Speaking of Education

Late last year, APA was among the nearly 30 organizations that approved Committing to Quality: Guidelines for Assessment and Accountability, a set of guidelines that encourages colleges and universities to promote evidence-based education and strive to be more transparent about the competencies obtained by students. When the document was released at the meeting of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, David Paris, executive director of the New Leadership Alliance for Student Learning and Accountability, noted that APA was ahead of many disciplines in that our association's policies were already consistent with these guidelines.

Indeed, it was easy for APA to endorse those guidelines since they are very similar to the APA Principles for Quality Undergraduate Education in Psychology adopted by the Council of Representatives in 2011. It is more difficult, however, to address how to determine that quality and how to promote it.

Historically, we assessed quality in educational programs by looking at input variables, such as faculty qualifications and educational resources. But over the last 20 years, we have moved to an outcomes-based approach as society has sought more transparency and accountability for its investment in higher education. When the public is not confident about universities' and colleges' ability to meet society's needs, more regulation ensues — witness the recent attempts by the U.S. Department of Education to define the quality of programs of teacher education by downstream assessment of the learning outcomes of students taught by program graduates.

In some areas of professional psychology we have accreditation as a formal mechanism for assessing quality and quality improvement. The APA Commission on Accreditation (CoA) is the only accrediting body recognized by the U.S. Secretary of Education to review programs that seek to prepare students to enter professional psychology practice. It is unlike any other APA governance group in that it is independent in its decision-making, financially self-supporting and comprises representatives from multiple independent psychology organizations, not just APA. The CoA itself must follow acceptable practices in order to maintain its recognition by the Department of Education and the Council of Higher Education Accreditation, both of which review its work and its quality improvement efforts. Although there will always be tensions in a profession about what the criteria for accreditation should be, those tensions reflect a healthy process of critique and review and provide a basis for continuous self-study by CoA and the field itself. The lightning rod function of the accrediting body can serve to illuminate the field.

I am not suggesting that other areas of psychology education use accreditation as a way to assure quality and promote quality enhancement, but I do want to say that an integral part of APA's commitment to quality is that it includes an approach that uses evidence to improve educational processes and promote student learning. This focus on assessment in education is broader than simply determining student learning status; assessment is the foundation for a process of evidence-based quality improvement — without which there cannot be true quality in education.

"Promoting Quality" is the theme of the 2012 Education Leadership Conference, Sept. 8–11, and I eagerly await the discussions by our leaders across all levels of education. It is not enough for us to be committed to values and to develop policy statements. Instead, we need to determine what we need to be doing to promote quality. What assurance do we have that quality is being achieved in psychology education? And how do we advance the culture of continuous quality improvement in education across all levels?

The core principles of a profession, of which teaching is one, are not just to ensure quality, but to ensure continued enhancement of quality; it is not a static process. I welcome any input from our members that I can make available to this year's participants.