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Institute of Education Sciences

Family Access to Knowledge of their Rights in Transition and Guardianship for Students with Disabilities

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), first enacted in 2004, specifies how public agencies should provide early intervention, special education, and related services to children with disabilities and delineates the rights of families to participate in meetings in which decisions are made on the evaluation, identification, and educational placement of their children. However, students with disabilities transition out of IDEA coverage when they graduate high school or reach age 21. This is a particularly crucial moment for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD).

Under IDEA, parental decision-making rights transfer to students at age 18 unless parents seek further guardianship. This complex issue requires understanding of the options and what they mean for the student. Alleviating any knowledge gaps is important for better transition outcomes for secondary students. In 2020, the U.S. Department of Education released an updated transition guide, A Transition Guide to Postsecondary Education and Employment for Students and Youth with Disabilities, for high school educators to better equip students on their transition into postsecondary education. The Department also released a brief to better inform students about their rights and the overall transition process as they prepare for postsecondary education and employment.

Allison Hall at the University of Massachusetts, Boston and her research team are exploring the role of special educators in informing youth and parents about transfer of rights and guardianship and its implications for transition outcomes for students with IDD. The project began with a review of the literature, a document review of state-level policies, and interviews with experts in the field of transition for students with IDD. These three initial research activities were followed by interviews with students, parents, and special educators on their experience during discussions of the transition process. We asked her to update us on the project and what they’ve learned so far. (Responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.)

NCSER: Please provide an update of where you are with the project.

Headshot of Allison Hall

Hall: Project staff members recently completed interviews in triads—which included a special educator, parent, and student with IDD—

focused on conversations about the transfer of rights and transition planning process for students after turning 18 through videoconferencing with participants from New York and Massachusetts. The research team, including researchers from Massachusetts Advocates Standing Strong and the Self Advocacy Association of New York State, is now analyzing the data for common themes. Once analyzed, the team will produce briefs and a short video highlighting key findings from the research.

Findings from qualitative data collection with experts in transfer-of-rights and transition planning yielded important information about the factors that influence how the transfer-of-rights conversations happen in special education settings:

  • School-based professionals have limited capacity and knowledge about the long-term impacts of guardianship
  • Schools are operating under an outdated paradigm of ableism—the tendency to intentionally or unintentionally presume incompetence as it relates to decision making for students with IDD
  • There is limited/lack of student engagement in transition planning and decision making
  • Schools are frequently guided by inadequate district and state policies

NCSER: Could you share any resources that may be useful to policymakers or parents?

Hall: Resources on our Institute for Community Inclusion website include an interactive map that describes the transfer-of-rights policies and laws in each state; plain language briefs for students about turning 18, transfer of rights, and alternatives to guardianship; and a brief that supports parents taking advantage of the transfer-of-rights process to position their youth with IDD for better transition outcomes.

NCSER looks forward to seeing the final results of Dr. Hall’s study on understanding how educators provide transfer-of-rights and guardianship information to families and the ways in which this information impacts parent expectations and student self-determination, each of which impacts student outcomes. Findings from this study can inform a future school-based intervention that tests strategies for more robustly incorporating transfer-of-rights discussions into the student-led transition planning process.

This blog was produced by Alysa Conway, NCSER student volunteer and University of Maryland, College Park graduate student with substantive contributions from NCSER program officers Akilah Nelson, Katie Taylor, and Amy Sussman.

Research to Accelerate Pandemic Recovery in Special Education: Dr. Kathleen Lynne Lane

Today, we’re highlighting Dr. Kathleen Lynne Lane, Roy A. Roberts Distinguished Professor in the Department of Special Education at the University of Kansas. Dr. Lane’s research aims to analyze existing data to determine how internalizing and externalizing behavior patterns, as well as referrals for special education eligibility, may have shifted over time with the pandemic. Moreover, the project will test Recognize. Relax. Record. (RRR), which is an intervention designed to reduce symptoms of anxiety, increase engagement, maximize learning recovery, and improve academic outcomes for students with and at risk for emotional and behavioral disorders. 

*Responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.___________________________________________________________________________________

National Center for Special Education Research (NCSER):How would you describe your research project in a sentence?  

Headshot of Dr. Kathleen Lynne Lane

Dr. Kathleen Lynne Lane:* We will determine shifts over time in internalizing behavior patterns and we will test an intervention, Recognize. Relax. Record. designed as part of Project ENHANCE (network grant), to meet this charge. 

NCSER: What was the need that inspired you to conduct this research? 

