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Role of Participants in a Group

  • The most important role of participants is to be good listeners and to ask the group member, who is talking about his or her study/research, good questions.  The intent of these questions should be to open up new possibilities and new ways of thinking for the person who is sharing.

  • If you, as a group member, have suggestions, new ideas, or solutions to offer...wait.  If you jump in with the strategies that you think will work, you are not giving your colleagues the opportunity to own and explore their situations deeply.  This is hard, but with practice, it becomes easier.

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CAR and Special Education

From Practice to Policy: Using Teacher Action Research to Inform School District Policies With Regard to Special Education Services

Janet Bixby, Mary Klehr and Ken Zeichner
University of Wisconsin-Madison
Cathy Caro-Bruce & Kathy Lyngaas
Madison, Wisconsin Metropolitan School District

This is a revised version of a paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Seattle, April, 2001.

The Multiple Purposes of Teacher Action Research

Over the last decade, research conducted by K-12 teachers about their own practices and instructional contexts has become a major professional development activity for teachers in a number of countries including the U.S. (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 1999; Hollingsworth & Sockett, 1994; Noffke, 1997). To a lesser extent, this research has also come to be accepted by the educational research community as a valid knowledge production activity. Increasingly teacher action research has been included in mainstream academic research publications as a legitimate methodology of educational research (Kemmis & McTaggart, 2000; Zeichner & Noffke, 2001) and the research of K-12 teachers has frequently been published by respected academic publishing houses such as Teachers College Press (e.g., Ballanger, 19xx; Freedman, 1999; Gallas , 1998) and major academic journals such as Harvard Educational Review (e.g., Sylvester, 1994). There has been very little attention however, to the issue of how research conducted by K-12 teachers can inform educational policy making and the process of educational change at a level beyond individual teachers' own classrooms and schools. Although there has been some systematic study of the impact on teachers and their pupils of doing action (e.g., Zeichner, 2000), we could only find two examples of attempts to trace the influence of teacher research on policy making beyond teacher researchers' own schools. One case involved the use of research conducted by a group of seven mentor teachers on policies related to teacher mentoring in California (Atkin, 1994). The other involved an effort by the provincial government in British Columbia, Canada to introduce a more learner-centered approach to instruction by sponsoring teacher research groups throughout the province (Grimmett, 1995).

The purpose of this paper is to examine the impact of two teacher action research groups sponsored by the Division of Educational Services of the Madison Wisconsin Metropolitan School District (MMSD) during the 1999-2000 school year on the teacher researchers and their pupils, on collegial relations and policies in the teachers' schools, and on school district policies and professional development plans for special education staff.

These action research groups were funded1 by Jack Jorgensen, the director of Educational Services in the MMSD, soon after cross-categorical programming had been introduced into the district as a new framework for organizing special education services. Cross-categorical programming, in which students with a variety of categorical disabilities are served by the same special education teacher, replaced separate programming for students who had been grouped instructionally by type of disability (e.g.,CD, ED, LD). The district began to rethink the way in which it delivered special education services following a shift to having children attend their neighborhood schools and an emphasis on inclusive classrooms. This shift to cross-categorical programming is consistent with national trends in special education. Staff surveys and focus groups that had been conducted by Jorgensen had indicated that there were a number of concerns and issues surrounding the implementation of the new cross-categorical model. Jorgensen decided to fund the action research groups for two reasons: to uncover some of the root issues that were associated with the implementation of cross-categorical programming, and to use what teachers learned in their research to inform the development of a multi-year professional development plan for special education staff. He also viewed action research as a form of professional development that would help teachers increase their knowledge and skills with regard to cross-categorical programming.


Three interviews were conducted with each of the 15 action researchers and four facilitators of the two 1999-2000 research groups. Two of the three interviews were conducted during the research year (one in the fall and one in the spring), and a final interview was conducted the following year after the action research reports had been published and circulated throughout the school district. In the interviews, teacher researchers were asked to describe their action research studies, the experience of being a member of an action research group, and their perceptions of the impact of doing their study on themselves, their pupils, schools, and the school district. The facilitators were asked to describe both the individual studies and the group experience.

We also interviewed the coordinator of the district's special educational services division, Jack Jorgensen, who has funded similar groups each year since the original 1999-2000 research year. Additionally, we read all of the action research reports of the teachers in the two groups and observed a meeting in May, 2000 where members of the two groups came together with district central office staff and principals to discuss findings and the implications for individual schools and the district at large.

