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Accelerating Research on Special Education

Mark Schneider, Director of IES | July 14, 2022

Years ago, I taught in an inner-city middle school. I was a utility infielder, and over the course of my teaching "career" I taught science, math, English, English as a second language, sex education—and, my favorite, a classroom of students with disabilities. I didn't do a particularly good job in any of these subjects, but I did learn firsthand (a) what a difficult job teaching is and (b) the consequences of teacher shortages that lead to unqualified (or semi-qualified), untrained young enthusiasts being plopped down in front of the students most in need of well-trained teachers. I became particularly sensitized to the needs of students with disabilities during those years—a sensitivity that has stuck with me far longer than my three-year teaching stint.

I recently spent several hours going over findings from the newly released Condition of Education and other sources. The scale of the challenge we face in special education is striking:

  • Many students receive services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). In 2020–2021, about 15 percent of public PK–12 students had an IEP (individualized education program for students who require specialized instruction). That's over 7 million students.
  • Schools are struggling to hire special education teachers. According to IES' January 2022 School Pulse Survey, 44% of public schools reported teacher vacancies. Of these schools, 45% reported vacancies for special education teachers—far higher than the percentages reporting vacancies in mathematics (16%), English/language arts (13%), or English learner education (13%).
  • Our special education students are not achieving the same outcomes as their peers without disabilities. In 2019, the adjusted cohort graduation rate for students with disabilities was 18 percentage points lower than for all public school students on average. They were also much less likely to complete advanced courses in math and science. For example, only 17% of students with disabilities graduating in 2019 completed biology, chemistry, and physics, compared to 37% of students without disabilities. Differences in outcomes such as these persist into postsecondary education and into the workforce.
  • By the end of high school, dramatic proficiency gaps in key subjects are evident between students with and without disabilities. Students with disabilities score much lower on NAEP science, reading, and math assessments; this, of course, implies that students with disabilities are far less likely to be able to pursue higher paying STEM jobs.
Grade 12 Percent Below NAEP Basic on the 2019 Assessment
Students w/ Disabilities Students w/o Disabilities
Math 75 36
Reading 62 26
Science 71 37
  • Our obligations do not end with PK–12 students. IES data show that the percentage of postsecondary students with disabilities is even higher than in PK–12 education: 19% of undergraduates in postsecondary institutions in 2015–16 compared to the 15% noted above for public PK–12 in 2020–21. While disability is defined and measured differently in postsecondary settings compared to PK–12, we need to learn more about these students and how to support their progress and completion in higher education.

It is far easier to document the ways in which education systems are not meeting the needs of students with disabilities than it is to find solutions that will help.

IES is pursuing a range of strategies to find out what works for students with disabilities and under what conditions. We continue to fund the kinds of research that has led us to better understand students with disabilities and to identify interventions that work in a variety of subjects—including math and reading—and the social and behavioral skills needed for learning. NCSER recently added research in postsecondary education to its competitions, and you will be hearing more about our next steps in this area in a future blog. But, as is true for so much else in IES' portfolio, we need to find ways to innovate and build on the work already underway, work that includes the special education research accelerator, our use of ARP funds to collaborate with NSF on AI Institutes, and on the soon-to-be-launched math prize challenge.

We are using NAEP process data to help us understand better how students use their accommodations and we have included a special education focus in our SBIR (Small Business Innovation Research) program. In addition, states, districts, and schools received considerable pandemic relief funds to address the impacts of lost instructional time. Taking advantage of this opportunity, we funded seven special education focused Pandemic Recovery projects to determine what's working (and what's not) to help states, districts, and schools better address pandemic impacts.

What else can and should IES do?

We need to support researchers and entrepreneurs in developing interventions that address various disabilities for students of all ages and help foster new thinking and the adaptation of ideas from other fields. We need to provide evidence on new approaches for the delivery of special education services. We need to better understand effective instruction and professional development for teachers of students with disabilities, and we need to identify ways that we can support these educators throughout their careers. And we need to ensure that IES' efforts to support transformative and advanced product design benefit students with disabilities.

The lives of millions of students and the health of our society and economy require that we keep working at finding educational solutions that work and getting the ones that do work scaled up and deployed.

None of this is easy—but we must rise to the challenge.

Please share your ideas for research to improve special education with me: