The Future of School Psychology: I Dreamed a Dream
By Ralph E. “Gene” Cash
“For yesterday is but a dream, and tomorrow is only a vision; but today well-lived makes every yesterday a dream of happiness and every tomorrow a vision of hope.” —ancient Sanskrit poem
Decisions we make today help to determine who and what we will be tomorrow. In the 1970s school psychologists decided, with a huge boost from public policy, to hitch our wagons to special education and the refer–test–place model of service delivery. In hindsight, that decision was unwise, even though it was made with the best of intentions. “You can’t do this without school psychologists,” we opined. While this alliance created numerous jobs for school psychologists, we have come to realize that special education has not been a panacea and that school psychologists should serve all students, not just those in exceptional student education.
School psychology is in the process of making another well-intentioned mistake, partially in reaction to our frustrations with the refer–test–place model. We are gradually and systematically divorcing ourselves from our heritage as comprehensive psychological evaluators and as mental health service providers. We are aligning ourselves with a general education initiative and framing our roles primarily as interpreters of data obtained by others in the service of enhancing academic achievement. Is there anything wrong with those functions? Not as far as they go, but they are supported by what, in my opinion, are some fundamentally fl awed assumptions. First, some are assuming not only that all children can learn at the same rate, but also that all children can achieve a standard often referred to as “grade level.” Second, some are postulating that cognitive testing and psychological assessment have little or no value in guiding the selection of interventions. Third, some are positing that mental illness is merely a barrier to learning, rather than mental health’s being the foundation upon which education is built. Fourth, some seem to be accepting that school psychologists are not interventionists but that our role is to guide and to evaluate interventions. Of course, not all school psychologists embrace all of these assumptions wholeheartedly, but they are at the core of the response to intervention (RTI) movement.
RTI is a wonderful service delivery model, but it is not the future of school psychology. No, the real future of school psychology lies in maintaining the emphasis on being psychologists. Unfortunately, the slavish adherence to admirable attempts to make school psychology more behavioral and strictly scientific threatens to turn school psychologists into nothing more than educational technicians. Oh, we will be sophisticated educational technicians to be sure, but mere technicians nonetheless, just as certainly as if we were still slavishly using a discrepancy formula to diagnose learning disabilities. Even more unfortunately, there are not yet enough data about RTI to transform school psychology service delivery into a hard science, appealing as that goal might be. Behaviorism superimposed on a public health model and applied to education will not be school psychology’s salvation. Instead we should embrace the history of school psychology and utilize all of the tools that have been developed over these many years and that will be developed in the future, both in psychology and education, that make us uniquely equipped to make a difference in the lives of children.
As did refer–test–place in the 1970s, RTI will generate new jobs after this economic downturn. There are already those who echo the assertion that “You can’t do this without school psychologists.” The more accurate statement is that schools can’t do RTI “right” without school psychologists, just as they can’t diagnose educational disabilities “right” without us. Unfortunately, what this and previous economic crises teach us the hard way is that they can, and probably will, implement RTI “cheaper” without school psychologists.
The American Psychological Association, through its model licensure act revisions, proposes to take the “psychology” out of school psychology, to turn nondoctoral school psychologists into educational technicians, and to confine them to the public schools. However, we seem to be furthering these aims inadvertently ourselves, just as surely as if APA were guiding our path. It must be pleasing to some in APA that we don’t want our roles to be evaluators and diagnosticians, that we eschew the responsibilities of intervention, and that we view ourselves less and less as mental health service providers. More than one clinician has asked me, “Where’s the psychology in what you do in schools?”
Yet, in every crisis there is an opportunity. Yesterday is but a dream, and tomorrow is only a vision. If we live well today, if we truly make a difference in the lives of the students, families, staff, and coworkers we serve, we can recapture the psychology in school psychology. We can determine that the “school” in school psychology is not a place but a discipline. We can view ourselves as mental health professionals who use RTI to help students rather than being used by it. Today well-lived makes every yesterday a dream of happiness and every tomorrow a vision of hope.
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.