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Special education as a discipline is a broad field whose focus is the education of students with exceptionalities that includes support for career and college readiness. International practices in educating students with disabilities are emerging in many countries with varied levels of inclusive practice and educational benefit. Increasingly, there is a climate of school accountability, for example, in the United States with Common Core State Standards, and outcome assessments have placed pressure on schools and school districts to evaluate the quality of their teaching by way of student outcomes. The role of the special educator within the school is one that has various permutations from a primary interventionist who delivers instruction to a collaborator/co-teacher within an inclusive setting. This research paper will review the history of special education, current trends, and future considerations for the field.
- The Discipline of Special Education
- The Role of the Special Educator
- Training in Special Education
- Learning Theories Applied
- Evidence-Based Practice
- Special Education Frameworks
- Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports
- Response to Intervention
- Universal Design for Learning
- Future Directions and Issues in Special Education
The Discipline of Special Education
Special education is a field in education/educational psychology that is focused on the effective education for children with exceptionalities. Students with exceptionalities may have learning, behavioral, emotional, or social difficulties or may be gifted and talented. Twice exceptional students are those who are both gifted in an academic area and have a disability in another area (e.g., behavior, emotional control, or socialization). Special educators are trained broadly to address the needs of these students in a variety of public, private, and nonpublic settings. Provisions for credentialing as a qualified special educator vary but can include broad training that covers all exceptionalities or may subdivide credentialing into specific practice areas. Examples of these areas include mild to moderate and moderate to severe disability, educators of the deaf and hard of hearing, gifted and talented or emotional and behavioral disorders. Additional subdivisions may occur within age ranges (e.g., early childhood, elementary, and secondary aged students).
The Council for Exceptional Children (CEC; http://www.cec.sped.org/) serves as the international professional organization representing the interests of students with exceptionalities by addressing the needs of government policy, standards for training, and professional development. CEC provides standards for knowledge, skills, and ethical principles and practice standards for the initial and advanced preparation of special educators as well as specialty standards for informing preparation programs. Accreditation by the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Programs (caepnet.org) of teacher licensure programs bases their accreditation decisions on CEC standards. The CEC’s Division of International Special Education and Services provides support for the dissemination of practices internationally and communication in international forums and professional development.
International organizations advocate for educational practices that improve outcomes for individuals with disabilities as well as broader education agendas for countries to support economic and social progress in countries. The United Nations, United Nations Education, Science and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), and United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), among others, have put forth positions and policies regarding the rights of children with disabilities to educational programs and monitor these practices across nations. The United Nations (2006) outlined their position on inclusive environments for individuals with disabilities in the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. With regard to education, Article 24 outlines the need to reduce discriminatory practices with regard to education, the inherent value and potential of individuals with disabilities, and inclusion of individuals with disabilities in the general education environment with reasonable educational accommodations. Additionally, the convention outlined the need to educate individuals with disabilities on life and social skills needed to interact with the larger community. UNESCO, in partnership with UNICEF, monitors and supports the efforts for inclusive educational practices outlined in Article 24.
UNESCO provides information regarding policies and practices that are necessary to support individuals with disabilities in inclusive programs. Through their database, Inclusive Education in Action (IEA, 2011) provides examples from around the world on inclusive practices and training programs for teachers who serve as educators for these children. Policy guidelines are also provided for member states to utilize in developing their approaches to inclusive education. Consideration of barriers to inclusive education including attitudes toward individuals with disabilities, cultural influences, and teacher training needs are central components to developing an inclusive educational program, the emphasis being that educating students with exceptionalities is a benefit to society socially and economically.
Flexible learning environments, child-friendly environments, and a developmentally appropriate curriculum that includes content beyond academic skills are a common thread in current special education practices. Additionally, evidence-based practices, those practices that have support in the scientific literature, are increasingly important to provide these core areas of an inclusive environment. This requires additional training and professional development in both pre-service and in-service training.
