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Investment Counselors

NOTE: With this post, we are starting a new “feature” here at Shanker Blog – periodically summarizing research papers that carry interesting and/or important implications for the education policy debates. We intend to focus on papers that are either published in peer-reviewed journals or are still in working paper form, and are unlikely to get significant notice. Here is the first:

Are School Counselors a Cost-Effective Education Input?

Scott E. Carrell and Mark Hoekstra, Working paper (link to PDF), September 2010

Most teachers and principals will tell you that non-instructional school staff can make a big difference in school performance. Although we may all know this, it’s always useful to have empirical research to confirm it, and to examine the size and nature of the effects. In this paper, economists Scott Carrell and Mark Hoekstra put forth one of the first rigorous tests of how one particular group of employees – school counselors – affect both discipline and achievement outcomes. The authors use a unique administrative dataset of third, fourth, and fifth graders in Alachua County, Florida, a diverse district that serves over 30,000 students.  Their approach exploits year-to-year variation in the number of counselors in each school – i.e., whether the outcomes of a given school change from the previous year when a counselor is added to the staff.

Their results are pretty striking: The addition of a single full-time counselor is associated with a 0.04 standard deviation increase in boys’ achievement (about 1.2 percentile points). These effects are robust across different specifications (including sibling and student fixed effects). The disciplinary effects are, as expected, even more impressive. A single additional counselor helps to decrease boys’ disciplinary infractions between 15 to 26 percent.

Interestingly yet predictably, the results are somewhat different for girls. The achievement effects are modest (less than half the effect for boys, and generally not statistically significant), while the disciplinary effects are discernible but less pronounced. It seems that the major benefit of counselors is for boys, which is a direct function of the fact that boys are far more likely than girls to have disciplinary issues, hindering not only their own achievement, but that of their peers as well.

Overall, when you average the “counselor effects” across girls and boys, it is roughly 0.03 standard deviations, or 0.84 percentile points, per additional counselor. The authors estimate that this is roughly equivalent to an increase in the “quality” of every single teacher at a school by 0.3 standard deviations (a large jump). These results strongly suggest that hiring school counselors may be, by any measure, a cost-effective investment.

It is, however, important to point out that this is a working paper (it is not yet published), and that it’s focused on a particular location and program that cannot necessarily be generalized to other places. The findings do, however, corroborate a growing body of research that reaches similar conclusions about the efficacy of school counseling services in reducing disciplinary incidents (see here, here, and here, for example).

That said, I think there are three takeaways. First, and most obviously, “counselor effects” on achievement outcomes should be further examined empirically, especially in districts/schools with severe disciplinary issues (I'd really like to see if there are similar achievement effects elsewhere). Second, the results (though one should be careful to not overinterpret them) help to illustrate the importance of non-instructional staff, even when it comes to academic outcomes (i.e., test scores). Third and finally, there is another implication here: The importance of schools’ disciplinary environment. This is a crucial issue – students (especially boys) with behavioral issues hinder not only their own academic performance, but can affect that of the entire school as well (it is also, by the way, very important for teacher attrition). This topic doesn’t get nearly enough attention in our public debates.

- Matt Di Carlo

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