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Value of Research in Graduate Degrees in Special Education

If you are a special education teacher, you probably did not get into the field to do research. Most special education teachers do what they do because of their passion for teaching and improving the learning of all students, particularly those with disabilities. But an integral part of improving any type of practice and policy is research into what works and what does not. To illustrate this, the United States Department of Education (2003) states that teachers should use “teaching practices that have been proven to work.”

Yet the field of special education is changing and evolving — innovations in instructional techniques are constantly being developed and implemented. This is positive, but many of these practices have not yet been substantiated through research. And there are many opinions about which research methodologies are most appropriate for different settings.

Studying and effectively employing various research methodologies and results-driven practices in special education is essential to being a leader in the growing field. For these reasons, the University Wisconsin-Superior’s online Master of Science in Education (MSE) — Special Education program seeks to foster an understanding and appreciation of research methodologies in theory and practice through courses such as “Action Research Methodology.” This study of research can give future special educators and leaders the tools they need to be most effective in their roles.

Why Is Research Uniquely Important to Special Education Innovation?

Educational research has long been at the foundation of traditional educational pedagogy. But modern educational systems have been restructured to incorporate students of all needs and ability levels into the inclusive classroom to the maximum extent possible. Moreover, educating all students inclusively in the “Least Restrictive Environment” (LRE) is mandated by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), maintaining that every student has the right to Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE).

So, as the modern classroom is restructured to include students of every need and ability level, traditional educational pedagogy has become outmoded. New techniques of differentiated instruction, curriculum modification and adaptive technology have been implemented effectually, yet more innovation is needed at both the classroom and administrative level. And to comply with the U.S. Department of Education’s mandate that teachers use research- and evidence-proven educational practices, educators need to do much more substantiating research.

How Is Research Applicable to Special Education at the Administrative Level?

Incorporating research at the administrative level is equally as important as implementing proven techniques in the classroom. School administrators and curriculum specialists are responsible for designing curriculum to include content and flexibility in adaptation to best serve the needs of all students. Effective content design is thought to be best realized through the integration of research-based practices and innovation.

Administrators are also responsible for guiding the ways their teachers teach. This means giving teachers adequate and continued training on modern instructional and classroom design techniques that have been proven effective. This also includes the incorporation of modern adaptive technology which can greatly assist in the inclusive education of students with certain types of disabilities. Again, the development and school-specific assessment and implementation of those assistive technologies is based in research.

How Can Educational Policy-Makers and Advocates Incorporate Research-Based Findings?

Beyond the school administration level, educational research is also essential to those in policy-making and educational advocacy positions. Many special education programs around the country have been downsized or cut due to disappearing federal and state funding. Through research into effective strategy, planning, and technologies, policy makers can play an important role in improving modern special education. With the evidence gained through research, policy makers can advocate for the reallocation of government funding to special education programming and general classroom integration as well as funding for future educational research.

How Does One Conduct Research in the Special Education Setting?

One consideration with research in special education is that the field is a difficult one to study with traditional scientific methods. Although many consider education a science, it is not thought of as a “hard” science. In an article entitled “Educational Research: The Hardest Science of All,” author David C. Berliner explains, “We [educational researchers] do our science under conditions that physical scientists find intolerable. We face particular problems and must deal with local conditions that limit generalizations and theory building — problems that are different from those faced by the easier-to-do sciences.”

Yet educational research advocacy groups such as the Council for Exceptional Children’s Division of Research (CEC-DR) are working hard to remedy this difficulty in conducting “hard” research with a “soft” science. The CEC-DR has done extensive research, along with compiling existing research from a multitude of sources, to propose effective research methodology in the special education setting. In a report entitled “Research in Special Education: Scientific Methods And Evidence-based Practices,” the authors emphasize that researchers should use multiple methodologies, depending on what research questions are being considered — ranging from single subject study to group experiments.

Many such advocacy and research groups have proposed similar combinations of multiple research methodologies. A clear benefit of studying special education through a program like University Wisconsin-Superior’s MSE is being able to spend a significant amount of time studying these various research methodologies in depth, analyzing the implications of research findings, and implementing them into actionable educational practice. With an understanding of current and developing educational research, future special education teachers can have a positive impact on the future of their field.

Learn more about the UW-Superior online MSE — Special Education program.


Exceptional Children and Youth by Nancy Hunt, Kathleen Marshall

Exceptional Children: Research in Special Education: Scientific Methods and Evidence-Based Practices

Educational Researcher: Educational Research: The Hardest Science of All

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