Dr. Kathleen Lynne Lane: Given the educational complexities of the COVID era, many students are expected to exhibit elevated levels of internalizing issues (e.g., anxious feelings), which may impede learning as teachers strive to maximize student engagement to facilitate learning and well-being. It is critical to examine how the prevalence of internalizing symptoms has shifted during the pandemic. Furthermore, in anticipation that prevalence has increased, it is vital teachers have effective and feasible interventions to support these students rather than rely on potentially scarce, resource-intensive external sources. We have the data to determine shifts in internalizing behavior patterns and we have developed and propose to test an intervention, RRR, to meet this charge. 

NCSER: What outcomes do you expect to change with this research? 

Dr. Kathleen Lynne Lane: We will determine shifts in internalizing behavior patterns since the pandemic. In addition, we will conduct a series of studies to determine the efficacy and feasibility of RRR in helping students manage anxious feelings and increasing academic engagement, ultimately facilitating students’ academic and social and emotional well-being during recovery from the pandemic. 

“As a classroom teacher, I wanted to make sure all students–including students with the most severe emotional and behavioral disorders–could be welcomed and included in general education settings in such a way that special and general education teachers felt confident in meeting these students’ multiple needs.”

NCSER: What inspired you to do research in special education?   

Dr. Kathleen Lynne Lane: As a classroom teacher, I wanted to make sure all students–including students with the most severe emotional and behavioral disorders–could be welcomed and included in general education settings in such a way that special and general education teachers felt confident in meeting these students’ multiple needs. Also, I was very concerned that students with internalizing behavior patterns were often overlooked because their behavior challenges did not capture teacher attention. This led to our collective work: designing, implementing, and evaluating Comprehensive, Integrated, Three-tiered (Ci3T) models of prevention to (a) prevent the development of learning and behavior challenges and (b) respond to existing challenges, with an emphasis on systematic screening. 

NCSER: Why is this particular research project important to you?  

Dr. Kathleen Lynne Lane: As a mother and a researcher, detecting and supporting students with internalizing behaviors are key priorities. As we navigate through the pandemic, our team is highly committed to the educators we serve so that they have feasible, effective interventions that support students with internalizing behaviors to engage in instruction and empower all teachers with the tools to meet students’ multiple needs. 

NCSER: How do you think this grant will impact special education?  

Dr. Kathleen Lynne Lane: As part of Project ENGAGE, we will determine how internalizing behavior patterns have shifted since the pandemic and we will empower teachers with practical, effective Tier 2 strategies that can be integrated into academic instruction to help students manage anxious feelings, enhance engagement, and facilitate learning and well-being. The resulting intervention will be able to be used by a range of students and teachers to support students with the tools needed to recognize and manage anxious feelings, while optimizing engagement during instruction. Furthermore, this intervention is designed to support teacher well-being by being a practical, efficient, and effective intervention that can be embedded into daily instructional activities. 

NCSER: How will this project address challenges related to the pandemic?  

Dr. Kathleen Lynne Lane: Project ENGAGE was designed with recovery from the pandemic in mind. Aim 1 addresses the need for schools to understand shifts that have occurred in internalizing behavior patterns. Aim 2 addresses the need for educators to have effective interventions at Tier 2 for students experiencing elevated levels of anxious feelings that impede educational engagement and thus attainment.

NCSER: What are some of the biggest challenges in special education research today? 

Dr. Kathleen Lynne Lane: While there are a host of challenges, one particular concern is the accurate detection of elevated risk for both major categories of behavior disorders of childhood: internalizing and externalizing behaviors. It is critical the field support educators in the (a) selection and installation of systematic screening tools that can effectively and efficiently identify preK-12 students at the first sign of concern and (b) design of practical, effective strategies that can be used by all educators to maximize engagement and support social and emotional well-being. For some school systems, free access tools such as the Student Risk Screening Scale for Internalizing and Externalizing Behaviors (SRSS-IE; Drummond, 1994; Lane & Menzies, 2009) are the only option. Further, as we detect students who are experiencing elevated levels of internalizing concerns, it is vital for educators to have access to feasible, evidence-based practices to support these students at initial signs of concern.  

NCSER: What’s one thing you wish more people knew about children and youth with or at risk for disabilities?  

Dr. Kathleen Lynne Lane: It is possible–and feasible–to detect and support students with internalizing and externalizing behaviors at the first sign of concern. Systematic screening is a gift to students, families, and teachers. 

NCSER: What are some of the most exciting news/innovations/stories that give you hope for the future of special education research?  