Action Research in the Madison Metropolitan School District

Since 1990, The Madison Metropolitan School District in Madison Wisconsin has sponsored an action research professional development program for district staff (Caro-Bruce & McCreadie, 1995). Over 500 teachers, administrators, counselors, social workers, etc. have participated in this program since its inception. The school district provides teacher researchers with one-half day of released time per month to meet in research groups with their colleagues. Each group is composed of 8-10 members from different schools and is facilitated by two people (often teachers) who have had some prior experience in conducting action research on their own practice. The groups have been organized either around levels of schooling (e.g., middle school) or broad themes of importance to the district ( e.g., equity, service learning, technology, literacy, English language learners), and meet monthly for four hours during or after the school day to discuss progress and receive feedback. Ongoing seminars are provided for the group facilitators by the district staff development office. At the end of the year, written action research reports are published by the district and distributed to all of the schools.2

The MMSD classroom action research program operates on the basis of certain principles that are related to the particular structures that have been created to support teachers' research. Most important among these principles is a respect for teachers' intelligence and their ability to grapple with complex intellectual issues. This respect for teachers' capabilities is evident in the way that teacher researchers control their own research; choosing the topics they study, and the methods of data collection and analysis they use to carry out their research. The monthly group meetings follow a predictable structure and specific rituals and routines are established to create a culture for teacher learning that both honors and supports what teachers know and learn, and challenges them to problematize what they know.3

The Action Research Studies and Groups

There were seven teachers in one of the two 1999-2000 special education action research group and eight in the other. Together this included thirteen special education teachers and two non-special education teachers, representing teachers from elementary, middle school, and high school levels. Although both groups included teachers from several different schools, each group included two pairs of people from the same schools. In only one of these cases however, did the teachers from the same schools collaborate jointly on the same study. The majority of teachers pursued individual research questions.

The studies employed a variety of research methods including teacher journals; systematic classroom observations; surveys and interviews with teachers and other instructional staff, students, school and central office administrators and sometimes parents; and analysis of student work and achievement data.

Researchers examined a variety of questions and issues within the broad theme of cross-categorical programming. For example, several teachers who surveyed staff within their schools or across the district about their views on specific aspects of cross-categorical programming gained information about how well particular models for service delivery were working from the perspectives of different participants, including students. In one of these cases, the inquiry was broadened to include special education teachers' feelings about their jobs, and in another case, a number of the researcher's assumptions about other people's views about cross-categorical programming were significantly challenged. In the other studies, several problem areas were identified and recommendations were made for improvement. One special education teacher presented an analysis of her career experiences working under several different models of service delivery and the one first-year teacher in the group presented excerpts from her journal that illuminated the need for professional development of first year teachers. A number of studies focused on how well the needs of particular pupils were being met by specific cross-categorical delivery models (e.g., in inclusive science and social studies classes in a middle school, in a particular team teaching arrangement between a regular education and special education teacher, in a collaborative effort between two different inclusive classrooms). Finally, another study examined the participation of special education students in extracurricular activities and compared the participation of non-special education students, special education students in inclusive classrooms, and special education students in pull-out models.

As a group, the studies uncovered multiple meanings that cross-categorical programming held throughout the district and identified numerous areas to be addressed in a subsequent district-level research-informed professional development plan.

Impact on the Attitudes, Beliefs, and Practices of Teachers and on Student Learning

Every school is struggling with the idea of cross-categorical. Every school is addressing that issue in a different way. [TC1:143-145]

The practitioners in this study entered Madison's 1999-2000 classroom action research program with varying degrees of skepticism and ambivalence about the district's movement toward cross-categorical and inclusive programming. Concerns ranged from fears that students under certain categories (e.g. those with mild or average learning disabilities) would not get quality services if placed in a situation where they were competing with children with severe needs for resources; cynicism about the "buy in" from other key players such as regular educators; caution about the amount of time and energy needed to change current practices; and feelings of powerlessness and frustration over a perceived lack of genuine input into decisions affecting practice.

According to the interviews, these teachers did not appreciate feeling powerless over their teaching situations, and the oft-stated reason for participating in the research program was to gain some control over policies that affect them most closely.

I don't like people in authority telling me what to do. I revolt because someone is telling me [to do something I don't feel adequately prepared to do . . .]. This is what all of us need--to have input--so we can all be happy and all do the best job we can. I think the biggest impact [of my study] would be to present what I'm going to do to someone who has some power to do something about it. [TI1: 71-81, 51-66, and 1-81]

In order to keep teaching, I don't want to feel like I have no control over things that happens. This [research] is a way for me to take control of some things that happen and give [the data] to somebody else who can choose to act on them or not, but can't deny that there's information out there. I guess it's my way of having some control. [TD:207-211]

In addition to experiencing varying degrees of success at impacting district policy, which we will discuss later in this paper, these practitioners reported that the action research experience had a profound impact on their personal and professional attitudes, beliefs, and practices.

Impact on Practice

A number of specific examples of changes in teachers' practices that occurred as a result of their research were identified in our interviews. For example, one teacher's study guided more effective prioritization and management of her teaching time. Several high school teachers interviewed students and engaged them directly in discussions about service delivery models, proving to themselves the importance of soliciting student perspectives and leading them to think more democratically about practice. As a result of her study, another researcher put into place activities that helped her students broaden their definition of learning community and connect with other classrooms and students in the school. One researcher used her findings to design a new approach for creating achievable IEP goals. A cross-categorical team made up of one regular educator and one special educator changed the way they structured classroom systems to better meet individual needs as a result of their study examining ways to help students build solid habits of organization. A different special-regular educator team changed how they defined their roles and handled teaching tasks, resulting in both taking responsibility for the teaching of all the students across the entire school day regardless of their original certification or of student ability.

