LAWRENCE — In these days of increased emphasis on educational outcomes such as reading and math, improvement is easy to measure. But for teachers who work with students with disabilities who are about to transition to adult life, it’s harder to gauge improvement. Researchers at the University of Kansas have developed a promising series of online and blended professional development programs for such teachers.
For a little more than a year, faculty and staff in the Department of Special Education and Center for Research on Learning in KU’s School of Education have worked with teachers and administrators in four states helping them learn new skills, refine their approaches and access new resources in their work to prepare young adults with disabilities for adulthood. The courses are a blend of online and face-to-face work and are tailored to fit each state’s specific laws and can show improvement on a building-to-building basis.
The online modules, blended with team-based professional development methods, were developed over time because KU faculty members were limited in how many working teachers they could assist. Mary Morningstar, associate professor of special education and director of Transition Coalition, and her staff would travel throughout Kansas providing three hour workshops on a variety of topics. Later they developed a traditional train-the-trainer model for professional development. However, the efforts did not result in substantial changes in teacher practices or school programs.
“We were limited by geography, time and cost,” Morningstar said. “And by the limitations of the traditional ‘one-shot workshop.’ We think this is a better investment of teachers’ time. We are starting to see improvements at the building and district levels.”
Teachers from Kansas, Missouri, Georgia and Virginia are all taking part in the Transition Coalition’s blended model of online professional development. The programs are team-based, and schools designate teachers and a team leader, often an administrator, department chair or recognized leader in the school. They examine school data associated with preparing for adulthood, set goals for improvements they want to make in their school, then take part in online modules all based on data developed at KU. They learn new skills and techniques, for example, how to write a better individual education plan for a student with special needs. Along the way, teams meet in person to discuss what they’ve learned, whether they’ve met their goals and improvements they’ve made in practice.
Teams have their own portfolios on the Transition Coalition site that show their progress, allowing them to interact with KU facilitators who can guide them to the next modules after they’ve completed a section.
The teams can compare their results among one another to help identify areas of needed improvement and develop plans on how they can implement changes in their respective schools.
Because the online content is consistent, teachers who take part all get the same quality instruction. However, as laws vary from state to state and no two schools are the same, even within a single district, the program is highly adaptable. Each state’s laws can be factored into the modules and training takes into account factors such as a school’s size, number of teachers, number of schools in a district or whether it is rural or urban, for example.
“The programs are very adaptable. But I think a lot of the strategies we come up with are applicable across the educational spectrum,” Morningstar said.
Teachers and administrators who have taken part in the Transition Coalition training have overwhelmingly reported positive outcomes. Many have met or exceeded the goals they set for changes in their schools, and the majority who didn’t hit a set benchmark simply needed more time to get there. The feedback is encouraging, Morningstar said, and she and colleagues hope to expand their study of the program’s effectiveness by measuring success among students.
KU researchers plan to gauge students’ success and educational outcomes as they transition from school into adulthood over the next several years. They will also measure competencies of teachers who take part and measure implementation of lessons learned in practice. If the findings continue to return positively, the training will be expanded to more states nationwide.
The professional development and continued education is valuable for all teachers, especially those in a challenging field such as preparing students with disabilities for adulthood. A teacher who graduates from college and enters the classroom is just beginning his or her journey as a teacher, one in which learning doesn’t end, Morningstar said.
“We’re training teachers who go on to become novice teachers. We’re just launching them in their careers,” she said. “They have years to go to become master teachers. Online professional development such as this has a lot of potential within education. It’s certainly powerful when you see the impact it’s having.”