Deans of colleges of education are committed to better preparing the nation’s teachers — and if they happen to be trained as psychologists, they also share certain tools and approaches to solving problems, says Mary M. Brabeck, PhD, dean of New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development.

Brabeck is one of 20 deans who because of these common interests is joining with APA to work on projects that tap psychological science to enhance teacher training.

“These deans are in a position of influence with their faculty, their local communities and policymakers,” says Cynthia Belar, PhD, executive director of APA’s Education Directorate. “Working together, they can generate creative ideas for delivering messages, services and rigorous research that applies psychological science to the preparation of teachers across the nation.”

These psychologist/deans have been meeting for eight years during the annual conferences of the American Educational Research Association, the Society for Research in Child Development and APA. These meetings have been attended by the deans from the schools of education at Vanderbilt University, Georgia State University, the University of Arizona, Fordham University, Boston University, the City University of New York, Loyola University Chicago and the University of Miami, among others.

“We discuss ways we can be helpful to them and ask for their feedback on projects we’re working on at APA. It’s a two-way street,” says Rena Subotnik, PhD, who directs APA’s Center for Psychology in Schools and Education. “We’re interested in finding out how we can harness the energy of a group that is so important to both education policy and to applying psychological science to teacher education.”

The deans served as advisers, for example, when APA, in collaboration with the University of Virginia and WestEd, created a guide to using multiple social science research methods to assess education interventions. After they completed the publication, many of them distributed it at their schools.

Several of the deans are members of APA’s Coalition for Psychology in Schools and Education. In 2008 the two groups embarked on an effort to identify the core knowledge from psychology that should be included in preK–12 teacher preparation programs. Jane Close Conoley, PhD, dean of the Gevirtz Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and chair of the coalition, suggested the project. Along with Brabeck and some of the other deans, she is writing a journal article based on their research and discussions.

“We are making the claim with this project that there is psychological science that will improve teacher performance and student outcomes,” Conoley says. “But we also realized that there are some gaps in the translation of psychological science into the actual classroom experience, so we decided to do a separate investigation into a very specific area: whether a psychology-rich curriculum assists teacher candidates in learning how to teach science effectively.”

In January, the coalition, with the help of some deans, applied for a National Science Foundation grant to develop instructional materials to be used in classes for elementary school science teachers at Georgia State University, the University of Maryland and in Teach for America’s Washington, D.C., training program. If funded, a team at each of these institutions will help develop a teaching module for elementary science education classes that incorporates psychological principles. Eventually, the teams would test the effects of the module on teacher knowledge and performance. Meanwhile, some deans are identifying issues they can address together in the future. Richard De Lisi, PhD, dean of the Graduate School of Education at Rutgers University, says he’d like to see APA and the deans look at teacher performance evaluation systems.

“Psychologists could have a lot to say about how those systems might be put in place. We could help provide input on the validity of different kinds of assessments,” he says.

Randy Kamphaus, PhD, dean of the College of Education at Georgia State University, believes the deans could help state education agencies develop longitudinal data systems to track student performance, as required by the federal Race to the Top program. “Longitudinal data systems have been in place a long time and it would be good to share what we’ve learned with the educational community,” Kamphaus says.

Conoley especially hopes the deans continue to collaborate on research projects. “Every dean is interested in improving his or her school and one way to do that is through research,” she says.

Jen Uscher is a writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.