UO’s highly-ranked special education program sets example for other schools
The University of Oregon has the third best special education program in the country, according to U.S. News and World Report. Following 14 years of unsung fame, top universities are starting to sit up and take notice.
On April 13, a task force from Stanford University landed in Eugene to pick the brains of the engineers of UO’s program. Stanford doesn’t currently have a special education program. UO was high on their list of universities to visit while they attempt to build one.
“As we talked to other peer institutions, the name has come up over and over again,” Olivia Crawford, director of special projects and strategic initiatives at the Stanford graduate school of education said. “That this is a place where exciting research is happening, where great training is occurring.”
Wendy Machalicek, associate professor and graduate program director at UO, says research and education have set UO apart.
“Historically the program has been built on faculty doing research,” Machalicek said. Those faculty doing cutting-edge research are also the ones teaching classes.
UO offers a range of programs for budding special education teachers. Graduate students can choose between two different licensing programs and a highly rated Ph.D. program. For undergraduates, the school of education offers major and minor degrees, along with a 4+1 program which awards a bachelor’s degree and a teaching certificate.
Professors at UO are perfecting programs that are being used nationwide. Positive behavior and interventions support (PBIS) research has touched over 23,000 students nationwide. PBIS research focuses on equity and diversity in classrooms while addressing challenging behavior.
UO’s center for teaching and learning is changing the way math and reading are taught, while new bilingual faculty are improving language learning for children with special needs.
The size of UO’s special education faculty impressed Stanford. Not how large, but how small it is. One of the first questions asked was how UO has managed to build its program with such a small faculty.
Research has been productive because professors have the option to “buy out” of courses Machalicek said. This buying out means professors use grant money to reduce their teaching load so they can do research instead. Non-tenured faculty members are then brought in to pick up the slack. Those non-tenure track faculty have a historic and “integral” role in the success of UO’s special education program, Machalicek said.
While faculty work continues to pull UO up national rankings, students in the programs are developing crucial professional skills themselves.
Program Liaison Lisa Hellamn explained how graduate students move around throughout their program beginning in elementary schools and finishing with ages of their choice.
During their first term, students teach but don’t design their own curriculum. As they enter their second term, students begin designing and delivering their own curriculum to middle and high school students. By the end of the program, students decide where they want to teach––allowing them to focus on the field they plan to enter when they graduate.
This tiered approach exposes aspiring teachers to different levels of supervision and students. Because UO’s students move around so much, the school builds relationships with different schools , tailoring programs to meet student and school demands.
The quality of students coming into and exiting UO’s program make them highly valuable during the current teacher shortage, Machalicek said. Even before they graduate, schools approach students, trying to hire them.
Despite its success, special education is worried about its future. The budget shortfall and its impact on the department is still unclear. Final cuts have not been made, but Machalicek says that losing non-tenure track faculty will make life harder.
“If we lose NTTF we will be hard pressed. It will be a learning curve for us,” Machalicek said. “Those of us who have been doing heavy loads of research might have to take on more. That leads to a shift in priorities and that’s a fear.”
Machalicek believes that any cuts are going to be in line with the mission of the university, but she hopes the program will receive the attention it deserves.
“We’re a gym at UO. We bring in a lot of federal funds and we train high quality teachers that are sought after in the state,” she said. “We are where everybody else wants to be. If the UO wants to continue to be known for that, it needs to be prioritized. There needs to be a commitment our programs.”
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