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Caseload Study

The question of reasonable caseload size for educators serving students who are blind, deaf, or who have severe disabilities is one that has often been raised by practitioners, but it has rarely been addressed in the published research.

As stated in the Council for Exceptional Children's (CEC) recent Bright Futures Technical Report:

The number one concern of special education teachers responding in a national survey was "caseload"! The answer is not, however, simple arithmetic. The number of students that is deemed a "manageable" caseload depends on age/grade ranges, types and severity of exceptionalities involved, content area expectations for the teacher, and level of support given to the teacher(s) responsible for meeting students' needs.

Teachers say that they are continually being asked to do more for more students with more diverse and intense needs, with less time, materials, or support. What we do know is that special educators across the country are leaving in record high numbers and that overwhelming caseloads is one of the top reasons given for this exodus (2000, Part 5).

Teachers often voice concern about the sizes of their caseloads, but little information is available that describes typical caseloads of teachers in various settings with various students, or shows how different caseload sizes and configurations impact services. Some research has been conducted related to caseload size and class size among special educators (Russ & Chiang, 2001). The research has not, however, addressed the concerns of educators who have voiced the complaint that their caseloads are too large to provide effective services (Correa & Howell, 2002; Luckner & Howell, 2002). The simple truth is that we know next to nothing about actual caseload size and composition for teachers who serve in various settings and perform widely differing roles and responsibilities, and how size and composition impact service time and service quality. This is especially troubling because special education is intended to provide an intensity of support and a level of individualization that necessarily exceeds what is provided to students without disabilities so that they benefit from instruction; yet, we assign service loads to teachers without knowledge of what limits to learning and service provision are associated with different sizes and caseload compositions across different service delivery models.

Completion of this research project will contribute to our knowledge in the field of low-incidence disabilities in several ways. First, the data will yield a comprehensive picture of caseload sizes and configurations for teachers, both those who serve students with low-incidence disabilities and others in special and general education. Because we will have information on the respondent teachers and on the districts in which they reside, we can also describe caseload patterns in relation to factors such as teacher licensure status and models of service delivery, and in terms of rural versus urban population demographics. Second, we will have teacher opinions on the appropriateness of their caseload sizes and configurations. This information will reveal perceptions as to whether students with low-incidence disabilities are receiving services that teachers feel are effective and necessary given their needs. Third, the data will allow us to explore potential correlations between models of service delivery associated with special education services and caseload sizes. Fourth, although the study is presently limited to Colorado, it has the potential to serve both as a stimulus and as a lever for larger discussions and further research at the national level on caseload size and configuration issues. For example, although our study does yield critical descriptive information and some information on teacher perceptions about service delivery adequacy, it will be up to future research to explore in greater depth what standards should guide caseload assignment. Fifth, the information that we will be gathering comes from all three low-incidence fields. This provides the faculty and staff of The National Center with an unprecedented opportunity to work together to explore common concerns, to identify similar problems, and search together for solutions associated with issues that affect us all.

The purpose of this proposed study is to comprehensively examine and be able to describe caseload sizes, caseload configurations, and associated variables for teachers serving students with low-incidence disabilities within the State of Colorado. The data gathered in this study will also allow us to explore how the caseloads of low-incidence special educators compare to the caseloads of high-incidence special educators and to class sizes of general educators. In addition, these data will allow us to explore how students with low incidence disabilities are distributed in relation to teachers with different licensures, and in relation to different service models. To realize these purposes, the returns on an existing state agency annual data gathering process -- an online survey of teachers and other educators -- will be monitored over a five-year period, yielding a data set that represents the population of all teachers in Colorado.

To learn more about this project, contact Ann Sebald at ann.sebald@unco.edu, or Lewis Jackson at lewis.jackson@unco.edu

NCSSD completed Year Three of this five year study. The report is available at Caseload Year Three. The results were also presented at the 2006 CCSETE conference in Breckenridge, Colorado.

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