School reform across the country is being shaped by theoretical assumptions about how and when children learn rather than scientific theory that takes into account diverse populations from urban schools, psychologists said during the Public Interest Miniconvention on Valuing Diversity at APA's 2000 Annual Convention in Washington, D.C., Aug. 4­8.

Psychologists can help educators close the achievement gap for at-risk students, speakers said, because they're uniquely qualified to provide research, evaluation and assessment. Yet, current reform efforts are being guided by researchers who often look at single, limited theory or hypothesis but aren't challenged to consider other evidence, said Belinda Williams, PsyD, the retired managing director for research and development for the Center for Health, Achievement, Neighborhood, Growth and Ethnic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.

For example, Williams said, school reform programs aimed at increasing student achievement, such as Coalition of Essential Schools, Dimensions of Learning, and Success for All, are good but they aren't comprehensive enough to improve the achievement of all groups of students to socially competitive levels. Often, educators who use these programs fail to ask the researcher what else needs to be done and whether there's other evidence the researcher hasn't addressed.

"What I am suggesting is the need to require scientific rigor in education reform," she said.

Schools are currently structured by grade levels that are based on theories about when children should be able to learn content without taking into account the increased cultural diversity in classrooms.

"You have to pay attention to what learners bring to the learning environment in order to effectively work with them," said James Connelly, PhD, president of the Institute for Research and Reform in Education in Toms River, N.J.

Yet, despite the increased diversity among students, teachers aren't required to take courses in cultural anthropology.

"There is an assumption that if I give you certain information, you should simply learn it and if you don't learn it, I can comfortably assume that there must be something wrong with you," said Williams.

Students who don't succeed in regular classrooms are enrolled in remedial or special education programs, which were originally designed to enable children to return to regular classes. But, she said, students who are placed in these programs seldom return to the classroom.

"Referrals are made," Williams said, "as a result of the teacher's perception of who is capable of being successful in the regular classroom and who needs to be moved to remediation or special education."

But if educators only look at students' deficits and deficiencies, they ignore the possibility of building their strengths, Williams said.

"Greatness resides in every child and it's our task to uncover it," said Maurice Elias, PhD, a professor of psychology in Rutgers University's department of applied, school and community psychology.

Academic achievement shouldn't be the only measure used to assess students, he said. Multiple measures that take into account character development and motivation provide a more accurate assessment than academics alone.

"Psychologists need to help the education community integrate scientific theory within all the decision-making areas of public school," Williams said.