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Issues Affecting Research Capacity in Blindness and Low Vision

Issues Affecting Research Capacity in Blindness and Low Vision

This paper was prepared for a meeting with Edward J. Kame'enui, Ph.D., Commissioner, National Center for Special Education Research, Institute for Education Sciences and Louis C. Danielson, Ph.D., Director, Research To Practice Division, Office of Special Education Programs, U.S. Department of Education

December 6, 2006

The American Foundation for the Blind appreciates the opportunity to discuss some of the issues affecting the nation's capacity to conduct educational research in blindness and low vision. We believe, as did the National Plan for Training Personnel To Serve Children with Blindness and Low Vision (Mason, Davidson, & McNerney, 2000) that research issues are integrally related to the personnel shortage, both in terms of having the leadership personnel to train adequate numbers of special educators and in terms of producing the quantity and quality of research that allows faculty to identify and teach best practice.

In a study of leadership personnel in special education, Smith, Pion, Tyler, Sindelar, & Rosenberg (2001) identified a number of issues affecting the preparation of leadership personnel, including diminished capacity, funding, declining enrollments, critical mass of students and faculty, financial assistance to students, working conditions, salaries, and mentoring. While these same factors are shared by the field of visual impairment, they are perhaps more acute in low-incidence fields already plagued by persistent teacher shortages and little evidence to support its practice. Rather than repeat issues already in the public discourse, we have focused in this brief on the literature in visual impairment that addresses the research needs of the field.

What We Know

The National Plan for Training Personnel To Serve Children with Blindness and Low Vision (NPTP) (Mason et al., 2000) was the culmination of an investigation spearheaded by the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) in response to concerns raised by the field regarding the shortage of personnel and the diminishing number of programs preparing teachers of students with visual impairments/deaf-blindness and orientation and mobility instructors. NPTP was led by professional organizations in blindness, including the Council for Exceptional Children, and involved stakeholders from multiple constituencies. NPTP recognized the connection between leadership development, personnel preparation, and research by stating:

At the same time the numbers of leaders is [sic] declining, the research capacity of the field of blindness and low vision is diminishing. With fewer faculty in positions, the demands to teach are high, and time for research and related grant preparation is reduced. This situation results in a lack of consistent, reliable data related to the number of students and direct service personnel in the field of blindness and low vision coupled with less research related to effective practices and outcomes for students. . . . Clearly, personnel preparation for this field will be strengthened by research that assesses educational results for children with blindness or low vision . . . . The complexity of factors that affect educational outcomes-ranging from variations in the children's visual and other disabilities, in their age and other characteristics, to variations in their educational settings and geographic and socio-economic status-requires systematic, long-range, cumulative, and outcomes-based research. (pp. 41-42)

To address these issues, NPTP recommended the creation of a Research to Practice Institute in Blindness and Low Vision that would design, conduct, and disseminate empirical studies of service delivery patterns, student outcomes, and specialized methodologies.

Faculty Load. In developing its recommendations, NPTP relied in part on a 1998 survey conducted with stakeholders from a geographically stratified random sample of 17 states that found that the average professor in visual impairment spent 62% of his or her time on teacher training, 25% on administration, and only 12% on research (Kirchner & Diament, 1999). At universities with a three-course teaching load, scholarly activity would typically consume 20% of faculty time; with a two-course teaching load, the proportion of time devoted to scholarly activity would be considerably more. NPTP attributed this diminished research activity to the demands on faculty-particularly in one-person programs-to teach, coordinate, recruit, and supervise in an environment constrained by the economics of higher education. Personnel preparation programs in visual impairment at public institutions seldom generate enough tuition to cover the costs of instruction (Ahearn, 1997), and faculty often struggle to make their programs economically viable.

Similarly, in a survey of external funding for university programs in blindness and visual impairment, Corn and Ferrell (2000) found that 58.6% of university programs receiving funding in 1997-98 applied for 33 additional grants in the same year, thus suggesting that a large proportion of faculty are devoting significant amounts of time to writing grant proposals at the same time as they are administering existing grants. They concluded:

Faculty in a program with few resources carry heavier teaching loads and have little time to conduct research. Faculty in programs that are dependent on external funding have shifted their scholarly activities to grant writing and fundraising. . . . It is a Catch-22 situation, in which faculty devote scholarly activities to obtaining funds to keep the programs functioning, yet face losing their positions because their scholarship does not meet traditional standards. (p. 383)

Faculty Tenure. Tenure and promotion policies generally require faculty to engage in research and other scholarly activities. Research in blindness and low vision, however, has documented that the proportion of full-time faculty in nontenure-track positions has increased over the years, from 13.2% (Silberman, Corn, & Sowell, 1989), to 22% (Corn & Silberman, 1999), to 36.5% (Silberman, Ambrose-Zaken, Corn, & Trief, 2004). Increased numbers of faculty in nontenure-track positions means that fewer full-time faculty are expected to engage in research and scholarship.

