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In addition to the highly qualified mandates of NCLB there are also requirements to use research-based education practices over effective-based education practices.
The different levels of ability combined with the various qualifiers of special education students present a difficulty in determining the best course of research-based learning. In addition the ability to track and report such learning becomes difficult at best, impossible at worst.
Given the wide spectrum of students that qualify for special education services there is a demonstrable difference in the services they are provided.
The students in special education today, receive a combination of education instruction. When they are able to appropriately benefit and learn in a mainstream environment the federal government dictates that they do. If their particular disability provides the need for accommodations to that mainstream education, such as oral testing, or un-timed lessons the school has provided that as well through the use of special education staff members. With NCLB the special education educators are finding themselves between the rock and the hard place in theory.
Demanding that every educator providing lessons to special education students is "highly qualified" in the core subject in which they are providing those lessons sets up obstacles to the very individualized education methods that are currently in use, and in keeping with the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education case of four past decades.
In addition the NCLB mandate is virtually unfunded at the federal level. This means that school districts across the nation are ordered to comply with the special education qualifiers with regard to "highly qualified" but there are no funds forthcoming from federal coffers to pay for such educators.
In addition, because IDEA ensures the right to a free appropriate public education, some research and policy questions (e.g., Are IEPs effective in promoting student progress?) may not be addressable through research methodologies that require random assignment to a "nontreatment" group or condition. Last, in special education, students with disabilities are often "clustered" in classrooms, and in experimental group design, the classroom rather than the student becomes the unit on which researchers base random assignment, data analysis, and power estimates (Harris, 2005)."
Just as it is impossible to achieve one definition or term that can encompass all special education student disabilities, one research method to accurately define, record and report teaching methods and qualifications of those teachers in the field of special education becomes difficult.
A central theme advocated by IES is to focus research on the questions of effectiveness and to employ high-quality research methods to address these questions (Whitehurst). The gold standard for research methodology that addresses these issues is the use of RCT methodology (Harris, 2005)."
When it comes to special education there are other methodologies including single subject design studies that might provide a more comfortable fit for the context of research.
The discovery and development of new effective practices may require researchers to work in naturalistic contexts where they may not be able to exert experimental control and/or in design experiments, or where they have the flexibility of changing certain elements of an intervention based on students' responses. Such descriptive and process-oriented research may require the use of qualitative methods (Harris, 2005). Educational researchers have acknowledged the value of mixing methodologies to provide a complementary set of information that would more effectively (than a single method) inform practice (Harris, 2005)."
The primary concern of NCLB when it comes to the benchmarking of special education efforts is that the methods being used by the schools are not measurable by research design, thereby not verifiable as to their success rates.
When NCLB was being designed there were concerns brought forth that the field of special education had yet to design a systematically measurable guideline that could specify the levels of evidence that could be used to identify practices as evidence based and effective.
Congress had the desire to see evidence that the public funding for special education was being used wisely and effectively for the special education students in its care.
The end result was the provision for special education in NCLB regarding highly qualified teachers and data gathering and reporting to the federal levels of education regarding the success of methods being used.
The demand for highly qualified special education teachers came from the federal belief that highly qualified teachers provide a better chance for quality education and successful learning in the field of special education.
The positive side of the mandate is that the special education teacher shortage that the nation has experienced in recent years may be corrected with the demand for special education teachers qualified in the core curriculum (McLeskey, 2004).
The negative aspect of such mandates is the fact that NCLB is unfunded, which may drive millions of special education students into mainstream environments in areas that they are not able to learn in just to ensure that they are being instructed by "highly qualified" teachers thus basically defeating the entire purpose of special education.
Given all of the mandates included with NCLB it is important to revisit the ethical vs. empirical approach in the driving of instructional practices. While research and ethical approaches are important factors in many arenas of education, and do serve a valuable purpose in the field of education, empirical research would be the better choice in designing instructional practice.
One of the core values that came out of the landmark decision of Brown vs. Board of Education was the basic recognition that each special education student is individual even within the disability label that he or she receives. Because they have been found to benefit from a tailored program instead of a one size fits all program, the very nature of empirical instruction practices provide the flexibility required to provide them with the best education they are able to receive.
Statistical research has a place in the field of education. It can provide general gaps in the process, that can be addressed as those gaps become evident. However, empirical findings have the ability to provide what makes the difference between special education and mainstream students. Using empirical data to drive instructional practices actually provides support for the "Individualize Education Plan" program and allows each student and each teacher to work together to find the fit. On a broader-based view the use of empirical data allows instruction to be driven by what works rather than relying in instructional paths that are used because the scientific data say they "should" work.
Special education is a highly specialized field that is largely driven by individual needs and designs. While ethical and research driven information is valuable to the design of special education components, the empirical design would be the best fit when it comes to instructional practices.
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