Special Education Understandings

Research in the area of special education understandings appears to have its roots in explorations of attitudes centering on the theme of mainstreaming. This consideration will begin with some framing information and then will segue into a review of research efforts that were aimed at attempting to explore the topic of special education understandings.

In an effort to frame this consideration, it is necessary to mention the paradigmatic shifts in teacher education research and the shift in the special education landscape itself. With regard to teacher education research, there has been a shift from a focus on teacher behaviors associated with student learning to research of teacher cognition, reflection and beliefs (Richardson, 1996). "More recent research on teacher beliefs reflects a shift toward qualitative methodology and the attempt to understand how teachers make sense of the classroom" (Richardson, 1996, p. 107).

The emphasis on quantitative methodology is evident in the area of research on teacher attitudes about special education related topics, where survey based methods appear to have been a mainstay of research undertakings in past decades (Moore & Fine, 1978; Yuker & Block, 1986). Previous research efforts, which tended to rely on surveys comprised of Likert-type scales (Berryman & Berryman, 1981; Leyser et al., 1982; Moore & Fine; Yuker & Block, 1986), appear to have been aimed at investigating mainstreaming and related special education issues.

In addition to a shift in research paradigms, there have also been shifts in the educational landscape relative to special education. There has been a shift from mainstreaming, a term associated with the 1980s, to inclusion which reflects modern day inclusionary practices (Schattman & Benay, 1992). There has also been a change in the phrases used to describe students who receive special education and related services. In the 1970s and early 1980s, phrases such as 'handicapped children' were typically used. In modern day, it has been replaced with phrases such as 'students who have special needs'. The revised phrasing is in keeping with the American Psychological Association's (1994; 2001) general rule of thumb, which is person first, disability second. The terminology used in past research efforts is reflective of the shifts seen in any consideration of the special education literature. That is, research efforts in the arena of teacher attitudes conducted in the late 1970s and early 1980s appear to have focused on investigating the mainstreaming of handicapped children (Alexander & Strain, 1978; Leyser & Abrams, 1983; Moore & Fine, 1978) as compared to more recent research efforts which are aimed at exploring inclusion and special education related issues of children who have special needs (Heppermann, 1994; Moisio, 1994; Monahan et al., 1997; Roa & Lim, 1999).

With regard to previous research, which took place during the late 1970s and into 1980s, rating scales appeared to be a dominant way of exploring teacher attitudes toward mainstreaming, disability in general and/or specific disability types or categories (Leyser & Abrams, 1983; Leyser et al., 1982; Moore & Fine, 1978; Yuker & Block, 1986). Among the myriad of surveys, the Attitudes Toward Disabled Persons (ATDP) Scale (Yuker, Block & Campbell, 1986), the inventory for measuring Attitudes Toward Mainstreaming Scale (ATMS) (Leyser et al., 1982), and the Leary checklist (Moore & Fine, 1978) appear to have been among the commonly used.

Quantitative measures have been used with samples of practicing teachers, prospective teachers and other education related professionals. There were many efforts that utilized the ATDP Scale as evidenced in Yuker and Block's (1986) review of research studies that made use of this particular instrument over a 25-year span (i.e., 1960 to 1985). There are three forms of the ATDP Scale, all of which have six response categories that are often associated with Likert-type scales. The ATDP scale was used in an effort to explore teacher education candidates' attitudes toward mainstreaming (Leyser & Abrams, 1983).

In addition to ATDP scale, the ATMS and the Leary checklist have also been employed in research efforts. The five-point scale known as the ATMS has been used to measure attitudes toward mainstreaming of prospective teachers (Leyser et al., 1982) and of practicing teachers (Berryman & Berryman, 1981). The Leary checklist has also been used as a data source to investigate practicing teachers' attitudes toward particular disability categories (Moore & Fine, 1978).

