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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!