Dr. Kathleen Lynne Lane: Districts and schools across the United States are increasingly exploring and adopting integrated tiered systems such as Ci3T models of prevention. These integrated systems provide a systematic structure for educators to collaborate and meet students’ multiple needs (academic, behavioral, and social and emotional well-being) in a coherent and wholistic manner. Furthermore, the emphasis on using data, like systematic screening to detect students with both externalizing and internalizing behavioral concerns, provides a basis for educators to provide supports in an equitable and proactive manner. There is also evidence to suggest Ci3T models may facilitate teacher well-being as they promote efficiency, collaboration, and ongoing professional learning to enhance teachers’ sense of efficacy and reduce burnout as they go about their vital work of meeting students’ multiple needs.   

 NCSER: What are some of the future goals for you and your team? 

Dr. Kathleen Lynne Lane: Our ultimate goals: 

  1. Accurate detection of students with internalizing and externalizing behaviors at the first sign of concern. 
  2. High-quality, on-demand professional learning resources to support the design, implementation, and evaluation of Ci3T models of prevention to address students’ academic, behavioral, and social and emotional well-being needs in an integrated fashion. 

*Dr. Kathleen Lynne Lane’s answers include input from Project ENGAGE Co-Principal Investigators. 

Thank you for reading our conversation with Dr. Kathleen Lynne Lane! We hope you’ve enjoyed our NCSER Research to Accelerate Pandemic Recovery in Special Education grantee spotlight blog series. Keep following the blog for more exciting news from IES.

 

Research to Accelerate Pandemic Recovery in Special Education: Dr. Michael Hebert

Today, we want to highlight Dr. Michael Hebert, associate professor at the University of California, Irvine. Dr. Hebert’s work will evaluate the Workshop on Reading Development Strategies (WORDS), a comprehensive professional development program for teachers designed to support implementation of Tier 2 intensive interventions in reading for students with or at risk for reading disabilities in grades K–3. Please find below the inspiring story of our grantee! 

*Responses have been edited for brevity and clarity. 

_____________________________________________________________________________________

National Center for Special Education Research (NCSER): How would you describe your research project in a sentence?   

Headshot of Dr. Michael Hebert

Dr. Michael Hebert: Workshop on Reading Development Strategies (WORDS) is designed to accelerate reading development for students with disabilities following the COVID-19 pandemic, and we will test the impacts of WORDS in kindergarten through grade 3. 

NCSER: What was the need that inspired you to conduct this research?   

Dr. Michael Hebert: As a director of a university reading center that suspended in-person instruction during the COVID-19 pandemic, I was forced to figure out how to do what most other educational institutions also had to do: pivot. Students with reading disabilities didn’t suddenly have fewer needs, and our preservice teachers still required training in how to meet the needs of those students. We pivoted to virtual instruction.  

Like most schools and programs, we had some successes and challenges. It became obvious quickly that we had particular difficulty delivering virtual instruction to students with disabilities. Our preservice teachers sometimes had difficulty figuring out how to make appropriate accommodations, assessing students’ needs, or sustaining their attention. On at least one occasion, a lesson ended when a student with an emotional and behavioral need simply shut their laptop. 

Two teacher surveys I conducted with Jessica Namkung and Marc Goodrich reinforced that students with disabilities were disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Teachers reported covering less content and having difficulties making appropriate accommodations. Some of our Nebraska partner schools also reported 10–12% increases in the number of students falling below cut scores in reading across grade levels. It was clear that schools needed support to increase instructional opportunities and accelerate reading growth for students with and at risk for disabilities.  

As it happened, I was already working on the WORDS project with the state of Nebraska, with a focus on the science of reading. We were seeing early promise for the program to accelerate reading improvements for students with disabilities. Those early successes inspired my team to develop an IES grant proposal to test whether the WORDS project could be adapted to accelerate pandemic recovery for students with reading difficulties and disabilities. We are especially focused on impacting schools in rural and remote areas that may have had particular difficulty providing students with access to reading instructional opportunities during the pandemic.  

NCSER: What outcomes do you expect to change with this research?  

Dr. Michael Hebert: We hope to see impacts on reading skills and overall reading achievement for children. We’re specifically expecting to see improvements on foundational reading skill outcomes (for example, letter naming fluency and phonological awareness), word-reading and decoding skills, and reading fluency outcomes. We’re focused on outcomes that have practical significance to Nebraska schools and drive a lot of school decisions, including reading assessments mandated by Nebraska state law and annual state assessments. We also hope to see a reduction in the overall number of students identified with reading difficulties and disabilities. 

