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The Critical Importance of Data and The Fundamental Necessity of Expertise in Special Education

On the flight back from Portland, I reflected on the wonderful presentations, discussions, and research innovations that were showcased at the CEC conference.  Two linked concepts continually surfaced in my thoughts.  First, special education is about individualizing interventions to the strengths, needs, and characteristics of our students and the ecologies in which they are embedded.  Second, the concept of individualizing intervention requires that special educators have the training, capacity, and resources to adapt practices to specific students and their experiences and environments.

These two points are critical for understanding what special educators do on a day-to-day and moment-to-moment basis and should guide research efforts in our field. Yet, rather than focusing on the individual student and using data linked to the circumstances, contexts, and developmental history of specific youth, there is an expectation that special education research should focus on evidence-based practices generated from research centered on the general linear model (GLM). By design, such research reflects the characteristics of students who fall within two standard deviations of the mean within the universal population of youth.  Further, cluster randomized trials are designed to control for individual and contextual factors with the goal of identifying the general impact of an intervention for most youth.

By definition, many students with exceptionalities tend to be represented in the tails (i.e., two standard deviations or more) of the normal curve on specific constructs of interest. Statistics based on the GLM tend not to represent their functioning or needs.  Further, students with exceptionalities are likely to experience their worlds in ways that are different from other youth. Thus, while research that uses probabilistic statistics to identify interventions that work in the general population may be better than flipping a coin, it is likely to yield practices that are not adequately responsive to the complex array of factors that are relevant to the development and long-term outcomes of youth with exceptionalities.

As currently conceived, the focus on evidence-based practice centers on the idea that if an intervention works, it will work for most youth as long as it is implemented with fidelity.  This thinking ignores the fact that individual, cultural, and ecological factors are organized in a fluid system that differentially contributes to youth development and corresponding outcomes depending on how the factors within the system are aligned with each other. In other words, the outcomes of individual students involve the dynamic and complex interplay of multiple factors across multiple levels (i.e., individual, behavioral, ecological, socio-cultural).  Research that generates evidence-based practices is aimed at reducing this dynamic interplay in controlled experimental designs in pursuit of answering the question “does the intervention work?”  But for special educators, the question is “how do we support the positive development and adaptation of a specific student given her or his characteristics and the strengths, resources, and constraints of the relevant ecologies in which the student lives?”

By building upon but going beyond evidence-based interventions generated by probabilistic studies, we can conduct much more rigorous, intensive, and scientifically exacting research to yield data driven practices that can be tailored to youth with exceptionalities within the contexts in which they learn, live, and grow.  This means linking data on key practice elements of evidenced-based intervention to data about specific developmental process factors in relation to data on ecological factors (i.e., local analytics) in systematic ways that are guided and tested by continuous progress monitoring data on proximal, intermediate, and long-term outcomes for specific subtypes of youth (see Farmer, 2020).

The dynamic, multi-factored complexity of the development of youth with exceptionalities makes it unlikely that general education teachers can pull an evidence-based practice off the shelf, implement it with fidelity, and effectively support the learning and adaptation of diverse learners.  The intervention needs of most students with exceptionalities require the guidance of experts who have a strong understanding of the functioning and adaptation of youth with specific needs and characteristics, knowledge and capacity to identify practice elements of evidence-based interventions that are relevant to the specific developmental needs of such students, and the capability and resources to use data to develop, coordinate, and monitor multi-factored and multi-agency individualized interventions (see Talbott, De Arment, Sterrett, & Chen, 2020).  This is what we do in special education and we need corresponding research to support such efforts.

In my first presidential message, I indicated that we need to have conversations that involve diverse perspectives and voices.  For my final presidential message, I will discuss my views on how we can more effectively conduct special education research to respond to a system of complex, dynamic factors that contribute to the adaptation and outcomes of students with exceptionalities. But in the interim, I would like to hear from others to bring different perspectives into this discourse.  Please send your thoughts and comments to me at tfarmer@pitt.edu.

Farmer, T. W. (2020). Reforming research to support culturally and ecologically responsive and developmentally meaningful practice in schools. Educational Psychologist, 55, 32-39.

Talbott, E., De Arment, S., Sterrett, B., & Chen, C-C., (2020). Leading the team for youth with emotional and behavioral disorders: Special educators as intervention specialists. In T. W. Farmer, M. Conroy, E. M. Z. Farmer, & K. S. Sutherland (Eds). Handbook of research on emotional & behavioral disorders: Interdisciplinary developmental perspectives on children and youth. Taylor & Francis.

Posted:  1 April, 2020

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