Inside IES Research

Notes from NCER & NCSER

Special Educator Shortage: Examining Teacher Burnout and Mental Health

A teacher writes at her desk with her head in her hand

In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, NCSER would like to discuss special education teacher burnout and its connection to America’s teacher shortage crisis. Special education teachers are essential to our nation’s ability to provide a free and appropriate public education to the 7.3 million students with disabilities that attend our public schools. But significant shortages in qualified special educators affect the ability of our public schools to provide equal educational opportunities for all students.

A nationwide survey of schools in 2022 reported that vacancies in special education were nearly double that of other subject areas. This survey also found that 65% of public schools in the United States reported being understaffed in special education. Even prior to the pandemic, there was a downward trend in the number of special education teachers. One study found the numbers decreased by 17% between the years 2005-12. Research has also shown that the number of teachers leaving the field of special education is among the largest contributors to the growing shortage. High job demands without adequate support and resources may lead to teacher burnout, which may, in turn, lead to teachers leaving the profession. Because teacher burnout and general working conditions are real concerns, NCSER has funded projects to take a closer look at this problem and find potential solutions. This blog highlights a few of these projects below.

NCSER-Funded Studies on Special Educator Burnout

Elizabeth Bettini at Boston University led a research project exploring special educator working conditions. The research aimed to provide an understanding of how instructional resources, planning time, and support from colleagues affect teacher instruction and student outcomes, as well as explore how administrators view their role in providing supportive working conditions for special educators. They found that teachers who provided high-quality instruction had a trusted co-teacher, consistent paraprofessionals with time and support for training, and protected time for instruction.

To help prevent burnout among special education teachers, Lisa Ruble at Ball State University has been developing and testing an intervention called BREATHE (Burnout Reduction: Enhanced Awareness, Tools, Handouts, and Education). As part of the larger project, the research team explored the longitudinal trajectory of burnout. The first wave of data collection occurred in Fall 2020 during the pandemic and analyses from that particular wave of data collection demonstrated that out of the 468 participating special educators from across the United States, approximately 38% met clinical criteria for generalized anxiety disorder and 38% for major depressive disorder—rates that are several times greater than those in the general U.S. population. Additionally, teachers indicated that the pandemic had a moderate to extreme impact on stress (91%), depression (58%), anxiety (76%), and emotional exhaustion (83%). The research team is still analyzing all the data from the pilot study.

At Pennsylvania State University, Jennifer Frank is leading a research project examining the efficacy of Cultivating Awareness and Resilience in Education (CARE). In prior research, the CARE program was shown to improve teacher outcomes (such as improving emotion regulation and reducing distress) and enhance classroom interactions in general education settings, but it had not been studied in a special education context. The current project is examining whether there are similar positive impacts of the intervention on outcomes for special education teachers and students with disabilities.

Justin Garwood at the University of Vermont is leading a research project aimed at understanding risk factors related to special education teacher burnout, such as role stressors, relationships with colleagues, and behavior management abilities. Ultimately, this project aims to collect data that could help target interventions for preventing or reducing special education teacher burnout and improving educator and student outcomes.

NCSER would like to thank all our researchers for their dedication and continued efforts to find solutions that support educators and students. We look forward to seeing the final results of the projects described here. We would also like to extend our deepest gratitude to the special education teachers and support staff in our nation’s schools.

This blog was written by Shanna Bodenhamer, virtual student federal service intern at IES and graduate student at Texas A&M University. Katie Taylor is the NCSER program officer for the Educators and School-Based Service Providers portfolio and the other programs that support the projects presented in this blog.

Supporting Strategic Writers: The Use of Strategy Instruction and Genre Pedagogy in the Basic Writing Classroom

NCER student volunteer, Rachael Higham, has long been interested in writing instruction. She currently works as a remedial language tutor for high school students with disabilities, and she began her graduate studies with a focus on postsecondary writing instruction. To learn more about the current science and research on writing, Rachael interviewed Dr. Charles MacArthur about his research-based postsecondary writing curriculum, Supporting Strategic Writers (SSW), which he and his team developed and evaluated through IES grants. The goal of SSW is to foster metacognitive self-evaluation through the use of strategic learning and genre-based pedagogy to help improve writing skills and self-confidence.


