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What does the research say?

Kurth, J. A. & Jackson, L. (2022). Introduction to the Special Issue on the Impact of Placement on Outcomes for Students with Complex Support Needs. Research and Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities 47 (4), 187-190. (Peer-reviewed journal article)


Led by Prof. Jenny Kurth at the University of Kansas and Prof Lewis Jackson at the University of Northern Colorado, a team of researchers from Universities of Utah, Wyoming, and New Mexico started a three year research project in 2018. Funded by the Institute of Education Sciences (U.S. Department of Education) the researchers put together a sample of elementary students with complex support needs who had an IEP eligibility of autism, intellectual disability, or multiple disabilities, and were designated by their IEP teams to take their state’s alternate assessment for the most significant cognitive impairment.

The study grouped them by placement in four categories based on the percentage of their day spent in general education settings (LRE data) and the proportion of students with extensive support needs (ie. more or less than 1% of the student population). Their plan was to find out whether placement influences academic, social/communication, and behavioral outcomes. Further they wanted to know what other factors affect the relationship between placement and outcomes for elementary-age students with complex support needs.

The pandemic got in the way of this huge study across five states, of course. But they were still able to publish four peer reviewed articles based on the data set it produced.

The research teams found important differences favoring inclusive settings (placement in general education classrooms with a natural proportion of students with ESN). These four papers present an empirical case for the inclusion of students with complex support needs. “Critically, no findings in any of the studies identified a superior outcome in the most restrictive settings” i.e. placement in separate classrooms for more that 60% of the day or in separate schools.

Louis Jackson's team looked at whether placement differences were attached to various factors that could affect learning and learner outcomes, such as teacher preparation, school budgets, access to general education and core content curriulum materials, and supports such as para-professionals and peer support.

Teachers: They found that teachers in different placement settings had different credentials as might be expected. Teachers in inclusive settings had general education and cross-categorical special credentials more frequently than teachers in restricted settings. Special education teachers in separate classrooms had severe/low-incidence credentials more frequently than teachers in the other placements. Special education teachers in separate schools tended to hold mild or high-incidence credentials more frequently in comparison to teachers in all other placements. Crucially across all schools (i.e., general education campus, special, charter), the majority of respondents (92.6%) said that opportunities for professional development related to students with disabilities were rarely or never provided.

Jackson also found differences in school budgets - empirical proof that inclusive education is LESS expensive. They found that districts’ annual budgets and per special education student expenditure increased incrementally as districts offered more restrictive placements.

Access to general education academic classes was also dependent on placement. Students in separate schools had no access to general education classes. Students in the partially included or separate classroom settings mostly had access to non academic classes. Students who were fully included on average were 95.4% in general education.

Access -Students in inclusive settings had more access to the general education curriculum than those in restricted settings. Adapted general education curriculum—state, district, or school designed curricular materials for students with disabilities based on the age/grade-level general education standards— were also widely used for students in inclusive settings. No students in separate classrooms received curriculum and instruction based on the general education curriculum. Students in restrictive settings received curriculum and instruction primarily based on activities that the classroom teacher perceived as “meaningful and engaging.”

Curriulum - Use of pre-packaged commercially developed literacy and math curricula marketed as being designed for students with complex support needs (e.g., Unique Learning System, Equals AbleNet Math) were used to some degree in all placements but incrementally increased as placements became more restrictive. More than half of the students included for 40-79% of the day used commercially developed curricula as their primary curriculum source. Students in separate classrooms more than 60% of their day were most likely to use commercially developed curricula to supplement special or general education curriculum. Overall, students in separate schools were most likely to be provided with commercially developed curricula and were least likely to have access to the general education standards compared to students in all other placement settings.

Supports: Paraprofessionals were used across all placement settings. One-to-one paraprofessional support was especially prominent as placements became more inclusive and was the most utilized general education classroom personnel support for students. Peer supports were rarely used in any placements, including general and special education classrooms, but were used more with fully included students.

“Our data revealed that as placements became more restrictive, evidence-based practices and supports that enhance and facilitate access and progress in the general education curriculum at age/grade level were either absent or underemployed. For example, students had less access to the general education curriculum, less interaction with and support from peers without disabilities during instruction, less time receiving academic instruction, less use of age/grade-level curricula and materials, less support from general educators, and less instruction from co-teachers. Given the federal mandate to promote access to general education curriculum for all students, this finding is worrisome, in that students with complex support needs remain largely in segregated settings.” (Jackson, 2022)

Zagona and her team watched how things were going in elementary school classrooms where students in the study were placed. They looked at what the students were engaged in, teacher behavior, and how the overall classroom environment was in different situations. They looked for differences based on placement, age, and grade as well as IEP eligibility.

“We observed 116 students with complex support needs across the United States, and results indicated that contextual features of resource, self-contained, and separate school classrooms do not offer superior levels of instruction or supports for students with complex support needs as compared with general education classrooms. We were more likely to observe no one interacting with the focus student, no instruction, and the presence of distractions in self-contained and separate school classrooms compared with general education classrooms.” (Zagona, 2022)

Jameson’s team looked at social interactions, analyzing the number and importance of friends across placement types. They found that students in inclusive placements had almost 50% more social contacts than students in a segregated school.

Kurth’s team took a deep dive into the student’s IEPs looking for differences in IEP quality across educational placements. They studied levels of performance, goals, and supplementary aids and services sections of IEPs to assess differences in quality of each component and the overall IEP as a whole. Interestingly Kurth’s team did not find what they were looking for ie. statistically significant differences in IEP quality by placement but instead found that the IEPs consistently failed to meet quality indicators across all four placement types.

Together, the four peer reviewed journal articles present a detailed account of the impact of placement on varied student outcomes:

Jackson, L., Agran, M., Lansey, K.R., Baker, D., Matthews, S., Fitzpatrick, H., Jameson, M., Ryndak, D., Burnette, K. & Taub, D. (2022). Examination of Contextual Variables Across and Within Different Types of Placement for Elementary Students With Complex Support Needs. Research and Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities, 47 (4),191-208. https://doi.org/10.1177/15407969221132 (Peer-reviewed journal article

Jameson J. M., Hicks, T., Lansey, K., Kurth, J. A., Jackson, L., Zagona, A. L., Burnette, K., Agran, M. Shogren, K., & Pace, J. (2022). Predicting the Frequency and Significance of Social Contacts Across Placements: A Bayesian Multilevel Model Analysis. Research and Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities, 47 (4), 229-243. https://doi.org/10.1177/15407969221136538

Kurth, J.A., Lockman Turner, E. Gerasimova, D., Hicks, T.A, Zagona, A., Lansey, K. Mansouri, M. C., Lyon, K. J. Jameson, M., Loyless, R., and Pace, J. R. (2022). An Investigation of IEP Quality Associated with Special Education Placement for Students With Complex Support Needs. Research and Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities, 47 (4), 244-260. https://doi.org/10.1177/1540796922113492

Zagona, A. L., Kurth, J. A., Lockman Turner, E., Pace, J., Shogren, K., Lansey, K., Jameson, M., Burnette, K., Mansouri, M., Hicks, T., & Gerasimova, D. (2022). Ecobehavioral Analysis of the Experiences of Students With Complex Support Needs in Different Classroom Types. Research and Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities, 47(4), 209–228.https://doi.org/10.1177/15407969221126496

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