“Although there may have been no way to prepare for the pandemic, we can’t let a generation of students with reading difficulties fail because of our lack of preparation. We have a responsibility to learn quickly how to meet their needs and accelerate their learning.

NCSER: What inspired you to do research in special education?   

Dr. Michael Hebert: When I was a reading specialist, my charge was to identify why individual children had reading difficulties and design ways to help them become successful readers. I became very interested in distinguishing students with opportunity gaps from those that faced barriers due to disabilities. These groups sometimes have different instructional needs. I found it especially appealing to design specific instructional plans for students and help them grow.  

One tool that I found particularly adaptable and effective for many of my students with disabilities was writing. Writing gave students another way to engage in the content and practice skills, and through this, I noticed more rapid reading gains for students with learning disabilities. It was really exciting. I remember talking with Steve Graham and Karen Harris about it at a conference around that time. They helped me understand that I needed more evidence for it than my gut hunches. They also convinced me that research evidence was the key. Now that I reflect on it, I’m pretty sure they tricked me into going to graduate school. The rest is history.  

NCSER: Why is this particular research project important to you?  

Dr. Michael Hebert: My first teaching job after college was in a third-grade classroom on the Navajo reservation in Arizona. I quickly learned that my teacher-prep program hadn’t prepared me well enough to teach reading to a classroom of 100% English learners (ELs), some of whom missed large amounts of school. (I got my credential in New Hampshire, where the EL population was very small.) However, it wouldn’t have been acceptable for me to fail to do my job for those kids and blame my lack of preparation. Needless to say, I had to work very hard that year to learn quickly and meet their needs. I’ve been inspired to better prepare myself and other teachers to teach reading to different populations ever since.  

 The impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on schools remind me of that first year of my career. Teachers were unprepared. We didn’t know the best ways to teach foundational reading and writing skills in virtual and hybrid contexts. Kids missed a lot of school and instruction. Although there may have been no way to prepare for the pandemic, we can’t let a generation of students with reading difficulties fail because of our lack of preparation. We have a responsibility to learn quickly how to meet their needs and accelerate their learning. 

NCSER: How do you think this grant will impact special education?   

Dr. Michael Hebert: Targeted interventions focused on specific skills have been a staple of special education. Those types of interventions will continue to be important and indispensable for meeting individual student needs. However, the WORDS project is a larger-scale intervention that focuses on improving several parts of the system at once—including curricular foci, teacher instruction, multitiered systems of support, and school use of assessment data—while not losing sight of the need to meet students’ individual needs. The aim is to relieve pressure on the special education system while also improving interventions for students with disabilities.

To do this, the WORDS project includes ongoing professional development on the science of reading, individualized teacher coaching, leadership development, after-school instruction for students with reading difficulties, and assessment support for schools. We work with schools over a 2-year period. (We can’t make large-scale improvements with a day or two of professional development.) WORDS focuses on continuous improvement and includes individualized consultation for schools that can be adapted for their specific needs (e.g., curricular adoption or intervention-material choices). If effective, this could provide a model for other states to develop similar multicomponent, large-scale intervention programs and impact how we approach improving special education outcomes.  

NCSER: How will this project address challenges related to the pandemic? 

Dr. Michael Hebert: We know that one project can’t address all of the challenges related to the pandemic. Therefore, the focus of our program is to address the challenges of accelerating reading development for students with and at risk for disabilities. To do that, the WORDS project floods the system with a multicomponent approach to improving reading instruction in schools and a focus on effective reading practices identified through reading science. By intensifying intervention through after-school tutoring, improving core instructional and assessment practices, and providing schools with support to adapt to students’ needs, the WORDS project is aimed at developing the capacity of schools and teachers. The goal is to develop the appropriate conditions for accelerating reading improvement. Our project includes a series of regression discontinuity designs that allow us to provide regular, rapid feedback to the schools in the project. This will allow schools to make additional instructional adjustments and decisions quickly. We also report our results regularly to the Nebraska State Department of Education so that they can make decisions about whether to implement the program in other schools.

NCSER: What are some of the biggest challenges in special education research today?   

