School Psychology: A Retreat From Excellence

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For many school psychologists, the realities of practice and the politics of schooling have discouraged the transformation of excellence in training into excellence in application. In fact, the discrepancy between the skills of psychologists and the roles to which school bureaucracies restrict them represents a retreat from excellence.

School psychology has historically required more training than any other field of certification in education. The two years of postgraduate study called for by most states include preparation in human development, tests and measurement, psychoeducational diagnosis, remediation and intervention techniques, and a one-year internship.

In addition, many school psychologists are trained to offer teacher and organizational consultation, crisis intervention, counseling and psychotherapy for individuals and groups, and inservice staff development.

Like all professional psychologists, they are trained to use the methodology of behavioral science to solve problems. Indeed, they have the potential to function as "resident intellectuals"--to bring the knowledge and techniques of social science to the problems of contemporary schooling.

Yet, while the number of school psychologists has increased dramatically in the last two decades, their potential contributions to education have remained largely untapped. Technicians' roles are proliferating, while the job satisfaction of the field's brightest conceptualizers is decreasing. As a result, the quality of applicants to school-psychology training programs has declined.

A dialogue on the failure of schools to utilize fully the skills of psychologists is long overdue. The search for solutions to this problem must begin with an exploration of its roots in the often-conflicting outlooks and goals of psychologists and educators.

Ineffective communication historically has resulted in the failure of most educators to exploit psychology for the improvement of schooling.

Almost all training programs in education require coursework demonstrating the relevance of psychology to teaching and learning. Yet once in the field, most educators tend to view themselves as artisans who blend experience with trial-and-error approaches to develop strategies for teaching or administration; they often reject theory and look for quick fixes to solve problems.

Psychologists, however, are taught that human behavior is complex--and that there are few quick fixes. Studies of approaches to discipline, for example, illustrate this discrepancy in outlook.

Research conducted at the National Center for the Study of Corporal Punishment and Alternatives in the Schools shows that teachers' own childhood experiences of discipline are the major predictors of how they will discipline their pupils. The number of psychology courses taken--at least up to the master's level--seems to have little impact on actual practice.

And as a recent article in American Psychologist suggests, psychological research with direct bearing on pedagogy remains esoteric to the majority of teachers.

Studies of memory dating back to 1885, the article reports, demonstrate that "spaced" presentation of new material yields more effective learning than "massed" presentation. But despite this technique's great potential to improve classroom learning, there is little evidence to indicate that its use has spread widely during the 100 years that generations of psychologists have suggested it.

Anti-intellectualism among teachers and administrators has also hindered the effective use of psychologists in schools. Indeed, intellectualism is much more strongly encouraged in the preparation of psychologists than educators.

In 1957, with no background in education, I became an elementary-school teacher. As a new teacher, I was told that "pseudo-intellectuals" were trying to destroy traditional education, that research had nothing useful to say to educators, and that the best single piece of advice was "don't smile till Christmas." Fresh out of college with a major in liberal arts, I was surprised by the anti-intellectualism among my colleagues.

Why did an intellectual's approach--the use of rational and scientific methods to solve problems--not apply to the processes of schooling?

The anti-intellectualism that once pervaded education is no longer as apparent as it was 30 years ago. But an undercurrent of suspicion still lingers toward practitioners--such as psychologists--who attempt to use theory and research as a base for solving problems.

Conceptual differences between psychologists and administrators likewise contribute to the neglect of psychology in schools. While the responsibilities of psychologists are largely determined by administrators--especially principals--many of them do not understand the training of these specialists.

Rarely relying on psychologists' problem-solving skills, administrators generally view such staff members' primary role as the diagnosis and classification of individual children.

With views that seem to emerge from completely different frames of reference, members of both groups too often become hostile when psychologists push social-science research as a basis for solving the broad range of problems besetting schools.

To study the sources of this conflict, I began by examining the criteria for admitting prospective members of each group into training programs.

Combined Graduate Record Examination scores evidence a wide gap in the pool of applicants at both the certification and doctoral levels of the two groups. Since 1975-76, a consistent gap of around 100 points has differentiated applicants to school-psychology and educational-administration programs: Psychology applicants' mean scores are approximately one standard deviation higher than administrators'.

Among all education-school applicants, educational administration, guidance, and physical-education applicants have the lowest scores.

Although I was unable to obtain scores of actual enrollees of educational-administration programs, mean scores for school-psychology-program enrollees are available--and reflect higher means than indicated in the applicant pool. If we assume that both groups accept students only above the 50th percentile of applicants, the discrepancy still holds.

The broad implication of these figures--with many individual exceptions on both sides--is that psychologists tend to be brighter than those who determine how their services will be used.

One consequence of the disparity between administrators and psychologists in intellectual rigor and conceptual orientation to problem solving is covert resentment on both sides. In the worst cases of conflict--often involving decisions about classifying, placing, or treating a child--administrators become defensive, and psychologists become arrogant.

Because of this mutual resentment and the power struggles it provokes, a large number of schools never use available remedies based on social-science evidence. Many psychologists consequently leave the schools, and many administrators remain hostile to psychologists.

Deepening the distrust between the two groups is the mystique surrounding psychologists--the notion that they are always analyzing people. Probably every school psychologist has had to endure teachers' comments that they'd better watch what they say for fear of being "psychoanalyzed." This kind of suspicion--when psychologists simply want to socialize--undercuts a healthy working relationship.

Differences in professional orientation create another source of conflict between psychologists and other educators. In general, administrators and teachers are group-oriented: Teachers are responsible for group instruction and group discipline, while administrators must attend to groups of students, teachers, and parents. Both must support the maintenance of the group--sometimes at the expense of the individual.

But much of psychologists' training focuses on the diagnosis and treatment of individuals. Their preparation emphasizes child advocacy and usually includes study of ethical issues and responsibility to

Disagreement stemming from these opposed outlooks can result in disputes so acrimonious that the needs of the child in question are forgotten.

And all too often, educators and misbehavior. A high percentage of referrals to psychologists involve discipline problems; orientation toward discipline is a major determinant in diagnosis and remediation.

Combined with a lack of power to effect change, declining salaries and career opportunities have caused too many highly experienced psychologists to leave the schools. Many of the most competent turn to private practice, where they can relatively easily double or triple their earnings.

It is possible that most educators--as presently selected and trained--and most schools--as currently constituted--are incapable of ongoing self-renewal based on the use of social-science research.

Or it may be that psychologists are not properly selected andd to impart the lessons of social science important for schools. Changes may be needed in both areas.

Meanwhile, immediate attention must be addressed to the conflicts facing those already in the field. My work with many outstanding educators warrants optimism about change.

As the first step toward successful application of psychology in the schools, both sides must accept the underlying causes of the problem and begin effective communication.

I believe that psychology is ready. Leaders in educational administration must confront the challenge of convincing their colleagues that the effort is necessary.

Vol. 08, Issue 03, Page 40

Published in Print: September 21, 1988, as School Psychology: A Retreat From Excellence
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