Apart from these specific cases where the research directly impacted teaching practice, a significant finding of our study is that the impact of action research on the individual practice of many of the special education teachers in this study (most of whom work collaboratively with other faculty at their schools) was less clear-cut than for regular classroom teachers who tend to work in self-contained settings and have more ability to change and control their practice. According to these data, the cross-categorical and inclusion models, with their emphasis on teaming, consultation, and collaboration, worked against individual implementation of research findings for many of the researchers. Regardless of what they would like to see happen, in a majority of these studies the ability to make research-based changes in teaching practice depended on the willing cooperation from on-site colleagues, school administrators, or in a few cases, district administrators.

Many of the researchers took responsibility to make sense not only of their place in the cross-categorization and inclusion models, but to help others understand how the cross-categorization model could be effectively implemented in their schools. In the end, only a few focussed their attention primarily on impacting what goes on in their individual classrooms. One regular educator, who was in a position to make independent restructuring and instructional decisions within her own classroom, was unconcerned with whether her research had an effect beyond her own classroom:

My expectations were to be able to create a project that I was interested in, then guide it the way I would like it to go. Also to be in control of what importance the results have. [I'm not as] interested in what other people would gain from this information. . .more interested in what I'm going to gain from the information. [TK1:25-25])

Other researchers, appreciative of this chance to take time to systematically study professional practice, hoped that their thoughtful documentations of practice and research-based theories would influence district policy.

I'm not sure that it's going to have impact on my personal practice other than possibly giving me a better insight into myself and why I do things. What I hope is that I [have found] information that is useful that I can share with people that have more control over some of the factors, and help identify some of the things that will support cross categorical programming. [TCD1:149-176]

These hopes were met to varying degrees. While researchers expressed personal satisfaction in cases where they saw evidence that their work affected policy, practice, or structural change on increasingly broader levels, a few reported that while their research gave them enough information to approach their schools or the district with specific policy or structural ideas, they were disappointed to see no indication that their ideas were implemented or even taken seriously.

I got a lot out of it--doing CAR--but it was sad that I couldn't share this with any of the downtown administrators. (TCJ3) ... What I'm going to be doing different this year is try to get this information to the top and see what we can change for next year. I would like to impact the change in the system for next year. That's pie in the sky, I realize that now. At least I'm going to really try. After I wrote the paper, I said, It's done, give it up. But then I said, No, no, no, I've got to do something. And if I do something and hit a brick wall, fine. That doesn't bother me. I just have to do something. [TCJ2:97-128]

Impact on Attitudes and Beliefs

Researchers repeatedly commented on how the ability afforded by the regular research group meetings to share the discomfort and frustration they face as special educators was, in the end, productive. Having a forum for sharing their concerns and uncertainty allowed them to move beyond complaining toward what they characterized as a more thoughtfully analytic and ultimately more productive response to the frustrations and concerns many of them had initially deemed insurmountable.

Researchers repeatedly commented on how the ability afforded by the regular research group meetings to share the discomfort and frustration they face as special educators was, in the end, productive. Having a forum for sharing their concerns and uncertainty allowed them to move beyond complaining toward what they characterized as a more thoughtfully analytic and ultimately more productive response to the frustrations and concerns many of them had initially deemed insurmountable.

It was a good experience. It freed up time for us to concentrate on the things we complain about anyway and to do something productive about it. It was positive. [TL2:275-281]

As teachers, we don't have a lot of opportunities to think about problems in a thoughtful, organized kind of way. A lot of times we're making judgements real quick. We only have a limited amount of time to plan and limited resources and we need to do the best we can with what we have, quickly. I think for me personally, I've gotten a lot of benefit just out of going through this process [. . .]I felt much better about teaching this year even with all the stuff that's going on than I have probably since I've been teaching, so it's really good. [TI2:71-71]
I think that [my research] makes me stronger and better able to formulate what my needs are so that I don't just sound like I'm complaining. I feel like I'm getting a clearer idea of how things could be better, and what I think we need to do. [TR1:156]

Through the research process, the teachers were able to articulate and systematically examine these concerns. In some cases, the researchers came to the conclusion that their initial fears about the switch to cross categorical programming were unfounded:

Initially, when I started the classroom action research question, my feeling was that in cross-categorical type of programming the students that were mildly disabled would not get the quality services, and the students at the high ends of the needs would probably use up most of the resources in the classroom. And the kids in the middle, the mildly handicapped kids, would be the ones that would be suffering as far as getting what they need, individualized education. I had three students in my mind that were returning from the previous year to this classroom in a full inclusion cross- categorical classroom that I was most concerned with. I was getting two students that were very, very high needs. My question initially was: Does cross-categorical full inclusion meet the needs of the mildly handicapped students. As I went through the research process, I was actually pleased to see that they were getting what they needed. [TB2:1-3]

While the impact of the research projects on individual teaching practice was often tied to the degree of cooperation received from school colleagues and administrators, the researchers had much to say about its impact on how they understand their own practice in particular, and on how they have come to new understandings about the theory and practice of special education in general.

You always question yourself because there is so much information coming in and so many people that are jumping on the band wagon as to the right way to do [something], or worried that they have been doing it wrong all of these years. I think it's helped me in being able to make decisions and it's given me the strength to say, "I'm going to fight for this now because I know it's right. [TLN1:206-216]

The chance to discuss experiences during research group meetings served a useful purpose for the researchers, allowing them to move beyond sharing frustrations about not having a say in program decisions toward affirmation of successful practice, reasoned and purposeful decision-making, and how their findings were leading to change in local professional knowledge and student learning.

