001) reported that key ingredients in increasing the academic success of students are lower class size in kindergarten through third grade; experienced, fully prepared teachers; and the presence of supportive, ongoing, remedial services. Dimmitt (2003) reported an even more extensive list of factors that are related to academic achievement including 17 teacher factors and 17 school factors that, for the most part, were not controlled in these studies. In fact, some of the factors that were dependent variables in these studies, such as feeling safe and a positive perception of the school environment, probably should have been independent variables with achievement as a dependent variable based on a review of the literature on achievement (Beck & Murphy, 1996; McEvoy & Welker, 2000).

The research by Lapan and his associates (1997, 2001) produced some positive news for advocates for CSCPs. The degree of implementation of CSCPs positively predicted students' perceptions of the school environment and safety, which has been shown to be related to school achievement in some studies (Brown, 1999). However, the failure of researchers to control for expenditure per pupil, which appears to be related to student achievement (Berliner & Biddle, 1995), likely mitigates this finding. The researchers did control for school socioeconomic level, and one could argue that the socioeconomic level of the school and the per-pupil expenditure are highly correlated, but that is not a forgone conclusion.

Similar kinds of concerns could be raised about other dependent variables in the study. For example, although feeling safe at school is positively related to having a more fully implemented comprehensive school counseling program in both studies, it is likely that administrative disciplinary policies, parent involvement in maintaining safety in schools, parental support for positive school behavior, and the involvement of law enforcement officials in school safety are also factors. Not one of these variables was addressed in the studies reviewed. It is a fact that if you run enough correlations between enough variables that some of those correlations will be significant, particularly if large samples are used. It is worth noting that in the studies by Lapan and his associates, simple correlations between reported grades and the degree of implementation of comprehensive school counseling programs were not significant. The results of correlational studies, such as the ones reported here, must be viewed as preliminary until more sophisticated research is conducted that can generate data that are not based on self-reports by students and that do not rely on correlational methodology.

Sink and Stroh (2003) admitted that the results of their study, while statistically significant, might not be practically relevant. They conducted a well-designed study of the impact of CSCPs on students in Washington state. They randomly selected 150 elementary schools and classified them as having no school counseling program, a moderately implemented CSCP, or a highly implemented CSCP. Comparative data were reported for two groups of schools--those with highly implemented programs that had high usage and those that had no programs. Their dependent measures were the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills (ITBS) for third graders and the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) for fourth graders. Initially, the students in the schools with no school counseling programs had higher test scores on the ITBS and WASL, but, if they remained continuously enrolled in both schools, those students in the high-implementation, high-usage schools did better on both measures than did students in schools without a school counseling program. Sink and Stroh suggest that their findings add to the growing empirical support for comprehensive school counseling programs. They also suggest that there were a number of limitations to their study, including relatively small effects that are statistically significant but that may have little or no practical value. It is also noteworthy that they did not examine the teaching-learning situation in depth. Some of the other variables already mentioned in this section should have been examined as well.

In a study that has not been published in a refereed source, Nelson, Gardner, and Fox (1998) looked at the impact of comprehensive school counseling programs in Utah and found that students in more fully implemented programs had higher college entrance examinations scores, took more advanced classes, and rated their overall educational experience more favorably than did students with less fully implemented programs. In some ways the findings in this study intuitively make more sense than those of the previously reported studies. Presumably school counselors can influence enrollment in advanced placement courses, and enrollment in these courses should influence college entrance examination scores if they are demanding courses taught by highly qualified teachers. Unfortunately, a review of the data reported in this study revealed that the reported significant increase in American College Test (ACT) scores was only slightly more than half a point. Once again it seems that the large sample size resulted in a statistical difference that has little practical significance for school counselors.


