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Study Overview

The overall goals of Project ACRES (Addressing Emergency Certification in Rural Education Settings) are to:

develop, revise, and document the feasibility and usability
test the promise of a multicomponent professional development (PD) intervention for early career special educators in rural settings, including those on emergency licenses.

Project ACRES is based on prior theory and research on (a) special education EBPs and HLPs pertaining to behavior management and (b) critical elements of PD that result in more effective teachers and better student outcomes. The project aligns PD best practices to ensure early career special educators in rural settings master and adopt behavior management special education EBPs and HLPs. Increased and effective use of EBPs and HLPs will result in improved student educational outcomes and increased retention of special education teachers in rural schools.

Teacher Shortages in Special Education:

Vacant teaching positions cause substantial numbers of students with disabilities (at a 16:1 student/teacher ratio) to be underserved (McLeskey et al., 2004). Some of the most pressing shortages of special education teachers are in rural, geographically remote areas where vacancies are difficult to fill (Rude, 2002). The purpose of Project ACRES is to address the shortage of special educators in rural communities by developing, revising, documenting the feasibility and usability, and testing the promise of a multicomponent professional development (PD) program for early career special educators.

PD that includes multiple opportunities to learn, practice, and receive individualized performance feedback is time-intensive and expensive, prompting experts to call for PD research that can be delivered and sustained in more cost-effective ways. Project ACRES is designed to respond to this call by being a fully online intervention. To support rural early career special educators’ access to PD, all components of the intervention are delivered remotely and accessed entirely online. We know from our development work and our feasibility trial, that our fully online PD has provided participants with greater flexibility, including removing barriers associated with travel across long distances for professional learning opportunities.

Support for Behavior Management:

The ACRES PD consists of individualized coaching sessions focused on student behavior and a community of practice. Special education evidence-based practices (EBPs) and high-leverage practices (HLPs) focused on behavior and classroom management span grade levels, content, and service delivery models, thereby being useful and immediately applicable to a large population of early career special educators who may have a wide array of teaching assignments and instructional support roles.

The effective and sustained use of special education EBPs and HLPs provides early career special education teachers with multiple practices at their disposal in their direct work with students. These features are particularly important for geographically-isolated special educators within rural school districts who are more likely to lack access or support to implement these practices. Project ACRES is designed to investigate the effect of the intervention on (a) special educators’ intent to stay in the profession, (b) special educators’ self-efficacy, and (c) K-12 learner engagement.

In Years 1–3 of Project ACRES, our team used mixed-methods and design-based research to collect data and input to develop, revise, and refine the intervention components and accompanying measures of usability, feasibility, fidelity and anticipated teacher and student outcomes. In Year 3 of our project, we also conducted a feasibility study of the ACRES PD. This included: recruiting special educators to participate in the trial; recruiting, training, and onboarding experienced special education teachers to work as Project ACRES coaches; developing and delivering a training and orientation to Project ACRES coaches; and finalizing and professionalizing content for our coaching protocols and community of practice processes and procedures. We are currently in Year 4 of our research and are conducting a pilot study to examine the impact of the ACRES PD for teachers assigned to our intervention, or “treatment” group, on outcomes compared to our comparison group teachers. Teachers assigned to the comparison group will have access to elements of the PD in the 2024-25 academic year.

Project ACRES includes two integrated components designed specifically for early career special educators in rural settings:

Virtual Coaching Ongoing individualized virtual coaching: We provide individualized coaching for teachers that is focused on teaching and supporting the use of EBPs and HLPs. This will be accompanied by ongoing assessment and coaching in areas of need. Coaching includes:  cycles of teaching and reflection where teachers learn a new tool, implement the tool, and reflect on the implementation with their coach. 

Virtual Community of Practice Virtual community of practice: Facilitated by project staff, our community of practice brings together Project ACRES teacher participants and coaches to engage in group problem solving practices, share knowledge and experiences, and build connections to a professional community. 

Project ACRES is a Development and Innovation project that is supported by a 4 year grant from the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) within the topic area of Professional Development for Educators and School-Based Service Providers.