Inside IES Research

Notes from NCER & NCSER

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!