With special ed, there's a lot of talk about the cross-categorical situation, the inclusion situation--those issues are really big on everyone's mind. It really makes you conscious, just the sharing and the discussion have heightened my awareness of different issues. When you're more conscious of things, you teach better I think. You make better choices. You spend more time deciding the best ways to approach things. [TG1:59-61]
I came up with the pros and cons of things that I felt were advantages and disadvantages for a full inclusion team- teaching situation for teachers and the students. One of the pros that really stuck out for me was my ability to spend more time with children in an individual small group basis. In addition to that, I was able to become a more flexible, creative teacher because of the input of another adult in the room. [TA2:21-32]

In a few cases, participating in an action research group and carrying out the research project had an influential role on career path decisions. One teacher in particular claimed that conducting action research lessened her feelings of isolation, helped her better understand and accept the changes in special education programming, and effectively kept her in the teaching profession, albeit at a different level.

It [CAR] had a big impact. I didn't resign! I stayed in profession. It made me feel less isolated in my ideas because of the contacts I had with people through all the surveys I sent out, and because I saw that other teachers felt similar to me. Because of the information I got through my action research, I learned that I wanted to try teaching at the elementary level. I didn't want to go back to middle school, because I found that most middle school special education teachers are unhappy. So my CAR guided me, and now I am teaching 1st and 2nd graders. (TJ3)

Cultivating Reflective Practice

Researchers commented on how involvement in the action research process was personally and professionally motivating.

I wish that it were possible that every teacher was involved in action research. It would be great. I hope to do it every year because I'm finding a huge difference just in my own self, in my own self-confidence, my wanting to grow and develop and not stay the same. It's easy to get into a routine, to do things a certain way, to not change. This helps to move me along. (TF1: 157]

Teachers frequently reported that this increased motivation and strengthened professional identity was a result of having the time and space to be more reflective than is the case in other professional development opportunities, to be open to modifying firmly held views about practice, to be more thoughtful about existing classroom practice with an eye toward change, and to examine their assumptions in a reflexive manner.

[Doing AR has] really made me more reflective. I think when I first started teaching I was a lot more reflective. Then you get kind of in a rut of just dealing with your day-to-day stuff. To me it's been nice to get back to reflection and thoughtful decisions. That has affected my practice, pretty drastically I'd say [TI1: 101-101].
I would say that of all the trainings I've gone to, classes I've gone to, this has been by far the most useful in the sense that it's something that is so relevant to what we're doing on a daily basis. To just be able to think about what you're doing as a professional, to really examine what we have to do, and [how that] that makes sense in the bigger picture. . . to me, it's been the best thing that I've done since I've been out of school. [T1:143-145]

Researchers had a number of theories about how participation in the research program impacted their views and practices. Some attributed changes in personal perspective to the regular discussions with and evidence from other researchers about the impact of district and school policy on classroom practice; others claimed that systematically working through the research process played a large role in shaping newfound ideas about practice; others predict that their research and the information they received from other teachers in the group will better prepare them to respond productively to future programming changes at their own schools.

Some teachers reported that their involvement in the research groups and their consequent heightened awareness of the role regular-special education collaboration can play in the success of cross-categorical programming has led them to seek out additional professional experiences such as classes on inclusion, and further involvement in action research. For these practitioners, involvement in a close-knit research community feels like "just the beginning" [TI2:27]

Strengthening the Professional Community

We're in the same boat but not on the same page. That's life in the district. [TJ1:113-117]

A number of the teacher researchers commented specifically on how meeting regularly with peers around issues of importance to them lessened professional isolation and provided much-needed collegiality. Although none claimed that all members of their research groups were in uniform theoretical or practical agreement, a number of the researchers reported that having the time to share ideas in a respectful dialogic environment helped broaden their perspectives about how special education programming can and should play out across sites.

While both research groups were composed primarily of special educators, two regular educators also participated. One finding with implications for regular-special education collaboration is that both categories of teachers gained new perspectives on the concerns and realities of their counterparts, and consequently viewed themselves as in a better position to work together constructively and serve as more informed advocates for each other. As one regular education teacher commented:

I've learned a lot about special education and [the special education teachers'] feelings for it. It will actually help my practice when I'm thinking about and when I'm dealing with a special ed teacher. I [understand] some of their views and may be more accepting or more aware at least of the differences and the problems that they encounter. It [will] help me professionally with the interactions with some of my colleagues. [TK1:69-69]

Teachers with different areas of special education certification developed empathy for each other, particularly in terms of the struggles each faced in adjusting to the expectation for working across disability areas.

