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What Is the Role of Research in Special Education?

What Is the Role of Research in Special Education?

Education is constantly evolving, with educators and educational theorists involved in an ongoing search for innovative and effective methods and teaching strategies to meet the unique needs of each student. This approach is perhaps most essential in special education and the inclusive classroom.

The inclusive classroom relies on the simultaneous use of differentiated instruction and assessment techniques for maximizing a student’s learning potential by tailoring the teaching to every student. Although many educational innovations take shape and undergo testing in the classroom, research is necessary to substantiate these new techniques beyond anecdotal evidence. This helps broaden their exposure, boosts their inclusion in professional development programs for teachers, and encourages widespread implementation.

To this end, modern special education degree programs such as the University of Wisconsin-Superior’s Master of Science in Education — Special Education online include research methods and study in their curricula. Through these courses, degree candidates can learn about research methodology and proven teaching strategies and techniques. And to continue the development of special education innovations, these teachers will have the opportunity to do their own research and gain valuable practical experience by applying their findings within the classroom in real time.

How Does Education Law Support the Use of Scientific Research?

There has long been an alarming, broadening achievement gap between high-performing students and students with disadvantages such as learning disabilities and economic/socioeconomic barriers toward quality, equal education. In the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2002, the U.S. Department of Education mandated schools to make progress toward closing this achievement gap and to stay accountable for student improvement or lack thereof. Regarding NCLB’s development, former President George W. Bush stated: “These reforms express my deep belief in our public schools and their mission to build the mind and character of every child, from every background, in every part of America.”

In “No Child Left Behind: A Desktop Reference,” the Office of the Under Secretary to the Department of Education wrote that “The NCLB Act puts a special emphasis on determining what educational programs and practices have been clearly demonstrated to be effective through rigorous scientific research.” Moreover, the NCLB allotted extensive funding to traditionally disadvantaged school systems to help them implement these proven methods of improved instruction, curriculum design, and systemic educational development.

What Problems Did Schools Face in Implementing Scientifically Proven Educational Programs?

Even though the NCLB Act required schools to implement research-supported teaching methods, there was relatively little research on the newer approaches deemed most effective when the act was passed. To receive funding through NCLB, school systems had to use proven research-based educational methods, further substantiating the methods’ effectiveness through improved achievement scores in state and nationwide standardized testing. The requirement to implement untested innovative practices, however, put schools in a difficult spot.

What Difficulties Have Schools Faced in Applying Scientific Research Methodology to Educational Reform?

Although educational theory and innovation have always been a part of education as a whole, empirical, evidence-based research on newer forms of educational methodology was scarce when the NCLB Act came into being. Popular opinion deems educational practices as naturally evolving, contextual and subjective.

Aside from widespread assessment, measuring quality and efficacy is much more difficult for teaching methods than for typically researched topics in the sciences, where results are quantifiable and controlled. Students don’t constitute test subjects or things to experiment on and deduce findings from. In the formative stages of child development, students are malleable, fragile individuals, vulnerable to the negative effects of unhealthy educational and social environments.

Of course, theorists and educators constantly innovate teaching methods, implementing the methods in their classrooms and evaluating the results.

Unlike long-ranging research programs, teachers can “test out” new instruction techniques in real time, adjusting and improving them continuously depending on what works for each student. This is innovation at its finest, as it relies on a constant feedback loop of trial and improvement. And these new techniques can spread quickly through collaboration between teachers, educational magazines, blogs, etc. Still, do anecdotal bits of proof and context-specific achievements offer sufficient proof of the efficacy of these innovative techniques?

How Data Benefits Scientific Research in Education

Although there was minimal research on innovative educational methodology at the time of NCLB’s passage, digital record-keeping systems were concurrently in development and use in schools around the country. Digital data on student achievement in relation to instructional techniques and curriculum design gave researchers a wealth of accessible, organized and quantifiable information. This data has enabled researchers to apply scientific research methodology to larger sets of statistics than isolated classrooms or schools can provide. This information allows researchers to test the validity of various teaching methods on a large scale, giving them empirical proof that validates the efficacy of those methods.

What Are Some Proven Research-Based Instructional Methods?

Research can now substantiate the many teaching methods educators use. This validation has helped many innovations in instructional strategy and classroom design gain traction and enjoy wide implementation. It has helped broaden their scope significantly more than teacher collaboration and sharing alone. Given that special education teachers face the unique challenge of closing the achievement gap, many of the innovations and much of the progress in teaching methodology have emerged from implementation in the special education or inclusive classroom.

One such method is differentiated instruction. The strictures of special education have always mandated the teaching of students based on the unique learning needs and goals of each. Yet, when included in a classroom with generalized instruction and uniform assessment, special-ed students are at a disadvantage. In “Differentiated instruction: A research basis,” author Pearl Subban describes differentiation as “a philosophy of teaching that is based on the premise that students learn best when their teachers accommodate the differences in their readiness levels, interests and learning profiles.”

Assimilating a multitude of findings from various research papers, Subban could quantitatively substantiate many positive effects of differentiation in the inclusive classroom. These improvements are clear in both academic achievement as well as the social/emotional development of students. Moreover, students with cognitive, emotional and physical disabilities showed the highest levels of improvement from inclusion in the differentiated classroom.

Similar findings emerged on reading education that the Institute of Education conducted over eight years. Students with various special needs, whether cognitive or physical, benefited substantially from early intervention, assessment of ideal learning styles, and the application of appropriate differentiated instructional techniques to reading education.

Research into effective teaching methodology has clear implications for the improvement of special education programs. This is especially true in today’s increasingly diverse, inclusive classrooms. For research to have the most impact, school systems should emphasize extensive professional development in proven teaching methods.

Special education teachers who understand research methodology and supported practices can not only innovate in the classroom but also help other teachers understand and incorporate new and effective teaching strategies, helping all students achieve their highest potential.

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


Instructional Education Journal: Differentiated instruction — A research basis

Institute of Education Sciences: Improving Reading Outcomes for Students With or at Risk for Reading Disabilities

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