Teachers' support of mainstreaming has received mixed reports on both ends of the continuum. Berryman and Berryman (1981) reported that rural Georgia teachers who completed the ATMS were generally in favor of and supportive of mainstreaming. Yet, elsewhere it has been reported that teachers were not particularly supportive of mainstreaming (Alexander & Strain, 1978; Moore & Fine, 1978). In addition to mainstreaming, teachers have been reported to have differences of opinions when it came to mainstreaming students who had some types of disabilities as compared to other disabilities. Teachers were less supportive of mainstreaming students with mental retardation and those who had emotional disturbances (Moore & Fine, 1978; Williams & Algozzine, 1979; Hannah & Pliner, 1983). Teachers were reported to be more supportive of mainstreaming students with learning disabilities (Moore & Fine, 1978; Williams & Algozzine, 1979) or physical disabilities (Williams & Algozzine). To underscore a point raised earlier, these studies were conducted during a particular span of time, one that reflects the emphasis and preoccupation with mainstreaming. More recent research efforts have shifted toward a related avenue of inquiry; namely, from mainstreaming to inclusion and other special education related issues.

Inclusion has become ardently important to members of the regular/general education and special education communities (McLesky et al., 1999). The topic of inclusion, which is multifaceted and controversial (Stainback et al., 1992), has become a major social-political issue (Brinker, 1995). Inclusion has brought about spirited opinions in support and in opposition to it (Brinker; Thousand et al., 1997).

More recent research efforts have also employed the use of survey instruments in studies of prospective teachers (Rao & Lim, 1999) and practicing teachers' attitudes (Heppermann, 1994). In a fairly recent research effort involving practicing teachers, Heppermann used an instrument consisting of a four-point, forced choice scale. The instrument was administered to 86 regular education teachers in a large suburban high school. The respondents in the study were "...most agreeable to the inclusion of students with learning disabilities and physical impairments. They did not feel that students with severe disabilities should be included in regular class" (Heppermann, 1994, p. 33). The secondary teachers, according to Heppermann, also generally indicated that they did not feel that students with mental retardation, behavior disorders, or autism should be included in the general education classroom setting. Heppermann's findings appear to be congruent with that of earlier findings about disability category preferences (Moore & Fine, 1978; Williams & Algozzine, 1979).

In addition to attitudes concerning specific disabilities, teachers' views toward inclusion in general, have also been explored using rating scale methods. Rural teachers, administrators and counselors were surveyed using a five-point instrument in an attempt to investigate general attitudes toward inclusion (Monahan et al., 1997). Of the 342 teachers in South Carolina who completed the survey instrument, a majority (i.e., 59%) "...believed that students with special needs have a basic right to be taught in the general education classroom" (Monahan et al., 1997, p. 3). In addition to studies involving inservice teachers, survey based studies have been done relatively recently with those at the preservice level in and outside of the United States.

Rao and Lim (1999) used questionnaires comprised of six-point items in an attempt to "...examine the attitudes and beliefs of pre-service teachers of regular education toward the inclusion of children with disabilities in regular education classrooms" (p. 7). The majority of the participants (i.e., 69%), who were undergraduate pre-service teachers enrolled in a preparation program in Singapore, indicated that they would rather not teach children with disabilities.

In the United States, Moisio (1994) conducted a pilot investigation using a six point Likert-type survey with 44 undergraduate education majors who were either enrolled as regular education majors or as special education majors. The majority of the respondents in both groups either agreed or strongly agreed with the following attitude statement "students will benefit from inclusion" (Moisio, 1994, p. 8). Yet, a majority of them also indicated (via agree and strongly agree responses) that students with disabilities are best educated separately. As Moisio (1994) suggests, given the "somewhat mixed results" (p. 13), more in-depth research is necessary.

While past efforts have informed the research and knowledge base, there are potential inherent shortcomings associated with survey-based methodology. One possible weakness may be the forced choice nature of the scales. Participants may have been uncertain about a particular item (in part due to the phrasing of the item itself). The forced choice response may not enable them to articulate their uncertainty nor afford them with the opportunity to express their underlying thoughts relative to a given item response. The individual's reasons underlying or contributing to a given choice on a classic Likert-type survey instrument cannot be known in any rich way. Moreover, an individual is not able to give full voice or express his/her personal thoughts via a simple circled response to an item. Subsequently, research efforts which go beyond the historically relied upon survey methods for exploring teachers' special education attitudes is warranted and will invariably contribute to gaining richer insights into the special education understandings of prospective teachers. Furthermore, research efforts that are qualitatively oriented would be responsive to the calls and current trends in the area of teacher belief research (Richardson, 1996; Brookhart & Freeman, 1992). This avenue of research seems particularly timely and important given that prospective teachers enrolled in teacher preparation programs will likely have the responsibility of educating students with special needs at some point during their professional practice in the context of their general/regular education classrooms.


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