The Role of the Special Educator
Special educators are tasked with providing instruction that produces optimal outcomes for students with exceptionalities across academic, social, behavioral, and adaptive skills. In many countries, they are required, by law, to develop educational programs that are individualized for students with exceptionalities that lead to educational benefit that is objectively measurable. Special educators, in addition to providing or supporting instruction of students with exceptionalities, collaborate with other members of the educational team. The members of this team include the parents/caregivers of the student, related services personnel (e.g., speech and language pathologists, classroom teachers, and occupational therapists), administrators, and others as determined by the needs of the student and the wishes of the parent/caregiver. Instruction may occur in the general education classroom, a resource room where the student goes to receive primary or supplemental instruction or a significantly separate setting where a student may spend the majority of the day. Wherever instruction is delivered, evidence-based instructional strategies, informed by formative and summative assessments, serve as the foundation for the special educator to meet the educational needs of their students.
In other countries, with the emergence of educating students with exceptionalities, the role of the educator is more broadly defined and training may be less specialized than in those with more established programming. There are emerging educational programs housed in universities that train preservice teachers in teaching methodology and inclusive environments. The approach to education varies by region and cultural influences and differs from traditional western approaches of education. This requires the training for teachers across settings to differ. Similarities in outcomes, that is, independent community involvement, are evident.
Training in Special Education
Models of training that exist to train special educators broadly fall under two categories, university-based programs and alternative certification (AC) programs. Both exist to train preservice teachers. Within the United States, shortages in special educators over the past two decades (Boe, 2006) have led to the development of AC programs. Questions have been raised about the quality of these forms of training programs. Quigney (2010) summarized research on AC programs and reported that traditional programs generally produce better trained educators. She also outlined a format for discussing the benefits and concerns regarding AC programs since they were responding to the shortages noted in special education. Teachers prepared within AC programs reported challenges with classroom management and content knowledge (Casey et al., 2011). The evidence is not definitive as authors have reported higher rates of employment for teachers trained through the AC programs although their tenure of employment was shorter (Robertson and Singleton, 2010).
Internationally, particularly in those with emerging special education programs, the shortages are due to several factors, including overcoming attitudes toward students with exceptionalities within schools and the broader community and a lack of expertise in these emerging programs. International experts may be brought in to support these efforts and support program development both within schools and training programs through universities. Systems change, particularly at a national level in many cases, is challenging and requires the support of the national government, particularly ministries of education, to move these programs forward.
Learning Theories Applied
Educators’ beliefs concerning how it is that students learn impact, in part, how they design and deliver instruction. These beliefs may reflect one or more learning theories, which are theories that help to explain how individuals come to acquire, access, and apply knowledge and skills. While numerous learning theories have been proposed over the past century, three core frameworks have emerged as paramount: behaviorist learning theory frameworks, cognitivist learning theory frameworks, and constructivist learning theory frameworks.
Behaviorist learning theory frameworks are concerned with observable indicators of learning and the conditioning of these observable behaviors. An educator who ascribes to a behaviorist learning theory framework would regard a student’s ability to provide a target response when presented with a given stimulus (e.g., problem type) as evidence of learning. S/he would likely utilize instructional cues when teaching, provide reinforcement to help shape students’ behavior (e.g., utilize a points or reward system in instructional contexts), provide students with ample opportunities to practice the target behavior, and structure learning tasks to ensure that students master basic skills before moving onto more complex, integrated learning tasks. Curricula reflecting a behaviorist learning theory framework utilize a scope and sequence of instruction and emphasize mastery learning for all students.
While behaviorist learning theory frameworks focus on observable behaviors as evidence of learning, cognitivist learning theory frameworks emphasize the role that cognition plays in learning and behavior. Fundamental to cognitivist learning theory frameworks is the belief that learning processes (e.g., memory, attention, perception) impact observable behaviors and these processes can be improved and/or supported in order to maximize student learning and performance. An educator who ascribes to a cognitivist learning theory framework would support students in developing background knowledge and schemata and would make the relationships among information overt. In the classroom, s/he would likely utilize graphic organizers, think-alouds, and performance assessments to scaffold and assess the learning process. Curricula reflecting a cognitivist learning theory framework feature well-organized and clearly structured content, concern for how perceptual features of materials are organized and presented, and a tandem emphasis on strategy instruction and acquisition.