I wouldn't say [my research] impacted my teaching. I think it impacted my ability to contribute to team discussions about how we provide services to students. [. . .] I had some arrogant ideas about why people didn't like cross-categorical based on some experiences I had earlier. This [research] forced me to kind of step back and say, okay, not everybody who dislikes cross-categorical is just prejudiced against CD students or doesn't want to work with them, that kind of thing. So I think it has made me a better listener. It's also helped me pay a lot more attention when I'm having discussions about service delivery, and to define my terms because I've come to understand that we can all be talking about cross-categorical and not mean anything that's the same. That's the major way that I think it has changed my thinking. [TD2:23-36]

Impact on Student Learning

I think that the wonderful thing about classroom action research is that no matter what you do to evaluate your own teaching or make changes, it's going to impact the students and make life better for them. We special education teachers feel so overwhelmed, and don't often have the chance to think about what's important to us and what our priorities are. Classroom action research has helped me do that, has helped me reaffirm and affirm where I stand [TM 3]

The impact of the action research went beyond the individual teacher to affect student learning. Several teachers felt that the satisfaction they gained from conducting their research indirectly impacted their students in positive, if undocumented ways:

I think that the wonderful thing about classroom action research is that no matter what you do to evaluate your own teaching or make changes, its going to impact the students and make life better for them. (TM3)

Others reported on the applications of their research to classroom practice. Because her research lead to changes in her delivery model, including increasing special education instructional time in the regular classroom, the following teacher characterized her subsequent instruction as less fragmented and "more complete," with direct impact on student learning:

[As a result of changes in practice brought about by my research] I don't feel like I have to let as much go as I used to due to time constraints or not enough access to the students. What really makes it nice is that during some activities like doing research papers with the kids and that type of thing, we used to have to pull the kids because we never saw them outside the regular ed classroom. This way, now that we do have that regular time to see them on their own, they can stay in the class during projects like that, and we haven't had to pull them at all because we can always use the time we have available outside the classroom to do more intense instruction and cover the things they need help with. So actually, they end up being in class more with the regular ed students than they used to. (TNp3)

In one full inclusion team-teaching situation, the co-researchers claimed that working and researching together resulted in understanding each other's objectives and practices well enough to equalize their classroom roles to the benefit of the children.

I have learned a lot about regular ed curriculum, working with [my regular education teaching partner. . .] A lot of times in a pull out [configuration], you have the students for about an hour and then they go back to the classroom. You don't really know what they do in the classroom except for what the teacher is reporting. [Now I] really know their learning styles and needs, how they function throughout the day. That's really been helpful. We had a couple of students that just lose it in the afternoon. They're extremely tired and fall asleep. We've adjusted our curriculum so that things that are really important like core curriculum don't happen in the afternoon. [. . .] If they were learning disabled in reading and they were at grade level in math, that information might not have been available for me in a pull out situation. [TB2:25-27]
When you don't have to pull [a student] out into a different environment, you are able to be much more flexible with your teaching scheduling. With that comes the ability, for me as a regular educator, to get to know the special ed students better because I work with them all day long. There isn't this division of 'my kids vs. her kids,' or 'I'm responsible for this with the kids and she's responsible for that.' We're both responsible for everything for all the kids. I've learned a lot more about dealing with children with special needs, working in [this full inclusion] environment than I did in any class that I took at the university. [TA2:21-32]

A high school special education teacher joined the research group out of a commitment to study a student-related phenomenon--low participation rates of special education students in school-based extra curricular opportunities--that would have an immediate impact on their lives. A year later, she reported that the changes she made as a result of her findings have increased the extra curricular participation of the students on her caseload.

Two middle school teacher researchers were interested in uncovering "the most effective service delivery model" for learning disabled students in science and social studies at the middle school level [TLN1:112-128], particularly the skills these students needed in order to be successful in the regular education room. They hoped that their research would give them evidence and therefore the leverage to make productive service model changes in their school. Their findings supported implementation of a flexible model where students could go back and forth between a pull out group and a regular education class, and with support from building colleagues, they were able to put this flexible model into place. Another result of their work was the creation of a transition information form to be filled out by 5th grade teachers at two incoming elementary schools. The heightened understanding of flexible delivery systems and the use of the transition form the following year resulted in more purposeful and appropriate classroom placements, fewer scheduling and curriculum interruptions than used to happen as teachers scrambled to find the best environment for each child, and changes in the delivery model to allow for increased individual instruction time.

Another study lead to more purposeful use of an academic support room where students receive individualized support, enabling students to remain in their regular classrooms for longer periods.

We have been successful. We are serving a lot of kids and with the special education assistants' help, we are providing a lot of support in classrooms with not much pull out. I see kids staying in the classroom more than they did last year. We're trying to use in-class support relying heavily on special education assistants in classrooms, and trying to identify academic areas where kids need help and having SEAs there. If they are still having trouble they can come to the Studio or academic room to get support. We are finding kids don't need to leave the classroom for such long periods of time this year. Last year some kids had to spend much of the day with us. Now they do not have to spend such long periods away from their classrooms. [TC3:4-18]

A high school case manager reported that his research, in which he surveyed the perceptions and needs of students, impacted the way he made scheduling decisions for students. He also reported being more supportive of inclusion models than before as a result of being in the research group.

The thing I'm going to do differently [in the future] is that I plan to interview my students again, especially the 9th graders, on the topic of inclusion. That was worthwhile. As a case manager, I think I need to have students' perspectives on where they like to learn best. We often schedule kids in specific classes based on topics or academic levels and not on where they like to learn. [TH2:77-79]

A regular education teacher, whose project was to build community within her classroom and across the school, found a positive impact on the students who had "making friends" listed as a social goal in their IEPs. At the start of her project, data indicated that a high proportion of the special education students on her caseload operated and played in isolation. The changes in program structure and instructional strategies that were made in response to these preliminary findings lead to increased collaboration and inclusion between these children and their peers [TK2:19].

