I/O and consulting psychologists also may lose exemptions – School psychologists fight to keep title

By James Bradshaw Senior Editor
January 1, 2008 - Last updated: May 31, 2011

A proposal to eliminate the 30-year-old doctoral exemption for school psychologists in the APA Model Licensure Act (MLA) has triggered a heated outpouring of letters from school psychologists adamant that they should retain the right to call themselves psychologists with or without doctoral degrees.

Susan Gorin, executive director of the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP), said more than 10,000 members have written APA in opposition to removing the exemption.

“APA has not provided reasons for the change other than its desire to align the MLA with its policies (re: doctoral training),” Gorin said.

She said she has heard concern from APA staff members that some non-doctoral school psychologists seek private practice in direct competition with licensed doctoral psychologists but the figures do not support that contention.

NASP researches the demographics and time priorities of its members every five years, Gorin said. Between 2000 and 2005, the percentage of school psychologists, doctoral and non-doctoral, engaging in any private practice declined from 4.3 percent to 4.1 percent, she said.

“We do not seek or support efforts to gain non-doctoral licensure for private practice,” Gorin said. But, she said, NASP strongly opposes any effort to require that school psychologists be trained at the doctoral level or be licensed by state boards of psychology. In most states school psychologists are credentialed by state boards or departments of education.

Gorin said school psychology is a specialty that requires different but substantial training comparable in many ways to that of practicing psychologists. “The difference between a school psychologist and someone who is a psychologist at the Ph.D. or Psy.D. level is a dissertation and a couple of research courses. Not much.”

She said she heard that the process for adopting a revised MLA has slowed considerably and she is hopeful the exemption will be retained when a final draft is presented for adoption by the APA Council.

Melba T.H. Vasquez, Ph.D., chair of the APA task force on revising the MLA, said the chief concern is the use of the title “psychologist” by non-doctoral professionals, not competitive inroads into private practice, which requires licensure.

Vasquez added that removing the exemption is not a foregone conclusion at this point. “We have not yet determined if that will be in the final draft.”

She said the proposal to eliminate the exemption was prompted by the desire to bring all psychologists in line with APA’s general policy that to be recognized as a psychologist an individual should be educated at the doctoral level.

She said it is similarly proposed that exemptions for industrial and organizational (I/O) psychologists and consulting psychologists be eliminated, but that has not raised the furor that has sprung up over the school psychologist exemption.

Conceding that comments on those areas have been mixed, Vasquez said at least some doctoral I/O psychologists seem to favor the enhanced professional status that licensure would provide.

Lois Tetrick, Ph.D., president of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (APA Division 14), said her members are not entirely “of a common voice” on the issue but certainly want any revision to reflect “recognition that we’re not all in health care” and will seek input in the drafting process.

“We are not opposed to that exemption being removed,” said Stewart E. Cooper, Ph.D., president of Division 13, the Society of Consulting Psychology. But, Cooper said, the draft should include provisions to recognize that training requirements should be different for consulting psychologists than those for practitioners.

Vasquez said other proposed major changes to update the MLA include defining recommended qualifications for psychologists who seek prescription privileges and suggesting that doctoral psychology students be permitted to complete one or both years of supervised experience before receiving their degrees.

The task force will report progress on redrafting the MLA at the February meeting of the Council of Representatives in Washington, D.C., Vasquez said.

Frank Worrell, Ph.D., president of the APA’s Division 16, School Psychology, said the division’s executive board is polling members to determine whether to take a stand on the matter. He described Division 16’s position as “awkward” because the task force did not consult the division on the matter.

“When APA went all-doctoral 30-some years ago, Division 16 lobbied for the exemption,” Worrell said. He conceded that at the time the exemption was expected to be a temporary measure to allow all school psychologists to become doctoral.

“It never happened,” he said, explaining that curricula for “licensed specialists” were developed instead, which he described as “somewhere between a master and a doctor.”

Tom Fagan, Ph.D., director of school psychology programs at the University of Memphis, estimated there are about 30,000 school psychologists nationwide and said historically about 20 states recognized “school psychologists” credentialed by state education authorities long before doctoral psychologists successfully lobbied for the creation of licensing boards to regulate practicing psychologists.

In The School Psychologist, Division 16’s newsletter, Worrell wrote that NASP has 10 times the membership of Division 16, including more doctoral members than are in the division.

Much of the move to eliminate the exemption, Worrell wrote, appears to be a guild concern by practitioners seeking to reserve the terms psychologist, psychology and psychological for their domain.

He said that issue arose in “a brutal and bruising fight” years ago in Texas in which school psychologists became designated as “licensed specialists in school psychology.” A third professional class also was created for “a licensed psychological associate” who must work under a psychologist’s supervision.

“Thus,” Worrell wrote, “doctoral psychologists were only able to retain one of three terms in the MLA …. I have to wonder if the fight was worth it and if the legal terms stop parents and others who are not intimately familiar with our jargon from referring to all three groups of practitioners as school psychologists if they work in the schools.”

Vasquez is familiar with the clash in Texas. Her practice is in Austin. She said Texas is one of only about three states where psychology boards now oversee those who work in schools.

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