Special Education Q&A

Why Special Education Research Is So Important Now

By Sarah D. Sparks — December 16, 2022 5 min read
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Joan Mclaughlin, commissioner of the National Center on Special Education Research, has witnessed many changes and worked through some difficult times in her 13 years with the Education Department’s research agency.

Mclaughlin, who is retiring this month, said she has relished broadening the study of “under-researched areas,” such as better growth measures of achievement for students with disabilities; training and coaching for teachers to use data on students with disabilities; and literacy interventions for students who are deaf and hard-of-hearing—a group that prior studies show graduates high school reading only at a 4th-grade level, on average.

In an email interview with Education Week, Mclaughlin looks back on how the federal approach to special education research has changed, particularly during the pandemic. (The interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Joan McLaughlin

Can you talk about how the federal approach to special education research has changed?

Much of what we have accomplished is the result of setting high standards, providing resources to support applicants and grantees, and building the capacity of the field through training early career scholars as well as established researchers.

The What Works Clearinghouse and Standards for Excellence in Education Research provide standards for rigorous research and these standards have continued to evolve based on developments in the field. In my time at IES, we also have evolved in the way we think about furthering the use of research. When I came on board, we relied on the What Works Clearinghouse alone to provide evidence to the field. Now we make sure that our grants have dissemination plans that include user-friendly ways of disseminating the results of research to practitioners.

How have you expanded research capacity and the pipeline for special education researchers?

One of the areas I am proudest of is the work that we have done to expand research capacity. Under former Commissioner Debbie Speece, we started the Early Career Development and Mentoring program. This is for scholars within a few years of their doctoral or postdoctoral training. The research that has resulted from this competition has been awesome, and focused on critical issues of practice such as understanding special education teacher burnout and working conditions, improving reading and STEM instruction for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities, reducing challenging behavior, and supporting parents of children with autism.

What do you think are the most urgent priorities for young children with special education needs?

The pandemic has overloaded all of our systems and there are urgent needs to get student identification and service provision back on track. We have heard from the field—through our researchers who partner with schools and teachers every day, from our colleagues across the Department of Education, and from parents and families directly—about the depth and breadth of challenges brought on by the pandemic now facing students, and the families and educators that support them. It is a tremendous challenge, and NCSER is addressing this, in part, by funding research specifically targeting COVID recovery efforts. For example, one study directly addresses the need in one state—Illinois—to reduce the time for toddlers to be assessed for autism spectrum disorders. This kind of research is critical to helping us find creative ways to recover from the pandemic losses.

How are you seeing virtual education evolve for students with special education needs?

There is a lot of work going on in this area. For example, we funded a project that is studying the potential of the virtual environment to address the emotional and behavioral needs of students with or at risk for disabilities as they navigate their transition back to school after COVID school closures.

What are the most urgent research needs in special education now?

The research needs are great and while NCSER has had some amazing success stories, there is much to be done. I recently had the opportunity to give the 2022 Meyen Lecture at the University of Kansas, which I ended with what I called areas of opportunity for early intervention and special education:

  • Addressing DEIA (diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility) challenges is part of NCSER’s DNA. We have been thinking about DEIA in terms of broadening the types of institutions that apply for and receive our grants (including minority-serving institutions); increasing the diversity of participants in training grants and individuals on research teams; encouraging greater representation of individuals on research teams that have similar backgrounds to the participants in the study; working with the Office of Science to support their efforts to increase the diversity of peer reviewers [and other goals].
  • We need more research on educators and school-based service providers. Areas that are in particular need of research include training for teachers and school-based service providers on how to support the academic, behavioral, and mental health needs of students and strategies to reduce burnout, improve working conditions, and promote retention.
  • Postsecondary enrollment rates doubled for students with disabilities between the 1990s and 2000s, yet completion rates for these students are far lower than their peers without disabilities. We need research to help us understand the issues of access, participation, and successful completion of college.
  • We need more research on the system itself—to better understand the contexts, structures, and processes that impact instruction and outcomes for students with disabilities.
  • We need better and more timely data and information on special education financing. In particular, we need research that explores the services offered through students’ IEPs and 504 plans, their costs, and their impacts on student outcomes, as well as how these things differ by disability category, race and ethnicity, and socioeconomic status.
  • We need research to improve assessments and measures for learners with disabilities. Specifically, we need new measures or to adapt and validate existing measures for learners with disabilities for a variety of contexts.


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