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Action Research and School Counseling: Closing the Gap Between Research and Practice

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Abstract

research can be a valuable resource for strengthening the link between theory and practice in school counseling. Action research emphasizes practi-tioner 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. A ction research is emerging as a potentially sig-nificant 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 com-munities, 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 orienta-tion for school counseling in response to his pro-posed model. Nevertheless, action research has con-tinued to receive some attention in the school coun-seling 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 envi-ronment 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 contin-ues 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 evi-dence of such a tradition taking root in school coun-seling can be found. However, growing recognition of the importance of outcome data in school counseling (Whiston, 2002; Whiston & Sexton, 1998) coupled with in-creasing 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 relation-ship between research and practice in school coun-seling (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 posi-tion of action research on the pallet of methods available for conducting research in school counsel-ing. 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 implica-tions of school counselors as action researchers and as "practitioner partners" (Rowell, 2005, p. 39) in collaborative action research with counselor educa-tors and graduate students in counseling. It ends with a discussion of why action research is particu-larly important in the effort to strengthen the pro-fession of school counseling.
Action research can be a valuable resource for
strengthening the link between theory and practice in
school counseling. Action research emphasizes practi-
tioner 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.
A
ction research is emerging as a potentially sig-
nificant 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 com-
munities, 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 orienta-
tion for school counseling in response to his pro-
posed model. Nevertheless, action research has con-
tinued to receive some attention in the school coun-
seling 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 envi-
ronment 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 contin-
ues 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 evi-
dence of such a tradition taking root in school coun-
seling can be found.
However, growing recognition of the importance
of outcome data in school counseling (Whiston,
2002; Whiston & Sexton, 1998) coupled with in-
creasing 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 relation-
ship between research and practice in school coun-
seling (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 posi-
tion of action research on the pallet of methods
available for conducting research in school counsel-
ing. 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 implica-
tions of school counselors as action researchers and
as “practitioner partners” (Rowell, 2005, p. 39) in
collaborative action research with counselor educa-
tors and graduate students in counseling. It ends
with a discussion of why action research is particu-
larly important in the effort to strengthen the pro-
fession of school counseling.
376 ASCA | PROFESSIONAL SCHOOL COUNSELING
Lonnie L. Rowell, Ph.D.,
is with the School of
Leadership &
Education Sciences,
University of San Diego,
CA. E-mail:
lrowell@SanDiego.edu
Action Research and School
Counseling: Closing the Gap
Between Research and Practice
BACKGROUND
Action research emerged as a challenge to tradition-
al 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 physi-
cal 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 under-
standing 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 inte-
gration 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 dis-
tance from community life and practices in educa-
tion 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 objec-
tives of participatory action research as the produc-
tion of “knowledge and action directly useful to a
community” (p. 48) and empowerment through
“consciousness-raising” (p. 48). Although some-
times 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 partic-
ipatory designs (e.g., McTaggart, 1996, 1997;
Wilkinson, 1996). In education, a fairly strong tra-
dition 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 practi-
tioners and contribute to ending the isolation many
practitioners feel (Rowell, 2005), and it can help
counselors adopt a continuous improvement orien-
tation that keeps their practices fresh and reinforces
a deep commitment to high standards of profession-
alism. In the sections that follow, I examine these
issues more specifically and indicate how collabora-
tive action research in particular holds promise for
school counseling.
ACTION RESEARCH AND THE CURRENT
SITUATION IN 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 circum-
stances 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 imme-
diate application of findings to strengthen practice
9:5 JUNE 2006 | ASCA 377
Figure 1. The action research cycle (Rowell, 2005,
adapted from Smith, 2001).
and to increased dialogue among practitioners and
researchers regarding results of changes implement-
ed 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 anx-
ious 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 forev-
er?” (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 stan-
dards, for more than two decades.
