Lightner Witmer Award winner

With better knowledge of inequities and health disparities, we can conceptualize policies and practices that serve diverse learners more equitably.

This award is given for scholarly activity and contributions that have significantly nourished school psychology. Award winners have exceptional potential and promise to contribute knowledge and professional insights of extraordinary quality. This year's winner is Amanda Sullivan, PhD.

Shining the Light on Disparities as a First Step to Systems Change

Eight years ago, I entered the school psychology program at Arizona State University intent on gaining the knowledge and skills necessary to engage effectively with culturally diverse learners in urban schools. As I dove into my coursework and field training, I was intrigued by apparent variations in the treatment of diverse students with school problems and special needs. I was quickly seduced by the lure of research and the potential for tackling some of the many unresolved questions about differential educational access, participation, and outcomes spurred by my studies and fieldwork observations. Luckily, there were senior scholars interested in these issues in the college, so I had the good fortune to learn from and work with special education scholars Alfredo Artiles and Elizabeth Kozleski in the National Center for Culturally Responsive Educational Systems, and later, the Equity Alliance.

These experiences, coupled with my school psychology training, cemented my commitment studying educational disparities affecting students with and at-risk for disabilities. In my research, I describe the educational and health experiences of children with disabilities and to explore the ways in which various ecological factors, including characteristics of the school systems, contribute to labeling and access to services, and ultimately promote or hinder educational success. My research agenda reflects the three-stage conceptual model for health disparities research: (1) definition and detection of disparities, (2) identification of individual, practitioner, and systemic determinants, and (3) development and evaluation of interventions and policies to reduce disparities (Kilbourne, Switzer, Hyman, Crowley-Matoka, & Fine, 2006). I apply this model to the exploration of differential identification and treatment of students with disabilities, and to the examination of educational outcomes of individuals with disabilities from early childhood through early adulthood, with an emphasis on expanding the ways in which we conceptualize educational disparities affecting students with disabilities. My interest in special education risk underpins a related concern for the capacity of school psychologists and other education professionals to provide appropriate services to diverse learners, particularly those at risk for or with disabilities. Thus, my second area of research addresses professional training and practice issues related to multi-tiered academic and behavioral supports and psychoeducational assessment.

Being cognizant of the need to avoid merely admiring the problem, I endeavor to shine light on neglected or understudied education and health disparities following a belief that with better knowledge of inequities, we can conceptualize policies and practices that serve diverse learners more equitably. My goal is to broaden our understanding of disparities in the diagnosis and treatment of educational disabilities in order to identify potential levers for policy and practice change. Within school psychology specifically, I hope to contribute to our understanding of the contexts in which schools operate so that we can better serve students, families, and communities. I view these disability-related disparities as one facet of the “big problems,” or systemic issues, school psychology should work to address in order to foster students' educational attainment and well-being on a large-scale (Shapiro, 2000). I hope to contribute to our understanding of the nature of, contributors to, and consequences of systemic disparities to inform future research applicable directly to training, practice, and policy development.

My work has been and continues to be shaped by the scholarship and mentoring of my esteemed colleagues at ASU and the University of Minnesota: Marley Watkins, David Wodrich, Jim Ysseldyke, Sandy Christensen, Matt Burns, and Ted Christ. As a student, I was heavily influenced by their respective works, and now I have been privileged to benefit from their mentoring and support. In one way or another, each of these amazing scholars has shaped how I think about school psychology, my scholarship, and my role as a trainer of future school psychologists. I have also been fortunate to have wonderful collaborators among my ASU peers and UM students. In sum, I am deeply appreciative of the recognition bestowed with this award, humbled to join the illustrious roster of recipients, and look forward to doing this honor justice in the years to come.