Selected Essays

By John E.Desrochers

In some respects the current shortage of school psychologists merely amplifies longstanding unresolved problems within the profession concerning its very identity. Looked at in an optimistic light, this shortage may be just the crisis to spark reform and resolution of the more intractable issues in our profession. I believe that the Futures Conference, born of this shortage, is faced with the very survival of school psychology as a specialty. It has the once in a lifetime opportunity to create a future for school psychology and chart the course of our profession for years to come.

The shortage of school psychologists, like all shortages, is a matter of both supply and demand. Most proposed solutions focus on the supply side of this equation. We have heard recommendations to increase enrollments in our training programs, publicize the field to undergraduates, and develop respecialization procedures. We also hear calls to raise the compensation and professional status of school psychologists or to create a ladder for career advancement. APA and NASP should jointly develop a very specific set of guidelines for respecialization. If we do not do this, state departments of education will, utilizing whatever means necessary (very likely involving a significant reduction of standards) to relieve district school superintendents of the pressure of non-compliance with mandated special education testing requirements. APA, NASP, and training institutions should develop web-based training opportunities both for core knowledge areas and for more advanced training. This could make training opportunities more easily available to a broader range of people who might want to enter the profession. In general, NASP and Division 16 have to resolve their differences, especially over training issues. While they fiddle, Rome burns and Division 12 creates a section for Clinical Psychology in the Schools. We're wasting our resources. School psychology has to unite. Our very identity as a profession is at stake.

While these supply side ideas are worthy suggestions, they are unlikely to produce an increase in school psychologists at the rate that appears to be needed to meet the demand. It is the demand side of the equation that may offer the greatest potential for solutions to the problem, though the field will have to decide whether it has the political will to attempt to reduce the demand for our services (as currently practiced) and risk a halt to the rapid growth of school psychology that we have seen over the last twenty-five years.

The demand for school psychologists since passage of P.L. 94-142 has been driven by special education and its requirements for placement testing. These positions have continued to emphasize testing and the chores that surround that task, diminishing our ability to implement the best practices of the profession. Research shows that 79% of a school psychologist's time is consumed by tasks involved with assessment for determining special education eligibility. Most of this time is devoted to legally mandated assessment procedures (e.g., determining "the discrepancy") that the profession essentially declares to be bad practice and the paperwork and meetings surrounding that process. Decreasing the demand for that kind of service by even half would be equivalent to immediately increasing the number of school psychologists by nearly 40%! This would go a long way toward alleviating the national shortage. School psychology must risk reducing its identification with the processing of special education eligibility. We have to speak the truth about testing, administrative routine, paperwork, and all that the test and place practices of special education law entail.

The job description for school psychologists has to change. It should promote positive school psychology programs, allied with health care and health education at all levels of the system. It should emphasize our role as educational consultants on the highest level. Our professional organizations should continue to press nationally for legislative and regulatory changes that would bring practice more into line with accepted best practices of the profession. More support and direction needs to be focused on state level efforts, including efforts to recruit other stakeholders (e.g., boards of education associations) in our cause. We need state regulations that reduce the demand for unnecessary assessment activities. We need to force school administrators to reassign the low-level administrative work - managerial at best, clerical at worst - that has slowly devolved to too many school psychologists. We need to conceptualize and legislate positive school psychology programs throughout the school, not just school psychology services which can be marginalized and defined by others. We need to clarify who we are and what we do. If we do not define ourselves, others will; if we do not clearly delineate our role and our purpose, we will end up doing whatever services others give us to perform. The job description has to be changed both from the top down through our national organizations and from the bottom up starting with efforts in individual schools, districts, and states.

This new job description would allow school psychologists to spend their time actually solving problems using what have long been known as best practices in our field! My preference is for school psychologists to operate out of a systemic orientation and learn to assess and intervene on multiple levels of the child-family-school-community system. They would design programs of school psychology infused throughout the school, stressing such concepts as social and emotional learning, positive psychology, healthcare, and prevention. School psychologists would be psychologists for all children, not just for those labeled as needing special education. Training will have to emphasize systemic thinking, collaboration with other professionals, programmatic approaches to mental health, and educational consultation on a broader scale than the individual student.

School psychology has always struggled to define its identity within the broader worlds of psychology and education. The current shortage has once again brought these issues into sharp relief. I am concerned for the integrity, and ultimately for the survival, of our profession. I hope this Futures Conference finds the wisdom to guide us through these difficult times and the courage to re-envision school psychology's role and mission for the new era ahead.

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Last updated at August 30, 2002 by Xiaojing Kou