Following publication of
A Nation at Risk in
1983, more than 30 other major reports and exam-
inations 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). Through-
out 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 promot-
ing healthy development for all students have con-
tinued 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 direc-
tions 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 com-
ponents in fully implemented school counseling pro-
grams confounds attempts to show that such pro-
grams “are responsible for specific outcomes” (p. 2).
Instead, the kind of positive results that counselors
need to produce may be limited to “strategic inter-
ventions aimed at increasing academic achievement”
(Brown & Trusty, p. 1). Yet, from another perspec-
tive, 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 discus-
sion of school reform issues within counseling com-
munities of practice. Action research, and collabora-
tive action research in particular, holds promise for
addressing these needs. Given the overall circum-
stances 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 knowl-
edge. 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 “prac-
tice 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 relat-
ed, dimension of the current situation facing school
378 ASCA | PROFESSIONAL SCHOOL COUNSELING
Kurt Lewin is
acknowledged as
the founder of
action research,
and although his
contributions to our
understanding
were limited due to
his relatively short
life, his influence
continues to be felt.
counseling, that is, the effort to further develop the
profession. As Heppner, Kivlighan, and Wampold
(1992) asserted, “To be credible, reliable and effec-
tive, 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 with-
out the application of good scientific thinking, the
profession suffers.
The seriousness of the school counseling profes-
sion’s deficiencies in this regard cannot be overem-
phasized. Fundamentally, as previously mentioned,
the profession lacks substantial research demonstrat-
ing the positive results of school counseling inter-
ventions, and this condition places the entire profes-
sion 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 generat-
ing 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 pro-
fession 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 profes-
sion involves much more than establishing a foun-
dation 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, govern-
ment, and business/industry. In this context, school
counseling reform represents a political contest
between a profession concerned about its marginal-
ization 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 educa-
tion. Overall, it seems clear that the school counsel-
ing 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, polit-
ical, economic, and sociological phenomenon, and
action research shows promise for helping to estab-
lish an intellectual and political environment within
which issues associated with a profession’s develop-
ment 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 com-
bining thought and action and for orienting the pro-
fession of counseling toward a vision of empowering
individuals and communities. As Greenwood (2004)
indicated, to the extent that conventional social sci-
ence 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 fac-
ulty 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 professional-
ism and the reshaping of institutions related to edu-
cation 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 associ-
ation. As the power of profession and service
system ascends, the legitimacy, authority, and
capacity of citizens and community descend.
(p. 105)
9:5 JUNE 2006 | ASCA 379
As an orientation
toward inquiry and
the human capacity
to take action to
make changes,
action research is by
nature
collaborative,
realistic, and
empowering.
McKnight’s critique raises the question of whether
school counseling can be a profession while also val-
idating and honoring the capacity of students, par-
ents, 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 rel-
atively young profession, counseling may be at an
important crossroads in its development, and action
research may be a more helpful orientation than tra-
ditional 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 rais-
ing consciousness about issues of empowerment and
solidarity among practitioners and researchers. It
strikes me that this combination is essential in navi-
gating 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 refer-
ring to individual and organized actions affecting
the distribution of power within various social sys-
tems. 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 oth-
ers. 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 condi-
tions that impact a school counselor’s practice and
provides a social space within which those collabo-
rating 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 grass-
roots 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 crit-
ical consciousness regarding oppression to frame
research (Mertens). Here, action research again
shows its connection to the heritage of progres-
sivism. The reform ideology of the progressive era
was broad in scope, with reformers active in educa-
tion, children’s rights, treatment of the mentally ill,
women’s rights, workplace safety and workers’
rights, food inspection, electoral reform, and chal-
lenges 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 influ-
ence 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
380 ASCA | PROFESSIONAL SCHOOL COUNSELING
The call for higher
standards,
accountability, and
strengthened
competencies in
education has put
enormous pressure
on educators to
change practices
and adopt a data-
driven orientation.
