The Importance of State and Local Advocacy

By: Barry Barbarasch, New Jersey Association of School Psychologists GPR Committee Chair, NASP GPR Committee Member

As a member of the NASP GPR committee, and chairperson of the New Jersey Association of School Psychologists GPR committee, advocacy is one of the more prominent aspects of my professional life. In presentations I have participated in related to the importance of advocacy, I have often heard colleagues and graduate students state that they do not involve themselves in advocacy because they are so busy with other responsibilities, and therefore don't have the time. What I try to convey to them is that advocacy is not another "thing" that you do- advocacy is a context for everything you do.

While NASP's advocacy efforts often center on national issues (i.e. ESEA), the advocacy efforts of most school psychologists take place on the local level, and I am no different. And what I have learned is that advocacy is as much about effort as it is about outcomes, especially since outcomes may not be immediately apparent.  

Recently, members of our Executive Board met with officials from the New Jersey Department of Education- Office of Special Education Programs. This was a meeting that we initiated, and the focus was our concern about the use of the discrepancy model in the identification of learning disabled children. I should point out that due to past advocacy efforts, we have developed a positive relationship with these officials, which results in our having access to them that other groups may not. Our goal was to discuss with these officials having the discrepancy model removed from the New Jersey Special Education code, and replaced with what IDEA regulations refers to "other alternative research based procedures."  We described the problems regarding the discrepancy model, it's impact on children with suspected learning disabilities, and provided literature supporting our position. While these officials did dispute our position, and in fact commented on our "passion," they indicated that no change in the code was forthcoming.  

We certainly came out of this meeting with mixed emotions, and for some of us, frustration was at the top of the list. But did we fail? While on the surface it may appear so, the jury may still be out.  We invited these officials to attend our Winter Conference, and encouraged them to attend one of our workshops -  "Cross-battery Assessment and SLD Identification."  The other workshop we encouraged they attend was "Lead by Doing: Using MTSS to Expand Your Role."  Both relate to the identification and development of interventions regarding children with learning disabilities. In addition, New Jersey has recently initiated New Jersey Tiered Systems of Support, and two of our Board members are part of the committee overseeing this effort. They will no doubt have input and influence into the development of this approach in New Jersey, which has the potential of directly impacting children with learning difficulties.  

So what does all this mean? To mean there are two lessons to be learned. One is that advocacy can take many forms- not only face-to-face meetings, but educating officials, volunteering for membership on committees, presentations to stakeholders, and numerous other strategies. The other is that the outcome of advocacy efforts requires patience and perseverance. While were we not successful gaining the support of education officials, our efforts continue in other ways- providing education, partnering with other stakeholder groups, continued participation on committees- all of which is to promote practices that benefit children. And we are hopeful that with time our advocacy efforts will be successful, and the we will see these changes put into effect,   Several years ago I was interviewed by a graduate student regarding my perspective on the role and function of school psychologists. Her last question was, "What does it take to be a great school psychologist?" As it turns out, what she really wanted to know was "How do I make a difference?"  To me, there's no better way to make a difference than to be an advocate for children, and for policies and practices that promote good things for all children.