Grants will help boost pool of special education teachers

In the field of special education, an already acute shortage of teachers is worsening as demand for them continues to grow.

A pair of recent grants to the University of Oregon’s College of Education should help stem that tide by providing funding to educate future faculty members who will prepare additional teachers to enter an important field.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs has awarded $3.5 million to the college’s Wendy Machalicek and $1.25 million to Lillian Durán to train doctorate-level researchers in their respective fields of study.

Machalicek’s focus is on autism spectrum disorder, while Durán’s research looks at young English learners with learning disabilities. The grants will support 12 doctoral candidates at the UO and additional students at campuses around the country.

“We have a faculty shortage in special education, which is leading to the demise of special education teacher-training programs,” said Machalicek, an associate professor in the Department of Special Education. “These new grants will prepare a total of 23 new Ph.D.-level faculty with expertise in autism spectrum disorder, English language learners, literacy, scaling up best practices in schools, and cultural adaptation of interventions for culturally and racially diverse populations.”

Machalicek’s scholarship focuses on supporting teachers and parents to effectively use behavior assessment practices and interventions that address behavioral and educational needs of young children with autism spectrum disorder and other developmental disabilities.

The grant will support six doctoral students as part of Project CO-LEAD or Collaboration Across Universities to prepare Leaders in Evidence Based Practices, Autism Spectrum Disorder, and Diversity, which Machalicek directs. The college’s Stephanie Shire is co-principal investigator at the UO.

The five-year grant puts the UO in a consortium with Purdue University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign that will develop 17 doctorate-level students and promote collaboration among the schools. The UO College of Education’s special education department is ranked third nationally by the U.S. News and World Report. Purdue and Illinois also are in the nation’s top tier for their special education programs.

“There will be more opportunities for virtual networking and learning, as well as face-to-face opportunities for scholars,” Machalicek said.

The funding aims to expand intervention research to be adapted to “school settings and racially and ethnically diverse families who have children with autism, because there’s relatively little research with these populations,” Machalicek said.

College of Education student works with youth with learning disabilities in MexicoThe grant to Durán will support Project I-LEAD, or Innovative Leadership Education Advancing Diversity. Durán is the director. The five-year grant will fund six doctoral students. Beth Harn and Sylvia Linan Thompson are co-principal investigators.

The six students will receive training in working with English learners, with specialized coursework in areas of bilingual development and assessment, and also serve in leadership roles in this field. The students will travel to Mexico, where they will supervise students seeking master’s degrees who are working with children with disabilities and deliver professional development while working in an international setting.

The need to increase the number of teachers in this field is critical, said Durán, associate dean of academic affairs in the College of Education and associate professor in the Department of Special Education and Clinical Sciences.

The National Assessment for Educational Progress recently released 30 years of findings that show reading scores in the U.S. are declining, particularly among Latino populations and English learners.

“There’s still a significant achievement gap between individuals who speak English as their primary language and our English learners in our school systems,” Durán said. “And our reading scores are not getting any better over 30 years of data collection. The reason we need to improve is that the status quo, what we’re doing now, is not improving their outcomes, is not accelerating their development at the level necessary in order for them to catch up and to reduce that equity gap.”

Durán said the grant also will allow her to recruit a diverse and ideally bilingual group of scholars and train them to serve in leadership roles at institutions of higher education around the country.

“There’s very limited knowledge on how to best serve bilingual students with special needs, so we need leadership in that area in terms of designing innovative special education teacher programs that embed this content throughout these programs,” Durán said. “And we need scholars who are prepared to conduct research in this area.”

Durán said the demand for teachers ranges from urban to rural areas as enclaves of immigrants establish themselves throughout the country, and it extends beyond Spanish speakers.

While schools have staff to help students with learning disabilities and other staff to work with students who are learning English, few districts have staff to work with students who belong to both groups, she said.

“The population of students that are English learners and also have disabilities; that population is very poorly served,” Durán said.

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