Dr. Michael Hebert: Identifying school and teacher partners is one of the biggest challenges. Shortages of teachers, substitutes, and paraprofessionals are straining the system at a time when many teachers are still stressed and tired from the unique challenges of the pandemic. Schools are also cognizant of the need to make the most of their instructional and professional development time to meet the needs of students who missed instructional opportunities during the pandemic. Because of that, schools are less willing to take on research partnerships. They’re (understandably) being careful about any research partnerships they take on. They are protecting their teachers and seem less willing to participate in projects that require significant amounts of instructional time. Therefore, it is incumbent upon special education researchers to design research studies in ways that relieve some of the pressure on schools, provide schools with data that helps them make decisions in the short term, and are responsive to the needs of schools and teachers. There are many critical research questions around students with disabilities that need to be studied. We need to make sure we’re carefully listening to schools and stakeholders about their needs in order to foster research partnerships that can help us address those questions. 

NCSER: What’s one thing you wish more people knew about children and youth with or at risk for disabilities?   

Dr. Michael Hebert: Many disabilities are invisible. Therefore, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish students with disabilities from students who have lacked learning opportunities. Both groups may perform similarly on assessments. However, the academic needs of those two groups are likely to be different. Students with disabilities may have difficulty learning due to their disability; simply giving them more learning opportunities will not always be sufficient without other accommodations. The good news is that we know a lot about how to provide appropriate accommodations and adjust instruction based on students’ disabilities and needs. In many cases, providing the right intervention and accommodations can make all of the difference. Therefore, it is important to be careful when assessing students and identifying students with disabilities (especially invisible disabilities) so that we can appropriately meet their needs. 

NCSER: What are some of the most exciting news/innovations/stories that give you hope for the future of special education research?  

Dr. Michael Hebert: I’m very excited about the collaborative research training grants that have recently been awarded by the Office of Special Education Research. We need to continue to develop talented new researchers to continue to push the field forward. I’m particularly excited about projects involving multiple institutions collaborating to provide students with varied experiences and research opportunities. This kind of training has the potential to expose doctoral students to varied methods, experts, research projects, and special education issues across multiple states. Some examples include: 

  • The Leaders Investigating Mathematics Evidence (LIME) program collaboration among the University of Texas at Austin, Southern Methodist University, and University of Missouri
  • RISE Scholars Network (Research Interventions in Special Education) collaboration between the University of Tennessee–Knoxville, Texas A&M University, and the University of Nebraska–Lincoln

I can’t wait to see what these scholars do. 

NCSER: What are some of the future goals for you and your team?   

Dr. Michael Hebert: We have short- and long-term goals. In the short term, we’re focused on implementation and carrying out our study with the highest degree of rigor and care. Our goals are to carry out a great study, impact teachers and kids, and conduct a strong cost analysis to help people understand the cost required for this type of work. That essentially leads me to our long-term goal: sustainability. Although this is a pandemic recovery grant, we hope the WORDS project can become a model for improving reading outcomes for students with and at risk for disabilities even in nonpandemic times. To do that, we need to consider ways to make the project sustainable. We’ve already built some mechanisms into the WORDS project for this. For example, we have a leadership training program included within the WORDS project, which aims to identify and cultivate reading-teacher leaders in schools across the state. By cultivating leadership opportunities for talented personnel in the schools, we accomplish a few things. First, we make schools less reliant on outside support. Second, we foster institutional knowledge that can help during times of teacher turnover, administrator turnover, or changes to curriculum. Third, we build a network of teachers and experts across the state that can support neighboring school districts and colleagues. This further makes Nebraska schools less reliant on expensive outside experts.  

Another way we’re hoping to foster sustainability is through the after-school tutoring component of WORDS. Although there are personnel costs to tutoring, investment in the extra instruction may help some students exit intervention, relieving pressure on reading specialists, special education teachers, and paraprofessionals during the school day. If that works, schools may be able to reallocate resources to other students with and at risk for disability or intensify instruction for those students. Anyway, you get the idea…sustainability is an important goal for us moving forward. 

Thank you for reading our conversation with Dr. Michael Hebert! Come back tomorrow for our next grantee spotlight!  

 

 

Research To Accelerate Pandemic Recovery in Special Education: Grantee Spotlight Blog Series Featuring Dr. Alyson Collins

Today, we would like to introduce Dr. Alyson Collins, associate professor of special education at Texas State University. Dr. Collins’ project, Turning the TIDE, aims to accelerate student outcomes by providing professional development in implementing text-based writing instruction to general and special education teachers working collaboratively in grades 3 and 4.

*Responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.

National Center for Special Education Research (NCSER): How would you describe your research project in a sentence?  

Headshot of Dr. Alyson Collins

Dr. Alyson Collins: Turning the TIDE aims to accelerate student outcomes by providing and evaluating professional development (PD) in text-based writing to general and special education teachers in grades 3 and 4.  

NCSER: What was the need that inspired you to conduct this research? 

