This year U.S. News & World Report again ranked the Curry School’s special education program among the nation’s top programs, marking an extraordinary 11-year run at eighth place or higher.
The program’s current fifth-place ranking among nearly 900 universities reflects a half century of innovation and influence in the field, combined with a current faculty that continues to produce both relevant scholarship and highly sought-after special education teachers.
Attention Special Ed Program Alumni: Please take the brief survey at the end of this article and contribute to our understanding of the current landscape in K-12 special education.
The Center of the Special Education World
“Curry has been a center of the special education world for decades,” says Michael Kennedy, an assistant professor of special education who joined the faculty in 2011. “Kauffman, Hallahan, Lloyd and others are household names in this field,” he adds. “It’s very reassuring to a young scholar that there will be someone there to be a mentor to learn from, and these professors literally created our field.”
Kauffman, Hallahan, Lloyd and others are household names in this field
Curry’s preeminence in the field took root in the 1960s. Special education offerings began to grow along with federally mandated improvements in education for handicapped children. Professors like Chuck Heuchert, James Beaber, John Mesinger, Eleanore Westhead, Don Walker, Clayton (Denny) Lewis, Doug Howard, and William Carriker pioneered programs in that decade for the education of children with special needs.
“Before the late 60s and early 70s, children labeled as having mental retardation (today known as intellectual disability) and emotional disturbance were institutionalized and hidden from public view,” explains Professor Sandi Cohen, who joined the special education faculty in 1975. As this population became visible again, the federal government began investing money in research, which helped spur the growth in Curry’s special education faculty, she says.
The late 60s marked the beginning of nearly a decade when the Curry School enjoyed an influx of young, highly energetic special education faculty who maintained a focus on both teacher education and research, remembers Dan Hallahan, Charles S. Robb Professor of Education. He arrived in 1971, joining other junior faculty, such as Jim Kauffman, Gerry Wallace, and Jim Payne. The mid-70s saw the addition of Sandi Cohen, Marti Snell, John Lloyd, Carolyn Callahan, and Rebecca Kneedler, among others. At its largest the special education faculty swelled to 17.
“There was a convergence of people who played a role in Curry’s rise to prominence,” Cohen says. Some came and went on to other places. Others have stayed their entire careers.
“These people were known not only for their scholarship, but they wrote grants and played roles at the national level with their associations as founders and presidents,” Cohen adds. They also mentored doctoral students who would also become leaders in the field. Cohen, of course, provided exceptional leadership for the school’s teacher education program from 1996-2012.
Perhaps the most significant boost to the school’s reputation was Exceptional Learners: An Introduction to Special Education authored by Hallahan and Kauffman in 1977. Now in its 12th edition (with the addition of Paige Pullen as a coauthor), it has long been one of the most widely read textbooks in the field of special education.
The Next Generation
Over the past decade, the Curry School has hired faculty members in special education—all considered rising stars—to fill niches in expertise.
Paige Pullen joined the faculty in 2001. After teaching elementary students for 12 years, she earned her Ph.D. at the University of Florida under Cecil D. Mercer, one of many eminent scholars produced by the Curry School. [In 2011 Mercer was honored as Outstanding Alumni Higher Education Faculty by the Curry School Foundation.] Pullen is the editor of the journal Exceptionality and focuses her research on early literacy development and the prevention and remediation of reading disabilities.
She has worked for several years on a research initiative to intensify vocabulary interventions for students at risk for reading disability, which was funded by a grant from the Institute for Education Sciences. In 2010 her findings constituted the major portion of a special issue of the journal Learning Disabilities Research and Practice. This spring Pullen has begun collaborating with two U.Va. pediatricians on a project to help children with learning disabilities in Zambia using a telemedicine link. She wants to work more with the medical community to identify the physiological causes of learning disabilities while also working on strategies to address preventable reading disabilities in early childhood. Read more about Paige Pullen.
