Research solidly confirms that advisories provide the kind of personalized support that increases student achievement, and the current surge of secondary school start-up and restructuring initiatives is promoting a new wave of advisory programs in thousands of schools nationwide. Although many exemplary advisory programs exist, we know of many other schools struggling to establish meaningful advisories.
As we’ve worked with high schools nationwide, we’ve observed a pattern of problems in efforts to develop successful advisories. We’d like to offer some cautionary notes by presenting six pitfalls accompanied by illuminating quotations and, most importantly, strategies for climbing out of the pit and developing and sustaining successful advisories.
Pitfall 1: Advisory planning begins with scheduling, instead of goals.
“We found a way to fit advisory in the schedule; we’re ready to go.”
“One thirty-minute advisory per week will work, right?”
Strategies: There are lots of possible reasons to create an advisory program. Maybe climate data shows that students feel anonymous, or you’re noticing cliques and factions that make the atmosphere tense. Maybe your students need more support regarding career or college plans. Or, perhaps the ninth graders need a more deliberate transition to high school. It is crucial to identify your goals, and then make sure the goals and schedule are a good fit.
Daily fifteen-minute advisory sessions have worked in schools where the main purpose is academic advising, the group has seven to nine students, and the advisor’s responsibility is meeting privately with each advisee several times per week. However, if an advisory program is expected to improve peer culture, support the development of life skills, or focus on career and college preparation, longer blocks of time are essential. Thus, sort out your goals, then the session length, frequency, and whether or not they will be held simultaneously (allowing for town meetings).
Pitfall 2: Grouping arrangements do not match the goals or content.
“We have 50 rooms, so we can have 50 groups, each with 20 advisees.”
“We wanted to improve peer culture, so we created mixed-grade groupings, but we always feel like we’re not meeting the myriad needs of the seniors, and lots of our activities fall flat.”
Strategies: Your goals should drive your groupings as well as your schedule. When developmental needs are driving the program (helping ninth graders learn to use their assignment books or shepherding seniors into colleges and careers) single grade level groups are a better fit. Mixed grade groups can help ninth graders shift quickly into high school culture and offer older students leadership opportunities. In some schools, single gender groups may provide a more supportive environment. No grouping arrangement can meet every possible goal; choose your goals carefully and the groupings that fit them. Be sure to consider the composition, size, and continuity of your groups carefully.
Pitfall 3: The faculty is reluctant and resistant, and perhaps votes against implementing advisory altogether.
“Our design team is really excited, so our school is ready to implement advisory groups.”
After a no-vote from the faculty, “Why did they vote it down after we worked so hard?”
Strategies: People need a lot to convince them to change—inspiration, convincing arguments, incentives, research, promises of support, and pressure. In some cases pressure comes from leaders or peers, in other cases from parents asking for a more supportive environment or from survey data indicating student anonymity and detachment.
In many schools, we observe that a few people have done research, visited other schools, and spent time together reading, discussing, and designing. They have learned about the links between healthy development and learning. They feel creative and inspired. When asked, “How much of this experience has transferred to the whole faculty?” they usually answer, “Sure, we involved the faculty. We gave a half-hour presentation at the April faculty meeting.” And while clearly not enough, that half-hour is generally more attention than either students or parents received.
All of these constituencies need to be more involved and informed in order to address concerns and dispel misperceptions. Rumors are usually worse than reality. People often need multiple exposures to become open to something. Specific issues may need to be discussed with the whole faculty. It’s critical, for example, to clarify that advisory is not like a prep for an academic class. Design teams may have to persuade teachers of advisory’s importance, supply a safety net of activities, reshape the design, or district leaders may need to negotiate an agreement with the union about trade-offs and incentives.
Despite inspiring speakers and convincing research, many people say no when they’re asked to do something new. Eating asparagus. Exercising regularly. Leading an advisory. Therefore, do all the things you can think of—share readings, interview students, demonstrate sample activities—then do three more—and even then, don’t be devastated with a no vote from teachers. Try to handle the conversation so remaining questions lead to more discussion. A no vote with resistance and civility is better than a no vote with rancor and gloating. Use consensus decision-making rather than a quick majority vote, encouraging public accountability for stances. Try private interviews with faculty, inspiring remarks, or a pilot advisory program. An after school version or a couple of community-building afternoons might offer other ways to try on the advisor role.
Pitfall 4: The teachers hired for our new small high school agree that advisory is a good idea but lack crucial skills and understandings.
“I had no idea that our instructionally focused faculty would have such a hard time getting comfortable with the more relational role of advisor.”
“We were so focused on instruction and other start-up tasks that advisory just never got on our agenda in a serious way.”
Strategies: Leaders of start-up schools can be swamped with ordering furniture, creating a whole curriculum, hiring staff, learning to use their budget software, even getting the phones to work. It’s easy to shortchange thoughtful advisory planning, especially in small schools expecting to hold advisory multiple times per week. When these leaders plan induction and orientation for new faculty, they need to design a specific professional learning strand on adolescent development and academic, social, and behavioral student support. The structure of advisory, the practices of personalization, and the power of supportive relationships among and between students and faculty are the necessary complement to academic press and a focus on relevant student learning,, aligned to high standards. In the early years, new schools need someone (a teacher, consultant, or a team) for whom advisory is a prime responsibility, someone who will be on top of activities, materials, events, shaping rituals, ensuring that advisory is not an afterthought.
Pitfall 5: Advisor expectations are vague and there is no clear plan for professional development, coordination, supervision, and assessment.
“We’re going to start holding advisory groups in September. No, we don’t have any professional development scheduled. We just need a few activity ideas. Maybe we’ll insert an hour or two of training along the way in faculty meetings.”
“We’ve had advisory groups for a year now. Some groups are terrific; a real home base for kids. In other groups, the advisor checks email and the students treat it like study hall or nap time.”
Strategies: Too many leaders underestimate what it takes to develop and support effective advisors. Developing comfort, confidence, competency, and consistency requires professional development and much more. Create expectations, which promote advisor accountability. Provide workshops, study groups, mentors, incentives, and pressures to live up to the expectations. Designate a teacher or counselor whose job description will include time and responsibility for coordinating and coaching. Department heads or team leaders who place advisory on meeting agendas or who do observations of advisory give it weight. Of course, the principal sets the overall tone for taking advisory seriously.
Pitfall 6: Advisory doesn’t feel authentic or worth the effort to faculty, students, parents, or administrators.
From a student: “This is really lame.”
From an advisor: “I just don’t see how this is benefiting our students. It’s a waste of time.”
Strategies: Students and teachers easily recognize when something feels artificial or empty. Academic advising should be a key focus of advisory, especially in high schools. Monitoring and tracking students’ academic progress, conferencing with students about their goals and grades, supporting students’ completion of grade level benchmarks, graduation requirements, and personal learning and post-secondary plans provide immediate legitimacy for advisory and link advisory directly to a school’s core academic mission and educational program. When advisors coach students to monitor and assess themselves, they are truly teaching learning to learn skills.
Though we see these six pitfalls repeatedly as we work with schools to establish and strengthen advisories, we witness lots of successes too! Advisories that remain strong over time put relationships first. These advisory groups develop culture-building rituals, encourage student voice, and respond to the needs and interests of advisees. We’d like to hear your stories. Send us your advisory challenges and accomplishments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Carol Miller Lieber (Chicago) and Rachel A. Poliner (Boston) work with large school redesign and restructuring initiatives and new small schools throughout the United States. They are co-authors of Educators for Social Responsibility’s The Advisory Guide, available at www.esrnational.org.