Constructivist learning theory emphasizes the role that the learner, including his/her prior experiences and frameworks, plays in constructing new knowledge. An educator who ascribes to a constructivist learning theory framework would regard knowledge as created rather than acquired, and would assume the role of guide and facilitator in the classroom. S/he would likely utilize collaborative, problem-based learning opportunities rather than predetermined instructional sequences, and would emphasize reflective practice. Curricula reflecting a traditional constructivist learning theory framework would emphasize ‘discovery learning’ driven by students’ intrinsic motivation to explore and experiment, with minimal teacher guidance.
In the field of special education, research primarily reflecting behaviorist and cognitivist learning theories has informed the development of specialized academic and behavioral intervention curricula, and the individualization of educational programs for students with disabilities. Terms and phrases such as ‘direct,’ ‘explicit,’ ‘systematic,’ ‘multisensory,’ ‘strategy-based,’ and ‘data-driven’ often signal that a curriculum is grounded in such theory. Constructivist learning theories may be reflected in more advanced, applied learning contexts, but even so, are most often coupled with instructional approaches that are informed by behaviorist and cognitivist underpinnings.
The term ‘evidence-based practice’ has been used in the field of medicine to refer to treatment practices that consistently yielded positive outcomes when delivered under experimentally controlled conditions (Odom et al., 2005). Three decades later, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2001 institutionalized the concept of utilizing scientific research (e.g., experimental, quasiexperimental, single-subject design; replicable findings; published in peer-reviewed venues) to inform educational practice. NCLB’s definition of scientifically based research is likewise reflected in the 2004 reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), thereby affirming that scientific evidence should inform educational practice decisions in both general and special education contexts.
Defining ‘evidence-based practice’ for special education populations and settings has proven to be particularly challenging because of the complexity of the discipline, including the heterogeneity of disability presentations. This has often precluded researchers implementing true experimental inquiries (e.g., the random assignment of subjects to controlled and experimental conditions). Fortunately, Gersten et al. (2005) proposed a set of quality indicators for group experimental and quasiexperimental research in special education, and provided guidelines for how consumers could utilize these indicators to determine if a practice is evidence based. These quality indicators and guidelines continue to inform best practice in the field, and are referenced extensively in a CEC Division for Research White Paper titled Thinking and Communicating Clearly About Evidence-based Practices in Special Education (Cook and Cook, 2011).
Practitioners charged with selecting methods and materials for use with special student populations are also encouraged to consult the What Works Clearinghouse (WWC), a division of the United States Department of Education’s Institute for Educational Sciences (IES). The WWC assesses the quality and findings of existing educational research and publishes their findings in the form of intervention reports. Here, it is possible to search for interventions by subject (e.g., reading, mathematics, and writing) and by name. While interventions included here may indeed have the backing of published research, it may be the case that the studies do not meet the evidence standards articulated by the WWC and, as such, no conclusion could be drawn about the efficacy of the intervention from an evidence-based standpoint.
This distinction highlights the difference between ‘evidence-based practice’ and ‘research-based practice’: ‘research-based’ programs often do not have the backing of published research that reflects the rigorous standards associated with the definition of scientific research proposed by NCLB, IDEA, and IES. This is the case, for example, when evaluating the efficacy of the Wilson Reading System for students with learning disabilities. Of the 28 studies of the Wilson Reading System employed with students with learning disabilities published between 1989 and 2009, none met the review protocol and evidence standards of the WWC. As such, given the standards of the IES, it could be argued that the Wilson Reading System is best described as a ‘research-based’ versus ‘evidence-based’ intervention for students with learning disabilities.
CEC’s Division for Research makes clear, however, that methods and materials that do not presently meet rigorous evidence-based practice standards for a given population of students should not summarily be disregarded. Rather, special educators are advised to utilize professional judgment when selecting interventions and to employ informed progress monitoring practices (see below) to monitor the efficacy of interventions provided.
Special Education Frameworks
All learners can benefit from different aspects of special education services, but most do not reach the level of legally requiring such services for success in school. The current principles of special education rely on the concept that delivering many of these services through the general education environment will help support more learners, regardless of their level of need. These principles are oftentimes delivered through the frameworks of Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) and Response to Intervention (RtI). The goal of these frameworks is to allow all students the optimal opportunity to learn in the general education environment by using special education strategies to support the learning of all students. When more intensive strategies are required, these frameworks allow use of more directed interventions to assess whether a child with inimitable needs is responsive to such interventions. These systems are designed to elevate the number of students receiving effective interventions in the general education environment while lowering the number of students being referred to special education and thus removed from the general education environment.