Take a minute to answer this question: Do you remember how you were taught to write a paper in high school or in college?

Maybe you remember the five-paragraph essay, MLA formatting, or the RACE strategy, but were you ever taught specific strategies for planning and evaluating your papers?

While I was interviewing Dr. MacArthur about his recently completed IES project, he posed a similar question to me. He asked me how I navigated writing in college and if a teacher had ever explicitly taught me how to write. I realized that while I had some explicit teaching in text structure in high school, by the time I reached college, I relied heavily on feedback to inform my future writing. The idea that students learn from revising is a common view in writing education. However, this view does not always consider students who struggle with writing and who may need more explicit instruction, even in college.

As a teacher of high school students with learning disabilities, I often find that by the time many of my students reach my classroom, they feel defeated by the writing process. Writing is something that has become a source of fear and dread for them. My goal with each student is to find and develop strategies that bolster their writing skills and change writing from something that seems unattainable to something that they can do independently. I was excited to talk to Dr. MacArthur and learn more about the research that he and his have been doing. Below are his responses to the questions I posed.

What are the key components of the SSW curriculum?

The emphasis of SSW is to enable students to take control of their own learning through rhetorical analysis of genre. To do that, students are taught explicit strategies and cognitive procedures based on what good writers do. This is reinforced with metacognitive strategies that help students become aware of why they are using specific writing strategies and procedures and recognize how and when to transfer them to other classes. SSW places emphasis on genre-based strategies not only in the text but also in the planning and evaluation phases.

The heart of strategy instruction in SSW is the “think-aloud,” which is when instructors share, in real time, the thoughts that they are experiencing as they’re writing or editing a text to show how they are figuring things out. Instructors need to show—not just explain—how to write. What we writing instructors are teaching is invisible, so the think aloud makes the process visible to students. It also lets students see that writing is hard even for their teacher. Teachers can get stuck and need to work through it based on the strategies that are being taught.

What is the number one thing that you would tell a developmental or first-year writing teacher?

Teaching strategies to students on planning and evaluating their work helps improve writing. There have been hundreds of studies from K-12 (see these meta-analyses as examples 1, 2, 3) that show how strategy instruction works to improve writing. This experimental study of SSW adds to that literature and shows that strategic instruction with genre pedagogy can work in the postsecondary developmental writing environment.

What type of future research would you like to see done with the SSW curriculum?

There is a wealth of valuable research that could be done in the future. Future research could delve into how to build on the developmental course’s gain in subsequent courses. For example, it would be interesting to look at the transition between developmental writing courses and first-year composition in terms of pedagogical integration.

Another area of transfer is between compositions courses and disciplinary writing in postsecondary settings. For example, how could postsecondary institutions improve writing across the curriculum? How could strategy instruction similar to SSW work in this setting?

Additionally, strategy instruction started in special education, but it was found to be useful throughout the entire K-12 population. Similarly, SSW was found to be successful in developmental writing classrooms. It would be great to see the effects of SSW in first year composition classes.

You can find publications from this project and the earlier SSW project in ERIC here and here respectively. The What Works Clearinghouse also reviewed an earlier evaluation of the SSW here.


This blog was written by Rachael Higham, a graduate intern through the Virtual Student Federal Service Internships program, and facilitated by Dr. Meredith Larson (Meredith.Larson@ed.gov), a research analyst and program officer at NCER.

 

Studying Child Welfare and Foster Care Policy in the Context of Education Research

In honor of National Foster Care Awareness Month, we asked economist Dr. Max Gross, researcher at Mathematica and former IES Predoctoral Fellow at University of Michigan, to discuss how his career journey and experiences inspired his research on children and youth who encounter the child welfare system.

What inspired you to become an education researcher?

My goal as a researcher is to promote the well-being of children, youth, and families, particularly those who have been historically underserved or marginalized. I became an education researcher specifically because going to school is one of the few experiences almost everyone shares in the United States. This means schools are a place where policy can have a significant influence.

I think of my work on child welfare and foster care as education research because students bring their whole selves to school. Students who have not had enough to eat or who experience housing instability and homelessness are unlikely to reach their full academic potential. In this way, nutrition policy is education policy; housing policy is education policy; and for my research, child welfare and foster care policy are education policy.

How have your background and experiences shaped your scholarship and career in studying children and youth who encounter the child welfare system?

