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The Future of Special Education: Emerging Visions on the Preparation of Leaders

Spanning several generations, leadership preparation programs in special education have produced the faculty that generate research knowledge and prepare special education teachers. Unfortunately, the challenges facing these programs have reached crisis proportions as reflected in stagnant federal funding and a reduction in the number of doctoral programs. In turn, teacher shortages are significantly impacted by declines in the supply of leadership personnel and faculty to staff teacher education programs. Evidence from the last two decades show unsettling trends. For instance, there has been a 19% reduction in the number of doctoral programs in special education since 2009 (HECSE, 2021). In fact, the number of programs in 2018 reached the lowest level in decades—i.e., fewer doctoral programs than in 1987. This trend translated in a smaller number of special education doctoral graduates than what was reported in 1998 (Smith, 2019). To complicate this situation, faculty retirements likely contribute to the shortage of special education teachers. Smith (2019) reported that between half to two thirds of faculty were expected to retire between 2011 and 2017. This would translate in a 50% reduction in special education faculty and teacher educators, which would cut by 50% the number of new special education teachers and school leaders. Ultimately, these trends would cause an estimated 300 underserved students with disabilities per each missing faculty member (Smith, 2019).

The consequences of this state of affairs are daunting for the future of the workforce in the special education field. Of significance, this is the field with the greatest teacher shortages in the nation. Recent reports indicate that teacher education enrollments were reduced by 38% (Smith, 2019). In California, 60% of first-year special education teachers did not have full credentials in the 2017-18 school year (HECSE, 2021). Because of the special education teacher shortage, there has been an increase in the employment of long-term substitute teachers; most of these individuals have minimal education training (HECSE, 2021). Between 2005 and 2012, there was a 17% decline in the number of special education teachers, while the number of special education students increased by 400,000 pupils (HECSE, 2021). This situation deepens longstanding inequities as teacher shortages are more acute in high-poverty schools where unqualified and novice teachers tend to be disproportionately represented (HECSE, 2021). Meanwhile, Smith (2019) reported that only 17% of general education teachers feel prepared to teach students with mild/moderate disabilities.

To summarize, the eroding investments in special education leadership preparation are associated with a shrinking number of researchers and teacher education faculty. These trends contribute to special education teacher shortages, which subsequently compounds educational inequities for learners with disabilities and for students in high-need schools. These supply-demand imbalances are worsening at a time when socio-economic, racial and educational inequalities are reaching unprecedented levels in the United States. Academic performance gaps persist, racial disparities in disability identification and school discipline outcomes affect many regions in the nation and educational opportunities are significantly reduced for students of color. What are the implications of these trends for the next generation of leadership preparation programs? How should we design and implement programs to meet these technical and moral challenges? I invited colleagues from two university consortia that were recently funded by the Office of Special Education Programs to reflect on these trends and share how each partnership designed their leadership preparation program. I expect their design ideas and experiences will stimulate conversations and offer insights about this timely and consequential educational practice challenge. For a related discussion on disability intersections in special education teacher education see this blog.

The first partnership is Project INCLUDE—Inclusive Consortium of Leaders in Urban Disabilities Education. The team is comprised of faculty from Florida International University, Arizona State University, and Syracuse University. The second team is the Stanford University/University of Kansas partnership. A list of the contributing faculty and doctoral students is presented at the end of the blog. Each partnership responds below to the questions I posed about the future of leadership preparation in special education.

  1. What are the top 2-3 demands/needs in the preparation of special and inclusive education scholars given the contemporary social and cultural conditions of education and society?


The field of education is experiencing a generational and ideological shift. Our country, too, has become far more diverse, as well as more politicized and polarized than ever before. Similarly, our educational systems have had to confront a range of competing ideologies and commitments. As critical special educators, we are deeply committed to promoting equitable educational experiences for the highly diverse populations we serve. As a field, we are facing shortages of highly qualified special education faculty at institutes of higher education, particularly those from diverse and minoritized backgrounds and those who are prepared to support multiply minoritized students with disabilities within inclusive urban settings.  Faculty entering the field must not only be culturally competent, but also intersectionally conscious, in order to prepare educators to meet the complex needs of multiply minoritized students with disabilities. Such competencies and consciousness include the ability to: address bias and social inequities; implement high leverage, culturally sustaining, evidence-based practices in inclusive settings; and collaborate with other professionals.