Frustrations and Roadblocks

In spite of these examples, a number of the teachers expressed frustration that they weren't able to impact student learning as much as they had originally hoped, a result they attributed in part to disinterest or resistance others outside the research group. While these teachers claimed that their research helped them devise workable plans for changing program structure and classroom practice, they viewed these plans as ineffective unless embraced by key players such as other school staff (e.g. regular educators, building principals) or district administrators.

As I was doing this (classroom action research) last year, I started to feel personally that there was a lot of inequity in the way kids are serviced. Our school was pretty much a pull out program last year, and unfortunately, it's even more so this year. I'm angry and upset that after I tried to talk to all these people through my action research about why the pull-out model wasn't working, nothing has changed. [. . .] My classroom action research started me asking questions, which has probably added to my frustration this year, because now I know how things could be, and I can see so clearly that they are not the way they should be. I remember thinking at the end of last year--NO WAY would I do this again [so much pull out programming], but now it's worse than ever. [As a result,] nothing has changed for the kids. [TE3]

Impact of Action Research at the School Level

The impact of engaging in action research often went beyond influencing individual teachers and students to affect the collegial and professional relationships between the researcher and school-based colleagues and administrators. In a number of cases the process of doing the action research as well as the research findings also played a role in shaping the policies, practices, and structures of the school.

Impact on Service Delivery

When asked to identify how their action research impacted their school sites, the researchers most frequently identified change in the systems and organization of the school that structure the way in which services are provided to students with disabilities. Descriptions of how the studies resulted in the implementation of these new structures and strategies can be found throughout the interviews and written reports. These changes included smaller class sizes, schedule changes, less frequent pull-out instruction, new transition processes, enhanced teaming and mutual feelings of responsibility toward students, increased common planning time, and role modeling between regular and special education students. Furthermore, many of the researchers reported that these changes have resulted in their ability to more effectively meet the needs of their special education students:

"One of the things we thought of doing differently was to have an adapted or special education section of Driver's Education. I think my action research brought out some of the more positive things that come out of an inclusion class, like having positive role models and fewer behavior problems. So, the decision is that we're not going to create a special class [just for the special education students]."
"One thing we were able to do out of our research was to create a transition form to be used by the fifth grade teachers that would give us a better idea of where to place the kids once they came to middle school. Basically, the time we had for our research gave us the time to really look at the skills the special education kids needed in order to be successful in regular education."

Impact on School Practices and Professional Interactions

Many of the action researchers also identified specific examples of changes in school practices that occurred as a result of the studies. They identified a shift toward creating more balance between meeting the needs of students and making adjustments to better accommodate the needs of staff, or meeting the learning needs of all students and maintaining a safe learning environment. In addition, researchers reported changes in curriculum and instructional strategies as a result of their findings.

"Last year we had staff tearing their hair out about issues in the building. I think people are feeling better about that. We can continue to meet the needs of our students, but meet the needs of larger populations, making sure that everyone can learn in a safe place." [TC]
"The one thing that stuck out to me was that the self-contained classes, all the special education classes, they said were too easy. They said that they don't get enough homework. They aren't challenged enough...It's been kind of a wakeup call that we need to make our self-contained classes harder and give more homework. We can't stop challenging the kids." [TH]

The action researchers also identified multiple ways in which their work impacted professional interactions with colleagues. The most frequently noted was discussion of specific research findings with individuals, teams, or the whole faculty at staff meetings or other school forums. In some cases this professional dialogue was initiated when researchers asked colleagues to participate in some aspect of the study such as giving feedback about the research question or methodology, or providing data. The value of the research increased in cases where it addressed issues that colleagues deemed important. Additionally, dialogue among various professional groupings was enhanced in instances where data collection designs solicited feedback from multiple stakeholder groups. A number of the researchers noted that the knowledge they gained from doing the studies led others to seek out and value their expertise.

"People have been really interested. I had several special education teachers give the surveys to their classes and some of them requested in writing copies of what I found out." [TM]
"...[the principal] reviewed the survey and gave some input on it. When I shared the information, she was very positive about it. She thought it might work." [TF]
"Actually, one of the results of our survey and sharing at the staff meeting was that they put together an instructional design team for next year. We're getting regular education teachers, ESL, Title, and special education teachers-all of us--together." (TF)
"Because I interviewed both regular and special education students, the results were [shared with] the department chair. This definitely affected the way teachers feel about inclusion." (TH)

Research findings also served as the basis for school planning and decision-making, and frequently led to some level of implementation involving colleagues. While some felt responsible for promoting change on behalf of their colleagues as a result of their data and findings, in other instances, building principals actively used the studies as a catalyst for dialogue in an effort to encourage collaboration and shared decision making among faculty.

Over all, researchers expressed great satisfaction when some action was taken at the school level to address the issues identified in their research. At the same time, the small number of researchers who were unable to identify a forum for dialogue or who felt that nothing changed as a result of their work expressed frustration.

