Academic journal article Exceptional Children

Caseload in Special Education: An Integration of Research Findings

Academic journal article Exceptional Children

Caseload in Special Education: An Integration of Research Findings

Article excerpt

Optimal class size in general education has been studied extensively in past decades, prompting analysis of the issue from many perspectives and acclamation of small classes as a panacea for a myriad of school problems (Goldstein & Blatchford, 1998). Class size reductions have become so widely supported, in fact, that fully half of our 50 states are currently implementing some type of class size reduction (Wexler et al., 1998), and a proposal for federally-funded class size reductions is among the 1998 education goals (National Education Goals Panel, 1998). Although class size research is replete with challenges and disparate conclusions, scholarly endeavors focusing on the relationship between general education class size and student achievement abound, providing a wealth of information for stakeholders and policymakers (Folger & Breda, 1989; McRobbie, Finn, & Harman, 1998; Odden, 1990; Pate-Bain, Fulton, & Boyd-Zaharias, 1999).

Research into caseload in special education, on the other hand, has been conducted far less frequently. With the first focused studies on special education caseload beginning little more than a decade ago (Ysseldyke, 1988), and few major research projects occurring since, relatively little is known about the impact of caseload on special education student performance. Much of the extant research has based its conclusions on the relationship between group size and student engagement rather than on a direct link between caseload and achievement, further limiting the availability of empirical information upon which to base policy. Using a regression equation, Algozzine, Hendrickson, Gable, and White (1993) predicted a significant decrease in student achievement when special education caseloads were increased. Empirical evidence, however, has yet to validate this hypothetical prediction. In her analysis of special education guidelines, O'Hearn (1995) concurred with this limitation, stating that "special education policymakers will not find enough specific resources on caseload/class size to assist in revising caseload/class size requirements" (p. 5).

Notwithstanding the limited availability of research findings, the issue of caseload in special education has taken on an increasingly significant role in our education system. Special education costs spiral ever higher, threatening to impinge upon general education budgets in some districts. The number of students participating in special education has increased by 47% between 1977 and 1995, compared with a concurrent 2% decrease in general education enrollment (National Center for Education Statistics, 1997). Many special educators reported that increases in caseloads corresponded with simultaneous increases in meetings and paperwork demands. Eighty-seven percent of special educators, in fact, reported that they did not have enough time to spend with each individual student during the 1998-99 school year (The Council for Exceptional Children, 1998). Accumulated evidence suggests caseload is one factor in teacher attrition, which continues to exceed that of general educators, exacerbating the problem of staff shortages in special education.

Despite the escalating costs of special education, the ever-growing number of students needing services, and the reported time constraints of special educators, policies governing caseload and class size have remained inconsistent across the 50 states (Rylance, Chiang, Russ, & Dobbe-Whitcomb, 1999). Statewide caseload guidelines range from complex formulas considering settings, disability category, paperwork, and severity of disability to policies requiring that all decisions be made by local school districts (Rylance et al.). Implementation of the existing caseload policies has been even more variable. A nationwide analysis of caseloads for teachers of students who are severely emotionally/behaviorally disturbed found state averages ranged from 3 to 35 students per teacher (Algozzine et. …

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