Feature

Psychology has an unprecedented opportunity to make a difference in education. Never before has the need for the implementation of scientific research on education been directly written into U.S. legislation. The "No Child Left Behind" legislation does just that.

In addition, several psychologists are in top spots in the Bush administration: Russ Whitehurst, PhD, is assistant secretary for educational research and improvement. Valerie Reyna, PhD, is deputy assistant director of education. Bob Pasternack, PhD, is assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitative services. Wade Horn, PhD, is assistant secretary for the Administration of Children and Families. And G. Reid Lyon, PhD, is chief of the Child Development and Behavior Branch of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and advisor to the Bush administration on education and child development issues.

But will psychologists use this opportunity finally to be heard, or will they take a pass?

We believe that until we, as psychologists, get our own house in order, we will miss this historic opportunity to improve the nation's educational system. And our house is not in order. The problem, perhaps, is not so much with individual psychologists but with a configuration of elements within the culture of academic (and much other) psychology that renders psychology less useful to education than it could or should be.

What are the elements of the university culture and sometimes even of the culture of psychological practice that impede psychology's contribution to education?

  • The marginalizing of educational and school psychology. The fields that are in a position to make a difference to education are school and especially educational psychology. But both specializations are almost always in schools of education, not in departments of psychology. Psychological research applied to education is marginalized and thought, by some, not to be part of psychology proper. There is nothing wrong with educational psychology or school psychology being in education schools; but psychology departments often have a particularly strong scientific-research culture that many education schools do not have, or have quite so pervasively. Also, the administrative home for academic departments often determines the assumptions (and research methods) that are passed on to students. For instance, many (although certainly not all) educators without a background in psychology approach education primarily in terms of outcome, with some emphasis on instructional practice. Psychologists, on the other hand, often take more of a process-based approach: How do children learn? What factors contribute to cognitive growth? As a result, the research that might most make a difference to education (that is, research that uncovers the processes of learning and informs interventions capitalizing on such findings) is essentially prevented from happening in the "central station" of academic psychology--the psychology department. Rather than psychologists in psychology departments being praised for doing scientific research that may make a difference to education, they may be advised to find a venue other than their present one in which to do the research.

  • The confusion of "scientific research applied to education" with "unscientific research." Many researchers in psychology look at research applied to education, even if it is scientifically based and theoretically motivated, as of a lower species than supposedly "basic" research that has no clear application. The result is that young scientists and even more mature scientists who wish to do research that might make a difference to education may be discouraged from doing so because of the view that such research is somehow of lesser academic quality or value than research without such application. Such research can be as scientifically important as other research, but it is not viewed as such. Psychologists are discouraged from doing it by an incorrect perception.

  • The devaluing of field research. Some psychologists further devalue field research, preferring research conducted in a laboratory. Their view may be--correctly--that it is easier to control extraneous variables in a laboratory (see Sternberg & Grigorenko, 1999). Indeed, laboratory research can be useful. But schools are extremely complex, multifaceted environments, and the transfer of phenomena and interventions from laboratory to school--like the transfer of the effectiveness of phenomena and interventions from the test-tube to the everyday human condition--cannot be assured. Some of the potentially most useful research, therefore, may never get done because it is viewed as lacking sufficient prestige.

This devaluation of field research reinforces the view among many policy-makers that academic psychology borders on irrelevance. Indeed, most of the time, policy-makers want to solve the nation's persistent educational problems and they want to be able to trust the solutions recommended by those advising them. In doing so, they ask for the most scientifically solid information available about the nature and scope of the problems in education, the reasons why the problems exist, and what can be done about them. The information they request must be presented with clarity and must link our understanding of the problems with specific interventions that are effective in addressing the problems.

Unfortunately, more times than not, the psychology profession falls short in contributing to solutions that make a positive, long-lasting difference in complex educational environments. In many subspecialties of psychology that have attempted to inform educational policies and practices, description of the problems has been strong, but a clear understanding of causation and how complex events can be configured to produce genuine development, learning and achievement in school and classroom settings is limited. This is particularly true in developmental psychology.

Moreover, our problem-solving and communication skills need examination. One of the co-authors interacts frequently with congressional members and their staffs during testimony or in an advisory capacity. Within this context, he hears routinely that obtaining and using advice from psychologists is difficult because of the tendency to use jargon, to polarize issues and to debate ideas ad nauseum in lieu of identifying solutions. There is too much truth to this observation. Consider the contentious exchanges on the nature versus nurture discussions, the polarized views that still exist on early childhood education and the apparently intractable divisiveness in the reading area. Unfor-tunately, psychologists in the policy arena frequently stake out philosophical positions without sufficient scientific facts and promote or defend positions on the basis of appeals to authority, rather than objective evidence. This tendency erodes trust in our advice and interferes with our ability to recommend responsible policy.

