Cover Story

Legislators report that they're tired of politically motivated, fad-of-the-month educational practices. And they've made their dissatisfaction clear in a growing clamor for educational techniques grounded in solid scientific evidence. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act, reauthorized last year, calls on educators to build school programming on "scientifically based research."

The Higher Education Act, in its upcoming reauthorization, will likely do the same. And President George W. Bush seems prepared to fund the evidence-based push, proposing a 44 percent increase in the 2003 budget for the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Educational Research and Improvement (OERI)--one of the largest increases proposed for any agency this year.

All this--together with the fact that Bush appointed a psychologist, Grover "Russ" Whitehurst, PhD, to the post of OERI's assistant secretary--makes the moment ripe for psychological research in education, says Rena Subotnik, PhD, director of APA's Center for Psychology in Schools and Education. Schools need psychologists' solid research in areas such as testing, motivation, classroom management, reading and math, she says.

There is, however, a problem: A large chunk of empirical education findings come out of psychology, yet a disconnect occurs in applying them to the classroom. That's why APA has launched a number of initiatives to better unite psychological science with education. These include a Presidential Task Force on Psychology and Education, projects defining evidence-based research interventions, and seminars and grant programs joining psychologists with educational researchers.

"APA is well-placed to bring together the forces of education and psychological science and apply them to teaching practice," says Subotnik.

Supporting the evidence-based effort is OERI's Whitehurst, though he notes that his agency's ability to fill the many research gaps in education will require budget increases. "Something needs to be done differently in education," he says, "and if it's based on science it's more likely to be cumulative and produce serious change. We want to see objective research in education that's as rigorous as topics in health and medicine."

Adds Subotnik: "Teachers don't want fluff educational theory and ideology. They want to know what works."

What APA's doing

In the quest to find what works, legislators and educators are requesting well-designed experiments, careful data collection and direct testing in schools, according to Whitehurst. "We would like to see less of the type of research that is advocacy research, where the answer is determined before the research is conducted," he says. He adds that school personnel want to know more specifically how to apply research findings in their everyday work.

Here's what APA's doing to meet the demand:

  • Establishing a Presidential Task Force on Psychology and Education. Though its work is just beginning, this group plans to explore how teaching and learning in schools can be restructured to better help all children learn. In particular, it will pinpoint skill areas that schools tend to underemphasize in instruction and assessment, focusing on cognitive and socioemotional skills that could be better taught and evaluated, says APA President-elect and Task Force Chair Robert Sternberg, PhD. "We're not against traditional testing," says Sternberg, a professor of psychology at Yale University. "We're just saying it's too narrow. We're saying we need to supplement."

The group members represent a variety of backgrounds and include top educational psychology researchers. Working closely with the Education Directorate's Center for Psychology in Schools and Education, the group will scour the research literature and issue a statement on its charge to schools.

  • Preparing teachers to base their work on scientific evidence. A new task force organized by APA's Div. 15 (Educational) is working on standards for the role of educational psychology in teacher education. It wants to ensure that teachers-to-be are learning to translate evidence-based psychological principles into practice. To reach this goal, group members are comparing the content of educational psychology textbooks with the teacher competencies required by accreditation agencies and with teacher-quality standards set by the National Board of Professional Teaching.

Based on the gaps or overlaps found, the group will recommend its teacher-preparation guidelines to Div. 15's executive committee. Task Force Chair Angela O'Donnell, PhD, expects to find "substantial overlap" between teacher-quality standards and what's already taught in educational psychology courses.

"Most of educational psychology fits the scientifically based research definition," says O'Donnell, an educational psychology professor at Rutgers University. "Our biggest difficulty is with cross-context transfer and generalizability."

  • Seeking evidence-based school psychology research. A committee of APA Div. 16 (School) and the Society for the Study of School Psychology is pinpointing characteristics of the most effective school-based research. It's also producing research-review criteria. Called the Task Force on Evidence-Based Interventions in School Psychology, it hopes that one of its several products--a research-coding manual--will help school psychologists craft quality academic and behavioral improvement programs, and school researchers shape quality studies. The effort is inspired in part by an APA Div. 12 (Society of Clinical Psychology) project that identified research-based clinical interventions. But the Div. 16 effort is less tied to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (Fourth Edition) than is Div. 12's. This is "because lots of childhood problems are not classifiable by DSM-IV," says Task Force Chair Tom Kratochwill, PhD, of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who formerly co-chaired the group with Karen Callan Stoiber, PhD, his colleague at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

In searching the literature for rigorous prevention and intervention research, the group has considered studies on a range of childhood problems, including ones in areas such as math, reading and spelling. "This is because kids don't come in neat little disorders packages," says Kratochwill. "We have children with academic problems at risk for developing behavioral problems and vice versa."

The group has also developed criteria for considering characteristics of school- and communitywide interventions, such as community-based drug abuse prevention and school-wide disciplinary interventions, in its manual. And it's weighing the effectiveness of research methodologies, including single-participant and group designs, experimental and qualitative procedures, and various mixes of these. "We're adopting a Consumer Reports-like framework that we hope will guide researchers and that school psychologists will find useful in selecting research to use in their work," says Kratochwill. The task force aims to produce a first round of literature reviews by June of next year.

  • Bolstering more collaboration between science and education. This year and last, Public Policy Office (PPO) staff in APA's Education and Science directorates joined forces on the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) and OERI. Education's Jennifer Smulson and Science's Karen Studwell, underscored psychology researchers' contributions to such areas as teaching skills, testing and classroom management, and submitted recommendations. They also weighed in on the legislation's definition of scientifically based research, supporting its attention to objective procedures and empirical methods.

They also submitted comments on the reauthorization of OERI, calling on the House Education Reform Committee to support increased OERI funding and to uphold a politics-free, scientific culture in the agency.

Next, PPO staff will set their sights on the Higher Education Act (HEA), where their focus will be psychology's contribution to teacher preparation and, again, the definition of scientifically based research.

"It's important that we, as the guardians of psychological research and services applied to effective teaching, play an active role in HEA," says Subotnik. Adds Smulson, "This is an extraordinary opportunity for psychologists to make a difference in federal policy because of what they understand about learning and behavior."

Further Reading

Watch future Monitor issues for continuing updates on APA's efforts to bring evidence-based interventions to educators.