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KU researchers land grant to study factors leading to special education placement, outcomes for students

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

LAWRENCE — Every year, 6 million American children with disabilities are placed in a special education class or receive specialized services. Yet, there is very little data on what factors lead to such placements and what the students’ educational outcomes are. Researchers at the University of Kansas have landed a grant to determine those factors as well as the social and academic outcomes for students with significant cognitive disabilities.

The Institute for Education Sciences provided a three-year, $1.4 million grant for KU researchers and partners to study student, classroom and school/district-level factors that lead to special education placement. With that data and information on outcomes for the students, they will share information on effective interventions with schools nationally as well as inform policy about special education decisions. Jennifer Kurth, associate professor of special education and researcher with KU’s Life Span Institute, is principal investigator for the grant.

“We’re trying to understand the outcomes for students with significant cognitive disabilities in educational areas such as reading, writing, math, and in social outcomes such as behavior, social skills and communication skills,” Kurth said. “We’ll work with partners across the country to gather data. The decision to place these students is made 6 million times a year. When you think about it that way, it shows it’s a good idea to take a look at what the impacts of these placements are.”

Previous studies have all been small-scale in nature. KU researchers have already partnered with educators and schools in North Carolina, Utah, Wyoming, Oregon, New Mexico and Colorado, and they will add more throughout the project. Students with significant cognitive disabilities have Individual Education Plans, known as IEPs, that lead to interventions such as placement in a segregated special education classroom, individualized instruction and programs to improve communication or behavior. Research has shown these students, the 1 percent with the most significant disabilities, often have the poorest educational and social outcomes after high school, yet it hasn’t explored why they are placed in certain programs or the resulting outcomes.

Researchers will perform interviews and direct observations of educators and students, track goal attainment with data from teachers and share findings with teachers, policymakers and researchers. They will work with students in kindergarten through sixth grade, as students of that demographic generally have a full range of placement options and are in a formative educational age.

Previous research has also shown that when students with disabilities are included in the general education classroom, achievement for all students improves. The current project will study what happens in more inclusive schools and how inclusive settings can be made more accessible for all schools, as well as considering socioeconomic, racial and geographic factors. Results will also help inform new interventions to improve outcomes for students with significant cognitive disabilities.

In addition to the data supporting school- and system-level improvements, researchers plan to help inform policy as well. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, known as IDEA, does not guide individual placement decisions well but does state that such decisions should be research-based, Kurth said.

“If we can show Congress and educational policymakers this is helpful and the importance of placement and outcomes, hopefully they can include this type of language in the next IDEA reauthorization,” Kurth said.

Karrie Shogren, professor of special education, director of the KU Center on Developmental Disabilities and senior scientist in the Life Span Institute, and Michael Wehmeyer, Ross and Marianna Beach Distinguished Professor in Special Education and director of the Beach Center on Disability, are co-principal investigators.

While researchers hope to help inform policy with the research data, they plan to start with teachers, parents, school administrators and students.

“We are committed to sharing data with our school partners across the country,” Kurth said. “We want to know how we can help teachers in their classrooms and help their students achieve the best possible outcomes.”

Image: iStock.

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