"My [research demonstrated] that in order for cross-categorical and full inclusion to work, there had to be certain things in place. This year, they are not in place, and it is very difficult...what we said was totally disregarded. Nothing principal knows how I feel and how others feel, but as far as I know nothing will change." (TB)
"It's a frustrating year. My action research started me asking questions...Because now I know how things could be, and I can see so clearly that they are not the way they should be..." (TN)

Impact on Collegial Interactions Beyond the School

Deepening professional interaction across school sites is a central factor in how the action research group processes are designed4. The opportunity to interact with teachers from across the district in monthly research group meetings was highly valued by participants, as it reduced the sense of isolation many teachers felt, particularly as they grappled with challenging changes in their work setting. The opportunity to share current practices and to problem solve with others who have similar jobs was identified by participants as one of the most beneficial aspects of taking part in the research program.

"One thing that really everyone said was that [special educators] feel totally isolated out there. There are lots of new changes and people don't know where to go [for help]." (TJ)
"What we [special educators] do is very different compared to what a lot of the other professionals in our buildings do. The frustrations that we have are hard for other teachers to understand at times. What has been so great is just to sit down with these folks from other schools who are basically doing the same things." (TI)

The opportunity to reflect collaboratively in this way provided a fresh lens with which to look at old problems and created an information base for forming new strategies. Individuals stated that they benefited from the opportunity to test out their observations and conclusions with others, and were more motivated to try out new ideas after hearing about others' theories and practices.

"It's interesting to be with a group of people from different schools and to listen to what it's like at different schools and how every school has its separate struggles. And sit there and think, 'Really? That's how you do it at your school? That's not how...', you know? So for me that's been really interesting. I've learned from that." (TA)
"So classroom action research really brought some different schools together that are not in the same attendance area. I heard about the collaborative teaching that some of the people are doing which really motivates me to try to get something like that going here." (TE)

The professional network that developed as a consequence was frequently noted. As a result of these bonds, participants not only consulted with each other beyond group meeting times but indicated that they would be more likely to contact colleagues and seek support from others on future issues.

At the end of the project year, action researchers participating in this study were provided an additional forum for sharing their work with the Jack Jorgensen, Director of Special Education; other special education administrators; several building administrators and other action researchers from the district. This powerful community experience multiplied the positive impact of group support and feelings of efficacy for individual researchers.

"When we presented our projects at the end of last year, [the Director] was at my table when I shared. He was very supportive. I was impressed by how supportive he was throughout the whole process by allocating the funds and supporting our professional development." (TM)
"We met with [the Director] as a group in a round table discussion last spring. My paper was all about how as a first year teacher I did not feel there was much support for me-not much opportunity to talk to people about how things were going for me. This year they have developed a support group and I felt like that really tied into what I found." (TO)

Finally, reading the work of previous action researchers and having others read about their work was cited as a way in which collegial relationships were formed and supported. Individuals felt that reading studies from past action researhers helped them think more carefully about their questions and research strategies. Additionally, they were surprised at the frequency with which other colleagues commented on and asked them questions about their findings once studies were published.

The Impact of the Action Research on the District

The District Level Rationale for Special Education Action Research Groups

Jack Jorgensen, the district administrator in charge of special education, knew that when the Madison Metropolitan School District called on all schools to implement a cross categorical service delivery model the change would cause enormous challenges, particularly for the special education teachers. This and other recent policy shifts would not only broaden the number of disability areas covered by individual teachers, but would fundamentally alter the nature of the work that many special education teachers did with their students. He also knew that dramatic policy changes in the district typically elicited a significant amount of anxiety and uncertainty from teachers as they learned how to effectively negotiate their new roles and responsibilities. One of the things Jorgensen did to help ease special education teachers and the district at large through this transition smoothly was to fund two special education teacher action research groups.

As noted above, two primary objectives guided Jorgensen's decision to support these action research projects. First, he believed this would provide special education teachers with an avenue for exploring the dramatic changes they were facing as a result of the shift to a cross-categorical service delivery model. While the district administration were aware that special education teachers were very concerned about the changes inherent in the shift to cross-categorical programming, he felt that:

There were still a lot of outstanding questions around that. Why was that such a big issue? And we haven't really gotten into some of the more in-depth kind of questions that we would have liked to have asked...Certainly [the action research project] allowed teachers to take more of a direct role in framing for themselves the concerns and issues that they wanted to further address.

While the teacher action research groups were meant to be beneficial to the participating teachers on an individual level, Jorgensen also expected the studies to have a direct impact on the district as a whole. Specifically, his second objective was to have the action research studies provide him with information generated by teachers themselves about their professional development needs. In the early fall of 1999, Jorgensen attended the two newly formed special education teacher action research groups to explain why he was funding the project. He "framed it to make sure that they understood that I had sort of a self serving need out of this to come away with some information, [namely, the] recommendations they might have for me that would help shape a multi-year professional development plan." Jorgensen met again with the two research groups at the end of the year to hear what had been learned. In the end, Jorgensen identified as the most significant influence the studies had on district level policies and practices was its impact on a multi-year professional development plan that was developed during the summer of 2000, following the research year.

