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Ahead of the curve

Alumni Douglas and Lynn Fuchs are eliminating failure as the gateway to special education

Douglas and Lynn Fuchs, Ph.D.s ’78 and ’81, met as undergraduates in Baltimore. Doug was studying psychology at Johns Hopkins University; Lynn was studying humanities and math. He had grown up in New York City and Long Island; she was originally from rural New Jersey.

When they discovered a shared interest in children, the two started a Saturday school for children who lived in their low-income neighborhood. Before long, the city of Baltimore provided funding to develop the Saturday school into a summer program that served 70 inner-city children.

“More than anything else at the time,” says Doug, “our relationships with these neighborhood kids presaged our lifelong interest in trying to make a difference in the lives of children, especially those disadvantaged by poverty or disability.”

There’s no doubt the two have made a difference. Today, Lynn leads a program of research on math disabilities while Doug concentrates more on reading disabilities. Both are Nicholas Hobbs Professors of Special Education and Human Development at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, and as a team they are a powerhouse.

In 2009, Forbes magazine named Doug and Lynn Fuchs as two of 14 revolutionary educators. Thomson Reuters identified them among the 250 most frequently-cited researchers in the social sciences in the United States in the decade from 2000 to 2010.

Curriculum-based measurement (CBM) is at the heart of their research. The two were introduced to CBM as doctoral students in educational psychology at the University of Minnesota. Here they studied with professor Stan Deno, Ph.D. ’65, who developed CBM in the early 1970s with Phyllis Mirkin, Ph.D. ’78.

CBM data are relatively simple for practitioners to collect and valid for making instructional decisions. Over time, a teacher systematically varies instructional components for a student, measures the effects of the variation on student performance, and—using the data—chooses the components that produce strong learning and eliminates those that don’t.

“In this fashion, the teacher designs an individually-tailored—and effective—instructional program for each student,” says Lynn.

To explain CBM’s potential value, Lynn compares it to the Apgar test, the simple indicator of a newborn’s health that revolutionized the way doctors decide whether and how to intervene. With this tool introduced in the 1950s, the newborn mortality rate fell from 1 in 30 in the 1930s to 1 in 500 today.

Similarly, CBM assessments given repeatedly and systematically over time help teachers determine whether and how to make changes to a student’s instructional program. Rigorous experimental studies have demonstrated that relying on CBM to develop instruction can improve outcomes for students with disabilities and other low-achieving, non-disabled children.

With CBM, “failure” in a mainstream classroom is no longer a prerequisite for getting the special education students need.

Doug and Lynn Fuchs were among the first in a long line of doctoral students who have studied under Deno. They in turn have provided a similar environment and high standards for the next generation of doctoral students. One former advisee, Kristin McMaster, is now on the educational psychology faculty at the University of Minnesota. McMaster introduced her mentors in September 2011 when they returned to their alma mater to deliver lectures for an international summit of special education experts.

At the summit, Doug described the history and prospects of Smart RTI—response to intervention—the method he and Lynn helped pioneer for screening learning disabilities and levels of response. Lynn gave a parallel presentation about CBM. Doug urged participants to consider what they could infuse into skill-based instruction from cognitive education to reach more at-risk children.

The summit reflected an important facet of the history of the College of Education and Human Development, where curriculum-based measurement was conceived. The University has now produced three generations of CBM researchers who have made a major impact on the field of educational psychology, education practice, and policy, “from Washington, D.C., to the school building down the street,” as Doug describes it.

Doug and Lynn Fuchs are two of the key figures in that history.

Learn more about Doug Fuchs and Lynn Fuchs and view their presentations at the 2011 summit on special education.

Photo by Joe Howell, Vanderbilt University | March 2012

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