Inside IES Research

Notes from NCER & NCSER

The Importance of Collaboration and Support to Improve Working Conditions for Special Education Teachers

Two teachers, one on a tablet and one with a notepad, smile while working together

In February 2023, NCSER hosted a technical working group (TWG) on the Special Education Teacher Workforce to help identify ways research can be used to better prepare, support, and retain an effective K-12 special education teacher workforce. During this meeting, a group of experts on the K-12 special education teacher workforce identified critical problems facing the special education teacher workforce, discussed areas where more research is needed, and highlighted existing data that could be leveraged to better understand the dynamics of and potential solutions to these problems.

TWG members highlighted the lack of collegial and leadership support as one contributing factor to burnout and attrition. Special education teachers often report feeling like they are the only ones in the school taking responsibility and advocating for students with disabilities. This is compounded by the fact that general education teachers and administrators often receive very little training on how to support these students. As such, TWG members highlighted the importance of supportive and collaborative relationships with paraprofessionals, other teachers, and leaders. Several NCSER-funded studies have explored these types of collaborative relationships or developed programs to foster them through mentoring or co-teaching. We summarize some examples of this type of NCSER-funded research below.

To better understand how working conditions, including support from colleagues, affect special education teacher instruction and student reading outcomes, Elizabeth Bettini from Boston University led a research project comprised of several mixed-methods studies. A key finding was that special education teachers who had teaching partners were better able to provide effective instruction because partners can manage significant behavior, which allows teachers to focus on instruction. This type of support was also found to be essential for inclusion, as special educators without sufficient paraprofessional staff struggle to move students who need behavioral supports into general education classes. The PI is currently building upon this research in a new project that is developing a measure, ReSpECT (Revealing Special Educators' Conditions for Teaching), of special education teacher working conditions.

To promote positive outcomes and retention among new special education teachers, Kristi Morin at Lehigh University is leading Project STAY. The purpose of this project is to develop an induction program for teachers of students with autism who are in the first 3 years of their career. In addition to ongoing training, the program includes mentorship from experienced teachers and participation in a network of novice teachers as ways to provide new teachers with instructional and social/emotional support. While this is an ongoing project, IES looks forward to the impact this research will have on new special educators.

To improve collaboration between special education teachers and content-area teachers in addressing literacy needs, Jade Wexler from the University of Maryland, College Park developed CALI (Content-Area Literacy Instruction) professional development. The program is designed to improve literacy instruction in co-taught content area classes by providing teachers with an instructional framework, a planning process to clarify teacher roles, and technical assistance for applying the framework and planning process to their practice. Results of the pilot study revealed that the program led to beneficial outcomes for teachers and students. The project also resulted in resources for teachers, including downloadable CALI materials and a special issue of Intervention in School and Clinic with guidance on how to implement evidence-based literacy practices in content-area classes.

While IES-funded researchers have been hard at work investigating ways to foster productive collaboration and studying its outcomes, there are still many issues affecting the special education teacher workforce that need further study. To address this, the Special Education Research and Development Center Program is accepting grant applications to establish a new K-12 Special Education Teacher Workforce Center, with a deadline of January 11, 2024. The new R&D Center will (1) conduct research on the special education teacher pipeline and the role of specific programs and policies in shaping the special education teacher workforce; (2) provide national leadership to build researcher capacity, improve data collection on the special education teacher workforce, and disseminate findings; and (3) engage in supplemental, just-in-time research and/or national leadership activities based on emerging needs in the field.

This blog was written by Shanna Bodenhamer, virtual student federal service intern at  NCSER and doctoral candidate at Texas A&M University, and Katherine Taylor (Katherine.Taylor@ed,gov), program officer for the projects featured in this article and the contact for the FY 2024 Special Education Research and Development Center Program.

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