I recognized a crucial gap in education research early into graduate school. There was an enormous amount of information available to researchers on what happens in schools but far less on the factors outside of school that influence student trajectories. Education data systems include how often students show up to school, who their teachers are, and how well they do in their classes. Coming from a family with three generations of social workers, I knew that what happens outside of school hours—which education data lack—also contributes to success, particularly for students with adverse childhood experiences.

I had the privilege to join an interdisciplinary team of researchers working to integrate data from the education and child welfare systems through the IES Predoctoral Training Program at the University of Michigan. As part of my fellowship, I partnered with University of Michigan colleagues from the Education Policy Initiative, Youth Policy Lab, and Child and Adolescent Data Lab to link information from the Michigan Department of Education and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. This opened the door to exploring previously unanswerable questions about the reach of child welfare systems and the effects of education and child welfare policies.

We discovered that children’s encounters with the child welfare system were shockingly common. One out of every five public school students in Michigan—in some school districts, more than half of all students—had been subject to a formal investigation into child abuse or neglect by the time they reached grade 3. These statistics were even higher for Black students and students from low-income households. We also found a strong association between contact with the child welfare system and experiences in school. These students were more likely to receive special education services, be held back a grade, and score lower on math and reading tests.

My training as an applied economist pushed me to critically examine the relationship between child welfare interventions and experiences in school. Did child welfare interventions themselves cause students to fare worse in school? Or were broader circumstances responsible, such as the reasons that triggered involvement with the child welfare system in the first place? My dissertation focused on how the most far-reaching child welfare intervention—removing a child from their home and placing them in foster care—influences their educational outcomes.

What are you researching now?

I partner with child welfare and education agencies to study how their policies and programs influence the lives of children, youth, and families. For example, I recently led an evaluation of a parent education program in Arizona that sought to prevent child maltreatment and foster care placements. I also contribute to a study of a coach-like case management program in Colorado to prevent homelessness among youth and young adults with child welfare histories and an evaluation of a training and coaching program to help preschool teachers support children with diverse needs. In addition, I enjoy working with agencies to strengthen their research and evaluation capacity, harnessing the power of the data they already collect to better understand the effectiveness of their programs.

What do you see as the greatest research needs or recommendations to improve the relevance of education research for children and youth who encounter the child welfare system?

Critical education issues that affect children and youth who encounter the child welfare system are understudied. At the front end of the child welfare system, the law requires teachers and education personnel to report suspected child abuse and neglect. School staff are consistently among the most frequent reporters of maltreatment. Child welfare agencies are sometimes less likely to substantiate reports from education personnel compared to other mandatory reporters, however. Researchers should examine the training that school staff receive in identifying abuse and neglect and whether they overreport maltreatment. At the back end, education policies can support or inhibit the well-being of students who have experienced abuse and neglect and students in foster care. Researchers should explore trauma-informed teaching practices and school-based behavioral health services. Efforts to promote stability for students in foster care, who might transfer schools when their placements change, also deserve more research attention. Education and child welfare policymakers must work together to securely share data for researchers to study these topics.

Education researchers should also make their research more relevant for children and youth who encounter the child welfare system. Just like we seek feedback from subject matter and methodological experts to increase rigor, partnering with experts with lived experience throughout the research process will strengthen our work. As another example, we must make our research accessible for diverse audiences, including those who are involved with the systems that we study.

What advice would you give education researchers who wish to study children and youth who encounter the child welfare system?

Education researchers should first recognize that they have already been studying children and youth who encounter the child welfare system even if they have not realized it. More than one-third of children nationwide are subject to a formal child welfare investigation before their 18th birthday, and 5 percent are placed in foster care. How might the prevalence of these adverse childhood experiences shape your findings?

I would also encourage education researchers to engage with many disciplines. Read studies published in journals outside of your field. Discuss your research with experts who use different tools and approaches to address similar questions. Present your findings to interdisciplinary audiences. Promoting the well-being of children and youth who encounter the child welfare system requires bringing together diverse perspectives.


Max Gross is a researcher at Mathematica where he specializes in quantitative evaluation design and analysis, particularly of programs and policies geared toward historically underserved children and families. Currently, he supports the city of Philadelphia’s child welfare agency to strengthen its evaluation capacity and contributes to the design of the Youth At-Risk of Homelessness evaluation of a coach-like case management system for youth and young adults in foster care.

