DLD Research News

Michael Dunn

Research and Evidence-based Practices

By Michael Dunn

A variety of legislation and initiatives, such as No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), have resulted in the need for improved student performance, which in turn has driven evidence-based reforms in special education. Evidence-based practice refers to an approach for instructional decision-making that is informed, but not dictated by, research. That is, research support should not be the only concern when making instructional decisions; rather, practices supported by credible research should be prioritized when they align with stakeholder values, expertise, and experiences. Students with learning disabilities (LD) often experience low outcomes in areas such as reading, writing, and math, and need evidence-based practice to achieve their potentials.

Scholars have developed guidelines for identifying evidence- based practices (i.e., practices supported as highly effective by credible bodies of research) for learners with disabilities (e.g., Council for Exceptional Children, 2014; Gersten et al., 2005; Horner et al., 2005; National Autism Center, 2009; What Works Clearinghouse, 2013). Although these standards differ in their specifics, they all require that evidence-based practices be supported as effective by multiple research studies that: (a) use research designs from which causality can be inferred (e.g., group experimental studies, single-case designs) and (b) address indicators of high quality research.

The Council for Exceptional Children’s Division for Learning Disabilities encourages all stakeholders to engage in evidence- based practice when working with students with LD. That is, alongside student needs, practitioner expertise, and family values, research evidence should be a primary consideration when making instructional decisions. We encourage stakeholders to use existing resources that identify which practices are evidence-based for students with LD (see Santangelo, Ruhaak, Kama, & Cook, 2013 for a discussion of online resources). Implementing evidence-based practices as designed (i.e., with fidelity) can be challenging and should be facilitated by ongoing supports (e.g., coaching; see Cook & Odom, 2013). Additionally, because no practice will work for every learner, it is important that educators formatively assess the performance of students with LD and adjust instruction according to the results, even when using evidence-based practices.


Cook, B. G., & Odom, S. L. (Eds.). (2013). Evidence-based practices and implementation science in special education [special issue]. Exceptional Children, 79(2).

Council for Exceptional Children. (2014). Council for Excep- tional Children standards for evidence-based practices in special education. Retrieved from http://www.cec.sped.org/~/media/ Files/Standards/Evidence%20based%20Practices%20and%20 Practice/CEC%20EBP%20FINAL.pdf

Gersten, R., Fuchs, L. S., Compton, D., Coyne, M., Greenwood, C., & Innocenti, M. S. (2005). Quality indicators for group experimental and quasi-experimental research in special education. Exceptional Children, 71, 149-164.

Horner, R. H., Carr, E. G., Halle, J., McGee, G., Odom, S., & Wolery, M. (2005). The use of single-subject research to identify evidence-based practice in special education. Exceptional Children, 71, 165-179.

National Autism Center. (2009). National standards report. Randolph, MA: Author. Retrieved from http://www.nation alautismcenter.org/pdf/NAC%20Standards%20Report.pdf

Santangelo, T. A., Ruhaak, A. E., Kama, M. L. M., & Cook, B. G. (2013). Constructing effective instructional toolkits: A selective review of evidence-based practices for students with learning disabilities. In B. G. Cook, M. Tankersley, & T. J. Landrum (Eds.), Advances in learning and behavioral disabilities: Evidence-based practices (pp. 221-249). London: Emerald.

What Works Clearinghouse. (2013). Procedures and standards handbook (version 3.0). Retrieved from http://ies.ed.gov/ncee/ wwc/pdf/reference_resources/wwc_procedures_v3_0_ standards_handbook.pdf