Research Capacity of Doctoral Programs. NPTP also recommended the creation of "innovative and collaborative leadership development opportunities." In response to an unsolicited proposal, OSEP funded in 2003 the National Center for Leadership in Visual Impairment (NCLVI), a consortium of 14 universities that work together to provide enhanced doctoral training to 21 Fellows currently enrolled in special education doctoral programs across the United States. Corn and Spungin (2002) pointed out that "only nine of the 15 programs that responded had one or more doctoral students" (p. 739). The National Center on Low-Incidence Disabilities (NCLID) has collected data on enrollments and graduates annually since 1995-96. The data document that until NCLVI, (a) the mean number of doctoral students in visual impairment enrolled at universities was 1.2; (b) only four doctoral graduates in visual impairment have been produced annually; and (c) .only five universities (Arizona, Northern Colorado, Teachers College, Texas Tech, and Vanderbilt) have consistently reported doctoral student enrollments over this time period (NCLID Research Clearinghouse, 2006).

In an effort to examine current research capacity of doctoral programs, Table 1 lists the 18 universities that indicated to Silberman et al. (2004) that they had doctoral programs in special education with an emphasis in visual impairment (universities are listed alphabetically). All but two of the universities are public institutions. The majority of institutions are classified by the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education (2006) as comprehensive doctoral granting institutions. Fifteen of the institutions participate in the NCLVI consortium, although only 10 actually enroll NCLVI Fellows. Only three of the institutions (Vanderbilt, Teachers College, and Ohio State) are among the top-ranked universities in special education (US News, 2006). Four institutions are designated as IES Pre- and Post doctoral Interdisciplinary Training Programs, suggesting that the programs might have excellent resources in educational research.

Clearly, some universities, by virtue of their faculty and research funding, will have greater capacity to train leaders in educational research. Examination of Table 1. Selected characteristics of universities with doctoral programs in special education and focus in visual impairment , however, indicates that (a) we have little information on which to judge the research training of doctoral students in blindness and low vision; and (b) there does not seem to be a pattern in the selection of programs. The more prestigious special education programs do not attract larger numbers of students in blindness and low vision, and while doctoral students are enrolled at IES Interdisciplinary Training institutions, there is no evidence that the quality of research training is better for students interested in low-incidence populations.

Recommendations

It is not surprising that there are few data to document the educational research capacity in blindness and low vision. Indeed, this absence of supporting evidence is characteristic throughout the field of visual impairment and precipitated our discussions with OSEP and IES. The American Foundation for the Blind therefore makes the following recommendations:

FY 2007

  1. Update the surveys of faculty in visual impairment (Silberman et al., 1989; Corn & Silberman, 1999; Silberman et al., 2004) to determine current status of faculty funding and FTE. [In process at Hunter College]
  2. Conduct a series of fact-finding studies to update knowledge about (a) the content of doctoral training programs; (b) external funding of programs; (c) research capacity, experience, and interests of faculty; (d) evidence-based practice.
  3. Analyze research published in the last 5 years to create a database of designs utilized, participant characteristics, independent variables, dependent variables, strengths, and weaknesses.
  4. Establish a Technical Work Group on Educational Research in Blindness and Low Vision.

Within Next 2 Years (by FY 2009), if warranted by FY 2007 activities:

  1. Establish a Research to Practice Institute in Blindness and Low Vision, as recommended by Mason et al. (2000). Fund initially for 5 years (to be replaced by regional centers of excellence once capacity is strengthened).
  2. Provide training for faculty in designs appropriate for low-incidence populations.
  3. Include faculty in blindness and low vision on IES and NCSER reviews.
  4. Connect faculty in blindness and low vision with established researchers in NCSER projects, for mentorship and collaboration.

Within 5-10 Years:

  1. Create regional centers of excellence that implement a coordinated program of research across universities and that serve as training and internship sites for pre- and post-doctoral students.
  2. Continue some version of coordinated leadership training modeled after the National Center for Leadership in Visual Impairment university consortium, revised as evaluation data suggest.

The American Foundation for the Blind appreciates this opportunity to share its concerns and recommendations. We hope that we can work together to expand the knowledge and understanding of the needs of infants, children, and youth with blindness and low vision, and we hope that a larger discussion of these recommendations among NCSER, OSEP, the field of visual impairment, and the broader field of special education will occur. Please let us know how we can work with you to facilitate these conversations.

For further information, contact:

Mark Richert, Esq.
Director, Public Policy
American Foundation for the Blind
mrichert@afb.net

Kay Alicyn Ferrell, Ph.D
Associate Director, Policy Research
American Foundation for the Blind
kferrell@afb.net

References

Ahearn, E. M. (1997). Policy forum report: Training educators to work with students who are blind or visually impaired. Alexandria, VA: National Association of State Directors of Special Education.

Carnegie Commission on Higher Education. (2006). The Carnegie classification of institutions of higher education. Retrieved December 5, 2006 at http://www.carnegiefoundation.org/classifications/

Corn, A. L., & Ferrell, K. A. (2000). External funding for training and research in university programs in visual impairments: 1997-98. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 94, 372-384.

