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A Priority Call for Evidence-Based Practices

By Richard L. Simpson

Barbara Bateman (1994) reminds us there are some issues in our field that are perpetual. Each generation of professionals wrestles with these same basic matters. These themes and issues have taken a variety of forms, yet in general they have had enduring prominence over the past several decades. One issue concerns who should receive special education services (i.e., types and characteristics of children and youth with disabilities and special needs); and who should be teaching these learners (i.e., skills, knowledge of teachers and support staff)? A second salient issue relates to what educators should be teaching. A third long-term issue that has challenged the field for decades is where students should be receiving their education (i.e., full inclusion general education classrooms, self-contained programs, alternative schools, and so forth). Finally, the all-important issue of how we should be teaching, managing and otherwise serving students with disabilities has been a long-standing question.

This commentary focuses on the how topic. Succinctly stated, identifying and using suitable methods with fidelity is essential; and how we teach children should receive priority consideration as a research topic and in matters related to educator practice, professional development and preparation. Achieving general consensus on the importance of effective practices is relatively easy. Indeed, who within our profession or stakeholder groups would argue against working to ensure that teachers are highly skilled and knowledgeable in selecting, using and evaluating the most effectual instructional, management and other methods; and that conducting research leading to even more efficient and effective methods is crucial? Opposing such a declaration would be tantamount to arguing against the need for a more collaborative and united Congress or disagreeing that all countries should aggressively seek ways to support the basic rights of all people. Yet, apart from general consensus on the need for special educators to consistently use effective educational practices with their students (also of course that there is a need to create a more cooperative Congress and just world for all people), there is less than full agreement on particular issues linked to effective practices. There is also little indication this subject is a true priority for many educators. Thus, in spite of general (and often unenthusiastic) consensus among stakeholders on the need for use of maximally effective strategies, major obstacles challenge this enterprise. Achieving agreement on even the most basic questions, including the meaning and characteristics of effective practices and how to facilitate a more effective-practice minded profession, have been major challenges.

Selecting and using effective educational practices means using evidence-based methods (this author recognizes this is not a universally held interpretation). Variable terms are used to describe so-called effective educational procedures, including evidence-based methods and practices, scientifically supported interventions, and research-validated methods. These terms generally refer to methods and practices that have been shown to be efficacious based on objective and empirically valid and data-supported research. Shared features among evidence-based methods include a reliable and scientifically-valid evaluation or research design, clearly explained procedures, scientifically-supported evaluation methods, and peer-review vetting of claims (Cook, Tankersley, & Landrum, 2009). Unquestionably there are alternative evaluation procedures for determining if a method is an effective educational practice. In some cases informal, anecdotal and qualitative approaches have been used to make such judgments. Without question this information can often be constructive and useful. However, in the final analysis and as a definitive test of effectiveness, objective data-based scientific procedures are required. Only by adhering to such a process will the field be in a position to objectively identify and appropriately use those strategies with the greatest potential to positively advance the knowledge and skills of learners with disabilities and create maximally clear pathways to the best outcomes. Additionally, adopting and using evidence-based methods within all spheres of special education is an indispensable step towards developing and improving the image and overall professional standing of the field of special education.

Adopting a “best-practice” model requires that educators commit to learning and correctly using methods that have objectively and scientifically demonstrated capacity to consistently produce the best outcomes. Simply stated this requires knowledge of assets, strengths and limitations of particular methods; and how each method aligns with the needs and characteristics of particular types of learners. It also involves accepting that some methods for children and youth with disabilities are superior to others relative to achieving empirically and scientifically validated outcomes. Finally, this mindset involves recognizing that the educational landscape is awash with unproven and commercially-motivated methods that have limited capacity to bring about socially valid gains. The ability to make unbiased and rational judgment about methodologies and a willingness to make decisions on the basis of student’s interests rather than ideology, personal preference and convenience is an essential step required of educators who aspire to be effective-method practitioners.

