Lessons from Special Education Research

By Sindelar, Paul T.; Bishop, Anne G. et al. | Teacher Education Quarterly, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

Lessons from Special Education Research


Sindelar, Paul T., Bishop, Anne G., Brownell, Mary T., Rosenberg, Michael S., Connelly, Vincent J., Teacher Education Quarterly


Although the ultimate goal of teacher education is to provide an adequate supply of highly qualified teachers for our nation's schools, many factors hinder its success. In special education, too few people enter the field, and a policy context that promotes easy entry via unconventional preparation threatens to dilute teacher quality. In this challenging and complex context, teacher educators struggle to improve their work and to assess innovations credibly. In this paper, we describe the particular position of the special education teacher education community as it attempts to provide a qualified teacher for every special education student. We begin by describing our center and the process that led to the development of a research agenda. We also provide an overview of four studies underway and how they provide insight about assessing innovations. In the last section, we discuss what we have learned thus far.

The Special Case of Special Education

In special education, the figure 10% has utility. Students with disabilities make up roughly 10% of all school children, for example, and special education teachers make up roughly 10% of the teaching workforce. It used to be that roughly 10% of all special education teachers were not fully certified--but not any more. In 2000-01 and 2001-02, the percentage jumped from 9.9% to 11.5% to 12.1% (U. S. Department of Education, n.d.). The message in these numbers is dismaying. In 2001-02, over 800,000 special education students were served by less than fully certified teachers. For them, the promise a free, appropriate public education may well go unfulfilled.

The problem of inadequate numbers of fully qualified teachers has proven as persistent as it is pervasive. In defying simple solution, it also has proven pernicious. In the early years of the IDEA era, when "recruit more teachers and train 'em up" became the battle cry, the problem seemed simple. Now, 25 years later, special education teacher educators are dismayed and bewildered by our inability to meet the demand for special education teachers--in spite of a mammoth federal investment in teacher preparation. The problem is more complicated than we ever imagined, but that is small consolation.

Against this backdrop, the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) chose to support a policy research center and to charge that center with the responsibilities to (a) synthesize what is known about supply and demand, preparation, and licensure; (b) develop a research agenda; and (c) conduct studies to inform teacher education policy and practice. A coalition of researchers from Johns Hopkins, Vanderbilt, and the University of Florida received the award, and in the following section, we describe what we learned from the syntheses and how we have used them to develop a research agenda.

Developing a Research Agenda--The Process

Our work at the Center on Personnel Studies in Special Education (COPSSE) requires us to meet rigorous research standards and maintain relevance to the policy community. We first engaged the research community in conducting comprehensive reviews of the special education teacher education literature. We commissioned papers on nine topics and organized them under headings of supply and demand (supply and demand, retention and attrition, diversifying the workforce), professional preparation (exemplary practices, models and measures of teacher quality, induction), and licensure (licensure patterns, reciprocity, and teaching as a profession). These papers along with a 10th on alternative certification that we borrowed from the National Clearinghouse on Professions in Special Education (NCPSE) are available on our website, www.copsse.org. We used these papers to identify gaps in the knowledge base and, with the assistance of a research design panel, developed a preliminary research agenda. Later, we presented this agenda to policy makers and used their feedback to identify the most critical questions on our list. …

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