Corn, A. L., & Silberman, R. K. (1999). Personnel preparation programs in visual impairments: A status report. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 93, 755-789.

Corn, A. L., & Spungin, S. J. (2002). Graduates and current students in leadership programs in visual impairments. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 96, 736-740.

Kirchner, C., & Diament, S. (1999). NPTP national needs assessment activities. Unpublished manuscript, American Foundation for the Blind.

Mason, C., Davidson, R., & McNerney, C. (2000). National plan for training personnel to serve children with blindness and low vision. Reston, VA: The Council for Exceptional Children.

NCLID Research Clearinghouse. (2006). New personnel produced, 1995-96 to 2003-04. Retrieved December 6, 2006 from
http://nclid.unco.edu/rch/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=1364&Itemid=2

Silberman, R. K., Ambrose-Zaken, F., Corn, A. L., & Trief, E. (2004). Profile of personnel preparatin programs in visual impairments and their faculty: A status report. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 98, 741-756.

Silberman, R. K., Corn, A. L., & Sowell, V. M. (1989). Profile of teacher educators and the future of their personnel preparation programs for serving visually handicapped children and youth. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 83, 150-155.

Smith, D. D., Pion, G., Tyler, N. C., Sindelar, P., & Rosenberg, M. (2001). The study of special education leadership personnel with particular attention to the professoriate. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved December 6, 2006 from http://hecse.org/pdf/SPED_Leadership_Study.pdf

U.S. News & World Report. (2006). American's best graduate schools 2007: Education specialties: Special education. Retrieved December 5, 2006 from http://www.usnews.com/usnews/edu/grad/rankings/
edu/premium/specialties/edusp07.php

 


Table 1. Selected characteristics of universities with doctoral programs in special education and focus in visual impairment (1)

University
Control
Carnegie Classification, Graduate Program
Undergraduate Program
IES Pre- and Postdoctoral Interdisciplinary Research Training Programs
California State University Public Postbac Comp: Postbaccalaureate comprehensive Balanced arts & sciences/professions, high graduate coexistence No
Joint doctoral program with University of California at Riverside Public CompDoc/NMedVet: Comprehensive doctoral (no medical/veterinary) Arts & sciences plus professions, high graduate coexistence No
Florida State University Public CompDoc/MedVet: Comprehensive doctoral with medical/veterinary Balanced arts & sciences/professions, high graduate coexistence Yes
Illinois State University Public Doc/Prof: Doctoral, professions dominant Prof+A&S/HGC: Professions plus arts & sciences, high graduate coexistence No
Northern Illinois University Public Comprehensive doctoral (no medical/veterinary) Balanced arts & sciences/professions, high graduate coexistence No
Ohio State University Public CompDoc/MedVet: Comprehensive doctoral with medical/veterinary Balanced arts & sciences/professions, high graduate coexistence No
Portland State University Public Doc/Prof: Doctoral, professions dominant Arts & sciences plus professions, high graduate coexistence No
San Francisco State University Public S-Doc/Ed: Single doctoral (education) Balanced arts & sciences/professions, high graduate coexistence No
Joint doctoral program with University of California Berkeley Public CompDoc/NMedVet: Comprehensive doctoral (no medical/veterinary) Arts & sciences focus, high graduate coexistence Yes
Teachers College, Columbia University Private Doc/Prof: Doctoral, professions dominant (Not applicable) No
Texas Tech University Public Comprehensive doctoral (no medical/veterinary) Professions plus arts & sciences, high graduate coexistence No
University of Arizona Public Comprehensive doctoral with medical/veterinary Balanced arts & sciences/professions, high graduate coexistence No
University of Louisville Public CompDoc/MedVet: Comprehensive doctoral with medical/veterinary Balanced arts & sciences/professions, high graduate coexistence No
University of New Orleans Public Doc/Prof: Doctoral, professions dominant Balanced arts & sciences/professions, high graduate coexistence No
University of Northern Colorado Public CompDoc/NMedVet: Comprehensive doctoral (no medical/veterinary) A&S+Prof/HGC: Arts & sciences plus professions, high graduate coexistence No
University of Pittsburgh Public CompDoc/MedVet: Comprehensive doctoral with medical/veterinary Arts & sciences plus professions, high graduate coexistence Yes
University of Toledo Public CompDoc/NMedVet: Comprehensive doctoral (no medical/veterinary) Professions plus arts & sciences, high graduate coexistence No
University of Utah Public CompDoc/MedVet: Comprehensive doctoral with medical/veterinary Professions plus arts & sciences, high graduate coexistence No
Vanderbilt University Private CompDoc/MedVet: Comprehensive doctoral with medical/veterinary Arts & sciences focus, high graduate coexistence Yes
Western Michigan University Public CompDoc/NMedVet: Comprehensive doctoral (no medical/veterinary) Professions plus arts & sciences, some graduate coexistence No

(1) Identified by Silberman et al., 2004.

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