Talk to any member of APA's Committee on Accreditation (CoA), and they'll say they've been very busy, working on reforms that are no less than critical for the next generation of psychology practitioners and educators.
The group, which carefully reviews and accredits hundreds of doctoral, postdoctoral and internship psychology programs each year, has been working furiously to streamline the path a program takes to gain the committee's approval--a seal that's often imperative for psychologists to gain professional licensure or to practice in a different state.
CoA is still a young group: Beginning in 1991, APA revamped the committee and the accreditation guidelines in response to concerns about the effectiveness of the previous process. The result, implemented in 1996, included new standards for programs, outlined the Guidelines and Principles of Accreditation of Programs in Professional Psychology (G&P), new committee operating procedures and changes in CoA's composition.
"Under the old criteria, the emphasis of reviewing was on whether or not programs had the resources and systems in place to do training," explains Susan Phillips, PhD, CoA chair. "Now, it's not so much on resources--although you have to have them--but on whether programs actually train students."
That, she says, allows for more flexibility in how programs can show they are providing a quality education.
In addition, while the previous committee consisted of eight or nine members from a limited pool, the new CoA's 21 committee members represent a broad constituency of groups with a stake in psychology education.
Honing the process
Because programs are reviewed as much as seven years apart, the first program review cycle under the new guidelines is still under way. However, CoA is working to gauge the new system's successes and shortcomings.
For example, the committee sent out a customer-satisfaction survey last year to solicit ideas on how to improve accreditation. Overall, both internship and doctoral programs were moderately to very satisfied with the site-visit process, decision letters, instructional materials and other aspects of the accreditation process.
From this survey and other feedback, CoA has identified several aspects of the G&P and the CoA operating procedures that could use some fine-tuning. The proposed changes will need to be approved by APA's Council of Representatives following a six-month public comment period, which ends Sept. 1. (The proposal and instructions on how to provide input are available online at the Accreditation Web site.)
Many of the changes are minor, but a few are significant, including:
Examining the pros and cons of removing a footnote that exempts religion-affiliated programs from the requirement that programs make efforts to "attract and retain students and faculty from differing ethnic, racial and personal backgrounds" in certain circumstances. CoA is requesting feedback on the deletion because the footnote could be interpreted as providing protection for institutions that intentionally or unintentionally discriminate.
Broadening the definition of peer socialization. Rephrasing the requirement that programs provide peer socialization will allow postdoctoral programs with only one resident to meet the G&P as long as they provide other appropriate peer interaction. CoA expects the change will allow more postdoctoral programs to apply for and receive accreditation.
Changing the maximum interval between internship site visits from five to seven years.
Meanwhile, a joint APA Board of Educational Affairs (BEA) and CoA task force is reviewing the educational and training membership of CoA, which constitutes about half of the committee.
"Those seats are to be reviewed to see if the committee's composition is keeping up with the field," explains Phillips, who co-chairs the task force.
The task force, which includes representatives from several groups, will make a recommendation to CoA and BEA on whether to keep or modify the current representation--two representatives each from Council of University Directors of Clinical Psychology, Council of Counseling Psychology Training Programs, Council of Directors of School Psychology Programs, National Council of Schools and Programs of Professional Psychology and Association of Psychology Postdoctoral and Internship Centers.
(Other groups represented on the committee whose representation is not under review include Council of Graduate Departments of Psychology, APA Board of Professional Affairs and Committee for Advancement of Professional Practice, American Psychological Association of Graduate Students and members of the general public.)
"The group will work up a couple of options," says Phillips, "And then put them out for public comment, including holding an hour session at APA's convention." The session, "Review of CoA Domain II--professional schools and training programs," is scheduled for 8 a.m. on Sunday, Aug. 26.
The work ahead
CoA currently accredits 814 programs. In April, the committee accredited its first postdoctoral residency programs in a specialty of professional psychology--both in clinical health psychology, bringing the number of accredited postdoctoral programs to seven. The committee expects that number to grow, partly because of changes to the G&P, but also because the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has offered funding for a postdoctoral year at an accredited program.
"Postdoctoral programs are really a new area of accreditation," explains committee member Martha Dennis Christiansen, PhD. "It's an area where we're getting prepared for more applications, working to understand more about the issues those programs face and trying to be responsive to them."
The committee also plans to continue teasing out the issues of what is meant by substantive areas and specialties in psychology--and how that relates to accrediting programs. CoA is working to articulate the differences in the field's multiple definitions of a specialty or substantive area to then determine how those differences might be resolved in the context of accreditation. For example, some psychologists believe that specialties should be accredited at the doctoral level, while others say that doctoral programs should be broad-based and specialties should only be recognized at the postdoctoral level.
"Often the assumption is that the terms mean the same thing, but they don't in accreditation," explains Phillips. "In accreditation language, a specialty is an area of advanced practice for which training is undertaken at the postdoctoral level."
Phillips will co-chair a discussion of these issues at APA's Annual Convention titled "Recognition and accreditation of specialties--an open forum," scheduled for 2 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 24.
In addition, "the committee is working diligently to continue improvement in the self-study and application processes to really make them as clear and efficient as possible," says Christiansen.
And, on a more informal basis, the committee has made outreach to programs a high priority. That includes soliciting feedback once a program has gone through the accreditation process and working with individual programs as they go through accreditation for the first time. For example, CoA conducts workshops for training directors on how to do a self-study and has formed a subcommittee to help internship programs conduct self-studies in a more time-efficient way.
Another upcoming issue for CoA is looking at how the committee evaluates the adequacy of a program's faculty. New nontraditional models--such as distance learning programs or programs with many part-time faculty--present unique challenges, says Phillips, in walking the fine line that ensures quality, but does not hamper innovation.
"Accreditation is never right on the forefront but never should be lagging behind," she says, when explaining the committee's approach to psychology's emerging issues.
Recognition in their own field
CoA's work under the leadership of past-chair Tom Jackson, PhD, was acknowledged in 1999 by the U.S. Department of Education when CoA was recognized as the sole accrediting body for the field of psychology. This was an important step, says Susan Zlotlow, PhD, director of APA's Office on Program Consultation and Accreditation, because congressional funds are often only allocated for students affiliated with a federally accredited field.
In addition, CoA is now working to gain full recognition by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) Committee on Recognition. CHEA consists of university-based presidents, provost and similar officials and recognizes quality accrediting bodies.
In January, CHEA determined that CoA was eligible to begin the review and accreditation process. The committee is now undertaking a self-evaluation to prove that CoA meets the CHEA recognition standards. The nod from CHEA is important, says Zlotlow, because it signifies higher education's stamp of approval.
For more information, contact APA's Office of Program Consultation and Accreditation at (202) 336-5979, or visit the Accreditation Web site.