Dr. Alyson Collins: One source of inspiration came from another ongoing exploration project (IES Award R324A180137; PI Stephen Ciullo), which examines how general and special education teachers deliver writing instruction to students with disabilities. As part of the project, our team administered a survey to fourth-grade general and special education teachers. The survey indicated fewer than 20% of special and general educators felt adequately prepared to teach writing to students with and at risk for disabilities (Graham et al., 2022). Therefore, our findings identified a need to provide special and general educators PD in writing to help them feel more prepared to address the needs of students with disabilities. Turning the TIDE will provide the necessary PD for these teachers to collaboratively deliver intensive intervention in text-based writing to students with and at risk for disabilities. PD and ongoing coaching for teachers will also alleviate the increasing pressure to address student learning loss resulting from pandemic-related service disruptions for students with disabilities.  

NCSER: What outcomes do you expect to change with this research? 

Dr. Alyson Collins: We anticipate changing student learning outcomes in writing, as well as teacher outcomes. We expect students who receive the intervention in self-regulated strategy development (SRSD) will demonstrate higher performance on literacy outcomes when compared to students who continue to receive typical classroom instruction (i.e., students in the control condition). Specifically, we will examine outcomes on student measures of text-based writing, writing without text, self-efficacy for writing, reading comprehension, and the new statewide integrated literacy assessment (State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness [STAAR®]). We expect the intervention will rapidly accelerate writing performance of students with and at risk for disabilities because SRSD is an established, evidence-based intervention for helping students plan and compose informative essays after reading texts. Moreover, a previous study conducted by our team measured positive student writing outcomes within a short time frame (approximately 16 weeks) when SRSD for text-based writing was implemented by general education teachers in grade 3 (Collins et al., 2021). In addition, we anticipate teachers who receive PD and ongoing coaching in SRSD will report higher self-efficacy and knowledge for teaching writing to students with disabilities, which addresses teachers’ expressed need for more preparation in how to teach writing and how to adapt instruction for their students. 

NCSER: What inspired you to do research in special education?   

Dr. Alyson Collins: Our team is inspired and committed to special education research because of our professional experiences as teachers. In addition, we all possess a curiosity about what works, with whom, and under what conditions. I spent 9 years as an elementary school teacher, and in 5 of those years, my primary teaching responsibility was to provide small-group intervention in reading and writing to students with and at risk for disabilities. Over the years, I had opportunities to lead PD within my district and mentor teachers as they learned new literacy interventions. Through these experiences, I discovered the joy it brought me to help other teachers grow in their profession, particularly when it also helped students learn to read and write. Stephen Ciullo (co-PI) was a special education teacher and observed the need for greater support in promoting effective co-teaching as well as equipping teachers with writing strategies. Karen Harris and Steve Graham (co-PIs) have committed more than 40 years of their careers to investigating writing processes and developing writing interventions (including the SRSD instructional framework) for students with disabilities. Collectively, our inspiration to do research in special education stems from our curiosity and experiences as teachers.  

NCSER: Why is this particular research project important to you?  

Dr. Alyson Collins: I began my career as a general education inclusion teacher in kindergarten. Each year, I had multiple students with disabilities in my class. At the time, I was fortunate to have an amazing team of special education teachers and paraprofessionals who partnered with me to ensure all students had opportunities to succeed in school. Therefore, I am particularly passionate about increasing communication and collaboration between general and special education teachers because I have observed firsthand how students make greater gains when these two groups of teachers work together. 

This project also provides more attention toward elementary students’ writing development and ensures teachers have the resources necessary to support students in learning to write. As a teacher, I had a wide range of reading interventions readily available, but I had far fewer interventions to support students in writing. Yet many of my students with disabilities were in dire need of intensive intervention in writing. Therefore, this project will make new resources available to teachers so they can support students with disabilities with the challenges they face when writing. 

NCSER: How do you think this grant will impact special education?  

Dr. Alyson Collins: We believe this project will make a positive impact on multiple aspects of special education. In recent years, educational standards have increasingly emphasized the integration of reading and writing instruction, and developing proficiency in writing from texts is critical for student success at the secondary level as well as college and career readiness. Our project aims to provide further evidence for using SRSD to accelerate text-based writing of students with and at risk for disabilities. Expanding the SRSD evidence base for text-based writing ensures teachers and students with disabilities have access to interventions that will ensure their future success.  

