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Article of Interest - Evidence Based Practice

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Evidence-Based Practice—Wanted, Needed, and Hard to Get
Council for Exceptional Children

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While the law requires teachers to use evidence-based practices in their classrooms, the field has not yet determined criteria for evidence based practice nor whether special education has a solid foundation of evidence-based practices. Also, those teaching strategies that have been researched are difficult for teachers to access.

On the topic of evidence-based practice, there is one point of agreement: The law says teachers must use evidence-based teaching practices (EBPs) to ensure their students receive the highest quality instruction. From there the discussion splinters into a myriad of issues, ranging from how much evidence is needed to give a practice credibility to acceptable research methods to the lack—or abundance--of research on students with special needs. Then there are the questions concerning EBPs in the classroom: how do teachers access EBPs, do teachers use the methods correctly, and how can teachers meld EBPs and the craft of teaching.

While these issues may not be resolved they are important, because EBP and high quality teaching go hand-in hand. Teaching techniques that have been proven to be effective can help students make more progress in shorter amounts of time. When these practices are added to teachers’ professional skills and knowledge of their students, you have a winning combination when it comes to teaching and learning.

While this seems pretty straightforward, the difficulty lies in making the concept a reality. Special education, and education in general, is struggling to define and standardize EBPs. The next hurdle to be overcome is getting EBPs to the teachers. And finally, teachers need to have the time, tools, and resources to implement the practices.

Evidence-Based Practice—Where We Are

The Research

The very concept of EBP raises a host of unresolved questions. The foremost is what type of information counts as evidence for good practice. The Department of Education’s Institute for Education Sciences has stated that the randomized control trial (RCT) is critical to establishing evidence of an instructional technique’s effectiveness. These are studies that measure the effectiveness of a strategy by randomly assigning students to a control or intervention group.

While special education researchers agree that RCT is a valid and important measure, many say it is only one method that should be considered for students with disabilities. Because of the complexity of disability population, other types of research can offer valuable information about the effectiveness of a teaching strategy.

“In special education, many issues are complex: the type of disability, the setting the student is in, the content we teach, the available supports,” says Rachelle Bruno, professor at Northern Kentucky University and chairperson of CEC’s Evidence-Based Practice Workgroup. “Large scale studies don’t take that into account.”

Therefore, special educators say we need to also consider other types of research. Experimental or single or group design research, in particular, can yield valuable information on the effectiveness of a teaching strategy. In single or group design research, an individual or set of individuals participate in a study that measures their performance before and after a strategy is implemented. Other research methods, though they may not have as direct a relationship, can still yield important information on effective instructional strategies for students with disabilities. These include research methods such as correlational research, which shows an association between two factors, such as class attendance and grades, and qualitative research, which describes a phenomena and involves techniques such as observation, oral histories, interviews, and content analysis.

A second issue involves the lack of standards for EBPs. While one researcher may decide a teaching strategy has enough evidence to give it high marks, another researcher, using different criteria, may give the research a lower rating.

Some also question whether enough research has been done on students with disabilities. One concern is that much educational research, particularly large-scale studies, has not included students with special needs. However, others say special education is ahead of the game. Because special education has conducted 20-30 years of research, we have a solid, empirically supported series of practices in assessment and instruction that special education teachers can rely on, according to Doug Fuchs, professor at Vanderbilt University and CEC’s 2004 Outstanding Research Award Recipient.

“Special education researchers, in partnership with practitioners, have been involved in developing evidence-based practice long before No Child Left Behind,” says Fuchs. “As a result, there is a considerably strong and impressive literature base on instructional practices and behavior support for students with disabilities.”

Evidence-Based Practice in the Classroom

Even with the above issues resolved, some roadblocks still deter teachers from using EBP. EBP is not easily accessible to many teachers, particularly after they have completed their formal preparation program. Current sources for EBPs include a few books; professional development events such as CEC’s convention and division and state/provincial conferences; educational journals such as TEC, EC, and CEC’s division journals; and a small number of Web sites.

But having the information available is only part of the solution. It needs to be in a format teachers can grasp quickly and easily, and that is rare. Teachers say they need information that tells what the practice is, the students for whom it is effective, how to implement the practice, and how the practice is rated (good, okay, don’t go there). (The Practice Alerts produced by CEC’s Division for Research and Division for Learning Disabilities and the practices on CEC’s Web site best meet these criteria).

“The field is at a point where it is elaborating and identifying practices that have evidence of being effective,” says Sam Odom, Otting Professor of Special Education at Indiana University. “There may be a lag between needing to use it (the research) now and the research being accumulated and available.”

Another issue that arises with EBP is that of fidelity, or whether teachers correctly implement the strategy. Some fear that EBPs aren’t effective if teachers don’t use the procedures as they are designed. That can be difficult for teachers to do if their only contact with a strategy is by reading. Though training, which can be problematic for teachers to attend, gives teachers more insight into a strategy, some teachers say even that isn’t enough. For teachers to use EBPs with fidelity, they need to have the support of an expert in the strategy as they implement it in their classes, says Connie Miller, CEC’s 2006 Clarissa Hug Teacher of the Year.

