Think Outside the Triangle
By Ralph E. “Gene” Cash
“If you want to build a ship, don’t herd people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” —Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
It’s tempting to substitute structure for judgment. Many school psychologists lost something in the structure of using an ability–achievement discrepancy model for the identification of learning disabilities. Others lost their way in the seductive world of automated report writing, computerized interpretive schemes, and checklist models of identification/eligibility. In understandable attempts to be fair and objective, we often became mechanistic and autocratic. In our fervent desire to be more specific and scientific, we sometimes became inflexible and myopic. In the reliance on structure, we often missed the critical importance of professional judgment and individual responsibility. In the words of the immortal philosopher Pogo, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”
Unlike physics, neither psychology nor education is a hard science. School psychology scholars have not even reached consensus regarding the quality of information required to label an intervention “scientific.” There is considerable, responsible debate over what constitutes “evidence-based.” Accomplished professionals disagree about how to assess “fidelity of implementation.” There are differing interpretations of how to define and to identify specific learning disabilities.
The history of school psychology has been characterized by false starts, pendulum swings, and frequent examples of throwing out babies with bathwater. In my career I have seen traditional assessment considered both salvation and pariah. Programmed textbooks were once deemed the answer to virtually all academic deficiencies. I have witnessed the pan-explanatory “minimal brain dysfunction” ( MBD) fall completely out of the lexicon. At one time there were very few cases of autism, and many of them were treated with allergy injections and/or vitamin supplements. Eventually we got past the days when attention deficits were supposedly caused by too much sugar and ADHD could be cured by adhering slavishly to the Feingold diet. However, we sometimes made parents feel woefully inadequate in the process by telling them that the reason the interventions didn’t work was because they weren’t careful enough.
One of the biggest risks of the triangular public health model of service delivery currently in vogue is that we may similarly cause teachers, administrators, and other educators to feel that they have failed. If students do not respond to evidence-based interventions for any reason, even ones beyond the control of those educators, they may feel responsible and be held accountable. Accountability is a very positive thing, but guilt, frustration, and resistance engendered by a misplaced sense of responsibility is quite another. Moreover, commitment to, even passion about a methodology is not necessarily sufficient to motivate others to accomplish complex, multifaceted tasks faithfully.
How, then, are school psychologists to be effective leaders in implementing a public health approach to service delivery and response-to-intervention (RTI) strategies? What will make a difference for students and families in a complex, technology-driven educational environment? Perhaps the quote above from Antoine Saint-Exupéry can provide some guidance. The secret is not in a style of leadership that simply assigns roles and tasks and evaluates their outcomes, but in the use of interpersonal and motivational skills which cause others to long for better ways to accomplish our common goal: the transformation of all children into successful, productive adults. In order to accomplish that transformation, we must work to build the capacity to implement interventions faithfully and effectively. Ensuring that the capacity is sufficient involves training in the skills necessary to carry out educational and mental wellness programs with fidelity. It also necessitates instilling the belief that doing so can help and creating the passion to use the model to improve the quality of education, metaphorically “to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” Accomplishing capacity-building requires a combination and level of creativity, professional judgment, interpersonal skills, and understanding of educational systems which school psychologists uniquely embody and which require thinking outside the triangle. The question is, “Will we embrace this view of who school psychologists are, or will we simply become sophisticated educational technicians who can be replaced by cheaper, if less effective, personnel?”
The responsible, reasoned use of RTI and the triangular model of service delivery have my full support. My greatest fear for students and for school psychology is that both will fail. If they do, it will not be because they are bad ideas or that they can’t make a difference. It will be partly because we moved ahead far beyond our capacity to implement them effectively. It will also be partly because we used them, as we did the ability–achievement discrepancy model, to replace sound professional judgment in determining eligibility for special education. And it will be mostly because we made the decision to move ahead so rapidly based on belief rather than sufficient evidence. To do so would be a travesty! In order for the triangle to make a lasting difference, we must be able to think outside of it!
Gene Cash, PhD, NCSP, is a Florida licensed psychologist and a faculty member at the Nova Southeastern University Center for Psychological Studies in Ft. Lauderdale, FL.