For Secondary Teachers Educating Students with Disabilities, 2021 Was a New Year with an Old Story

Findings from the American Educator Panels

by Laura Stelitano, Heather Gomez-Bendaña, Lucas Greer

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Research Questions

  1. What service delivery models did secondary school principals most commonly report using to educate SWD during the 2020–2021 school year?
  2. What service delivery models did secondary general and special educators most commonly report using to educate SWD during the 2020–2021 school year?
  3. To what extent did secondary general and special educators believe they had adequate resources and supports for educating SWD during the 2020–2021 school year?
  4. To what extent did secondary general and special educators feel confident in their ability to use instructional practices to educate SWD during the 2020–2021 school year?

The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic presented new challenges for educators who teach students with disabilities (SWD). Research on the experiences of SWD during the pandemic is limited, but what is known suggests that SWD access to services and supports declined during the pandemic and that steeper learning losses are likely. Pandemic interruptions may be particularly problematic for secondary SWD because they missed out on critical preparation experiences while approaching the transition to college and career. Given these disruptions, it is critical that educators have the support and training they need to accelerate learning for SWD moving forward.

In this report, the authors present national survey findings from secondary school principals and educators from the spring of the 2020–2021 school year, exploring educators' access to and use of supports for teaching SWD. The analysis focuses on the roles that teachers play (i.e., general or special educator) and the service delivery models that they use for teaching SWD. Despite the massive disruption brought about by the pandemic, many long-standing patterns in roles and support for educating SWD remained unchanged. These patterns shed light on the challenges that educators in secondary schools faced, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, that made effectively educating SWD in secondary schools so challenging during the pandemic.

Key Findings

  • Secondary principals overwhelmingly relied on collaborative service delivery models (primarily co-teaching) to educate SWD, regardless of whether their school was operating in person or remotely.
  • Just more than a third of secondary principals reported using only one service delivery model for SWD. This was more common in the highest poverty schools; 45 percent of principals in those schools reported that they had only one service delivery model in their school.
  • Nearly a quarter of secondary general educators reported having no additional support from other staff when educating SWD.
  • Secondary teachers' reports of their access to support for teaching SWD were relatively unchanged from 2019; general educators consistently reported having less-sufficient access to support than special educators did.
  • Secondary general educators were less confident than secondary special educators in their ability to use instructional practices for SWD.

Research conducted by

The research described in this report was conducted by RAND Education and Labor and supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

This report is part of the RAND Corporation Research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

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