In addition, our project focuses on special and general educators participating in PD together and collaboratively delivering interventions to students with and at risk for disabilities. We aim to establish a model for intensifying and differentiating instruction through strategic planning and targeted instruction for students in need of intensive intervention in writing. Information on how general and special teachers work together to implement SRSD could help guide school districts in planning future PD programs. Turning the TIDE will also address the need to provide both general and special education teachers more PD in writing. 

Finally, our project will also examine the effectiveness of online, self-paced PD modules as an alternative to in-person PD for teachers. Findings could have great impact on special education if there is no difference in student and teacher outcomes when teachers receive PD through the online modules, because the online platform would provide education agencies with a more cost-effective and scalable approach to providing PD to large numbers of teachers. 

NCSER: How will this project address challenges related to the pandemic?  

Dr. Alyson Collins: Prior to the pandemic, national assessments of literacy consistently revealed achievement gaps between students with disabilities and students without disabilities in writing and reading skills. Unfortunately, school closures and changes to special education service delivery during the pandemic further underscored the need to provide additional support in writing for these students. Turning the TIDE aims to accelerate student learning by providing hands-on professional development for teachers and ongoing instructional coaching in a framework called self-regulated strategy development (SRSD). SRSD is an evidence-based practice, as recognized by the What Works Clearinghouse, with more than 40 years of research proving its effectiveness in improving students’ writing, making it an ideal framework to address the pandemic-induced gap in literacy skills of students with and at risk for disabilities. (For more on SRSD, see this blog.) In addition, the procedures and SRSD instruction that will be used by teachers holds great potential to rapidly accelerate the writing performance of students with and at risk for disabilities within a short time frame (approximately 16 weeks) because our prior study offers evidence of the intervention effectiveness when implemented by general education teachers in grade 3 (Collins et al., 2021). 

NCSER: What are some of the biggest challenges in special education research today? 

Dr. Alyson Collins: One of the biggest challenges in special education research is recruitment. Teachers consistently report “having too much on their plate” or “feeling overburdened with new initiatives and time-consuming paperwork.” Consequently, even if research activities require minimal time commitments, teachers are hesitant to participate in research because they do not have the capacity to take on one more thing. Moreover, more teachers are leaving the profession each day. Therefore, recruitment is a huge challenge because research cannot be conducted in schools without teachers supporting the activities.

Now more than ever, special education researchers need to find new ways to support our nation’s teachers and clearly demonstrate how special education research positively impacts school practice. We also need to ensure we are designing research projects that will yield findings with practical importance and can make meaningful changes to what happens in public schools. 

NCSER: What’s one thing you wish more people knew about children and youth with or at risk for disabilities?  

Dr. Alyson Collins: Student with and at risk for disabilities are capable of great achievements when their teachers, parents, and peers believe in them and empower them to become independent learners. If you support students with setting reasonable and attainable goals, students will rise to the challenge. If you model a process for students, they will have the knowledge to replicate the same procedures. If you validate that writing is hard, they will make a powerful personal connection with you. Students with and at risk for disabilities need someone to believe they can succeed and the strategies to do so. 

“If you validate that writing is hard, they will make a powerful personal connection with you. Students with and at risk for disabilities need someone to believe they can succeed and the strategies to do so.” 

NCSER: What are some of the most exciting news/innovations/stories that give you hope for the future of special education research?  

Dr. Alyson Collins: The time we have spent with teachers during the PD in our Turning the TIDE project has renewed our passion for partnering with general and special education teachers. Several teachers shared how they rarely have opportunities to sit down and plan with their co-teacher because general and special education teachers are often required to attend different PDs. This ignited my excitement because it hits home as to why we set out to implement this project. I am hopeful because there are teachers in the field who welcome opportunities to bridge communication and collaboration between general and special education instruction. More importantly, many teachers still care about making a difference in their students’ lives and seek effective interventions for facilitating their students’ academic progress. This desire gives me hope we can all make meaningful and impactful changes in students’ lives when we all work together.  

NCSER: What are some of the future goals for you and your team? 

Dr. Alyson Collins: One of our future goals is to identify models of PD with potential to reach a wide range of teachers and students across the U.S. PD models must be supported by research evidence as being effective, but they also need to be feasible and cost-effective for public schools. Our team aims to continue to support efforts that increase access and sustainability of evidence-based writing interventions.  

Another goal of our team is to continue to explore current, everyday teacher practices. We often make assumptions about what PD should be provided to teachers, yet we rarely consider sources of information such as observations of current practice or expressed needs in surveys to strategically plan teacher PD. Therefore, we plan to pair our exploration research with information collected in the current project to help education agencies develop PD models that align with identified teacher needs and support sustained long-term implementation. 