“That is the way you get the strategy going in daily instruction and you have the materials to do so,” she explains. “You must make it real practical for teachers.”

A final issue is how teachers are to wed EBPs and the craft of teaching. There often comes a point when teachers modify the strategy for one or all of their students. While that may compromise the integrity of the strategy, many researchers do not find it surprising, especially in special education. After all, the basis of what we do in special education is to individualize according to students’ needs, says Odom. He recommends that teachers begin using a strategy exactly as it is proposed. As the teacher gains experience and collects information about the students’ performance, he or she may make modifications where needed.

What Teachers Say about Evidence-Based Practice

Special education teachers believe in EBP. They want it, look for it, and use it. In fact, special education teachers are always searching for new ways to help their students succeed. They look for conferences that present research-proven techniques. Or, they find a strategy that looks interesting, and then delve deeper to find the research on it.

“Every good teacher uses evidence-based practice,” says Jane Humphrey, CEC’s 2004 Clarissa Hug Teacher of the Year. “….You are preparing your students for something further on…. My job is to help my students get there, and evidence-based practice helps me get them there.”

Though teachers value EBPs, they differ in the amount of evidence they require before trying a particular technique. Some prefer to use strategies that have a large amount of research behind them, sometimes as much as 10 years’ worth. Even then, the teachers may not give the strategy a go. Instead, they will augment the written literature with other teachers’ recommendations and insights on a researched strategy’s effectiveness. This also allows teachers to prepare for any pitfalls or negative effects on particular students that may occur with a new teaching technique.

“I want to see evidence, because these are my babies,” says Carol Dinsdale, CEC’s 2005 Clarissa Hug Teacher of the Year. “I won’t try a strategy with them if I don’t see some evidence that it will work.… I won’t jump into a new strategy”

Others will try an intriguing technique that sounds promising even if it has little research evidence to back it up. They are unwilling to wait for several years for the research to be verified.

“Who are we to say that because a technique hasn’t been proven with a huge population that it isn’t successful?” says Miller, who implemented a video-teaching technique though it didn’t have a lot of evidence behind it with great success. “We can’t be closed-minded.”

Whether they require a lot or a little research, teachers use research-based strategies to improve their students’ success. When Miller wants to try a strategy that is new but shows promise, she gets permission from her students’ parents. She tells them she learned of this new strategy, that she’d like to try it, and how she will implement it. Dinsdale even informs her grades 2-3 students with behavior disorders that the strategies they are using are research-based. While she now has to contend with questions such as “Where did you find this information?” and “Is it based on research?” she says it gives her students more confidence in the strategy and they buy in to using it. Finally, the research often validates the work the teachers are already doing.

However, many special education teachers say they rarely stick to the letter of an EBP. Rather, once they learn the core principles of the research, they usually tweak the strategies to fit their students. For instance, the research for the video strategy Miller used was based on teaching functional skills. She modified the strategies to teach her students to read.

As important as EBPs are to special education teachers, most said getting access to it is difficult. While many teachers read research journals, they find the articles difficult to translate into usable terms, especially given their limited time. Therefore some teachers rely on their state departments and districts, who have textbook adoption committees to ensure that materials and texts chosen for classroom use are evidence-based, according to Matty Rodriguez-Walling, CEC’s 1994 Clarissa Hug Teacher of the Year. Additionally, because of time and budget cuts, it is often difficult for teachers to attend professional development events, particularly if they pertain only to special education.

One way to enable teachers to access to EBPs is for schools and districts to support them. In her school, action research is part of teachers’ evaluations, says Dinsdale. That is, the teachers take an idea that was researched and use it in their classes for improved scores and behavior. Additionally, the school hosts a “Professional Sharing” once a month, at which faculty members present new, researched teaching strategies. They share whether the strategy worked in their class, if they modified it, and its results. The school also made a professional library for teachers to find books with researched instructional strategies.

Another effective method of giving teachers access to research is to involve them in it. Not only do the teachers learn the correct way to implement the strategy, they also get the supports, materials, and someone to talk to about the strategy.

“Give teachers the opportunity to participate in research, and news of the strategy will travel by word of mouth,” says Miller.

What CEC Is Doing on Evidence-Based Practice

CEC is taking a leading role in defining and presenting EBP for the field. CEC’s Professional Standards & Practice Committee has developed a comprehensive proposal for EBP. The proposal will select appropriate criteria to identify EBPs and develop a process by which CEC would identify EBPs.

Additionally, CEC’s Division for Research has made recommendations to the Institute for Educational Sciences. CEC-DR said IES should promote research for children ages birth – 21, not just school-age children; research should include social and transition skills; and IES should coordinate with the Office of Special Education Programs regarding the implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, among others.


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