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Nathan Jones knew three things about the Mississippi Delta when he arrived there to teach special education at a middle school in Phillips County, Ark.: it had given birth to the blues, segregation had festered there, as it had in most of the South, and it had been—and still was—comparatively poor. Four months into his first classroom assignment, Jones learned something else that would define his time in the region called “the most southern place on Earth.” The native New Yorker was on his own. During the first phone conversation with his supposed mentor, she announced that she had retired—months ago.

Jones had taken a job that nationally had a 10 percent first-year attrition rate. And he’d done so in one of the poorest counties in the United States. Of course, he should have had a mentor: it was mandated by the government. Just as the other teachers he worked with should have completed customized Individualized Education Programs rather than using the same form for every student and a lot of correction fluid.

“At the local level, you had these well-intentioned state policies breaking down,” says Jones. “And no recourse.”

After three years of making do, he decided to do something about it. He earned a PhD at Michigan State University and became a specialist in the implementation of education policy.

Now a School of Education assistant professor of special education, Jones focuses his research on the development of guidance and mandates, particularly in special education, that don’t break apart in the classroom.

Tracking troubles

One area where regulators really need some help, he says, is teacher evaluation. Some states do a good job of grading teachers, others don’t. North Carolina, for example, has long had a relatively consistent approach to collecting performance data and is therefore well placed to track educators year after year. In contrast, Michigan, he notes, has been riven by political disagreements and therefore hampered by a “hodgepodge system.”

When it comes to quantifying the performance of those teaching students with disabilities, things get even messier. There’s been “very little guidance” for administrators from states or the feds, he says. And that leads to frustration: good special education teachers don’t get credit for their work; struggling ones don’t get the help they need to improve.

Figuring out the best way to evaluate special education students—and therefore, the professionals teaching them—isn’t simple, so that lack of guidance means very few schools are in a position to quantify how their children and staff are performing. While 12 percent of K-12 students are given special education services, 58 percent of them spend more than three-quarters of their time in general education classrooms. If you’re tracking a teacher’s performance based on test scores (the value-added model of assessment), how can you be sure which teacher’s impact you’re measuring? Besides, says Jones, students with disabilities don’t do as well, on average, on state tests, and the lower (or higher) an exam score, the greater the chance for measurement error. Even watching teachers at work (the observation model) might not tell you very much about their effectiveness—the rater will probably work from a general checklist that doesn’t help separate teachers who go the extra mile for students with disabilities from those who don’t.

One in 10 special education teachers resigns after just one year.

It’s the kind of muddled situation that Jones is working to repair. In a paper published last spring in Educational Researcher, he and colleagues from the research nonprofit Educational Testing Service proposed some fixes. Their suggestions range from new observation protocols with a “subset of items specific to teaching” students with disabilities to a “roster validation system” that ditches complicated labor division calculations so “both the general education and special education teachers receive 100 percent responsibility [for the value added scores] of their shared students.”

Bearing in mind his lack of mentoring in the Delta, Jones is keen to ensure that his recommendations remain rooted in the experiences of frontline teachers. He’s recently undertaken a new project to study what happens when a state takes an “observation system thoughtfully developed in a research context and suddenly says to principals, ‘You need to do this,’” he says. Over a three-year period, Jones will follow principals in Los Angeles as they implement an updated version of the Framework for Teaching Evaluation Instrument, an observation system currently used in about half the states. The study team will watch, survey, and interview principals—and test their abilities as raters.

“I think a lot of people are looking to L.A. to see what happens when you put principals through this training and what happens to these observation systems when they get implemented in a high-stakes context,” says Jones. “L.A. is serving as the bellwether for what happens across the country.”

More lessons from the Delta

Before taking on the L.A. project, there was one other problem Jones had to solve. He didn’t want rookie special education teachers to be thrown into the classroom, as he was in the Delta, without the right support. “Beginning special ed teachers really crave social relationships in their schools,” he says, “but they infrequently have access to them.” The job is demanding and “you see high rates of stress and burnout among special ed teachers,” even among those with a personal motivation—a family member with a disability, for instance—for trying to tough it out.

That state of affairs leads many to quit. Jones says that when he joined the field, some studies showed beginning special ed teachers leaving at twice the rate of their general ed counterparts. Today, more sophisticated research has moved the rates closer together. Either way, he notes, with one in 10 teachers resigning after just one year, the attrition level in special education is alarming.

In a study of teachers in eight districts in Michigan and Indiana, he found that improved relationships could be tied directly to retention. “For special education teachers in particular,” he and two colleagues wrote in the journal Exceptional Children, “perception of colleague support was a strong predictor of retention plans.” The researchers recommended that schools “facilitate productive relationships between general and special education faculty” and “differentiate special induction support for beginning special educators.”

Jones’ advice for schools that want to retain their best special ed teachers? First, involve the principal. “There is increasing evidence that for beginning teachers,” he says, “the quality of one’s relationship with the principal is a key factor in making plans to stay in teaching.” Next, he says, schools need to give their new special ed teachers a customized induction, spelling out clearly the curricular expectations. Finally, he argues, schools have to strengthen the relationships between special and general education faculty by giving them more opportunities to work together and by encouraging them to share responsibility for students.

A version of this story appeared in the summer 2013 edition of @SED.