Successfully securing more than $24 million in educational grants for psychologists in training. Re-envisioning undergraduate education. Giving grad school programs and students a resource for assessing students’ competencies. Creating lesson plans and an online psychology laboratory for high school teachers, undergraduate faculty and their students. Those are just some of the accomplishments of APA’s Education Directorate, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year.

The three psychologists who have led the directorate and others point to a long list of successes, including the creation of the Graduate Psychology Education program, efforts to engage psychology educators at every level and greatly expanded continuing education (CE) options.

Most of all, says founding Executive Director Joanne E. Callan, PhD, the directorate has given psychology educators a voice within APA.

“It had become increasingly clear that APA as a member organization had a whole group of people whose primary interest was not represented by the Science, Public Interest or Practice Directorates,” says Callan, now a psychology professor at the California School of Professional Psychology at Alliant International University in San Diego. “Those who identified primarily as educators needed a home.”

In those early years, Callan focused on creating that home — hiring staff, securing funding and getting the directorate off the ground. But beyond that, Callan cites two areas of which she’s especially proud. First, the directorate laid the groundwork for advocacy efforts to address federal policies regarding education. In addition, the directorate developed a psychopharmacology curriculum that was fundamental to the development of a model curriculum now used by psychologists who seek postdoctoral education and training to obtain prescriptive privileges.

In 1995, when Jill N. Reich, PhD, took over as executive director, the directorate was able to build on those early successes and expand into new areas.

One focus was to reach out to educators at all levels, not just those in graduate programs. A 1997–2001 initiative called the Psychology Partnerships Project, for example, sought to foster communication and collaboration among psychology teachers in all academic settings, from high schools and community colleges to undergraduate and graduate programs.

“The majority of the public will know our discipline from a course taken in high school or as an undergraduate student,” says Reich. “Thus, all psychologists have a stake in how our discipline is presented at these levels of education and the kinds of learning achieved.”

The directorate also launched Psychology Teachers at Community Colleges, a group designed to cultivate a professional identity for psychology teachers at two-year colleges.

“By bringing together a network of faculty, you can enhance their identity, motivation and access to information — all of which is really important to the learning enterprise,” says Reich, now vice president for academic affairs and dean of the faculty at Bates College.

For the past decade, Cynthia D. Belar, PhD, has led the directorate. Her vision: to advance education in psychology and advance psychology in education.

“Educators are the stewards or custodians of the discipline,” says Belar, adding that that role also makes education a lightning rod for tensions over such issues as psychology’s identity. Given the breadth and diversity of the discipline, conflicts occur as to what and how psychology is to be taught as well as how psychologists are to be prepared. “Education is the fundamental infrastructure for the whole discipline — not just for practice, science or public interest — but in creating the next generation of psychologists for all those purposes.”

Advocacy successes

Advocacy initiatives are a key part of the directorate’s strategy.

The Graduate Psychology Education program is the directorate’s biggest advocacy success, says Nina Levitt, EdD, associate executive director of the education government relations office. The federal program, established in 2001, has awarded 70 grants providing more than $24 million to doctoral, postdoctoral and internship programs to train psychologists alongside other health professionals in providing mental and behavioral health services to underserved populations.

“Until we came along, federal funding for psychology training was almost zero,” says Levitt. “This program has put psychology on the radar screen.”

That’s not the only advocacy success. Thanks to the directorate, psychologists also gained expanded eligibility in the National Health Service Corps, which recruits health professionals to work in high-need areas in exchange for scholarships or loan repayment. The directorate successfully advocated for the creation of the Center for Deployment Psychology, which trains military and civilian psychologists to treat veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injuries and readjustment problems. And, says Levitt, the directorate was the significant force behind a major section of the Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Act, which supports mental and behavioral health services for college students.

The directorate’s annual Education Leadership Conferences provide another avenue for advocacy. Launched in 2001, the conferences give psychology education and training groups a chance to come together to share information and address issues of mutual concern, such as accountability, work force preparation and disconnects in the educational pipeline. “It’s also the one time a year the education and training community comes together to promote a message on Capitol Hill,” adds Belar.

Other highlights

The directorate has made progress at every level of education and training:

  • Precollege education. Almost a third of high school graduates take psychology, says Belar, and the directorate helps make sure they’re taught psychology as a science. “Very few of these students go on to become psychologists,” she says, “but these classes play a crucial role in promoting psychological literacy among our citizenry.” To help achieve that goal, APA’s National Standards for High School Psychology Curricula outline the skills and knowledge students should have upon completing a high school psychology class. APA’s Teachers of Psychology in Secondary Schools, established in 1993, has developed lesson plans for high school teachers, while APA’s Online Psychology Laboratory offers interactive resources for teaching psychology as a science. In addition to focusing on the teaching of psychology, the directorate fosters the application of psychological science to all education. By establishing the Coalition for Psychology in Schools and Education — composed of 15 APA divisions and half a dozen affiliated groups — it engaged the community of psychologists interested in K–12 education and developed such projects as a brochure for new teachers, a survey of teachers’ needs and 10 online modules on instructional strategies associated with cognitive, social and behavioral issues.

  • Undergraduate education. In 1991, APA sponsored a national conference designed to assess the condition of undergraduate psychology education — the first such conference in more than 30 years. Building on that event, APA sponsored a second conference in 2008, which brought 80 psychologists together to design the best possible future for undergraduate psychology education — a charge that culminated in the book “Undergraduate Education in Psychology: A Blueprint for the Future of the Discipline” (APA, 2009). The discussion continues; earlier this year, the directorate co-sponsored an e-conference to further explore the conference’s themes. The directorate also developed two other key resources: the APA Guidelines for the Undergraduate Psychology Major and the Assessment CyberGuide.

  • Graduate and postgraduate education. Working with APA’s Board of Educational Affairs and Council of Chairs of Training Councils, the directorate developed and disseminated a document outlining the core competencies for entry to practicum, internship and practice. The directorate also supports the Commission for the Recognition of Specialties and Proficiencies in Professional Psychology, which advises APA’s Council of Representatives on recognizing new specialty and proficiency areas. In addition, the directorate — along with the Practice Directorate — is responsible for APA’s newest governance group, the RxP Designation Committee. This group is charged with reviewing postdoctoral psychopharmacology programs hoping to be designated as meeting APA’s quality standards.

  • Accreditation. In 1991, APA’s Committee on Accreditation became a much larger group with sole accreditation decision-making authority. In 2008, it evolved into a full-fledged commission, with much broader-based representation. Before the change, for example, postdoctoral programs weren’t represented on the committee even though they are accredited. Each year, the commission reviews between 200 and 250 programs, most of them seeking re-accreditation.

  • Continuing education. The number and sophistication of APA’s CE offerings have increased dramatically. APA now offers more than 50 online programs, for example — quadruple the number offered just a year ago. The number of CE sessions the office supports at APA’s Annual Convention has more than doubled, from 150 in 2008 to 315 this year. APA’s newest offerings include an Interactive Classroom. The number of APA-approved organizations providing CE for psychologists has also jumped; the office now works with 793 APA-approved CE sponsors — a 22 percent increase since 1998.

These successes are just the beginning, says Belar. Future priorities include helping the public keep up with advances in the field, increasing the diversity of students in psychology’s educational “pipeline” and training psychologists to work with other disciplines in all kinds of work settings.

“I was only going to come to APA for two or three years and didn’t even sell my house in Florida because I was sure I was going back,” says Belar. “There’s just so much to do I don’t feel I’m done yet.”

Rebecca A. Clay is a writer in Washington, D.C.