Theory-Driven Evaluation in School Psychology Intervention Research: 2007-2012

By Mercer, Sterett H.; Idler, Alyssa M. et al. | School Psychology Review, June 2014 | Go to article overview

Theory-Driven Evaluation in School Psychology Intervention Research: 2007-2012


Mercer, Sterett H., Idler, Alyssa M., Bartfai, Jamie M., School Psychology Review


Abstract. This study is an investigation of the extent to which school psychology intervention research is guided by theory and addresses theoretical implications of findings. Intervention studies published during 2007-2012 in four journals, Journal of School Psychology, Psychology in the Schools, School Psychology Quarterly, and School Psychology Review, were classified based on inclusion of critical components of theory-driven evaluation (Chen & Rossi, 1983): specification of causal program theory indicating mechanisms of intervention effects, assessment of constructs relevant to causal program theory, testing of mediation and moderation, and discussion of theoretical implications of findings. In addition, explicit and implicit theoretical frameworks used in the studies were identified. The results indicated that although nearly half of the reviewed studies discussed causal program theory, other elements of theory-driven evaluation were incorporated in the studies less frequently. Challenges in applying the theory-driven evaluation paradigm within the theoretical frameworks and research methods commonly used in school psychology are discussed, and possible solutions to these challenges are presented.

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In a recent editorial commentary, Bums (2011) stressed the importance of theory in school psychology research and indicated that studies submitted for publication in School Psychology Review (SPR) should integrate theory and discuss theoretical implications of the findings. In reflecting on the current state of school psychology intervention research, Bums (2011) noted that many studies seem atheoretical because they focus solely on effectiveness rather than the underlying processes or causal mechanisms of change. The commentary stressed that evidence of effectiveness is important for school psychologists to consider when selecting interventions but also encouraged school psychologists to "avoid those without theoretical foundation because theoretical and conceptual frameworks provide a structure to guide practices and solve problems" (p. 133). Consistent with the goals of the commentary by Bums (2011), the purpose of this study is to examine the extent to which intervention studies published in school psychology journals (2007-2012) have explicitly incorporated and tested theory.

Attention to the importance of theory in intervention research is not new to school psychology. In the context of discussions regarding the methods to evaluate evidence-based interventions in school psychology and related fields (e.g., American Psychological Association, 1995; Kratochwill & Stoiber, 2002), the Journal of School Psychology published a special issue on theory in intervention research (Volume 38, Issue 4) featuring a target article by Hughes (2000) and eight responses and commentaries from leading researchers, many of which were cited by Burns (2011). Given the sustained focus on the role of theory in school psychology intervention research, a detailed analysis of theory in published intervention studies in the school psychology literature appears to be timely and warranted.

What Is Theory?

Burns (2011) encouraged authors of submissions to SPR to incorporate discussion of theoretical and conceptual frameworks of interventions to reduce the likelihood of research findings appearing as "disjointed incrementalism" (p. 133) and to increase the likelihood of theoretical advances that move the field of school psychology forward. In discussing the theoretical foundation of interventions, it may be helpful to differentiate broad theoretical approaches and frameworks from the "small theories" (Lipsey, 1993) specific to an intervention. As described by Kazdin (2000), the term theory is often used to refer to a theoretical approach or orientation to therapy (e.g., cognitive-behavioral) that discusses broad processes applicable to many different intervention targets and procedures. …

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