Education Leadership Conference

Psychologists at the 2003 Education Leadership Conference (ELC) carved out future directions in accountability, assessment and advocacy that K-12 schools and universities can pursue to meet the higher educational standards called for by the public and legislators.

"With the application of psychology to our nation's education, we can significantly advance psychology's contribution to the public welfare," Cynthia Belar, PhD, executive director of APA's Education Directorate, told participants at this year's conference, titled "Creating a voice for education in psychology: accountability, assessment and advocacy."

In addition, Belar emphasized that psychologists' educational know-how can bolster education and training in their own field. Indeed, APA's Board of Educational Affairs created ELC in 2001 with the ultimate goal of bringing psychologists together to influence public policy on education in psychology and psychology in education, Belar said.

Education directions: graduate school on down

Participants in this year's four ELC workshops--which covered professional training, graduate and undergraduate education, and psychology applications in schools--offered the following ideas for improving education:

  • Professional training. Graduate and postgraduate professional training programs should pay careful attention to improving the assessment of professional competencies, workshop participants said.

Formative and summative assessments--tests that give feedback to build and develop a student's professional skills and tests that have a gatekeeping function--need to take into account issues such as working with diverse clients and maintaining ethical standards, the group noted. In particular, the group discussed the use of standardized patient techniques in both formative and summative evaluations of therapy and assessment skills, and how they might be used to improve professional education and training.

Improved assessments of professional competencies can provide students with more useful, directly applicable feedback on their performance as well as promote confidence in the graduates of psychology training programs as competent health-care providers.

Participants felt that additional discussion both at the local level, within training programs, as well as at the national level of the profession, needs to occur to improve the overall quality of these assessments.

  • Graduate training. Workshop participants developed a series of questions on graduate education that psychology graduate departments can use to conduct self-studies. Among the sample questions they generated: What resources does a department need to teach and model ethical conduct, and how does a department foster a commitment to lifelong learning among students?

"Being able to ask the critical questions is crucial to advancing research," said Paul Nelson, PhD, organizer of ELC's graduate training workshop and APA's director of graduate education and training. "This was an exercise in thinking about the advancement of scholarship in a broader sense than most departments have probably thought of previously."

Workshop participants recommended that departments encourage interdisciplinary education, training and collaboration among other disciplines. Also, participants suggested APA's Education Directorate identify and evaluate innovative models of education and training in psychology graduate programs.

  • Undergraduate education. APA President-elect Diane Halpern, PhD, said one of the most controversial and important issues in higher education is implementing standardized tests to assess learning in undergraduate education--beyond course-specific, professor-generated course examinations. Such assessments are needed, Halpern said, so that undergraduate programs can improve their offerings and bolster student performance.

"Because so many students are below international averages," she said, "we're losing our competitive advantage as a world leader."

Halpern said university departments need to decide what proficiencies their students should leave with and test students to make sure they are meeting those goals.

Workshop participants recommended that psychology departments consider the time involved in comprehensive assessment and develop mechanisms for rewarding faculty who take it on as a formal responsibility. Faculty members should focus on improving undergraduate assessment models and making sure outcome-focused initiatives are carried out. Meanwhile, research psychologists can build the science of assessment and develop related materials for a variety of institutions.

  • Applications to education. Participants stressed the importance of psychology's role in fostering high-quality teacher preparation and professional development. Psychology offers expertise in assessment of pre- and in-service teacher skills and knowledge as well as evidence-based teaching practices at every level of schooling, they said. This expertise, participants added, should be tapped more by policy-makers and the education community and promoted more actively within psychology.

"Teacher quality really ought to be first on everyone's list in improving schools," said Edward Clifton, a workshop panelist and director of assessment development at the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. To help boost quality, he suggested, psychologists can encourage teachers to become nationally board-certified, meaning they meet specified teaching skills and standards. "The impact of a good or bad teacher can result in a whole grade level of a difference," Clifton said.

Psychologists should also inform teachers about effective, research-based teaching practices and related resources, participants said. Indeed, in closing the conference's workshop sessions, APA President Robert J. Sternberg, PhD, noted psychologists' leadership role in bringing science and quality to the nation's educational system. He urged attendees to take responsibility for that role by, for example, demanding that such federal mandates as computers in every classroom be fully funded by Congress, informing the debate on best practices in education and working to make existing legislation, such as the No Child Left Behind Act, as functional as possible.

"If teachers are going to teach to tests, and they are--and I suspect they will continue to under the current laws--then it's incumbent to us to make great tests," Sternberg said.