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

Welcome to the first installment of the National Center for Special Education Research (NCSER) grantee spotlight series! For the next two weeks, we’ll publish exclusive conversations with NCSER’s Research to Accelerate Pandemic Recovery in Special Education program grantees. NCSER is pleased to highlight researchers who are addressing the urgent challenges schools face to support students with or at risk for disabilities, their teachers, and their families in the aftermath of the pandemic.

Today, we want to present to you Dr. Erica Lembke, professor of special education at the University of Missouri. Dr. Lembke’s project, STAIR: Supporting Teaching of Algebra with Individual Readiness, aims to evaluate different levels of intensity of a professional development and coaching model for middle school special education teachers to accelerate pandemic recovery in mathematics for their students with disabilities.  

*Responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.

NCSER: How would you describe your research project in a sentence?   

Headshot of Erica Lembke

Dr. Erica Lembke: Supporting Teaching of Algebra with Individual Readiness 2.0 (STAIR) provides just-in-time pandemic recovery intervention in special education by supporting teachers to address the needs of students with math difficulties through professional development and coaching that focuses on teaching teachers how to use data to inform their instruction.   

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

Dr. Erica Lembke: My colleagues and I are in the final year of a model demonstration grant funded by the Office of Special Education Programs called Project STAIR: Supporting Teaching of Algebra with Individual Readiness. We have worked over the past 4 years to develop materials and strategies that could be implemented with students and teachers. The outcomes of Project STAIR found increases in both teacher- and student-level scores based on participation in a full school year of STAIR (Powell, Lembke, Ketterlin-Geller, et al., 2021). Therefore we knew, from this research, efforts to support our teachers and students needed to continue. With our new pandemic recovery project, we are continuing research on STAIR. We will provide just-in-time support to teachers to help teachers address the needs of their students with mathematics difficulties postpandemic.  

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

Dr. Erica Lembke: The expected outcomes for teachers are positive effects on their students’ mathematical outcomes, given that teacher data-based decision-making and individualization has had positive effects on student academic outcomes. Teacher outcomes are likely to improve, given past studies on the use of coaching with teachers in a DBI model, and we anticipate that both student and teacher outcomes will sustain because of the provision of just-in-time support, the tailoring of coaching to teacher needs, and the specific treatment components of the study.  

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

Dr. Erica Lembke: Students experiencing mathematics challenges prior to the pandemic are facing even greater difficulties as in-person learning has resumed, and many students who did not experience math difficulties prepandemic demonstrate challenges now (Texas Education Agency, 2021). In addition, students with disabilities, dual-language learners, and students from urban or Title I schools experienced below-typical rates of growth in math during the pandemic, and the growth rates of these students did not return to prepandemic levels.  

Our team has decades of experience in special education as teachers, administrators, and researchers. Our work is in schools and with teachers and students, so we were very close to teachers during the pandemic and understood, at least to some extent, the challenges they were experiencing. So it was critically important for us to think of ways to support teachers during and following the pandemic. This line of funding opened at precisely the time we were hoping to support teachers and allowed us to focus on a critical area of need—mathematics.  

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

Dr. Erica Lembke: There are two reasons why STAIR 2.0 is particularly important to our team: the demographics of students and teachers we are working with and our just-in-time support. Our special education teachers are being selected because they work with middle school students with IEP goals in math and because they serve some of the most vulnerable students in any building. We focus on grades 6, 7, and 8 because of the importance of preparing all students for success with algebra (Eddy et al., 2015; Morgatto, 2008), especially students with disabilities. By working with middle school students, STAIR teachers can provide math intervention for these students before they transition to high school and the math content increases in complexity. Our just-in-time support starts at the beginning of our study, as all teachers and all students with disabilities have access to STAIR—we did not want to wait for the outcomes of a traditional randomized, controlled trial to implement already-proven evidence-based interventions with their teachers and students. 

"There is a critical need to address learning gaps and accelerate math gains for students with disabilities. Our project supports special education teachers to make informed, data-based, and individualized instructional decisions to increase student mathematical outcomes."

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

Dr. Erica Lembke: As mentioned in our “Intended Outcomes,” we hope this project will impact teacher instruction, therefore positively impacting student academic outcomes. In addition, we are aiming to learn more about how differing intensities of coaching impact support for special education teachers. We hope we can widely disseminate this work to districts and coaching teams to implement in their schools.  

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

Dr. Erica Lembke: Many students in the United States have struggled with math well before pandemic-related school closures began in March of 2020. However, as schools transitioned to virtual learning in the spring of 2020, with a hybrid of virtual and in-person learning throughout the 2020–21 school year, early data suggested students across grades 3–8 experienced major score decreases, especially in the area of mathematics (Kuhfeld & Tarasawa, 2020). There is a critical need to address learning gaps and accelerate math gains for students with disabilities. Our project supports special education teachers to make informed, data-based, and individualized instructional decisions to increase student mathematical outcomes.  

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

Dr. Erica Lembke: A recent challenge that has evolved over the past few years has been recruitment of participants. Prior to the pandemic research, studies would sometimes have to turn away interested participants due to so many interested parties. Postpandemic, teachers are feeling more overwhelmed and busier than ever. Teachers know the research is important and often want to gain the new knowledge and strategies we provide, but simply feel they cannot add one more item to their plate. Therefore, we have worked to meet with teachers and administrators, hear what they need, and make adjustments to our implementation as best we can to meet their needs while maintaining the project’s goals.  

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

Dr. Erica Lembke: All students can learn, but students just need the correct, evidence-based methods to elicit positive outcomes. This means that we have to make sure teachers are well prepared to provide the best instruction possible. The pandemic impacted all students with the change in environment and disruptions to instruction. These disruptions have now widened the achievement gap, placing students with disabilities at even greater risk of mathematics failure. Considering the importance of mathematics competency for success in later grades and adulthood, there is a critical need to address learning gaps and accelerate mathematics gains for students with disabilities. 

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

Dr. Erica Lembke: Networks of researchers partnering with teachers, schools, and districts to create better systems of support for students at risk or with disabilities is critically important, and recent federal funding clearly supports this work. In addition, the pandemic created an opportunity for those who support schools to develop virtual and hybrid supports; that allows us to provide learning and professional development in ways that we never would have thought were possible. For example, our team has recorded over 100 short videos in a lightboard studio (thanks to the Meadows Center for Preventing Educational Risk at the University of Texas, Austin) that provide evidence-based mathematics strategies for teachers. These are free to access and can be found here.

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

Dr. Erica Lembke: Our team is excited about these beginning few months of our project. The teachers we have recruited are motivated to start implementing our strategies with their students. Our future goals include learning more about how our coaching types make an impact with our teachers and therefore their students. We plan to solicit feedback from our educational partners, provide ongoing feedback to our teachers, and disseminate these strategies and systems of coaching to special education teachers and coaches so they can be implemented across the country. Our team has a strong history of dissemination, so we are excited about next steps! 

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

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