UW–Madison faculty awarded $1.4 million grant to improve professional development for rural special educators

Many rural areas in Wisconsin face a shortage of qualified special education teachers — a trend that shows little sign of decreasing. This often requires school districts to fill gaps by hiring individuals who are not fully licensed.

During the 2015-16 school year, more than half of rural school districts hired at least one “emergency” certified special education teacher, and 24 percent of districts reported that more than half of their special education teachers were emergency certified.

Employing emergency certified educators has been shown to compromise student outcomes, and also leads to high teacher attrition. While emergency certified teachers are required to pursue full licensure as a provision of their employment, fewer than one-third of these individuals ultimately complete the requirements to become fully certified.

Wilkerson, Leko, Doren and Ruppar
Project ACRES is being led by School of Education faculty members (clockwise, from upper-left) Kimber Wilkerson, Melinda Leko, Andrea Ruppar, and Bonnie Doren.

Now, several UW–Madison faculty members have undertaken a study to improve these outcomes. The study investigators, all from the School of Education’s Department of Rehabilitation Psychology and Special Education (RPSE), have been awarded a $1.4 million research grant to develop meaningful professional development specifically for rural special education teachers who are emergency certified. The project is titled Addressing Emergency Certification in Rural Education Settings (Project ACRES), and it is being funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES).

The study investigators include: Kimber Wilkerson, a professor in RPSE, and the faculty director of the Teacher Education Center; Melinda Leko, a professor and department chair in RPSE; Bonnie Doren, an associate professor in RPSE; and Andrea Ruppar, an associate professor in RPSE.

While effective professional development is often time-intensive and expensive, Project ACRES is a fully online intervention that will provide participants with greater flexibility and remove barriers associated with travel across long distances for professional learning opportunities.

“As a group, we’ve been interested in better meeting the needs of special educators who are working without being fully licensed,” said Wilkerson, the principal investigator on the grant. “This problem can be even more pronounced in rural school districts, where special educators can be geographically and professionally isolated. Providing virtual supports to these educators is a matter of practicality.”

Though the UW–Madison researchers designed this study with rural educators in mind, COVID-19 has made the virtual nature of the supports being offered even more timely.

“The pandemic underscored the ways in which supports like virtual coaching and online communities of practice might also be beneficial to educators in any setting,” Wilkerson says. “We are eager to begin this research and share what we learn.”

Learn more about the Project ACRES study on the IES website, here.