Most of the outcomes from studies we have cited and discussed in this article are distal outcomes. Distal outcomes such as ACT scores, achievement test scores, and school grades are affected by a myriad of factors other than school counseling programs and are therefore distal from school counselors' influence. Evaluating the outcomes of strategic interventions requires focusing on proximal outcomes. Proximal outcomes are those that are targeted directly by the strategic intervention. For example, it is well documented by large-scale longitudinal studies (Adelman, 1999; Trusty, 2004; Trusty & Niles, 2003) that taking rigorous courses in high school has a strong effect on success in college. School counselors, through their individual planning efforts with students (see ASCA, 2003), may have a proximal effect on the courses that students take. Proximal outcome studies of individual planning efforts could be conducted by comparing to baseline data the number of students in middle or high schools with written, appropriate, education-career plans. Furthermore, ascertaining if students are meeting particular objectives of the school counseling program's guidance curriculum might be used to assess proximal outcomes regarding academic achievement. If a group of school counselors is following the ASCA National Model, the degree to which students are developing the competencies listed in the Academic Indicators section of the ASCA National Standards may be used as a proximal outcome. For example, if a strategic intervention such as a classroom guidance unit targets Indicator A:A1.1, "[Students will] articulate feelings of competence and confidence as learners" (ASCA, 2003, p. 81), two proximal outcomes should be changes in students' perceptions of their academic competence and confidence after the intervention.

We are not purporting that distal outcomes be ignored. However, we do call for a closer examination of how our profession can demonstrate its efficacy, and proximal outcomes resulting from strategic interventions are an important source of data and a salient means of accountability. The indicators of the ASCA National Model (2003) are cognitive, behavioral, and/or affective criteria that most adults would want students to possess, know, or be able to perform. Moreover, many of the indicators are life skills or meta-skills that are not taught or learned in students' academic classes and thus their development could be attributed to the school counseling program.

Strategic interventions are not antithetical to the ASCA National Model or to comprehensive school counseling programs. In fact, when the ASCA National Model is viewed in terms of student standards, competencies, and indicators, it calls for strategic interventions and proximal outcomes--although this call is implicit in much of the content of the model. Our point is that the evaluation of school counselors' efficacy should be focused as closely as possible toward what school counselors do and toward what students know and can do.


The limited number of studies and the fact that most of the research on strategic interventions has focused on elementary school students preclude us from making an all-out endorsement of this approach to school counselors, with the single exception being peer tutoring programs. However, we wish to note that the quality of the research designs used in the research dealing with strategic interventions has been relatively high and outcomes have been positive in many instances. Therefore, we suggest that school counselors continue to use carefully designed strategic approaches such as study skills groups and classes, time management groups and classes, and motivational approaches such as behavioral contracts, and then evaluate the outcomes of these efforts.

If only statistical findings are considered, the studies by Lapan et al. (1997), Lapan et al. (2001), Nelson et al. (1998), and Sink and Stroh (2003) can be considered as positive support for fully implemented CSCPs. When the practical implications of those studies are considered--along with the correlational nature of some of the designs used and the fact that a number of variables that might have altered the outcomes of the studies were not considered-the conclusion changes. At this juncture, there is very little support for the concept that fully implemented CSCPs increase academic achievement. Appearing on target are both Whiston's (2002) recommendation that comprehensive school counseling programs need more study and Sink's (2002) observation that a causal link has not been established between the degree of implementation of comprehensive school counseling and academic achievement.

This is no way suggests that ASCA has erred in its efforts to reorient school counseling programs to focus on academic achievement. However, the reality is that CSCPs must have goals other than improving academic achievement such as enhancing personal growth and promoting career development. Activities aimed at facilitating personal growth and career development may complement those activities designed to improve achievement, but to make the assumption that this will be the case is naive. In addition, a major component of the ASCA National Model involves responsive services, that is, those services designed to deal with crises, personal issues, and consultation with parents or teachers. Some of these activities may make students feel more secure at school and better about themselves, but the link between the school counselors' activities associated in the responsive services component of CSCPs and academic achievement has not been established. The development of CSCPs throughout the country is well underway (Sink & MacDonald, 2000) and should continue with deliberate haste in our opinion.

