Meet the Expert: Allison Gandhi

Illustration of AIR expert Allison GandhiAllison Gandhi, Ed.D., directs and implements large research projects at AIR and oversees the organization’s special education practice area.

POSITION: Managing Director and Practice Area Director

AREAS OF EXPERTISE: Special Education, Response to Intervention, Education Policy


Q: What led you to focus your work on special education?

Allison: I actually started at AIR as a research assistant, straight out of college. I was staffed on a lot of projects related to special education, and I became really fascinated with all of the research that was being done on interventions and assessments to help students with disabilities. There was so much emerging evidence about effective ways to individualize instruction, and at the time, I thought, “Wow, look at all this great research happening in special education. If we could apply this to general education, we could really address a lot of issues.” I wanted to learn more and ended up going back to school to study special education policy. 

Q: You serve on both the National Center for Intensive Intervention and the National Center on Response to Intervention, overseeing evidence-based practices, tools, and guidance for students with disabilities. What is one of the most useful, evidence-based tools or practices you’ve come across?

Allison: What I often explain to people about evidence-based practices is that students with disabilities by definition have completely individualized and unique needs. What’s evidence-based for one student is not necessarily evidence-based for another student.

That said, the evidence-based practices we identify through these centers are still very useful. Research has validated these practices to be effective for a majority of students. They’re a good starting point for special educators, who can then adapt them to meet the unique needs of individual students. In special education, the most important kind of evidence is the data you have on your own students’ progress—reviewing that data and continuing to adapt instruction in response to it is the best evidence-based strategy.

Q: What’s an iconic special education study you admire and why?

Image of pullquote from Allison Gandhi Allison: There are two series of studies that I think have, and will, change the field. First is a series of studies from the 1970s to the 1990s on precision teaching and curriculum-based measurement—essentially using data to adapt and individualize instruction. Many of these studies were conducted by Lynn and Doug Fuchs of Vanderbilt University and their colleagues. They set the field on a particular course in terms of their emphasis on using data to adapt and individualize instruction for students with disabilities. Their work was groundbreaking and set the stage for what we know today about progress monitoring, response to intervention, and data-based individualization.

The second is a more recent set of studies, all published in 2019, that use large administrative datasets from large school districts or states to examine the effectiveness of special education. They’re unique because the researchers were able to use sophisticated quasi-experimental methods to mimic a randomized controlled trial, or RCT. Because randomly assigning students to receive special education services or not is both illegal and unethical, the field hasn’t been able to use the “gold standard” method, RCTs, to determine effectiveness of special education. The good news is that all these studies showed, to varying degrees, that special education is effective. And they have opened the door to thinking about new methods for answering important questions about special education that previously we have not been able to answer.

Q: What trends in the field of special education should people pay attention to over the next five to 10 years?

Allison: There are three directions I hope the field moves in. The first is focusing our efforts on training and enhancing the expertise of special educators. Currently and in past years, there’s been a lot of emphasis on training general education teachers to teach students with disabilities. That is important. But equally, if not more important, is recognizing that to teach students with disabilities effectively, school districts need highly trained special educators working in a collaborative manner with the whole school system.

Second, I think there will be less of a focus on compliance with legal aspects of special education and more of a shift toward best practices in instruction, intervention, and data-based, individualized supports. The Endrew v. Douglas County School District U.S. Supreme Court decision of 2017 raised the standard for what is considered meaningful progress for students with disabilities. It put the onus on school districts to provide meaningful supports and educational benefits, and schools will need more guidance on how to provide this level of benefit.

The third is more of a focus on integrating behavioral supports with academic supports. Much of the research to date has focused on one or the other, but many times students with disabilities have co-occurring needs. A student might struggle in academics because of an underlying behavioral challenge or vice versa. The educational services need to therefore address both domains.

Q: If you had no restrictions, what special education-related issue would you want to research and why?

Allison: I would examine the impact of dyslexia legislation. Over the past 10 years, many states have passed legislation requiring certain practices related to the identification of and services for students with dyslexia. For example, over 40 states now require universal screening for dyslexia. It’s really interesting because there is already a federal law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), that requires that students with disabilities be identified and served in a timely manner. But for various reasons, that hasn’t happened for students with dyslexia, and it has prompted advocates to push states to pass specific legislation. I would love to conduct a study to explore how these new state laws have affected identification rates and ultimately outcomes for students with dyslexia.

Q: What book do you think everyone should read and why?

Allison: If you’re interested in education policy, a book I read recently and would recommend is The Teacher Wars by Dana Goldstein. She’s a New York Times reporter and she did a really thorough examination of the history of the teaching profession. And what I found really interesting was learning about how politicized teaching is now and has been since the beginning of the public school system. A lot of the debates we see today, such as those about teacher pay, or teacher evaluation methods, have been around a really long time.