Tina Stanton-Chapman came to the Curry School in 2004 after earning a Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University. She evaluates the social behavior of preschoolers (including those with autism) in classroom settings. She also develops and researches interventions to increase social interactions, peer acceptance, and improved social behavior in children enrolled in Head Start settings—children who are often at risk for disabilities. Stanton-Chapman is continuing her research on preschoolers’ social competence, which was funded by a grant from the Institute of Education Sciences in 2008. This work has led to several publications in prominent early childhood special education journals, including Topics in Early Childhood Special Education and Early Childhood Research Quarterly.
She is currently authoring a book for preschool teachers on ways to encourage children’s peer interactions. This book is the result of a special request made by preschool teachers who wanted a how-to manual that expanded her published article in a teacher-practice journal. Stanton-Chapman also serves as an associate editor for the journals Journal of Early Intervention, Remedial and Exceptional Education, and Young Exceptional Children.
Michael Kennedy came to the Curry School in 2011 after completing his doctoral work at the University of Kansas in its Department of Special Education and Center for Research on Learning. He has previously worked as a special education and social studies teacher in a large high school in Delaware, where he taught students with high incidence disabilities in both co-teaching and self-contained classrooms. Not surprisingly, his expertise now centers on secondary students with learning disabilities, where content learning is more of a focus. He explores the use of multimedia that teachers can easily use to meet students’ individual needs.
He has been creating what he calls “content acquisition podcasts” or CAPs, which are brief, low-tech, multimedia vignettes using evidence-based instructional strategies for students with learning disabilities.
“Some technology can be counterproductive for learning, especially for students with learning disabilities,” he notes. “There’s not enough data about technology and kids with learning disabilities, but it’s clear that too much multimedia can distract students from the content they should be learning.” See Kennedy’s CAP on Photosynthesis for students.
He has also created CAPs for students in our teacher education program. His research shows that after viewing the CAPs, the teacher education students come to class with adequate understandings of the issues, which frees up class time to do case studies and hands-on activities. View all of Kennedy’s CAPS
In May Kennedy received notification that his early career grant proposal was accepted by the Institute for Education Sciences. The grant will fund research on improving vocabulary instruction for middle school science and special education teachers supporting students with disabilities. Read more about Michael Kennedy.
Read about the current activities of our senior faculty members in special education:
Preparing Excellent Special Education Teachers
All Curry School teacher education students benefit from the expertise of our special education faculty in the form of a required course, Introduction to the Exceptional Child. They are encouraged to take additional coursework related to special education, and many students do, says Sandra Cohen.
The preparation in special education can make everyone a better teacher
Students who choose to earn an endorsement in special education take most of the same classes other teacher education students take and an additional 13 credits. They can specialize in learning disabilities, emotional and behavioral disorders, intellectual disabilities, or early childhood special education.
“The preparation in special education can make everyone a better teacher,” Cohen says. “They can answer the question, ‘What happens when [traditional instruction] doesn’t work?’” Because of the heavier concentration of learning they experience, they come out even more confident than the typical Curry teacher education student.
They are also very flexible teachers from a principal’s perspective, Cohen says. About half of the graduates of our special education programs choose special education placements and the others choose general education classrooms, she says.
“Either way, these teacher have lots of mobility and are very marketable. They have no trouble getting hired.”
Facing an Ever-Evolving Field
The field of special education has continued to evolve since its first spurt of rapid growth half a century ago. The ways students are identified as having special needs has changed, as well as how they are educated and how their progress is assessed, Dan Hallahan says. One example is the full inclusion movement, which has burgeoned over the last 20 years.
The onus is on us to understand what schools are doing
As a result, many schools are becoming one size fits all with special education students receiving only supplemental support from special education teachers. Opportunities for dedicated instruction in separate settings is steadily decreasing.
Ultimately, special education means a lot of different things, Michael Kennedy says. “Inadvertently, the laws are interpreted many different ways, and schools must interpret the requirements to fit their local needs while balancing limited resources.”
Our teacher education students often find a different setting when they get to a job than they experienced in their field placements, even though they are placed in multiple settings throughout their program. “The onus is on us to understand what schools are doing,” Kennedy adds.
This challenge is only one of many a top-ranked special education program faces in today’s education environment. Yet, the Curry School remains committed to high-quality education for every child through innovative research and development that informs both our teacher preparation programs and the broader education profession.