Still on Top: Curry's Special Ed Program

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.

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.

Michael Kennedy

Michael KennedyMichael 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:

Dan Hallahan

Carolyn Callahan

Sandra Cohen

Rebecca Kneedler

John Lloyd

Stanley Trent

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.