Despite the increasing diversity of our nation and the research showing that students of color who are educated by teachers of color have better outcomes, teachers of color make up only 18 percent of the teaching profession. This percentage is similar when it comes to special education faculty. With an estimated 21 percent of the special education faculty expected to retire in the near future, it is crucial that we prepare a new generation of scholars who are well prepared to tackle the complexities and challenges of increasingly diverse schools and communities, particularly when it comes to providing instruction for students who experience marginalization based on the intersections of race, ethnicity, language, ability, gender, and social class.

When there are shortages of special education faculty in higher education, whether in terms of sheer numbers, diversity, or competence in tackling persisting challenges for students with disabilities, those same shortages carry over into P-12 schools, ultimately leading to a teaching force that is ill-prepared to meet the needs of multiply marginalized students with disabilities. This leads to negative outcomes including disproportionate representation of minoritized students in special education, ineffective instructional strategies and service delivery models, and high drop-out rates.

Within the current socio-political climate of education, the most pivotal demand on the field includes preparing a new generation of diverse, culturally competent scholars who are prepared to shift the field away from deficit-based models of disability, toward embracing a more culturally cognizant and socially just model of practice. As a field, we must reexamine our ideological commitments and adopt anti-ableist and anti-racist practices. Solving such complex educational problems will require increased diversity of research methods, theoretical frameworks, and educational practices and approaches. By leveraging the diversity of research expertise and agendas of our faculty, the INCLUDE consortium exposes our scholars to these complementary strengths and approaches to prepare them to tackle complex issues faced by multiply minoritized students with disabilities, and to meet the research and teaching needs to move the field forward.

Stanford University/University of Kansas partnership

We must respond to the urgent need to prepare scholars who are capable of, and committed to, advancing system-wide equity, access, and opportunities to learn and participate for students whose learning needs have been historically marginalized.  To undertake this agenda requires deliberate work between faculty and students to understand and uncover the complex intersections and responses to markers of ability, language, race, ethnicity, religion, gender, and sexuality that saturate learning contexts and processes.  These are controversial, poorly understood spaces that scholars need to inhabit, understand, mobilize, and learn in and from.  Structural, systemic, historical, cultural, economic, and linguistic advantages propel some individuals and groups to benefit disproportionately from opportunities to participate, be challenged (but not discouraged), and experience the satisfaction of achievement.  The cumulative effect of multiple experiences of success, attributed (inaccurately) to effort and ability, offer a substantial scaffold for adult accomplishment and well-being in careers and personal life.  An absence of any one of these factors, because of membership in a marginalized group, may not be enough to tilt the equity scale but in combination can adversely affect progress through school and may contribute to achievement gaps and graduation failures.

Current events cannot be denied.  Education scholars, researchers, policy makers, and practitioners must acknowledge the role that public education played in the votes of more than 72,000,000 Americans in November of 2020 to re-elect as President a white supremacist with strong anti-democratic leanings. Future scholarship needs to be directed to the question of how a sizable portion of the population became susceptible to outright lies and misinformation concerning the nature of day-to-day reality, including a mistrust of science. Interdisciplinary scholars must engage with people with dis/abilities, their families, and educators to examine not only how some became susceptible, but in what ways and for whom science has been historically untrustworthy, and how we might mitigate that in future scholarship.  How can scholars engage in inquiry, for example, in ways that build trust and collegiality with marginalized populations?  Understanding and responses to these troubling contexts should percolate throughout the doctoral experience through interdisciplinary research, policy study, and community engagement. Next, we reflect on the requirements facing future special education scholars.

Prepare to do the Cultural Work of Personal, Community and Organizational Practice

Scholars need to begin to address the need to reform special education (maybe beginning with the name - “special”). The term is outdated and reflects a time where we believed students with “disabilities” needed special treatment; we now know it is possible to hold high expectations for all students given a system of personalized supports and services from which all kids benefit. Reform must be done as part of a systems-level change endeavor to include populations that have been marginalized as history has shown; retrofitting our bureaucratized system that is inefficient and ineffective is an imperative. It is not enough for today’s scholars to address the need for reform, but also to understand what such reform will look like. Systems redesign begins with the most marginalized students centered so that all students may benefit.

There is an inflection point that we struggle with and want to continue to explore and reframe.  On the one hand, the notion of “inclusion” has been advanced for 40+ years.  Fitful, contradictory research and policy initiatives have resulted in minimal change in the structural design of special education. Despite valiant policy efforts, little change beyond establishing the right to education has occurred, particularly for students who require extensive supports and services.  A newer terrain focused on equity, inclusivity, and social justice should be the guiding compass.  It will help organize effort on dismantling an infrastructure that assists segregation and relies on a binary arc between inclusion and exclusion.