Both PBIS and RtI are tiered frameworks that are designed to use differentiated instruction as soon as a problem is noted. PBIS uses this approach to address behavioral concerns while RtI is principally engaged in academic remediation. Both systems are intended to address problems in a timely and effective manner by using quick response time and effective practices.
While PBIS was initially established as a framework in the United States, it is being implemented in over 15 countries worldwide. Several countries have national initiatives supporting the implementation. Countries implementing PBIS (or SW-PBS) include New Zealand, Australia, Canada, Netherlands, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark, Portugal, Turkey, Spain, Italy, France, Germany, and Hungary (T.J. Lewis, personal communication, 5 February 2014; G. Sugai, personal communication, 4 February 2014).
Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports
PBIS (also referred to as School-wide Positive Behavior Supports) is considered a framework upon which each individual school can scaffold its expectations for community behavior and respect. It is a primary prevention system designed for all students with additional supports provided for some students. Since PBIS is a framework and not a predetermined curriculum, the expected behaviors are developed from within the school community and are unique. PBIS is currently implemented in over 18 000 schools (http://www.pbis.org/).
PBIS consists of three tiers of intensity. The first tier is implemented school-wide and consists of rules and expectations of behavior, typically both physical and social behavior. Rules and expectations are explicitly taught to all community members, with positive reinforcement systems ingrained in the program along with a continuum of consequences for problem behaviors. Inherent to this framework is the expectation that data be kept on multiple variables and assessed periodically for effectiveness.
Those students who do not respond well to the first tier of PBIS, based on data, begin to receive services through a second tier. This tier typically consists of about 10–15% of the school population. This tier is not implemented school-wide but is focused on smaller groups of students with similar behavioral concerns. These students are considered at-risk for serious behavior problems and the purpose is to prevent such development. Interventions in the second tier are often focused on student needs relating to peer relationships, low academic achievement, and challenging home environments (Ennis et al., 2011). These interventions are research based with data kept on their effectiveness.
The third tier is comprised of students with serious or chronic problem behaviors, which is typically about 5% of the school population. Students in tier 3 receive intensive, individualized research-based interventions to remediate their problem behaviors. Again, data are kept and analyzed to determine the effectiveness of each intervention implemented. Students who do not show positive response to tier 3 interventions are then referred for special education consideration.
Based on a literature review searching for evidence-based effective research practices, Simonsen et al. (2008) summarized the best classroom management practices as the following: “(a) maximize structure; (b) post-teach, review, monitor, and reinforce expectations; (c) actively engage students in observable ways; (d) use a continuum of strategies for responding to appropriate behaviors; and (e) use a continuum of strategies to respond to inappropriate behaviors” (Simonsen et al., 2008: 353). Within those overarching themes are effective tier 1, 2, and 3 practices such as physical classroom layout recommendations, rates of opportunities to respond, response cards, direct instruction techniques, guided notes, group contingencies, specific and contingent praise, etc. An outstanding source for educators on effective interventions is found at the WWC website (http://ies.ed.gov/ncee/wwc/).
Response to Intervention
RtI is a tiered framework that mirrors PBIS but through addressing academic problems in addition to behavior problems. RtI is a legal requirement in the United States under the latest iteration of IDEA and is thus expected to be implemented throughout that country’s public schools. However, it is a visual and theoretical representation of the best practices of special education teaching that have existed worldwide for years. It is comprised of high-quality, differentiated instruction that is matched to a student’s needs. The progress, or lack thereof, that the student makes is recorded and monitored frequently to assess effectiveness. Implementation of RtI is considered by some special education directors to be less complicated at the elementary level than at the secondary level (Sansosti et al., 2011), but is nonetheless an effective means of early intervention for students with academic needs.
