Special Education

Ph.D. Program Specializations

Every year the Ph.D. in Special Education program admits a cohort of students from throughout the world. Each cohort consists of doctoral students with diverse interests and career goals. Underlying this cohort design are weekly seminars, various research and teaching experiences, and an interrelated specialization structure. Each doctoral student chooses an area of specialization and potentially a secondary area of interest as a cognate. If you choose to apply, you must identify the specialization area you are most interested in and the faculty with whom you wish to study.

Currently, our program has the following areas of specialization:

Disability & Diversity in Education & Society

This specialization focuses on the intersecting oppressions of disability, race, ethnicity, social class, language, gender, and sexuality in education and society. It will prepare students to evaluate, synthesize, and conduct research on and teach about two lines of social injustice. The first line is the oppression of people with disabilities historically in education and other social institutions, the primary sites where difference is constructed as disability and disability is excluded or segregated and controlled. Here we will be concerned with interdisciplinary theory and research that illuminates institutional and political processes, including those of disability oppression and prejudice, the social construction of disability and normalcy, the role of social movements in advancing disability rights and equity, the politics of actualizing rights in the offending institutions, and the application of interdisciplinary theoretical and empirical knowledge of disability oppression, construction, and movements to the identification and resolution of moral and ethical disability dilemmas. The second line of oppression is that at the intersection of the social categories of disability, race, ethnicity, social class, language, gender, and sexuality. Students’ research and teaching in this regard will focus on the unique multiplicative educational and social injustices that result from these intersections, as well as on how such oppressions are perpetrated by the biased use of disability and special education, including educational policies and practices that produce persistent patterns of racial/ethnic, class, language, and gender disproportionalities and inequities of privilege in special education referral and identification, disability classification, instructional placement, and teaching, behavior management, and transition practices.

This specialization will focus on evidenced-based practices and strategies in the field of early childhood/early childhood special education. This specialization will assist doctoral students in acquiring the foundational knowledge of the current evidence and trends in the field for providing effective early intervention and education to all young children and their families including those with identified disabilities. The expectation is that doctoral students will through these courses be better prepared to effectively and successfully serve as Early Childhood/Early Childhood Special Education faculty in institutes of higher education engaged in Research, Teaching, and Service. Specifically, each course is designed to support the following outcomes for students.

Supporting Students with Intensive Interventions Needs in Tiered Systems: This specialization will focus on evidenced-based practices and strategies in tiered systems of support for students with intensive, academic, behavior, and social needs, especially those with emotional and behavioral disorders, autism, and severe learning disabilities, and those without identified disabilities. This specialization will develop the foundational knowledge and skills necessary to (a) carry out an active and innovative research agenda; (b) support the detection of students for whom Tier 1 practices are insufficient using systematic screening tools; (c) design, implement, and evaluate strategies and practices to prevent and respond to academic, behavior, and social challenges with attention to treatment integrity; (d) support collaborative partnerships between general and special educators within the context of tiered systems of support; (e) serve as recognized leaders with expertise in school-based inquiry to improve academic, behavioral, and social outcomes for students with and at risk for learning, behavior, and/or social challenges. Doctoral students in this program will be prepared to teach in higher education and conduct research in areas such as systematic screening, test construction, and intervention studies (using group and single case design methodology) in academic, behavioral, and social domains for students with emotional and behavioral disorders, autism, severe learning disabilities, and/or those without disabilities. Currently there are five primary faculty members identified; however, other faculty interested in this focus are welcome to join the core faculty.

This specialization will develop leaders focused on supporting learner variability in modern learning environments through instructional design and technology innovations. This specialization will develop the foundational knowledge and skills necessary to (a) carry out an active and innovative research and development agenda (b) support the design and implementation of modern learning environments, especially in the area of teacher preparation and k-12 classroom application (c) serve as recognized leaders in instructional design and technology as it relates to individuals with disabilities and other diverse learning needs in modern learning environments. Doctoral students in this program study, prepare to teach in higher education, and conduct research in areas such as Universal Design for Learning (UDL), innovation and adoption technology in learning environments, online and blended learning, gaming and gamification, mobile learning, personalization, augmented and virtual reality, and technology enhanced performance.

The Special Education Policy and Systems Studies specialization has an emancipatory focus that questions and seeks to reform oppressive aspects of education and disability policy and practice. Emancipation, through critical theoretical and empirical analysis and democratic participation of those who experience impairment and associated disabilities and those who care for, serve, and advocate for them, is essential because, like all professions, special education can be self-serving in advancing its policy agenda, failing to embrace changes in policies that affect practice, even when they are shown to be inadequate or damaging. Without a critical policy perspective, special education can lose sight of the interests of those it exists to serve. Further, because special education has been enacted in federal law, it has resulted in a complex web of regulation and performativity that operate alongside but not necessarily as part of the general education system. A policy vantage point allows scholars to explore the justice narratives within education and special education while systems theories help to explain how injustice and oppression are embedded within everyday practice.

This specialization will develop leaders focused on supporting adolescent learners with significant disabilities including intellectual, autism, and multiple disabilities who need extensive supports to be fully included in school, home and the community. The specialization focuses on the intersection of secondary inclusive education, significant disabilities, and preparation for college and career readiness. The underlying conceptual elements of the specialization incorporate research and teaching to ensure that adolescents with significant disabilities are provided the supports and experiences in school and the community to ensure positive, self-determined and inclusive transitions to adulthood. Key areas of the doctoral research and teaching experience will include: secondary education and significant disabilities, particularly in the domains of inclusive practices to support youth in middle and high schools; evidence-based practices and predictors of secondary/transition education; access to the secondary general education curriculum; ensuring students are college and career ready, and promoting student self-determination.


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