  • An emphasis on short-term studies with easily packaged bits. Many scientists, especially young ones, need to be concerned about promotions and tenure. Even more mature scientists may be eager not to convey the impression that they are somehow "out of the loop"--either no longer publishing much or publishing studies that are somehow of lesser merit than what they published earlier. So, the result may be that psychological scientists become very concerned with short-term results that preferably can be packaged as multiple isolable bits that can be sent to different journals. Research that makes a difference to schools, however, often will be neither short-term nor easily divisible, with the result that opportunities for relevant research may be lost.

  • The misconception of "upscaling" as large-scale mindless replication. In order for psychological research to be applied productively to education, it will have to be shown to be applicable and repeatable across diverse kinds of school situations. The challenges of this type of upscaling are anything but mindless or trivial. Different schools serve different populations, age groups, skill levels, ethnic groups and value systems. The content taught, and the methods used to teach it, may vary from one school district to the next. Local control of education, as it is practiced in American education, introduces a host of idiosyncratic characteristics that become difficult (but not impossible) to accommodate and account for in a research context. Phenomena that show up in one place may not in another; interventions that work in one place may not in another. But until upscaling is identified as a genuine and important challenge for psychological research, it is likely that many psychologists will eschew it, and that those who do it may be associated with commercial rather than academic environments.

We have argued that the "culture of academic psychology" is, at best, often indifferent to, and, at worst, often antipathetic to the kinds of research that might make the most difference in education. As is true of most cultural customs, the customs we have described often are subtle. They are more likely to be embedded in a culture as tacit, informal knowledge than as spoken, formal knowledge. Deeply embedded and subtle customs are often those that are the most resistant to change, because they are customs people often do not even realize they have.

We are not the first to seek to understand this problem. Last year, APA sponsored a successful Education Leadership Conference, which dealt with many of the same issues addressed here. Leaders in the field such as Seymour Sarason, PhD, Philip G. Zimbardo, PhD, Martin E.P. Seligman, PhD, the late Richard Snow, and many others have been dealing with the issues we raise, and related issues, for a long time. In writing this article, we hope to build on their work, and perhaps add a few new ideas here and there that may help continue the dialogue on how we, as psychologists, can most effectively help transform education to reflect the contributions psychology has to offer.

One would like to believe that things are getting better. But in some ways, they are getting worse. As psychologists see themselves as being able to compete with biologists and other professionals as "hard scientists," there is more emphasis on the appearance of hard science, sometimes at the expense of substance. A grant reviewer or a referee for a journal article may care more that a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) procedure was done rather than whether this protocol revealed anything of scientific or clinical importance.

If one looks at the cognitive psychology of the 1960s to the 1980s, for example, it is easy to see applications of findings to education. Phenomena such as the spacing effect, transfer of training and the serial-position effect all had immediate applications to education, but the practical applications of these findings have never been emphasized. An author of this article, attending a conference of scientific leaders in cognitive neuropsychology, asked what possible application to education any of the research he had heard about might have. A researcher replied that the field of memory, at least, had moved away from doing research that is likely to have obvious or even not-so-obvious applications to education. Regrettably, this movement away from application is one in which many psychologists take pride. Our goal is not to criticize basic research or research that happens to use fMRI; rather it is to point out that, more and more, the culture of much academic research seems to be divorcing itself from practical application.

In a certain sense, some academic psychologists have "talked out of two sides of their mouths." They have wanted to make a difference, but given the opportunity, have often failed to avail themselves of it. In the past, they have encountered many resistances, and so have had a ready excuse for not doing the research that can make a difference. But now, with a governmental structure welcoming rather than resisting scientific research on education, we no longer have to pry open the doors to school access: The doors are open. Will we choose to enter them, or will we slam them shut in our own faces?

We, as psychologists, can make a difference in education. But first we have to want to. To want to, we have to give up some of the petty rituals of academic prestige that have come to mean so much to us. To open the doors to influence education, we have to give them up, or at least put them aside while we focus on important problems in the real world. Can we?

Robert J. Sternberg, PhD, is a professor of psychology at Yale University and APA's president-elect. G. Reid Lyon is chief of the Child Development and Behavior Branch of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and advisor to the Bush administration on education and child development issues.