Identifying methods that have effective-practice potential is not a Herculean task, however it is not easy. Use of three guiding questions can be helpful in judging methods: (a) what proof supports purportedly effective interventions and methods? (b) How will a selected intervention or method be evaluated? And (c) to what extent does an intervention or method fit an individual learner’s unique needs? The first question focuses attention on the scientific and objective evidence supporting a method, including the extent to which participants in research studies objectively benefited from a method; and the degree to which one’s own students or learners are similar to the research participants. This first-question process requires the ability to discriminate between scientifically valid research methods and products and methods lacking these characteristics. This translates as the ability and willingness of educators to interpret professional documents, peer-reviewed scientific journals, and related reports. This prerequisite skill has clear teacher education implications: Professional educators who aspire to consistently and independently use evidence-based methods with their students need to be taught to discriminate between objective and scientific research reports and the pseudoscience often found in non-peer-reviewed materials (e.g., anecdotally-based web reports, marketing and promotional brochures) and methods whose only support is personal testimony.

The second guiding question linked to prudently identifying evidence-based methods requires educators and other stakeholders to evaluate (or plan for evaluations) of methodologies and interventions adopted for use (or considered for adoption) with individual students. This includes such issues as: (a) what target behaviors will be measured as evidence of progress (e.g., classroom management problem behaviors such as out-of-seat without teacher permission, classroom attention to task, academic subject progress)? (b) Who will conduct the agreed upon evaluations and how often will the methods be evaluated? (c) What benchmarks or criteria will be used to determine if a method is successful and utilitarian and whether it should be continued or modified? This guiding question recognizes the importance of evaluating methods and interventions with particular students. Independent of the professed and reported benefits of a particular method and its supporting credentials, this guiding question reminds stakeholders that they must objectively assess individual students’ responses to particular strategies. That is, the suitability and utility of even the most scientifically valid method must ultimately be based on the outcomes it produces with individual learners.

The third guiding question focuses on the qualitative merits and shortcomings of methods and interventions under consideration. It prompts stakeholders to carefully consider which methods and supports have the greatest potential to positively affect individual learners, especially relative to contextual considerations, setting variables and similar factors. This theme relates to the perceived match of various methods and interventions with the needs, values, life styles and other social validity considerations of individual students and families. Consideration of these variables assists educators and stakeholders understand that, independent of the reported research that supports particular methods, qualitative factors (e.g., how a student’s predilections, personality, idiosyncratic features, and family circumstances might affect or interact with use of a particular intervention or method) need to be given serious consideration. The guiding features of question 3 clearly relate to matters of social validity. Educators and other stakeholders are asked to consider potential factors linked to use of particular methods that often fall outside the boundaries of traditional efficacy research. Because on their differing responsibilities, roles, experiences, attitudes, individual circumstances, and so forth, educators, related service professionals, parents and other stakeholders associated with children and youth with disabilities will almost surely have different ideas and perspectives about which methods hold the most promise. Related to these differences, discussions linked to social validity matters provide methodology-discussant participants an opportunity to focus on topics such as quality-of-life factors, perceived practical benefits of particular methods, and students’ preferences and characteristics related to adopting certain approaches. These discussions are not intended to replace other considerations related to judging methodology options, especially those conferences that primarily focus on empirical scientific themes. Rather, these discussions are intended to broaden the evaluation standards by including informal and qualitative considerations as a part of the deliberation process. This guiding question also allows stakeholders to consider negative side effects (e.g., a particular strategy might draw excessive attention to an adolescent who is extremely shy); challenging circumstances (e.g., a particular approach requires extensive one-on-one instructional time, and stakeholders agree a particular student has performed poorly in the past when removed from ongoing classroom activities); or conditions associated with using a method, such as financial and quality of life risks for a student or family.

References

Bateman, B.D., (1994). Who, how and where: Special education’s issues in perpetuity. Journal of Special Education, 27, 509-520.

Cook, B. G., Tankersley, M., & Landrum. T. J. (2009). Determining evidence-based practices in special education. Exceptional Children, 75, 365-383.

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Richard L. Simpson is Professor of Special Education at the University of Kansas where he has directed numerous University of Kansas and University of Kansas Medical Center demonstration programs for students with autism spectrum disorders and other disabilities and coordinated a variety of federal grant programs related to students with autism spectrum disorders and other disabilities.. He has also worked as a special education teacher, school psychologist and coordinator of a community mental health outreach program.  He has authored numerous books, articles and tests on a variety of topics connected to students with disabilities. Simpson is the former senior editor of the professional journal Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities.  Awards include the Council for Exceptional Children Research Award, Midwest Symposium for Leadership in Behavior Disorders Leadership Award, Autism Society of Kansas Leadership Award, and numerous University of Kansas awards and distinguished roles, including the Gene A. Budig Endowed Teaching Professorship of Special Education and Ingram’s Icons of Education Award.

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