Facing the challenge of a greying profession, University of Arizona faculty member John Umbreit has earned a highly competitive grant to train two cohorts of students toward becoming professors of special education.
The U.S. Department of Education's Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services named Unbreit principal investigator of a five-year $1 million grant to recruit six students. A nationwide recruitment push is under way, with the first cohort of three UA students slated to begin studying in August.
"These grants are getting extremely hard to win” said Ron Marx, the UA College of Education dean. “Getting this grant is a sign of the high esteem in which our special education programs are held nationally."
Carl Liaupsin, chair of the UA's special education unit in the College of Education, said national data suggests two trends "that demonstrate the importance of developing new professors in the field of special education. One is the continuing shortage of well-qualified special education teachers across the country."
Liaupsin and Umbreit said another trend is occurring: There already exists a shortage of faculty in special education programs at higher education institutions across the nation.
"The number of programs that produce faculty is small, and most people are retiring," said Umbreit, a UA professor of disability and psychoeducational studies. "The need for special education is not getting smaller, but larger. Also, the financial support for these types of programs is half what it was even 10 years ago."
Since the 1980s, Umbreit has received numerous grants from the U.S. Department of Education office, called OSERS, the Arizona Department of Education and other agencies aimed at preparing faculty members to work with students with emotional and behavioral disorders and to be culturally responsive and to initiate training programs for behavioral support specialists and teachers who work with students who have severe and multiple disabilities.
The newly funded four-year training program at the UA will carry a number of unique features.
Students will participate in an internship at a high-quality, high-needs school in the Tucson area. The UA students will have the option of choosing the school. Also depending on their professional interests and school resources, they may teach, work in after-school programs, manage certain programs or shadow educators and administrators.
In their third year of the program, students will spend a portion of the time studying at another institution of their choice with a noted faculty member in a specialty area. Those faculty may then become members of the students' dissertation committees.
"Research externships are not common in this field" as compared with disciplines in the sciences, technology or engineering, Umbreit said. "But it is something we have done in the past because we think it enhances students' preparation and gives them a leg up when seeking positions as professors."
"The experience is so important. They get to be like faculty while still being students. It's a pivotal experience," Umbreit also said, adding that the host faculty will not have to provide additional funding for the students. In most cases, students likely will teach while also conducting research at their host institution.
Also, over the course of the program, the students will receive a tuition stipend along with $30,000 in annual funding. The second cohort of students is expected to begin its studies in 2014.
Liaupsin, also an associate professor of disability and psychoeducational studies, said the funding amount is especially noteworthy.
"Funding for full-time study is a critical feature in attracting high-quality doctoral students from a national pool of candidates," Liaupsin said, adding that candidates will have taught for several years after earning undergraduate degrees before returning for their master's degree work in special education.
"At that point in their lives, most have secure jobs and family and community ties that make it difficult for them to consider the pursuit of a doctoral degree," Liaupsin said. "Funding for full-time study is often the incentive that makes it possible for potential doctoral students to commit to four additional years of study."
In pursuing the funding, Umbreit said he also wanted to ensure that students were trained quickly so they could move into professional positions quickly.
"Another thing that is unusual is that while most proposals are funded around specific areas, like autism and learning disabilities, we train in evidence-based practices," Umbreit said.
That means that students will graduate with context-specific skills and knowledge, whether they choose to work with students who have developmental disabilities or those who have visual impairments or learning disabilities. Long-term, the expectation is that the new faculty members will eventually prepare highly qualified special education teachers in a variety of areas.
"It is critical to get good people," Umbreit said, "and they have to have practical teaching experience before they move into the profession."
Liaupsin also noted that the UA's disability and psychoeducational studies department along with the special education unit have had prior success landing grant funding from OSERS.
"The doctoral graduates from these projects have routinely gone on to accept positions at well-respected institutions throughout the U.S.," Liaupsin said.
Of note, UA alumni now are serving as faculty members at institutions that include various University of California campuses, Lehigh University and the University of Texas at Austin as well as universities abroad, such as Bogazici University in Istanbul and Kongju National University in Korea.
Liaupsin said one of the reasons why the UA department and its students have been so successful is because of the strengths of the program.
"Maybe the most overlooked benefit of these doctoral personnel preparation grants involves the improvements that are achieved in our department and college programs," Liaupsin said. "The process for preparing these highly competitive proposals requires that we work together as a faculty to assess our programs, develop well-coordinated course sequences and provide exceptionally high-quality research opportunities for students."