2001 was a landmark year for psychology in the nation's government--the year the White House picked three psychologists to serve as top advisers to the President and as key leaders in education research, special education and children's well-being:

  • At the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), clinical child psychologist Wade Horn, PhD, is overseeing key programs such as welfare and Head Start as the assistant secretary for children and families.

  • At the U.S. Department of Education, school psychologist Robert Pasternack, PhD, is overseeing special education programs for 6 million children and managing a $3 billion vocational rehabilitation program as assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitative services.

  • Also at Education, psychologist Grover Russ Whitehurst, PhD, is shaping the nation's research agenda on education as assistant secretary for educational research and improvement.

Here's a glimpse at what they've been doing during their first months on the job and their thoughts on how psychologists can do more to improve education and services for the disabled and best assist needy families through research and practice.

Putting children first

At the helm of the Administration for Children and Families, Wade Horn directs all HHS programs that promote the social and economic well-being of children and families, including foster care, adoption assistance, child support, child care, support for the economic development of Native Americans, refugee resettlement and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families--a total of $48 billion in government funds.

With such a variety of services under his wing, one of Horn's primary initiatives has been to unite them. "One of my goals is to get all of the programs under my direction to operate as one agency, so that those folks who work on child-care issues know they need to work closely with those who do welfare reform," he says.

More importantly, he's been challenging each program to prove that children are benefiting from their services. "We ought to not just assume that we're achieving that," Horn explains. "We should measure it and hold ourselves accountable for achieving that."

The assistant secretary position isn't Horn's first at HHS. Under the first Bush administration, he served as commissioner for the Administration on Children, Youth and Families. When asked by the current Bush administration if he were interested in going back into government, Horn asked for the assistant secretary job because he felt that it was where he could make the biggest difference for children.

"This was the only job I wanted," he says. "I truly believe that overseeing this collection of programs is where the federal government has the greatest possibility of improving things for kids."

In fact, Horn has discovered there are endless opportunities in HHS-funded programs for psychologists who want to promote children's well-being. Psychologists' expertise is needed in many of the service programs he oversees, says Horn, including areas that aren't often historically connected to psychology.

"One that stands out in my mind is child welfare," he says. "You go to a typical child welfare agency in America and you don't see many psychologists around, but I think that we have a lot to offer."

Horn will play a key role in welfare this year as the 1996 welfare law comes up for renewal. To prepare, Horn and HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson held a "listening tour" in the fall, talking with state officials, welfare offices and welfare recipients in Atlanta, New York, Chicago, Dallas and San Francisco to gather ideas on how the administration should approach renewal.

Empowering people with disabilities

Robert Pasternack is also visiting with parents, teachers, school administrators and students in seven cities to hear about their experiences with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which is up for reauthorization this year. The tour was a way for Pasternack to gather feedback on all aspects of special education so he can ensure that children with disabilities are represented in the president's agenda to give every American child access to a quality education.

"We have an opportunity with IDEA reauthorization to make sure that no child with a disability will be left behind again," says Pasternack, the former state director of special education for New Mexico.

As head of the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, Pasternack--who has more than 25 years of experience working with children with disabilities--is Secretary of Education Rod Paige's chief adviser on special education and vocational rehabilitative and independent living services for adults with disabilities. Pasternack also administers a research program that explores topics ranging from spinal cord rehabilitation to cutting-edge ways to provide captioning in movie theaters for deaf people.

"This is a busy place," says Pasternack. "And the president has asked us to move from a culture that has been too compliance-oriented to one that is more performance-oriented, so we are looking for ways to improve results and improve outcomes for the recipients of all our services."

One of the ways he hopes to do that is through a large-scale study of 8,000 clients to identify the most effective rehabilitative services across the country and then expand those programs to help larger numbers of adults with disabilities. His office is also exploring ways to aid people with disabilities who were affected by the Sept. 11 attacks.

"Some of those people were technologically dependent and because of damage to the technology infrastructure, their lives were affected in a significant way," says Pasternack. "We also have a lot of people [we serve] with mental illnesses, and those people are at a greater risk to trauma and need additional support, services and compassionate care as a result of how their lives were affected."

Psychologists can play a key role in delivering those services, adds Pasternack. He also encourages psychologists to work with children with disabilities, help schools explore ways to reinforce positive behavior in schoolchildren and help teachers identify signs of mental illness, and initiate more research geared toward empowering people with disabilities.

"If psychologists are looking for funding designed to improve outcomes for people with disabilities, we are very interested in talking with them," stresses Pasternack.

Helping schools engage students

Like his fellow assistant secretary, Grover Russ Whitehurst urges psychologists to stimulate more research that can benefit the nation's education system, especially applied research.

"I really encourage psychologists in greater numbers to take education research on as their area of investigation," says Whitehurst, a former professor at the State University of New York at Stony Brook who specializes in literacy, program evaluation and prevention of reading difficulties. "Take those critical-thinking and methodological skills and move them into school settings to tackle problems that are important to teachers and parents."

Some pressing questions, says Whitehurst, are what motivates children to read and become lifelong readers, how to enhance preschool programs so children from all backgrounds have the stimulation they need, and how educators can "capture and engage the whole child."

As head of the Office of Educational Research and Improvement, Whitehurst manages the National Center for Educational Statistics, which collects statistics on nearly every area of education in the country. He directs five national research institutes--modeled after the National Institutes of Health--that conduct and sponsor research on topics ranging from early childhood learning and development to at-risk children and education policy.

In addition, Whitehurst oversees the National Library of Education, the ERIC electronic database for education that serves as a resource to researchers around the world and the Office for Reform Assistance and Dissemination, which is comprised of 11 regional labs across the country that conduct research and provide education information to school officials, parents, teachers and state legislatures.

Whitehurst's main goal is to ensure that "every piece of research we sponsor is of the highest quality, and can compete in terms of quality and rigor with research conducted in other fields," he says.

Topics his office will explore in depth include ways to enhance teacher training to maximize student learning; how to construct assessment systems so they help policy-makers, teachers and learners; and reading comprehension. Whitehurst is also collaborating with the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development to explore how schools can best help bilingual schoolchildren and with the HHS to enhance preschool education.