Education Leadership Conference

When Belle Wheelan, PhD, graduated from high school more than 30 years ago, about 20 percent of all U.S. jobs required some post-high school training.

Now that figure is greater than 80 percent, said Wheelan, president of the Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS), one of seven regional accrediting organi-zations for colleges and universities around the country.

Wheelan cited that statistic as a major reason college educators need to better assess their students' learning during her keynote address at the APA Education Directorate's 2006 Education Leadership Conference (ELC). Further, she called on psychology to help K-12 schools better prepare students for the rigors of college.

More cooperation is needed between educators at the grade school and college levels, Wheelan said: While young people need more education and training to succeed in the work world than ever before, particularly in science and math, a 2003 survey showed that U.S. high school students ranked 14th in science and 16th in math out of the world's top 20 industrialized nations, Wheelan said.

If colleges want better academic performance from their students, they need to pay attention to the pipeline preparing students for college, and help high schools improve instruction strategies, Wheelan said.

"You're not going to get anything different if you're not going to do anything differently," she said.

A former college president and former Virginia secretary of education, Wheelan said that people in the nation's higher-education system are proud of the way it draws students from all over the world.

But that pride in being on the "top rung" of education needs to be moderated by a desire for improvement, she said.

"Why do we need to improve on perfection? Well, because those folks have taken it back to their countries, and they're outpacing us," she said.

Shifting accreditation's focus

At SACS, that drive for improvement is reflected in a revised accreditation process. Previously, the process required colleges to meet the documentation requirements of 400 "compliance statements." In 2001, SACS reduced that number to 73, Wheelan said.

In addition to focusing on documentation, SACS expects schools to develop a quality enhancement plan to improve overall student learning outcomes, said Wheelan.

For example, a college could examine how students are performing in required mathematics courses. By analyzing test results, instructors could determine what sections of the course students aren't mastering, and design alternative strategies to teach the material, she said.

Psychology is well-positioned to help with both the need for improved assessment in college and better preparation in grade school, Wheelan said. She noted the field's longstanding efforts to teach psychology effectively at the high school and college levels through such efforts as APA's Teachers of Psychology in Secondary Schools (TOPSS), which publishes national standards for high school psychology curricula, and at the college level through APA's Assessment CyberGuide and Learning Goals and Outcomes for the Undergraduate Psychology Major.

Psychologists can also use their expertise in motivation to help students figure out what they want to study once they reach college and understand the need to spend three hours studying for every hour of class. They also can ready a rising generation of young people from different cultural backgrounds with no family history of college to succeed in an unfamiliar environment.

"If we don't help students in K-12 understand the importance of science and math, they will drop out, and there are not enough jobs at Wal-Mart and Target to employ them. We have got to get them into those higher-order jobs," she said.

Further Reading

More information on the CyberGuide is available on the Web at CyberGuide, and the psychology major guidelines will be posted at Education Resources.