Impact on Professional Development

The Madison district developed a multi-year professional development plan in order to help schools and special education teachers adapt to the fundamental changes that the policy shifts had had on the area of special education. In planning out the professional development plan, the district used numerous strategies to gather information from special education teachers and assistants about the kinds of professional development opportunities they felt they needed. The teacher action research groups proved to be one of the key sources of information that influenced the shape of the multi-year plan. The role that the action research groups played in the design of the professional development plan lent credibility to the plan itself.

In the plan that emerged, a number of specific outcomes for professional development arose out of the teacher action research groups. For example:

  1. One first year teacher explored the challenges she faced just trying to learn how to fulfill her multiple roles and responsibilities. The professional development plan called for the establishment of "a first year special education teacher professional development program."
  2. In the action research meetings teachers discussed how valuable it was to have the opportunity to talk with colleagues from other schools about both common challenges and successful strategies. A key piece of the professional development plan revolved around peer coaching.
  3. In the action research meetings teachers also talked extensively about how helpful it would be to have a district wide website that would facilitate the flow of information between teachers and the district and among teachers about issues facing special education teachers. Such a site was established under the professional development plan.
  4. A number of action research studies concluded that there was, as Jack Jorgensen explained, "a need to provide professional certification for teachers so that they can be more prepared to work with students who have disabilities other than the ones the teachers are trained in." This kind of professional development was incorporated into the plan.
  5. A number of action research studies focused on the need for teachers to learn about effective strategies for working in partnership with regular education teachers. This kind of professional development was also incorporated into the plan.
  6. Several action research studies discovered the need for more professional development for special education assistants. A professional development program for these assistants was initiated in the fall of 2000.


While the teacher action research project proved to be enormously beneficial to individual teachers and schools, and according to Jorgensen even had a significant impact on the district level special education policies and practices, at the same time, maintaining on-going communication between the district and the teachers about the extent of the district-level impact was challenging. As a consequence, while the teachers were very impressed with Jorgensen's attendance and interaction with them at research meetings, in follow up interviews most expressed dubiousness that their work had actually influenced district level planning. This was consistently true despite the fact that the action research groups had been cited as sources of influence on the professional development plan in both oral presentations and printed information about the plan.

The teachers' lack of knowledge about the role of their studies on the district stemmed from a couple of key factors. First, most of the teachers conducted studies on aspects of their own work with students and consequently did not expect their research to impact district level administration. Participants repeatedly suggested that their work was not generalizeable to the district level even though it had been enormously beneficial to them. Secondly, while the teachers may have been interested in taking advantage of the professional development opportunities that resulted in part from their own action research studies, they did not for the most part express a keen interest in knowing why those particular opportunities had been made available to them.


This paper has examined the unusual case where a central office school district administrator invested funds to support two teacher action research groups concerned with issues of cross-categorical service delivery in special education with the specific intent of informing district level professional development planning and of more actively involving teachers in shaping the implementation of the new policy. Participating in the research groups had a variety of effects on the fifteen participating teacher researchers, on their classroom practices and students, and on practices in their schools and beyond. These included a greater understanding of the multiple meanings associated with the term cross-categorical programming; greater insight into how staff in a particular building or across the district viewed different program models and their work as special education teachers; useful information about how students had different experiences under various program conditions such as inclusion and pull-out models, and how they viewed these experiences; and the introduction of different classroom practices (e.g., organizational skills study groups for students) that were intended to address problems that were illuminated through teachers' inquiries. Many of the teachers greatly valued the opportunity to interact with colleagues from across the district as well as with the district's Director of Educational Services, and felt professionally strengthened by the experience of being in an action research group.

Although a number of specific links between teachers' research and subsequent district level plans could be identified in our research (e.g., the initiation of a professional development program for first year special education teachers and special education assistants), a few teachers expressed disappointment about the perceived lack of follow-though on their research on the part of their colleagues, schools, or district. From our outside perspective as researchers, we could see that even though a number of issues and recommendations arising from the teachers' inquiries had indeed been incorporated into district planning, the teachers were not always necessarily aware of these actions. Another factor involved in teachers' satisfaction with the level of follow-up from their research was the connection of the building principals to the research. The principals of the fifteen teachers varied in their knowledge of and support for the research studies. Some of the issues raised in the teachers' studies required implementation at the building level rather than at the district level. Some of the principals encouraged the teachers to share their research with the staff of their schools and supported follow-up activities and others did not do so. Strengthening the links of the principals to the action research projects is an issue that will need to be addressed in the future if the research studies of teachers are going to impact school policies and practices to a greater extent.

In the two years since the original effort, Jorgensen has funded four similar action research groups. At the end of each year, participating researchers have come together to share what they have learned with central office staff and building principals, thus ensuring that the Madison Metropolitan School District's commitment to using teacher action research to inform district policy with regard to special education policy and practice continues.


1The total cost per teacher researcher for released time and materials was about $550, with an approximate total cost of $10,000 for the two groups.  Return.

2Abstracts of these reports can be found at

3For more information about the specific philosophy and procedures of the Madison program, see Caro-Bruce & McCreadie (1995); Zeichner, Marion, & Caro-Bruce (1998); and Zeichner, Klehr, & Caro-Bruce (2000). 

4See Caro-Bruce (2000) for examples of the rituals and routines utilized in the groups. 


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