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The evidence is in: School counseling works

As parents in most North Dakota communities would testify, it’s obvious what school counselors do.

But in Minnesota, testimonials haven’t been enough. At one school counselor for every 792 students, the state ranks 48th in the nation.

In North Dakota, the number is one counselor for every 312 students. In Iowa, it’s one per 429.

Even in South Dakota, which lacks an individual income tax and has a reputation for pinching pennies on government services, the ratio is one counselor for every 366 students.

But while the Minnesota figure has been mentioned in news stories in recent weeks, it’s old news to people who follow this issue. “State’s schools fall short in counselors per student,” the Star Tribune headlined one of its stories — in 2004.

Such stories routinely include anecdotes about counselors seeing far more students than they can be expected even to keep track of, let alone serve. In Minnesota’s elementary schools, one counselor sometimes has 900 or more students on his or her list.

So, given those recurring numbers and given that Minnesota school districts and legislators still have not been convinced, maybe it’s time for a different approach: one that involves research.

Because as it turns out, the question of whether school counselors are effective has been studied with some care. And those studies keep coming back with the same answer: “Yes.”

* “Using data provided to us by Florida’s Alachua County School District and the University of Florida Counselor Education Department, we show that lower student-to-counselor ratios decrease both the recurrence of student disciplinary problems and the share of students involved in a disciplinary incident,” a 2006 article in the journal Contributions to Economic Policy and Analysis concludes.

* “Using high school counselor staffing counts and four-year college-going rates collected through the Schools and Staffing Survey, we find that an additional high school counselor is predicted to induce a 10 percentage point increase in four-year college enrollment,” reports a study for the College Board and Advocacy Center in 2013.

* “The data in this study point to strong evidence that an additional high school counselor favorably impacts four-year college-going rates.”

* “Across the two states (Nebraska and Utah), school counseling was shown to be related to a range of important student outcomes including increased math proficiency levels, increased reading proficiency levels, lower suspension rates, lower disciplinary rates, increased attendance rates, higher graduation rates, higher Perkins program completion rates, greater percentages of students taking the ACT and higher average ACT scores,” concludes a 2010 study for the Fredrickson Center for School Counseling Outcome Research and Evaluation at the University of Massachusetts.

“These results show clearly that after schools are equated for differences in student outcomes due to demographic factors, school counseling adds value to the education of students and enhances their engagement and performance.”

Furthermore, “in both states, the ratio of students-to-counselors in a school was strongly related to its student outcomes.”

Every college in America likely assigns each student an adviser — a faculty or staff member who helps the student keep track of the “big picture” and make sure all requirements are being met.

In the nation’s K-12 systems, school counselors fulfill that vital function as well as many more. Advocates in Minnesota should make the case, then cite the many research findings that prove it.