KU researchers land grant to apply self-determination model in schools

Mike Krings

A University of Kansas-developed program has proven effective in helping students with disabilities improve their education and futures by taking an active role in setting their own goals and learning how to work to achieve them. KU researchers have just landed a grant to study the best way to implement the program in schools so teachers have the needed skills to use self-determination in their instruction and continue the program in the future.

The Institute of Education Sciences awarded KU a four-year, $3.3 million grant to study how best to implement the Self-Determined Learning Model of Instruction, or SDLMI, and its effects on teacher and student outcomes. Researchers will work with 15 public high schools in Maryland and a sample of 225 general and special education teachers who work with about 1,300 students in ninth, 10th and 11th grades.

The SDLMI model has proven effective in helping students with disabilities improve their educational outcomes as well as their post-high school transition by deciding what is important in their lives, what they want to achieve, setting goals and learning the skills to work toward those goals. Principal investigator Karrie Shogren, professor of special education and director of the Kansas University Center on Developmental Disabilities within the Life Span Institute, said the project will help develop a better understanding of how the student-directed SDLMI works for all learners.

“Rather than a teacher saying ‘we’re going to read this book,’ for example, teachers will work with students to support students to set goals for what they want to achieve in reading, linking this to short- and long-term goals,” Shogren said. “It’s a way to enhance motivation and help students understand what and why they’re learning. We’re really excited that with this project we’ll be implementing SDLMI classwide with general education and special education teachers. We’ll see if it has more impact.”

Co-principal investigators for the project are Michael Wehmeyer and Kathleen Lane, professors of special education at KU, and Carol Quirk of the Maryland Coalition for Inclusive Education.

The implementation in inclusive classrooms with both general and special education students and teachers is one aspect of the project. The other is a three-level randomized control test in which teachers at the 15 schools will receive one of three levels of training: an initial training, initial training with online supports or training with online supports and coaching. By studying outcomes of students and teacher fidelity to the program, researchers will determine which of the implementation models is most effective. With that knowledge, researchers will be able to design an implementation and training package schools can use to make the program sustainable and independent of researchers or trainers from outside the school district.

“This should pinpoint the best package we need to put together to get SDLMI in schools,” Shogren said. “If coaching is vital, we can determine how to make sure all the supports are in place, independent of us. We want to know what it looks like to get people to implement this and support it without researchers managing it. The idea is to set this up, not only as something to research, but so schools can own it and adapt it on their own.”

The teachers who take part in the various levels of training will represent a wide range of Maryland schools in both urban and rural settings and the students will invariably encompass a wide range of ethnic, socioeconomic and other backgrounds.

The KU research team has been working with teachers in Rhode Island to implement SDLMI and document the improved learning outcomes of students with disabilities who take part. They have also shown that in addition to improved test scores, students who have self-determination as part of their education achieve greater success in the post-school transition, thanks to the “soft skills” such as goal setting and taking charge of their own achievement that they have learned. If the Maryland program is successful, the researchers hope to expand it to more schools in more states and help teachers make self-determination a part of education for all students.

“Once we establish the evidence base, we can implement it further throughout schools,” Shogren said. “We know SDLMI works with students with disabilities. Can we continue that pattern of improvement if we implement this with all students in inclusive environments?”