Psychologists have a range of clinical, research and organizational skills to contribute to the nation's efforts to improve education, but that isn't always apparent to other educators and researchers, said psychologist Stephen A. Rollin, EdD, at APA's 2003 Annual Convention.

That's why he and his colleagues from APA Div. 17 (Society of Counseling Psychology) teamed with Divs. 15 (Educational) and 16 (School) to create the Coalition for Psychology in Schools in Education. Their aim, he explained, is to pull together the diverse perspectives of psychologists who are interested in research on preschool through high school education. It's an effort, coalition members say, inspired by APA President Robert J. Sternberg's call for more unity in the profession.

At a convention symposium, representatives from all three founding divisions talked about how their expertise can contribute to a particularly salient education issue--the recent No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) that, among other things, mandates high-stakes testing, focuses on teacher quality and calls for research-based practices.

"It redefines the role of the federal government in K through 12," said Rollin of Florida State University, who chairs the coalition. Though federal funding accounts for only 7 percent of education budgets, he said, "clearly No Child Left Behind has implications way beyond the amount of funding that the federal government provides for American education."

Despite those funding woes, there are great opportunities for psychologists, said Rollin and the other presenters. For example, psychologists can contribute to family literacy programs, help define what is meant by a highly qualified teacher, help teachers select appropriate assessments and diagnostic tools, monitor and evaluate education programs, and serve as a resource for schools as they implement the scientific evaluation methods required by NCLB--just to name a few.

"We have a century-plus of experience and information to bring to bear on these tasks," said Patricia Alexander, PhD, of the University of Maryland, College Park, and Div. 15's representative to the coalition.

Some specific areas of need noted by Alexander and other presenters at the session include:

  • Psychologists' research has shown that learning is affected by characteristics of the student, the educational task, the learning environment and the teacher--but legislation and educational research often neglect to take into account that these factors interact, Alexander said.

Her worry, she said, is that reforms that fail to address learning as a whole will not benefit students in the long run--producing only short-term spikes in achievement scores instead of long-term gains in real learning.

  • School psychologists need to focus on providing instructionally relevant information that teachers can put directly into use in the classroom, said Jane C. Conoley, PhD, of Texas A&M University, who represents Div. 16 on the coalition.

For example, she said, many psychological assessments are designed to be conducted one-on-one, a difficult task for a teacher in a 25-student classroom who also faces the pressure of high-stakes tests and increasingly centralized curricula.

"[Those pressures] put quite a different perspective on whether or not they feel open to trying the suggestions from the psychologist," Conoley explained. In other words, she said, teachers are reluctant to try anything that's not in the standard curriculum, since their jobs, salaries and status with other teachers depend on how their students perform on tests.

  • Children in minority and poor schools are more likely to have an unqualified, uncertified teacher, said Div. 17 and coalition member Mary Brabeck, PhD, incoming dean of New York University's Steinhardt School of Education.

"If you put money into the development of quality teachers, it matters with student achievement," said Brabeck, citing research that found teacher quality yields greater returns in student achievement than small class size and other reforms.

Future ideas

The coalition also held a follow-up meeting on future activities. Possibilities include training courses, pamphlets and further involvement with education legislation. Coalition representatives will also present at conferences of such groups as the American Educational Research Association. The group, sponsored by APA's Education Directorate, aims to:

  • Improve the quality of teacher preparation and professional development.

  • Serve the needs of parents to ultimately improve the learning conditions for school children.

  • Make education more central to APA's agenda.

The coalition has expanded from its three founding divisions to include representatives from Divs. 5 (Evaluation, Measurement and Statistics), 25 (Behavior Analysis), 27 (Society for Community Research and Action), 35 (Society for the Psychology of Women), 37 (Child, Youth and Family Services), 53 (Society of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology) and 54 (Society of Pediatric Psychology), as well as the Child and Adolescent Caucus of APA's Council of Representatives, APA's Board of Educational Affairs, Teachers of Psychology in Secondary Schools and the Committee on Psychological Tests and Assessment. Additional constituencies are expected to join.

Further Reading

For more information, contact Rollin atrollin@coe.fsu.eduor Rena Subotnik, PhD, of APA's Education Directorate atrsubotnik@apa.org.