Feature

Ten years ago, social studies or gym teachers often were tapped to be a high school's psychology teacher. But times have changed. Today's high school psychology teachers are more prepared than ever before, thanks to Teachers of Psychology in Secondary Schools (TOPSS).

Now as TOPSS celebrates a decade of serving as a resource and voice for psychology teachers in high schools, members are looking back proudly at the organization's accomplishments. In those 10 years, TOPSS members have seen psychology stretch further into American classrooms and have worked to promote the scientific teaching of psychology to a younger generation.

8 million students and growing

High school psychology teacher Craig W. Gruber remembers teaching an "experimental" Advanced Placement (AP) psychology class with only 15 students 10 years ago at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Md. This year, 208 students signed up for the three types of psychology courses now offered at the school: AP, introductory psychology and internship courses.

These days, Gruber teaches psychology full time, and the school is hiring a second psychology teacher to deal with the increase. "And that's just at the school where I work," he says. "We're seeing an increase in numbers like that around the country."

In fact, in the last 10 years, about 8 million students in high schools nationwide have taken a high school psychology course, and TOPSS's 2,000 members have created more scientifically based psychology courses.

The APA-sponsored network promotes professional development among high school psychology teachers through its national teaching standards, lesson plans, teacher workshops and quarterly newsletter "Psychology Teacher Network." TOPSS also offers educational opportunities for students, such as essay contests and recognizing student achievement.

TOPSS has helped raise the bar in high school psychology teaching, TOPSS members say. Students emerge from psychology classes learning there's more to psychology than just Freud, says Barney Beins, PhD, APA's director of precollege and undergraduate programs. High school psychology, he says, serves as a useful vehicle to teach critical thinking and the scientific method in a format that interests high school students.

"The TOPSS standards have been very helpful to teachers, providing them with a guideline on what should be taught, strategies for presenting the information and a network of teachers to get advice and help from," says Debra Park, TOPSS member-at-large. In 1999, TOPSS helped to establish the National Standards for Teaching of High School Psychology. Adds Gruber: "[The standards] allowed us to say not only that psychology is in fact a science but also that we need to teach it as such."

An expanding agenda

Currently, TOPSS members are contacting state education departments to research where states stand on the certification of psychology teachers. States vary on their requirements for high school psychology teachers: Some require a college degree or a certain number of credit hours of psychology study, while other states require no background in psychology. TOPSS strives to provide support for teachers and to make the educational community aware of the importance of teaching psychology in high schools, Park says.

"It is important that psychology is not put on the backburner, lost in the maze of new state content standards, required assessments and graduation requirements," Park says. "Some states are eliminating electives because of state and federal initiatives, which could mean psychology 'goes' because it is not a required subject."

Pursuing a National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS) for psychology high school teachers might be one way to advance the field, Park says. NBPTS provides a certification for teachers who meet advanced standards, which are set by a team of experts within the field. This is strictly in the "investigation" stage for TOPSS, Park notes, but members drafted a letter in June to NBPTS to express interest.

To applaud such current efforts and to honor past achievements, TOPSS held a 10th anniversary celebration at APA's 2002 Annual Convention in Chicago last month. At the event, TOPSS honored three psychologists for their help in establishing the organization--Ludy T. Benjamin, PhD, Charles D. Spielberger, PhD, and Cynthia Baum, PhD.

The group also sponsored several convention speakers who addressed psychology teaching issues. Scheduled speakers included APA President-elect Robert Sternberg, PhD, on "Teaching high school psychology triarchically," and Richard L. Miller, PhD, of the University of Nebraska at Kearney on "From Hobbits to Hobbes: reducing students' beliefs in the paranormal."

Also at convention, the TOPSS executive committee presented a resolution to the APA's Council of Representatives to launch a "Psychology Awareness Initiative in Secondary Schools" to further emphasize the study of psychology as a science in high schools.

TOPSS Chair Rob McEntarffer says that psychology courses in secondary education can be very valuable to students and the field in general.

"If we can turn them on to psychology now, they might develop a career in psychology or at least a lifelong interest in it," he says. "TOPSS is a big part of that. Some will never take a psychology class again, but they will constantly be hearing information about psychology."

Even for those who don't continue in psychology, exposure to the field might help them vote more knowledgeably on psychological issues, identify people who might need psychological assistance and dispel myths about the field, he says.

"It's an integral time to teach psychology because a lot of the subject matter is talking about this age group," says McEntarffer, citing as examples identity formation, social behaviors and addictions. "It's very valuable to discuss this with them, rather than just talking about them."

Further Reading

Visit the APA Education Web site and search Topss for further information on the organization's activities and initiatives.