The purpose of this paper presentation is to provide overall findings generated from a research project funded by the Swedish Research Council concerning special educators’ education and work. The role of special educators, and their counterparts, is discussed in relation to implications for the development of inclusive education. The overarching research question concerns how special educators identify and shape their occupational role. More specifically the research questions presented below are:
According to special educators, what characterizes the professional knowledge and values they claim that they represent? (Study 1)
What tasks do special educators consider to be characteristic of their occupational role, as practiced by them? (Study 1)
On what grounds can special educators claim special expertise concerning the identification of, and work with, school difficulties? (Study 1)
To what extent are special educators and to what extent are support teachers assigned to work with special support in ten municipalities in Sweden? (Study 2)
What work tasks characterize/constitute the occupational role of special educators, and what work tasks characterize/constitute the occupational role of support teachers? (Study 2)
What work tasks do special educators and what work tasks do support teachers believe should characterize the two occupational roles? (Study 2)
What characterizes the work tasks of six special educators who pursue a typical special educator role according to their survey ratings? (Study 3)
What characterizes the contexts in which the six special educators enact their professional roles? (Study 3)
Our theoretical point of departure is Skrtic’s (1991, 1995) reasoning concerning special education as a parallel system to regular education, which in turn, counteracts the development of inclusion. We also use Abbott’s (1988) notions of division of labor and jurisdictional control in order to better understand the formation of special educators’ role as well as conditions for special educators to develop inclusive practices. In study two, Skrtic’s (1991, 1995) theoretical accounts of inclusive education, and Abbott’s (1988) notion of jurisdictional control is specifically used to gain further understanding about the formation of special educators’ and support teachers’ role in relation to implications for inclusion. In study 3, a typology of school contexts (Ball et al., 2012) is used to describe the complex local contexts in which special educators enact their professional roles.
From an international viewpoint, this research project is of value for several reasons. Firstly, it involves large-scale data collections. While it has long since been common to use questionnaires in special needs research in order to study the views of different occupational groups, mostly teachers, it is still uncommon to study large samples of groups that are influential in special needs work (Göransson et al., 2015). Secondly, the education of special educators in Sweden is from an international perspective not at all typical. In Sweden a special educator has to study one and a half years (advanced level) following a degree in teaching in order to get a degree as a special educator. Thus, Swedish special educators have received comparatively more education than their counterparts in most other European countries (Göransson et al., submitted). This is of special interest since, thirdly, Sweden is still considered to have one of the most ‘inclusive’ educational systems in the world (OECD, 2011).
The project consists of three separate, yet linking studies. The first study is a questionnaire study which investigates all special educators in Sweden who were examined in the years and in accordance with the Swedish Examination Acts of 2001, 2007 and 2008 (N= 4252, 75% response rate). Thus, the first study is a total-population study of special educators in Sweden. The second study is a questionnaire study as well. It was distributed to all special educators and support teachers in ten municipalities (n=511, 61.6% response rate). Both questionnaires were distributed in 2012. Descriptive statistics are mostly used in the presentation of the data from the two questionnaires, since whole populations were studied. In questionnaire # 2, two independent samples t-tests were also used when data was analyzed. In study 3, case-study methodology (Merriam, 1992) was used to illustrate the complexity of enactment of special educator roles in local school contexts. Through purposive sampling, six participants were chosen from study 2 to represent typical special educators. Following criteria were used: (a) reported tasks corresponded to examination statutes (b) participants reported that they could influence the work at school. Within each case, data were collected using participant observations, diary recordings, and interviews with special educators, headmasters and teachers. Data analysis within and across cases was conducted to discern special educator roles and tasks as well as the contexts in which the roles were enacted.
According to the first study, special educators display a relational perspective on school difficulties. Regarding the mission of education they seem to represent what might be called an ‘equity discourse’ (cf. Englund and Quennerstedt, 2008), which is quite contradictory to the current education agenda, focusing excellence, increased goal attainment and accountability (Göransson et al., 2013). Special educators believe that they are well prepared to work with some tasks, such as counseling, leading development work and teaching children/pupils individually or in groups. Concurrently, there are tasks that they are educated for (e.g. school-development work), which they seldom practice. We discuss special educators’ authority to claim special expertise in relation to certain kinds of work, clients and knowledge (Abbott, 1988). Results from the second study indicate that there are wide variations between municipalities regarding to what extent special educators or support teachers work with special support. The characteristics of the occupational role of special educators are more in line with inclusive practices than the role of support teachers. Moreover, special educators consider that support teachers should work more as ‘traditional special teachers’, than do the support teachers themselves. In study 3, six categories of work tasks were discerned: teaching, social relational work, assessment, informing and following up, supporting and providing materials, school-development, and practical chores. The time devoted to these tasks varied among the six special educators. Related to Abbott’s concept of professional jurisdiction, it can be questioned whether the tasks the special educators as a group claim control over are unique to the profession. While teaching and assessment are typical across all cases, special educators’ conceptions of school-development tasks are quite different. How the role is enacted is also related to local school contexts (Ball et al., 2012), as situated school contexts, the material contexts and values and experiences of staff.
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