High School Low: Once Thriving High School Psychology Programs Need More Support

The most frequent comment I get when I meet a new person and tell him that I used to teach high school psychology is, “Oh, I didn’t know they taught psychology in high school.” Perhaps surprisingly, I am as likely to get that comment from a psychologist as a lay person.

There are no accurate statistics as to how many high schools offer psychology. It follows that no one knows how many students take psychology annually in high school, though a widely cited but unverified figure is 800,000 (Ernst and Petrossian, Teaching of Psychology Journal , 1995). Regardless of the number, there are a lot of students whose only psychology class will be the one they have in high school. It would behoove the profession to insure that those students receive a solid scientific grounding in our discipline.

I retired as a high school psychology teacher in 2002 after teaching that subject for 10 years. I had a limited background in psychology when I began teaching it at South San Francisco High School in 1992. The only class I had taken was an introductory class at Dartmouth in about 1970. I remember something about rats pressing bars and that’s about it. As a first-year teacher I brought a psychic into my class to read the students’ fortunes. As I learned through my contacts with other high school psychology teachers at workshops, conventions, and on a high school listserv, my background and early teaching were not unusual.

States have widely discrepant certification requirements for high school psychology teachers. In California, a teacher can teach psychology with only a social studies credential. Psychology teachers need never have taken a psychology class in order to teach that subject, bringing to mind William James’ famous pronouncement that the first psychology lecture he ever heard was one that he taught as a professor at Harvard.

Similarly, teachers have wide latitude as to what they will teach, since there is no California state framework for psychology. I eventually taught a course modeled on the national high school standards written by the Teachers of Psychology in Secondary Schools, or TOPSS. My colleague at the other public high school in South San Francisco taught a course with the same name but a completely different curriculum. He taught a class in adolescent adjustment with a heavy dose of Freud.

Albert Bandura (right) presents to Ruby Chung the Albert Bandura high school poster award at the 2002 Stanford Undergraduate Psychology Conference. High school students no longer participate in SUPC presentations.

Although California is like many other states, some states do require separate certification to teach psychology and require teachers to have completed a certain number of undergraduate units in psychology. My first year schedule was typical for new teachers. I taught one period of driver’s education, one period of physical education, two periods of world history, and a period of psychology. My textbooks were eight years old. I made a presentation to the board at the Western Psychological Association, or WPA, in 2001, complete with a poster board showing a photograph from our textbook (then 17 years old) with students “in a typical psychology class spinning records on a 33 and a third RPM phonograph.” APS Fellow and Charter Member Phil Zimbardo, who was on the board, was kind enough to have his publisher send us a new set of texts free of charge. During the many conferences and workshops I attended over the years, I encountered other teachers with psychology texts even older than mine, and in one case, no textbook at all.

I became involved with a number of initiatives over the years to better educate myself and to develop a network among high school psychology teachers. As I enlarged that network, I tried to get high school teachers more involved with the larger psychological community. For example, for six years I co-organized the Northern California High School Psychology Teacher’s Workshop with Maureen Hester, a professor at Holy Names College in Oakland. The workshop attracted between 20 and 30 high school teachers annually and had keynote presentations, hands-on activities, publishers’ giveaways, etc. One year our teachers became involved as reviewers and consultants for a high school psychology text published by Glencoe.

I involved my high school students in the Stanford Undergraduate Psychology Conference. In its second year, the conference’s organizer, Sarah Mascarenas, made presentations to high school classes about preparing professional posters for conferences. Subsequently, some of my students prepared posters for the SUPC and one of my students won the high school students’ poster contest.

In 2001, my students parodied the research of famous Stanford psychologists. Their work was displayed in a large theater to the professors and other conference attendees.

Zimbardo and I chaired the first high school psychology teacher’s workshop at WPA. That association promoted the event to area high schools and offered teachers a separate admission. I also helped to bring some other high school psychology teachers to WPA as part of the program-in-chief. I was selected to be the first high school teacher to present as part of the Terman Teacher’s Conference and the Last Lecture series at WPA. I recommended to WPA that other high school teachers be included in the program and specifically suggested Craig Gruber. Craig has an animal lab for his high school psychology classes at Walt Whitman High in Bethesda, Maryland and his classes publish a high school student psychology journal. Subsequently, Craig spoke as part of both the Terman Conference and Last Lecture Series. Additionally, Craig brought his students to WPA from Maryland and they exhibited their posters. One of those posters won the Council of Teachers of Undergraduate Psychology teaching prize. As CTUP’s national high school liaison for five years, I recruited a number of new high school teachers into that organization as well.

I point all this out for a reason other than to toot my own horn, though. High school/college/community initiatives and links are fragile. They typically depend upon the energy of one person. It is very difficult to get high school teachers out of the classroom and even more difficult to sustain initiatives directed at those teachers. Jane Halonen, University of West Florida, told me that she had once run a heavily publicized daylong workshop sponsored by her college and only four high school teachers came.

When I retired, the Northern California High School Psychology Conference ended, despite teachers’ professed desires to continue. There is no longer a CTUP high school liaison. High school students are no longer included in SUPC presentations. WPA did not have a high school program last year and there are no plans to have one this year.

While I was unusual (and perhaps a bit obsessive), I was certainly not unique. There are many individual high school psychology teachers out there doing some fascinating and worthwhile things, but despite some terrific strides by TOPSS, and the phenomenal growth of the Advanced Placement psychology program in high schools over the last decade, the majority of high school psychology teachers still have no involvement with any program, including APA or APS, outside their classroom.

The National Science Foundation sponsorship for two-week and month long summer programs for high school psychology teachers, a staple in the early 1990s, has virtually dried up. Those NSF workshops were invaluable for new teachers of psychology in instilling a scientific basis for teaching our subject. At one such month long workshop in 1994, run by Rick Kasschau, University of Houston, and sponsored by NSF as part of a three-year program, the high school psychology teachers’ listserv was launched. That listserv, Psychnews, continues to thrive today under the auspices of Kasschau and Bruce Henderson, Western Carolina University.

There are a variety of reasons for teachers’ failures to affiliate with professional psychological associations outside the classroom, including lack of motivation and the absence of institutional incentives. Perhaps the most compelling reason, however, is the traditional high school island, which places a teacher alone for five periods a day with 30 (or more) students. The isolation problem is compounded, because even high schools that do teach psychology normally only do so for one period, with one teacher. Hence, high school psychology teachers lack the types of networks currently available to college professionals.

The American Psychological Society could provide a great service to the scientific teaching of high school psychology by resolving to recruit and train high school psychology teachers at regional and national workshops, thereby filling the void left by NSF. Those trainings should be run by qualified high school teachers and college professors. No high school psychology teacher should be allowed to have the same experience I did when I ran into a former student from my first-year psychology class. “What do you remember about psychology?” I asked. “Oh, that really cool dude who could read the future,” he replied.

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