Inclusivity is part of a comprehensive equity agenda.  Together, advancing inclusivity, equity, and diversity translates into the redistribution of human, material, and intellectual resources so that all students experience the opportunities of a powerful learning system.   Social justice requires directly addressing marginalization factors that are intersectionally linked such as race, language, ability, gender, and sexuality. 

Interdisciplinary Research

Acknowledging, understanding, and redressing the myriad and intersectional forms of exclusion, marginalization, and power accumulation in practice requires historical and contemporary analysis of how marginalization and inclusion evolve.  To study and attempt to reform systems without knowledge of the forms of oppression that seep through systems will fail to achieve equity for all students.  This includes acknowledging how science itself and its methods can disconnect lived experience from the benchwork of data analysis and interpretation.  An important emphasis in our partnership is on engaging research with research partners from multiple disciplines.

Policy Engagement

Scholars must become aware of the dangers of pursuing funding that can undermine efforts to reform when researchers convolute their methods to meet funding requirements. Scholars need to engage the work of policy reform predicated on the redistribution of access to and participation in quality opportunities to learn.  They need opportunities to consider how the recognition and valuing of all student differences can and should be reflected in content, pedagogy, and assessment tools. Further, active engagement in the creation of more opportunities for non-dominant groups to advance claims of educational exclusion and their respective solutions should be central to all forms of scholarship. 

Community Engagement within and beyond Academic Institutions

The culture of academia itself needs to be considered as we envelope our doctoral students in advancing knowledges.  We note that special education is othered even in graduate coursework. Graduate schools of education are not leading the charge to pursue inclusivity writ large; special education remains relegated to the margins. The movement towards inclusivity, diversity, and equity does not center dis/ability.  Many graduate schools separate curriculum and teaching, learning, and/or instruction and special education departments. These departmental separations compartmentalize student learning and credentials.  Students are left to combat the compartmentalization within individual programs of study. The institutions that prepare next generation educators can do better. This partnership foregrounds the need to ensure that every educator has the tools to participate in educating every child.  To do this work, we ask these questions:

  • How shall the mantle of privilege in academic spaces be reconstructed to address access, opportunity, equity, and inclusivity? 
  • Whose voices should be lifted?
  • What hierarchies need to be dismantled? 
  • What new forms of learning, inquiry, and mobilization should be created or accelerated?

The aim of doctoral programs should be to disrupt the extant power differential in schooling. Scholars need to work on ways to adopt a different underlying framework for education, moving away from medical and deficit models that permeate IDEA.  In terms of coursework, all doctoral students should chart a course that equips them with ways to examine schema within the field.  Their practice must include learning to filter sense making in research publications to understand how publications can and should be used and interpreted.  Doctoral education should challenge conventions about the goals of education, examine authoritarianism in schools, and explore the ways in which school may contribute to creating susceptible and vulnerable citizens. 

Understanding the historical underpinnings of the U.S. education system offers opportunities for insight and transformation.  Key to the future is instilling a life-long commitment to learn and sustain iterative efforts to improve outcomes.  Together, scholars, researchers, and PK-12 educators need to support rapid shifts in how the teaching force understands its work and the tools that they use to conduct practice. The current organization of learning in classrooms and the distribution of highly skilled teachers makes delivering high quality learning outcomes challenging.  Many of these challenges are compounded for special educators who struggle with discipline knowledge and leveraging access to the curriculum for students whose skills and needs can be very different than other students in the same grade.

  1. Are there design structures or components that these doctoral programs should incorporate in order to respond to these demands/needs?
    • How does this new generation of doctoral programs differ from programs implemented 1-2 decades ago?
    • Are there levers or opportunities at this point in history that we should use to advance the next generation of doctoral education in special and inclusive education?


Our consortium structure is well suited to respond to the demands of contemporary social and cultural conditions of education and society. By linking our institutions, our scholars have a more robust and diverse network of faculty, alumni mentors, and peers built into their doctoral experience. Scholars entering a doctoral program a decade or two ago might have worked with one faculty mentor in a protege model of doctoral training. This model contributed to an insular and siloed model of knowledge production in the field. Instead, we envision our cross-institution partnership and shared cohort as a ready-made national (and international) network that will follow our scholars into their careers--opening up lines for collaborative research, demystifying the academy, and fostering scholarly community.

Our consortium is purposely diverse—as institutional partners, we represent a minority/Hispanic serving research public institution, a large public research university, and a mid-sized private research university. Although all three institutions are connected to urban school districts, FIU and ASU are home to areas with large Latinx populations, SU is located in upstate NY, an area that welcomes large numbers of New Americans, and both ASU and SU have deep ties to the local Indigenous American nations upon whose unceded land they now occupy. These contexts matter in ways that traditional special education programs have yet to embrace. Thus, the opportunities for our students to not only  theorize about the intersections of disability and race, ethnicity, linguistic diversity, and poverty, but also find ways to engage in diverse communities and schools within and across our consortium contexts is a unique and vitally important opportunity afforded by our project.

