Today is National Special Education Day and marks nearly 50 years since the signing of the Individuals with Disabilities Act. Recognizing the tremendous hardship that the entire special education community has experienced during the pandemic, the staff at NCSER are celebrating the educators and students who strive for an accessible, high-quality system of special education.
The difficulty of the last two years cannot be understated. They have been filled with anxiety, isolation, and grief for so many. Few communities have been as directly impacted by school closures, reduced socialization, and the many limitations of the pandemic as students with disabilities. Many lost access to the schools and staff they rely upon, hindering identification efforts and preventing service delivery. Students with disabilities experienced more absenteeism and struggled more academically than their peers. And while there are few quantitative estimates of the impacts of remote learning on students with disabilities, the previous achievement gap students with disabilities experienced will likely grow worse as a result of lost instruction and services.
Despite these challenges, schools, parents, service providers, and students across the country have fought to adapt swiftly, exploring new technologies and other innovations. Several states have taken legislative action to provide additional support for students with disabilities, and greater attention has been placed on the obstacles that students with disabilities have faced before and during the pandemic, such as under-identification, discipline disparities, and inadequate support services. While the expected impacts on student achievement are deeply concerning, we are hopeful that our experiences during this time will bring into focus the importance of serving students with disabilities and spur on innovation towards that end. At NCSER, we remain committed to research that leads to actionable evidence to support the practitioner community as it adapts to and strives for a new, better normal.
Since NCSER was established in 2004, our mission has been to provide timely, relevant evidence to inform practice and improve educational outcomes for students with disabilities. We funded over 500 grants, allocating nearly $1 billion to support quality research on topics imperative to improving the educational opportunities for students with disabilities from birth through the transition to postsecondary education and career. NCSER funding has supported the development and testing of important interventions in a variety of domains. For example, Kids in Transition to School is an intensive school readiness intervention that has demonstrated positive impacts in literacy, self-regulation, and parent involvement for young children with co-occurring developmental disabilities and behavior problems. Numerous NCSER-funded interventions have demonstrated similarly positive outcomes in domains such as student behavior (CW-Fit), math achievement (Numbershire), and literacy (Early Literacy Skills Builder).
In addition to interventions, NCSER funding has supported the development and validation of assessments, including the Transition Assessment and Goal Generator for measuring non-academic skills associated with postsecondary education and employment and the Individual Growth and Development Indicators for screening and progress monitoring in infants and toddlers across various developmental domains. NCSER-funded research has also advanced our understanding of factors that support positive student outcomes, with a number of studies analyzing existing data from the National Longitudinal Transition Study-2 to identify factors associated with positive transition outcomes for students with disabilities. This funding has also supported large-scale research and leadership initiatives, including Research Networks and Research and Development Centers designed to tackle complex issues requiring more in-depth study. For example, the Multi-Tiered Systems of Support Network is studying the integration of academic and behavioral support systems in elementary schools using diverse methods. Others include the Center for Improving the Learning of Fractions, National Center on Assessment and Accountability for Special Education, and Center for Literacy and Deafness.
These projects have made significant contributions to the field of special education research, yet they often reflect the iterative nature of education research. It can take a long time to produce programs and interventions supported by quality research. As the pandemic continues to impact students with disabilities across the country, it is clear that we must adapt, harnessing new innovations to build greater resilience into our system of public education. NCSER will use American Rescue Plan (ARP) funds to provide more timely and relevant evidence for supporting students with disabilities through the Research to Accelerate Pandemic Recovery (324X) grant program, which requires researchers to address a pandemic-related problem, issue, or intervention important to education agencies and has the potential to significantly and rapidly improve outcomes for students with or at risk for disabilities. We look forward to announcing the awards in the future and sharing the insights they will provide as the field moves forward.
Most recently, IES has developed a partnership with the National Science Foundation (NSF) to fund transformative research in artificial intelligence to improve outcomes for students with disabilities. Using ARP funds, NCSER will support a grant competition held by NSF’s National Artificial Intelligence Research Institutes. Competed under Theme 6, Track B: AI-Augmented Learning for Individuals with Disabilities, applicants must focus on deploying artificial intelligence to meet the needs of learners with or at risk for disabilities and address the pandemic’s negative impacts on these students. Innovative research like this will be vital to meeting the emergent needs of pandemic recovery, and IES is excited to build on this collaboration with NSF.
For nearly 18 years, we have sought to advance research and practice to support students with disabilities. Though institutions, terminology, and best practices continue to evolve, one thing remains unchanged— good science can deliver transformative improvements in educating students with disabilities. We are hopeful that with greater knowledge and understanding of the changes that have occurred during the pandemic, our system of educating students with disabilities will be made more equitable for all seasons and more effective, even in the face of crisis. As we spend our second National Special Education Day amid a continuing pandemic, we hope you will join us in reflecting on how far the field of special education research has come, looking forward to new and innovative approaches to research, and, most of all, celebrating the unwavering courage and resilience of this community.
This blog was written and edited by Bennett Lunn (Bennett.Lunn@ed.gov), Truman-Albright Fellow for the National Center for Education Research and the National Center for Special Education Research, and Amy Sussman (Amy.Sussman@ed.gov), Program Officer for the National Center for Special Education Research.