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 result-
ed in the desired outcome, new action is planned
and taken. The research element sustains, so to
speak, the action element, and vice versa. This for-
mulation also points to the centrality of collabora-
tion in the process. Keeping the conversation going
cannot be accomplished by a solitary researcher sub-
mitting his or her manuscripts for publication.
Again, as Lewin (1946) put it, “research that pro-
duces 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 posi-
tion themselves in relationship to the current situa-
tion the profession finds itself in. The dominant
school reform scenario today is perhaps not as grue-
some 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 con-
vinced that vast amounts of gold could be found and
everyone 14 or older was ordered “to collect a cer-
tain 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-ori-
ented education system that, when it comes to the
poor and disadvantaged in particular, metaphorical-
ly cuts off their hands.
Without strong and broader advocacy for those
increasingly marginalized by the rush to higher stan-
dards 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 align-
ment 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.
GETTING STARTED
Whether a counselor interested in action research
wishes to focus on operational research, contribut-
ing 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 stu-
dents engaged in fieldwork, or a professor at a local
university. If the work is initiated through a univer-
sity training program, faculty and graduate student
researchers will need to identify “practitioner part-
ners” (Rowell, 2005, p. 29) from among the ranks
of local school counselors. In my experience, part-
ners are not hard to find. Increasingly, practitioners
show interest in gathering data and using it to
strengthen practice. Once a team has been assem-
bled, some readings should be completed and dis-
cussions conducted about possible topics for action
research. A set of guidelines for problem formula-
tion 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 dia-
logue 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 cre-
ated at the University of San Diego grew from 70 to
170 participants over a 4-year period. More recent-
ly, our practitioner partners have begun using the
results of the action research projects for presenta-
tions at school board meetings, site professional
development sessions, and district counselor meet-
ings. Establishing an event for presenting the work
requires, of course, some additional effort. Yet,
bringing together “people who want to do some-
9:5 JUNE 2006 | ASCA 381
thing to improve their own situation” (Sagor, 1992,
p. 7) and sharing the results of work done to inves-
tigate 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).
SUMMARY AND CONCLUSION: THE
IMPORTANCE OF ACTION RESEARCH IN
SCHOOL COUNSELING
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 prom-
ise for reinvigorating counseling’s ties with a pro-
gressive 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 coun-
seling 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 leg-
endary 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 coun-
selors 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 learn-
ing 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 domi-
nant interests in business, industry, government, and
the professions impose change after change at a
dizzying pace, leaving teachers, principals, coun-
selors, and administrators “shell-shocked” (Brydolf,
1999, p. 24). As an alternative, Oakes and her asso-
ciates 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, car-
ing, and participatory” (p. 262). Here, a relevant
question for the future of counseling: Are school
counselors the political actors in education best situ-
ated 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 partici-
patory practice in relationship to parents and stu-
dents? I believe this is a question that can be best
answered through the use of action research.
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384 ASCA | PROFESSIONAL SCHOOL COUNSELING
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Collaborative action research is an effective tool for helping school counselors to strengthen the link between practice and research. Action research methods for school counselors are summarized, and a model for collaborative action research linking counselor training and school counselor practitioners is presented. The model is based on ongoing action research projects currently being carried out in several school districts. Examples of action research projects based on this model are illustrated.
Article
* Introduction Professionalism * John Deere and the Bereavement Counselor * The Professional Problem * The Need for Oldness * Professionalized Service and Disabling Help Medicine * The Medicalization of Politics * Well-Being: The New Threshold to the Old Medicine * Diagnosis and the Health of Community * Politicizing Health Care Human Service Systems * A Nation of Clients? * Do No Harm * Redefining Community * A Reconsideration of the Crisis of the Welfare State The Criminal Justice System * Thinking About Crime, Sacrifice, and Community * Rethinking Our National Incarceration Policy On Community * Community Organizing in the Eighties: Toward a Post-Alinsky Agenda with John Kretzmann * Regenerating a Community Christian Service * On theBackwardness of Prophets