With diversity comes complexity and the need to bring diverse perspectives and methods to bear on our work in order to address inequities that multiply minoritized students continue to face in schools. By grounding our project in culturally sustaining inclusive practice, we hope to push back against some of the more intransigent institutionalized structures that contribute to overrepresentation of students of color in special education, the school-to-prison nexus, and more. We also ground this work in the current political climate--a climate that has seen a rise in anti-black and anti-immigrant ideologies and an increased recognition of the politicized nature of schooling/education. At the same time, we have also witnessed the energy and activism of youth and communities pushing for a better and more just future. The pandemic, too, has forced the consortium to use technology and digital tools in new and innovative ways. Although this has presented challenges, it has also afforded the consortium opportunities to engage scholars in activities, such as virtual lectures, film screenings, and shared coursework that may not have been possible without these digital tools. Entering their first year of doctoral training in the middle of a pandemic and within the current political climate marked by a rise of white supremacy and hate groups as well as climate activism and Black Lives Matter protests in response to police brutality and state sanctioned violence, has provided an extraordinary opportunity for our scholars to dedicate their doctoral work to the collective struggles for equity, access, inclusion, and transformation that this current moment demands.

Stanford University/University of Kansas partnership

In fits and starts, the US has progressed, albeit it slow and unsteady, towards realizing its constitutional emancipatory values. The four years of the Trump administration were punctuated by Charlottesville, the violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, and the deaths of Michael Brown, Philando Castile, Terence Crutcher, George Floyd, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Botham Jean, Charleena Lyles, Elijah McClain, Breonna Taylor and many other African Americans who were victims of biased, raced systems of policing. The new, mainstream presence of far-right extremist battles over the use of imagery from the confederacy in national and state parks and monuments reflects a nation in turmoil over its origin history.  We cannot teach the knowledge and practice of special or inclusive education without its full and complete connection to this past with particular reference to the eugenics movement, the sterilization of individuals with disabilities, the use of institutions to warehouse individuals with disabilities, and the deplorable inattention to the needs of adults with disabilities and their families.  In 2015, 32 men and women with disabilities were awarded $240 million in damages for their systematic exploitation on a turkey farm in Iowa.  We want to participate in creating systems in which this kind of exploitation is untenable.

Levers are emerging that are likely to constitute the next chapter of emancipatory advances in education.  These include BLM, Me Too, defund the police/SROs, LGBTQ+, and increased attention to the rights of indigenous peoples.  Utilizing these emergent levers will require a focus within doctoral programs, on the meaning, uses, and shifts in identities, knowledges, ways of knowing, and representing what is being learned.  Culture itself must be a hallmark of what we examine, construct, and interpret.  Critical race theory and Dis/Crit have a place in that agenda alongside cultural psychology, a panoply of research methodologies, and interdisciplinarity.  COVID 19 emphasized the deep-seated inequities in our educational system; the closure of schools and their eventual reopening provide an opportunity to restructure what we mean by education.  Finally, it is clear from the recent election results that democracy is quite fragile and that we need to be doing a much better job of engaging students in the realm of civics.

  1. You were funded to implement doctoral programs involving partnerships among two or three universities.
    • What are the affordances of doctoral preparation partnerships?
    • What is the theory of action underlying your partnership?
    • What are unique features of your partnership?
    • What indicators will you use to gauge the outcomes of your partnerships and why are these indicators significant?


We aim to prepare doctoral scholars to engage in culturally sustaining evidence-based practices to improve outcomes of high needs students with disabilities in diverse and inclusive urban settings. We integrate Day’s (2000) framework for leadership development with intersectionality to inform the project’s conceptual framework.

Day’s framework focuses on three contextual lenses: conceptual, experiential, and research as the basis of knowledge, skills, and interpersonal competencies necessary for leadership. Focusing on the needs of students at the intersections of disability, race, cultural and linguistic diversity, socioeconomic status, immigration/refugee status, and/or other sociocultural categories (Boveda & Aronson, 2019), our conceptual framework incorporates intersectionality to address complex educational inequities. Specifically, we seek to develop the competencies of our future special education scholars and teacher educators in the following domains:

  • Expand the knowledge base in culturally sustaining Evidence Based Practices (EBPs);
  • Increase knowledge and application of research methods;
  • Develop expertise in effective teaching and supervision; and
  • Build leadership skills through mentored internships.