R. T. Lapan (personal communication, October 2004) points out that CSCPs provide the vehicle for delivering empirically supported interventions, and we agree with that position. However, we do not agree with his inference--which seems to be that if CSCPs are made up of the best practices available to school counselors, we can assume that the program itself will result in increased academic performance--for two reasons. First, few of the interventions used by school counselors have been empirically supported (Whiston & Sexton, 1998) and many school counselors may not incorporate those that have been into their programs. Second, there is bound to be a diffusion of the effect of the school counseling program because of loci other than improving academic performance and the inclusion of nonprofessional duties into the role of school counselors. Gysbers and Henderson (2000) suggest that the assignment of nonprofessional duties to school counselors will decrease in CSCPs, but they offer no support for this proposition. Our review (Brown & Trusty, 2005) suggests that school counselors who work in CSCPs shoulder a number of nonprofessional duties, but to date no studies have been conducted that compare the professional and nonprofessional duties of counselors who work in programs at varying stages of becoming a CSPS.

ASCA and the Education Trust (2003) sought to transform school counseling by tying it more closely to the academic missions of schools. The efforts to tie school counseling to the academic missions of schools and to attach school counseling programs to schools' accountability systems are admirable and useful and we wholeheartedly agree with and applaud these efforts. However, it is important that the methods used by school counselors as they strive for accountability are defensible. We believe that, although distal outcomes such as scores on basic skills tests are important, proximal outcomes that are closely tied to strategic interventions seem to have more promise for demonstrating the efficacy of our profession. Preparing students to increase distal variables such as test scores or course grades requires a collaborative effort. We have two fears regarding accountability and distal outcomes. First, separating the effects of school counselors will not be possible because of the collaborative nature of the endeavor. Second, the efficacy of school counselors' unique developmental roles may be ignored if the accountability focus is largely on distal criteria.

Based on the data available at this time, our position is that school counselors should not raise expectations that CSCPs will increase academic achievement in and of themselves. Rather, as noted above, school counselors should stress the use of strategic interventions and the proximal outcomes targeted by those interventions. School counselors should continue to explore various approaches to enhancing academic achievement such as improving school and classroom climate (Brown, 1999), as ASCA (2003) recommends; and they should evaluate these approaches, thereby expanding their repertoire of efficacious interventions. The impact of fully implemented CSCPs should be researched in a manner that rules out competing hypotheses about their impact and with an eye to producing practical outcomes. We do not see CSCPs and strategic interventions as mutually exclusive approaches to school counseling. Rather, strategic interventions are a more concrete, targeted means for influencing the academic achievement of all students and a more objective, focused means for demonstrating the efficacy of school counselors.

It is our belief that a focus on proximal outcomes tied to strategic interventions can benefit the knowledge base regarding school counseling and academic achievement. We also believe that the strategic interventions perspective can benefit the practice of school counseling. The strategic interventions perspective has the potential to help school counselors working within comprehensive school counseling programs and those working within non-comprehensive programs. For counselors in comprehensive programs, strategic interventions and data resulting from the evaluation of interventions become a major component of the program development process. That is, strategic intervention data inform school counselors on what works, how well it works, and how programs can be adjusted to better meet students' needs. For school counselors who are not currently operating comprehensive programs, strategic interventions and data resulting from interventions aid in defining counselor roles that are tied more closely to the needs of all students and to the academic missions of schools. Strategic interventions move school counselors into a more proactive role.


When ASCA (2003) published The ASCA National Model: A Framework for Comprehensive School Counseling Programs, it established a clear agenda for school counselors--that being to contribute to the academic achievement of the students they serve. The questions addressed in this article have to do with whether school counselors can or should raise the expectation that they can address this agenda strategically and/or programmatically. The conclusions drawn are that there is a great deal of evidence to support strategic interventions as a means of improving achievement, but the evidence supporting the impact of CSCPs is extremely limited. School counselors are encouraged to design, use, and evaluate strategic interventions such as study skills groups, but it is suggested that it may not be prudent to tout the impact of CSCPs on achievement until more and better research evidence is produced.


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Duane Brown is a professor in the School of Education, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, NC. E-mail:

Jerry Trusty is a professor in the Department of Counselor Education, Counseling Psychology, and Rehabilitation Services, Penn State University, University Park.
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Author:Trusty, Jerry
Publication:Professional School Counseling
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2005
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