This blog was produced by Katina Stapleton (Katina.Stapleton@ed.gov), program officer for IES predoctoral training program.

Integrating Cross-National and Cross-Language Experiences to Navigate Education Research

This year, Inside IES Research is publishing a series of blogs showcasing a diverse group of IES-funded education researchers and fellows that are making significant contributions to education research, policy, and practice. In recognition of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, in this interview blog we asked Dr. Jin Kyoung Hwang, an associate project scientist at the University of California, Irvine to discuss her career journey. Dr. Hwang’s current IES-funded study explores the language and literacy development of kindergarten through third grade English Learners.

How did you become interested in a career in education research?

I have a BA in English literature and linguistics, and as an undergraduate, I took many linguistics and applied linguistics courses. Applied linguistics was eye-opening for me, as I started to see the practical uses of a seemingly theoretical subject. I was intrigued in searching for ways to bridge the gap between the theoretical and practical fields. This eventually led me to pursue a career in education research focusing on language and literacy development. My research primarily focuses on understanding the language and literacy development of school-aged students, including dual language learners who come from non-native-English-speaking homes, and the ways in which research-based interventions could improve their academic outcomes.

My research interests stemmed naturally from my personal experience living as a language minority student in a foreign country. When I was in fifth grade, I moved with my family to Ecuador knowing only Korean. Living in a foreign country where I did not speak the language (Spanish) was socially and culturally challenging—even more so because the language spoken in the academic setting (English) was also different. The seemingly different characteristics of the three languages—Korean, English, and Spanish—often troubled me because direct translations could not always transfer meaning. Through this experience, I learned how to speak different languages and how to adjust myself in different languages and cultures. Although challenging, this learning experience had a positive influence on me and ultimately shaped my career in education research. As such, I believe I am better able to relate with the participants in my research.

What has been the biggest challenge you have encountered, and how did you overcome the challenge?

Although I am now working as an education researcher in California, I spent most of my K-12 schooling years outside of the United States. Thus, when I first moved here as a graduate student, I was not familiar with the K-12 education system and the policies around it. The questions I initially had as a graduate student were relatively basic; it took time and effort for me to really understand how education systems work. While I’m still learning, I was fortunate to have supportive friends, mentors, and colleagues who helped me find the answers to my questions.

In your area of research, what do you see as the greatest research needs or recommendations to address diversity, equity, and inclusion and to improve the relevance of education research for diverse communities of students and families?

I think it is important to understand the diversity within the dual language learner population in the United States. Although it is easy to think of dual language learners or English language learners as a single group, this population is very heterogenous. They may differ on their first language, proficiency in their first language, proficiency in their second language (which is often English), exposure to their first and second language, schooling history, and so forth. Just like monolingual English-speaking students, dual language learners come to the classroom with various constellations of skills in their first language and second language. We need to acknowledge and understand the differences in their learning potential and think of ways to better provide personalized instruction.

It is also important to rethink how we can assess language and literacy skills. Many of the standardized assessments used in education research are designed and developed for monolingual students. When these assessments are used on dual language learners, we often see that they perform below the norm. Having more valid assessments that are grounded in dual language development are needed to equitably measure and evaluate dual language learners’ language and literacy abilities.

What advice would you give to emerging scholars from underrepresented, minoritized groups that are pursuing a career in education research?

I believe one of the factors that makes the field of education research so powerful is the diversity among the scholars. Each scholar brings a unique perspective and insight based on their personal experiences and histories. It is important for emerging scholars from underrepresented, minoritized groups to have a voice and communicate their perspectives and ideas in the field. It also is important to meet and work with colleagues and mentors who can embrace such diversity and support your perspectives. I was fortunate enough to meet supportive figures in my academic career who helped me further develop a research agenda around my research interests and personal experiences, and who also mentored me to broaden and enlighten my perspectives. This collaboration and mentorship made me who I am today, and I hope I can also provide such guidance to other scholars in this field.


Dr. Jin Kyoung Hwang is an associate project scientist at the University of California, Irvine’s School of Education. Dr. Hwang’s current research centers around (1) understanding the language and literacy development of school-aged learners (including dual language learners) and how research-based interventions/educational tools can help improve their literacy outcomes and (2) developing and refining test items to accurately assess their academic skills.

