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Collaborative Action Research: Background to the USD Model

By: Lonnie L. Rowell, Ph.D., Director, Center for Student Support Systems (CS3) School of Leadership & Education Sciences University of San Diego Action research has evolved for 50+ years 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. It combines systematic collection, analysis, and interpretation of data to answer carefully formulated questions with action to make change. In school counseling, initial references to action research go back nearly 25 years. Today, action research is emerging as a potentially significant perspective within school counseling. Whereas an individual can conduct action research, collaborative action research involves a group of practitioners or citizens conducting research to improve their situation. Collaborative action research holds great promise for helping school counselors adjust to the accountability environment in education and for strengthening counselors in their efforts to advocate for further professionalization within their ranks. USD graduate students in school counseling have been engaged in collaborative action research with local school counselors since 1999. To date, we have completed more than 30 projects with schools, school districts, and community organizations throughout San Diego County. The Counseling Program incorporated action research as a way to bring graduate students face-to-face with leadership, program development, and policy and advocacy issues in school counseling. School counseling faculty determined it was important to create a means for students to get involved at the front-end of their © L. Rowell, September 2008  

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training, rather than at the terminal point, with the real organizational and institutional challenges of their chosen field. In this model, teams of counseling graduate students work together with local school counselors in conducting year-long collaborative action research projects, with counseling faculty serving as supervisors of the students and consultants to the research teams. The school counseling program further decided to combine collaborative action research with an annual event that would bring together a variety of stakeholders interested in counseling issues to hear the results of the projects and to receive encouragement and support in their efforts to strengthen practice. Initially, students presented their projects at the Annual Forum on the State of Counseling and Guidance in Schools, held each December. In 2004 this approach was modified and students began to present at both the fall Forum and a spring semester event focused on the practice and results of action research in education. The action research projects undertaken each year have one overriding theme: How can school counseling practices in local schools be strengthened? Three guidelines are essential in selecting a project: (1) the phenomena chosen for study must concern some aspect of the school counseling program; (2) those phenomena must be within the counselor's scope of influence to change; (3) The participating counselors must care about the topic being examined. Examples of completed projects include increasing campus-wide awareness and student utilization of a high school peer mediation program, surveying a district’s elementary school counselors regarding the effectiveness of the district’s elementary counseling program, and implementing and evaluating a chronicabsence intervention program at an elementary school.

© L. Rowell, September 2008  

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A further step in developing the Counseling Program’s involvement with action research and the development of a collaborative action research model was taken in 2003, with the establishment of the Center for Student Support Systems (CS3). As the scope of our work with local schools and school districts expanded and as practitioner interest in action research began to grow and evolve, the school counseling specialization needed a structure to work within that facilitated communication between the counseling program and counselors in the field, that linked on-going professional development of in-service counselors with the preparation being provided to pre-service counselors (i.e. our graduate students), and that helped bridge the gap between research and practice in school counseling. CS3 became that structure, with the initial work of organizing the center undertaken by the author and six of his graduate students. Since then, CS3 has become the leading university-based center in the nation for supporting the use of action research in school counseling and now provides trainings and professional development activities each year for more than 400 counselors, counselor supervisors, graduate students in counseling, and educators in general from California, other states, and other countries.

© L. Rowell, September 2008  

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