Finally, our team is also engaged in an ongoing, comprehensive meta-analysis of empirical research of writing interventions in grade K to 5 (IES Award R305A200363, PI Alyson Collins). Synthesizing existing research alongside innovative investigations of evidence-based instruction (i.e., the current Turning the TIDE project) will help the field of education identify for whom and under what conditions writing interventions are most effective. Ultimately, our goal across both projects is to ensure students receive effective instruction to support their development into proficient writers. 

Thank you for reading our conversation with Dr. Alyson Collins! Come back tomorrow for our next grantee spotlight!  

Research To Accelerate Pandemic Recovery in Special Education: Grantee Spotlight Blog Series Featuring Dr. Sarah Powell

Today, we’ll take you through our conversation with Dr. Sarah Powell, associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin. Dr. Powell’s project, Math SPIRAL: Specialized Intervention to Reach All Learners, evaluates an educator-provided mathematics intervention for students in grades 4 and 5. We hope you enjoy this conversation as much as we did!

*Responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.

National Center for Special Education Research (NCSER): How would you describe your research project in a sentence?  

Headshot of Dr. Sarah Powell

Dr. Sarah Powell: We work collaboratively with teachers and support them, through professional development, in providing math tutoring to students in grades 4 and 5. 

NCSER: What was the need that inspired you to conduct this research?  

Dr. Sarah Powell: There are too many students who are not meeting minimum levels of math proficiency, and the state of Texas passed legislation to help these students by requiring that they receive small-group instruction. Our project provides support to the teachers who do this small-group instruction and tests the impact of this support on student math outcomes.  

NCSER: What outcomes do you expect to change with this research?  

Dr. Sarah Powell: We expect teacher instructional practices to improve, especially around the use of evidence-based practices to teach math. We would also expect student math outcomes to improve when those students receive tutoring from the teachers in our project.  

NCSER: What inspired you to do research in special education?   

Dr. Sarah Powell: In middle school, I struggled with math and received poor math grades. In ninth grade, I had a math teacher who explained math in a way that helped me understand. As I spent time in schools as a teacher, I saw other students struggle with math like I did. When I learned how research can help improve math outcomes for students, I was in! 

NCSER: Why is this particular research project important to you?  

Dr. Sarah Powell: Prior to this project, most of my research was on intervention design and the testing of those interventions. It was very focused on the student. With SPIRAL, we are working with teachers and trying to improve teaching practices without a specific curriculum in place.  

NCSER: How do you think this grant will impact special education?  

Dr. Sarah Powell: This grant has the opportunity to impact what we know about best practice for providing math professional learning and coaching to math teachers. This grant also has the potential to determine if student math outcomes can improve when teachers participate in collaborative learning about best practices for the teaching and learning of math. Researchers may also learn more about conducting studies using regression discontinuity design in schools.  

NCSER: How will this project address challenges related to the pandemic?  

Dr. Sarah Powell: In Texas, the majority of students, including students with disabilities, did not meet minimum levels of math proficiency in 2021. This project addresses a challenge that more students than usual are experiencing difficulty with math, and many math teachers are providing small-group instruction who have not provided such support before.  

“Children with or at risk for disabilities start to enjoy math when they start to see small successes with their learning. Math can be for all!

NCSER: What are some of the biggest challenges in special education research today?  

Dr. Sarah Powell: Collaborating with school partners has become more difficult when schools have more and more students who experience difficulty with reading and math. Many schools feel overwhelmed, so finding the time to collaborate with researchers is not necessarily a priority.

NCSER: What’s one thing you wish more people knew about children and youth with or at risk for disabilities?  

Dr. Sarah Powell: Children with or at risk for disabilities start to enjoy math when they start to see small successes with their learning. Math can be for all! 

NCSER: What are some of the most exciting news/innovations/stories that give you hope for the future of special education research?  

Dr. Sarah Powell: I am enthralled in all the conversations about the “science of reading” and the recognition that many schools have been teaching reading according to beliefs instead of evidence. The math story is the same–and I am hopeful we can start to focus on the teaching and learning of math in order to improve math outcomes for all students.  

NCSER: What are some of the future goals for you and your team?  

Dr. Sarah Powell: Continue to develop strong partnerships with our local school districts and continue to respond to their needs–SPIRAL is an example of that. We all work hard and want to continue to improve the math outcomes of students and ensure all students have access to evidence-based math instruction.  

Thank you for reading our conversation with Dr. Sarah Powell! Come back tomorrow for our next grantee spotlight!