Produced by NCER program officer Wai Chow (Wai-Ying.Chow@ed.gov) and Virtual Student Federal Service intern Audrey Im.

Exploring Gender Integration in Classrooms

As part of the IES 20th Anniversary celebration, we are continuing to highlight projects that exemplify research conducted through an equity lens. For this blog, we asked Carol Martin (Arizona State University) to discuss her IES-funded project focused on exploring associations between gender integration in classrooms and student academic engagement and performance in elementary school grades.    

What motivated your team to study the relation between gender integration in classrooms and academic outcomes?

Think about the last time you watched children playing with their peers. Did you notice how the children formed groups, with boys hanging out and talking to other boys, and girls doing the same with other girls? This is a common pattern: Children (and adults) tend to seek out others like themselves. Classic research from the 1970s demonstrated that this used to be common in classrooms, but in over 50 years, there has been almost no research confirming that this pattern might still be happening in contemporary U.S. classrooms.

Our IES-funded team set off to see if it was still occurring, and if so, whether this pattern might limit academic success. We hypothesized that if a student does not feel a sense of belonging or comfort with most students in their class, the school environment is unlikely to be conducive for learning and engagement. In contrast, when students feel comfortable and accepted by most of their peers in the classroom, learning and motivation at school should be enhanced.

What are your research findings?

In our research involving 3rd- to 5th-grade students in the Phoenix metro area in Arizona, we began with questions about how to best measure what we are calling gender integration (GI).  We acknowledge that gender is fluid and not a binary of women/girls and men/boys; however, most children in elementary school have stereotypes about these two groups, so it made sense to us to focus on these groups.

In one study, to measure GI, we asked every student how often they interacted with every other student in class. When we looked at these scores by classroom, we found that gender segregation is strong even today. Out of the 26 classrooms included in the study, 24 showed higher levels of interactions among same-gender peers in working groups as compared to what was seen in mixed-gender groups. In addition, we found that feeling included by other-gender peers early in the school year contributed to later improved feelings about school, and this mattered more than did feeling included by same-gender peers.

We recently finished a study in which we examined whether GI is related to academic outcomes such as math and science self-concepts and STEM achievement. We found that GI measured in the fall semester was related to STEM achievement, measured in the spring semester, through improved STEM academic beliefs. We thought it might be the case that this pattern would be found for girls but not boys because of the stereotyped nature of STEM; however, both girls and boys showed this pattern.

Based on your preliminary research findings, what advice would you give to teachers or school leaders?

First off, it is clear that gender segregation is still very strong today. As such, it is important for teachers (and other adults) to be mindful of the need to encourage students to develop relationships with diverse classmates. Teachers can intentionally shape interactions within their classes in a variety of ways. One is by student seating arrangements, and another is in choices of how students are grouped to work together. Teachers can also ensure that students recognize the value of having diverse peer experiences by letting students know that interacting with others who differ from themselves is useful and beneficial. Also, there are relatively simple strategies such as “buddy up” in which teachers mindfully pair students for classwork, which has been shown to help students to mingle more widely with others and to learn from them.

How does your research contribute to a better understanding of the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion in education?

Every aspect of our work is related to the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion in education. We study the importance of having diverse classrooms (mixed-gender in our case) and breaking down barriers that separate people from each other but stress that this diversity matters only when it is perceived as inclusive and fosters a sense of belonging. For some students, additional supports might be needed to feel included, and we hope to identify which students may need these additional supports and what types of support they need to promote equity in classrooms around issues of social belongingness. When these pieces come together, students are supported, and the learning environment is greatly enhanced.

What are the next steps for your research team?

We are interested in expanding our work to consider other individual characteristics of students and how those relate to GI and academic success. For instance, once all our data are amassed, we intend to examine race and ethnic differences in GI. Furthermore, we are interested in assessing how gender beliefs and identity of students relate to their academic success. In future work, we are interested in exploring in-depth how interventions such as buddying strategies work in classrooms, and how to promote more diverse interactions and classroom experiences that promote optimal academic and social competence.


This blog was produced by Christina Chhin, NCER (christina.chhin@ed.gov).