Education Leadership Conference

Never one to fear stirring controversy, Seymour Sarason, PhD, described psychology's attitude as "aloof" from America's schools, in his keynote address at the Education Leadership Conference. What's more, he considers that stance "inexcusable and self-defeating."

By psychology, the Yale education leader and professor of psychology emeritus is referring not to graduate departments of education and the National Association of School Psychologists, but to APA, the American Psychological Society and academic departments of psychology. In his view, those organized psychology entities have focused so exclusively on clinical psychology and basic research, that they have overlooked psychology's application in the schools.

And, Sarason argued, that shortfall would have been a big disappointment to some of the field's founders.

"If you go back to the very small group...that met and formed the American Psychological Association, four of them had a sincere interest in schools and education," said Sarason. "One of them was William James, and if you have any doubt on that score, read his "Talks to Teachers"....He understood something about the phenomenology of teaching."

But with the advent of modern clinical psychology--codified at the 1949 Boulder Conference--Sarason maintains that school psychology took a back seat. Sarason, who attended the Boulder conference, disagreed with its outcome because he believed psychology would soon clash with the medical psychiatric culture and also because "it was going the route of repair and not prevention."

Sarason wants the field's focus to be much broader and to more strongly underscore learning theory and its application, and called on psychologists to "take another route, not necessarily in conflict, which will involve us in the educational, public school arena."

To do that, psychologists need to live in the schools, he believes. Rather than testing interventions from afar and then leaving, they need, he said, to understand the "day-to-day activities, ambience and dynamic culture of schools."

Sharing that sentiment was keynote speaker Michael Silverman, principal of Lea Elementary School in Philadelphia, who noted that resentment builds when outsiders "tell the school staff how they're broke and how they're going to fix them." The result: After the experts leave, "teachers go back into their rooms, close their doors and go back to what they're comfortable doing."

To make a difference, Silverman advised psychologists to partner more closely with teachers and students--promoting what they know about learning, testing and behavior management, asking about schools' needs and brainstorming solutions.

"Get to know the people, work with them and, honestly, you will make an enormous impact that you have never seen before," said Silverman. "I don't know if any of you have ever sat with a child...and helped them move up a couple of reading levels. Let me tell you something, you will get the charge of your life."