Understanding the Value and Reach of High School Psychology

After 30 years of working for the Lincoln Public Schools (LPS; Nebraska) as a high school teacher and a curriculum developer, I recently made the jump to higher education. My professional identity during my time with LPS was centered around the teaching of psychology. This change from secondary school education to a university has given me time to pause and reflect on those 30 years. Often overlooked in importance, reflection is a good practice for all teachers. During the past three decades, the teaching of high school psychology has come a long way.

Thirty years ago, we didn’t have the APA Teachers of Psychology in Secondary Schools (TOPSS), and we certainly didn’t have standards for teaching high school psychology.

There was no Advanced Placement (AP) psychology test and many wondered if there would be enough demand for AP psych to support it.

It was common to hear of high school psychology as a “touchy-feely” elective.  A biology teacher teased me about psychology being a “pseudo-science”.

Times have changed.

Thanks to the formation of TOPSS and the work of dozens of teachers and psychologists connected to APA, we have high school psychology standards. In fact, we’re on our third revision of the standards and a fourth is planned.

According to data from the College Board, the AP Psychology course is wildly popular. More students take this exam than the economics test, the geography test, or the world history test. In fact, more students take AP psychology than AP Biology.  The International Baccalaureate (IB) psychology exam also ranks high among IB tests in terms of exam volume.

High school psychology students learn about hypothesis testing, the central nervous system, and how to use statistics when conducting research. That’s not touchy-feely, and it’s no surprise some states are considering making psychology a science credit.

Not everything has changed. Despite the huge number of on-level and AP psychology high school students nationwide, despite the relevance of psychology courses to students’ lives, and despite the many benefits of studying psychology, psychology courses are still not widely seen in K-12 education as important, serious courses of study.  It is common for school principals to assign psychology courses to teachers with little (and sometimes no) background knowledge in psychology.   There is much work still to be done to promote a greater understanding of high school psychology’s value, reach, and the way it’s delivered and assessed.

Understanding the Value and Reach of High School Psychology

The recently announced APA Summit on High School Psychology Education should be just the vehicle for developing the materials necessary to help school administrators, state boards of education, parents, and other external groups and stakeholders better understand the value and reach of high school psychology. My guess is that most who work outside the discipline of psychology are unaware of high school psychology’s growth over the past 25 years. These outside groups are not alone; who among us has reflected on how the teaching of high school psychology has been transformed during the past three decades? With the Summit on the horizon it is also time to ponder and reflect not just on how far we’ve come as high school psychology teachers, but where we should go in the near future. What would make for an even better high school psychology class?  An APA steering committee composed of high school psychology teachers and college professors has been meeting to prepare for the Summit that will address this and many more questions related to the ideal high school psychology. For instance:

  1. What skills should our students have by the time they leave our course? Are there teachable skills that would help all students flourish? How do we assess these skills?
  2. With the increasing understanding of how we are culturally insensitive to others based on ethnicity, gender, and religion, how do we improve the likelihood that high school psychology students leave the course more culturally competent than when they entered?
  3. With computers becoming more and more of a staple in classrooms across the country, how do we leverage technology to improve the delivery of the science of psychology?
  4. Can psychology somehow bridge the gap between science and social studies, perhaps finding a home in both arenas? One need only look at the table of contents to see that psychology qualifies as a STEM course while addressing social issues such and conformity, motivation, and discrimination.

If you are interested in helping answer these questions, please consider submitting an application to participate in the week-long Summit held next July at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah. We’re looking for participants who can help us reflect on how we currently teach high school psychology and craft a vision for improving high school psychology education the future. Think about our challenge. We hope you will apply to join us next summer at this historic event.

Summit Poster

About the Author

Randy Ernst, EdD, recently completed 30 years of service with Lincoln Public Schools (Nebraska, USA) and is now an assistant professor at Nebraska Wesleyan University. As an author, Randy has written or edited psychology textbooks, teacher’s guides and activity books, and has authored or co-authored articles in The Oxford Review of Education, The American Psychologist and The Teaching of Psychology. As a pioneer, Randy was a member of the committee that founded TOPSS, and was on the original AP psychology test development committee. More recently, he has facilitated workshops in several states (and countries) that foster the skills of well-being (e.g., resilience, gratitude, grit) in teachers and administrators. He is a co-chair of the Steering Committee for the Summit on High School Psychology Education.