But what knowledge, experiences, and research methodologies will have the largest impact on advancing our goal of more equitable access, inclusion, and equity for multiply-minoritized students with disabilities? It turns out that answering this is quite difficult and complex when you engage even a small group of scholars whose work is within the same field!

Initially, despite collaboratively writing and winning the award, as a group we couldn’t even agree on the language to use to identify the students we intended to serve. To some in our consortium, the term culturally and linguistically diverse (CLD) students was too narrow; we couldn’t seem to move beyond this issue. After several impasses, we hired a facilitator to support us in embarking on this initial conversation.

We moved away from the language CLD and began to talk about the vision for preparing special educators for multiply minoritized students. Not only did this new framing better align with our theoretical framework centering intersectionality, but we found this language so much more inclusive of the populations we aimed to serve, as it included disability, race, CLD students, socioeconomic status, immigration/refugee status, and/or other sociocultural categories within its reach.

Still, some of our faculty had more experience and confidence talking about race and unpacking their personal biases, than others. However, as we experienced the collective trauma of COVID, racial tensions, and political unrest, our project and its priorities seemed more important than ever. These events forced our team to shift our lens away from the nuance of the details to developing and planning for the experiences that we believe will help build our INCLUDE scholars’ knowledge and skills for research and teacher education.

In Project INCLUDE, we have embraced the philosophy that it is our differences that strengthen us. These differences in experiences, expertise, and theoretical world views we hold as INCLUDE faculty help ensure that our students are receiving robust and well-rounded preparation as both scholars and teacher educators.

Stanford University/University of Kansas partnership

One affordance is certainly access to different communities of scholars and students.  University departments tend to become homegrown in the sense of nurturing their own unique cultures.  Partnering with departments of other universities provides exposure to new ideas, systems, policies, and practices.  Further, partnerships offer the promise of greater interdisciplinary engagement with scholars. 

We are invested in a theory of action that guides us in preparing scholars who will advance the cause of merging special education more fully into general education through interdisciplinary policy foci.  Our partnership is unique in representing a public/private partnership of two strong, policy-oriented departments with valuable cross fertilization of ideas. 

Faculty previously at KU and now at Stanford help to facilitate bridging the distinct cultures of two prestigious programs.  Our students will each spend time in residence on both partner campuses to become immersed in the culture of scholarship and ideas of both schools of education.  A joint seminar brings faculty and students from both campuses together to share student ongoing products monthly. The seminar functions as an ongoing, sustaining, themed learning lab focused on supporting student and faculty learning and research together.  The programs of study for each student include opportunities for research and teaching internships.  Annual student reviews offer students an opportunity to share their progress in research, teaching, and service with an emphasis on support student engagement in research and knowledge mobilization.  The partnership will rely on a set of indicators with which to gauge the outcomes of its mission.  For example, we will examine the content and quality of student written products for evidence of cross-pollination of ideas and advancement of our theory of change.  We will follow their research learning how they engage with people with dis/abilities, marginalized communities, and policy makers to inform and support change.  We will track how our graduates position themselves to influence research practices, policy, and the design of educational systems. We believe this collaborative work will have lasting impact on the next generation of inclusive education leaders.

About the Contributors

    Alfredo J. Artiles is Lee L. Jacks Professor of Education at Stanford University.

    Project INCLUDE
    Florida International University: Elizabeth Cramer and Michelle Cumming
    Syracuse University: Beth Ferri, Julia White, and Christine Ashby
    Arizona State University: Amber Benedict, Mildred Boveda, and Sherman Dorn
    Stanford University/University of Kansas Partnership
    Stanford University: Elizabeth Kozleski, Rebecca Silverman, Madison Bunderson, Elena Darling-Hammond, Kristen Jackson, Robert Wachtel Pronovost
    University of Kansas: Wayne Sailor, Tom Skrtic, Ky Cosand, Samantha Ellerbeck, Juli Taylor 


Boveda, M., & Aronson, B. A. (2019). Special education preservice teachers, intersectional diversity, and the privileging of emerging professional identities.Remedial and Special Education, 40 (4), 248-260.

Day, D.V. (2000). Leadership development: A review in context.The Leadership Quarterly,11, 581-613.

HECSE (Higher Education Consortium in Special Education) (2021). Fact Sheet - The Shortage of Special Education Teachers and Higher Education Faculty. Author.

Smith, D. D. (2019, July). Déjà vu all over again: A time for new studies about the supply of and demand for special education faculty. Presentation at the Higher Education Consortium for Special Education Summer Institute in Vail, CO.