An example of math interventions that can be implemented through the RtI tiered framework is given here to exemplify the system. A moderately effective tier 1 intervention includes screening students in the classroom who are at risk for math difficulties and providing interventions (Gersten et al., 2009). Some tier 2 and tier 3 interventions include using explicit and systematic instruction (providing models of useful problem solving, verbalizing effective thinking, guided practice, corrective feedback, and frequent review), use of visual representations of math concepts, and 10 min at every grade level devoted to review of basic math facts (Gersten et al., 2009). Through this tiered framework, at-risk students are identified early and appropriate interventions are administered and monitored to remediate difficulties prior to escalation of learning problems.
Universal Design for Learning
PBIS and RtI address behavior and academic problems through differentiated instruction and intervention. Another model of instruction that is currently in the field of special education similarly concentrates on success in the general education environment but does so through Universal Design for Instruction (UDI). Through this model, instruction and assessment in the classroom are designed specifically to allow optimum access to the materials for a wide variety of students, including those with physical and cognitive challenges (http://www.udlcenter.org/). It is another means of supporting access to the general education curriculum for all students, through a flexible, positive framework of instruction.
UDI is an adaptation of the Universal Design concept from architecture. The concept is that the design of a building entrance, for example, be made usable by people with a variety of characteristics and needs. A traditional door at a building entrance is accessible to those with the ability to turn a knob, pull the door, step back from the door to allow it to swing, and hold it open to their side while they walk through. However, a door that senses someone’s presence and automatically opens is also accessible to someone carrying a heavy box, pushing a stroller, ambulating in a wheelchair, and ambulating on crutches, as well as a small child (Burgstahler, 2009). This design is thus more universally usable, not just for those with disabilities. With UDI, instruction is made universally accessible in the same manner. In instruction, these are addressed through class climate (ensure a welcome and open environment where students can express their unique learning needs), interaction (offer interaction opportunities that are accessible to all, such as having a microphone to broadcast the speaker’s voice), physical environments and products (develop a plan for safe egress for all students in an emergency), delivery methods (use multiple formats to deliver content), information resources and technology (post assignments early so students can begin projects early in the secondary school grades), feedback (provide prompt and useful feedback), assessment (use a variety of assessment types, such as short answer and multiple choice tests, papers, group and individual projects, etc.), and accommodation (be prepared to allow extra time to all test takers, if necessary, and be prepared for special accommodations for areas not met by UDI) (Burgstahler, 2009).
There are numerous research-based interventions that are effectively utilized through PBIS, RtI, and UDI. The keys to current best-practice international special education instruction are that it is based on proven interventions, data are kept and monitored to evaluate intervention effectiveness, and delivery of interventions begins immediately after problems are identified. Flexible and proactive delivery of instruction and expectations are also utilized to create environments of success for all students.
Future Directions and Issues in Special Education
Given the focus of special education and the needs for evidence-based practices for inclusion, instructional strategies and pedagogical knowledge is needed. While frameworks derived from special education research are now providing systemic approaches to addressing the needs of all students, more work is needed in developing instructional methodology that can be applied to students with varying abilities and exceptionalities that will lead to improved outcomes for all students. Continued research on universally applicable instructional methods is needed in this regard. Alternative teaching arrangements such as co-teaching arrangements that employ both a general and special education teacher in the classroom and other models will be supportive of these efforts. Increased collaboration between general and special educators in classroom settings will support these efforts (Friend et al., 2010; Solis et al., 2012).
High-quality teacher preparation for both general and special educators is a continuing effort and one that is central to developing competent, inclusive programs. Standards to general educators to be better informed on the needs of students with exceptionalities in their classrooms will support these students’ participation in inclusive settings. Core competencies in classroom management, differentiated instruction, assessment, and tiered interventions for general educators will become increasingly necessary in the coming years and allow for a responsive system of instruction that will support inclusive programming. For special education preparation, efforts to identify competencies necessary to support and provide primary instruction to students are being undertaken.
Disproportional representation in special education is a concern in many countries. In established programs in special education, overrepresentation of nonnative speaking learners, students of immigrant status, and low-income students continues to be an issue in education (Algozzine, 2005) that requires redress with regard to eligibility, instruction, and educational outcomes. Efforts to involve community, families, and the school in complementary and collaborative efforts to improve outcomes including supplemental learning opportunities, family involvement, building in community supports, and outreach efforts are being evaluated for their effectiveness in bridging the achievement gap. It will be critical as inclusive school programs continue to develop internationally that these students are appropriately supported.
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