What’s In a Name
By Rhonda J. Armistead, NCSP
What’s in a name? Many school psychologists have considered this Shakespearean question since the American Psychological Association, in the most recent draft of its Model Act for State Licensure of Psychologists, proposed eliminating the use of the title, “school psychologist,” by those credentialed by state education agencies. APA’s previous recognition that the title and school-based practice should be exempted from its licensure requirements dates back to 1977 when its Standards for Providers of Psychological Services included special provisions for school psychology. While the APA’s 1987 Model Licensure Act exempts both the title and practice of school psychology, the proposed reversal of APA policy regarding the title begs that this question be answered.
What are the reasons for maintaining the title, “school psychologist,” for those practicing school psychology within educational settings? Specifically, why do 77% of practitioners trained at the specialist level deserve the use of the title? The answers are rooted in the history of NASP and comprise the major tensions between NASP and APA. I see three compelling reasons to defend the use of the title for school-based practitioners: an extensive system of professional preparation and credentialing exists that is independent of boards of psychology, a distinct career for school psychologists has emerged, and the professional identity of nearly 40,000 school psychologists is at risk.
First, higher education, the public education system, and NASP have created a national system of professional preparation and credentialing for school psychology. The rapid growth of school psychology can be traced to the growth of credentialing standards in states. In 1969, 80% of states had school psychology certification; by 1988, they all did. Nearly three fourths of the states follow NASP standards for credentialing and specialist level training has become the norm. Today, 238 school psychology programs grant a school psychology degree to approximately 2600 new professionals every year. Of the approximately 40,000 school psychologists, almost 90% work in educational settings, and 25% hold the doctorate. They work with a credential from state education departments and their title, “school psychologist,” is codified in state credentialing procedures.
A second reason for retaining the title is that school psychology as a career has prospered. Its extraordinary growth over the past forty years has surprised many and confounded early predictions of its demise. Today, the demand for school psychological services is greater than ever and the ratio of school psychologists to students continues to improve, accounting, in part, for the current shortage of practitioners. Our presence in the schools in such numbers has helped normalize mental health services previously associated with stigma and embarrassment. As a result of policy making, student advocacy, and being relevant to contemporary needs, school psychology has become established within the framework and operation of schools.
Working in schools has not been seen by many as especially prestigious. So the growth of school psychology is a tribute to those who have valued their role in the learning and schooling process and have continued to apply scientific principles to these endeavors. To be recognized within the mainstream press and popular culture is a new appreciation. For two consecutive years, “school psychologist” has been listed in U.S. News and World Report’s Best Careers report. The criteria used for this designation are instructive: job satisfaction, difficulty of required training, prestige, and job market outlook. In March 2008, Best Careers was modified to identify the top 31 careers with a bright future. School psychologist made this list, too.
Finally, and perhaps most important to this discussion is our professional identity. The title, “school psychologist,” accurately describes our graduate training, our affiliation, our scientific knowledge base, and our competence. Our professional identity is multidimensional, yet derived from a common DNA that thousands of leaders, scientists, trainers, and practitioners have mapped over 4 decades. School psychology is rooted in, and inextricably linked to, American psychology, but it has developed independently of most APA policies. NASP’s development of professional standards started in 1972 and has evolved over time to include a cohesive, rigorous set of standards for training, field experience, accreditation, professional practices, and ethics. This has resulted in substantially better prepared school psychologists than those debated in 1977. Despite APA’s attempt to eliminate distinctions between the requirements for practice within the private and public sectors, the economic and political realities of public service, as well as the unmet mental health needs of American children, have negated their wish that doctoral education be a reality for all school psychologists.
“What’s in a name?” The Latin suffix, “ist” means a person who is engaged in or believes in something. School psychologists are the individuals who are engaged in and believe in the specialty of school psychology. NASP appreciates that Division 16, Trainers of School Psychology, and the Council of Directors of School Psychology Programs agree that maintaining our title and practice serves the entire profession and the public interest. And in the long run, serving the public interest is the smartest kind of self-interest.