Top teacher for undergraduates never doubted her destiny

Something about COE clinical associate professor Penny Cox’s destiny “clicked” four decades ago when the college’s recently named Undergraduate Teacher of the Year overheard a conversation between her mother and a stranger in Jacksonville, Fla.

“We just moved into a new house and our washing machine wasn’t set up, so my mother and I went to a laundromat,” said Cox, a special education faculty member. “My mother and a special education teacher got to talking, and something the teacher said just clicked for me. I was only 12 years old, but I knew what I wanted to do with my life.”

True to her word, and to herself, Cox went on to earn her undergraduate and master’s degrees in special education at the University of North Florida before spending the next 17 years teaching special education in Jacksonville’s public schools system.

Feeling the need for a change but wanting to remain in her field, Cox went on to earn her Ph.D. in special education at UF in 2001. She has been a COE faculty member ever since, and was instrumental in developing the COE’s Teach Well online degree program, which prepares teachers and aspiring teachers of all backgrounds to work with students with disabilities.

Cox also stays busy by serving as the COE’s special education program coordinator and playing an advisory role to students in the Unified Elementary ProTeach program, as well as graduate students pursuing dual certification.

Cox also has touched the lives of non-education majors, including Cassidy Langford, an occupational therapy student who completed one of Cox’s courses in teaching children with disabilities.

“Thanks to her influence, I want to work as an occupational therapist in a school district,” said Langford, who went on to serve as one of Cox’s teaching assistants and will begin her senior year this fall. “Dr. Cox’s teaching is unique. I felt her passion for special education and that passion shines through in her teaching.

“I can still remember and reference the guest speakers we had in my class and how they impacted me during their lecture — and that was almost four years ago.”

Jean Crockett, director of the college’s School of Special Education, School Psychology and Early Childhood Studies, referred to Cox as a “fearless instructor who readily rises to the challenge of teaching new courses and large numbers of students” in one of five letters of recommendation submitted to the Teacher-of-the-Year selection committee.

Also, according to Crockett, Cox was among the first special education faculty members to become proficient in distance education course delivery.  

“She has generously shared her knowledge and enthusiasm for distance learning, and has helped many of her colleagues … achieve a better sense of efficacy in online teaching,” Crockett wrote.

Cox says her award serves as an incentive to continue being innovative.

“The more you learn, the more you don’t know,” she said with a laugh. “I’ve had some really good students, and our ProTeach program really whips them into shape for their careers as teachers. Principals at many different schools throughout Florida speak highly of our graduates.”

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Professor receives international honor for impact in special education

GAINESVILLE, Fla.—University of Florida education professor Mary Brownell, a leading scholar and policy expert in special education and teacher preparation, has received a top honor from the world’s largest advocacy organization for students with special needs.

Mary BrownellThe Teacher Education Division (TED) of the Council for Exceptional Children presented Brownell with the 2013 TED/Pearson Excellence in Teacher Education Award at the council’s annual meeting in San Antonio, April 3-6. The council is the largest international professional organization in special education with more than 30,000 members.

The annual award goes to an individual who has demonstrated an exemplary commitment to teacher preparation in special education, the cultivation of future leaders in the field, or leadership in scholarly work and legislative advocacy.

Brownell, who joined UF’s College of Education in 1991, has made a significant impact in all three areas. She has received numerous university and college honors for teaching and student mentoring, has held an endowed professorship, has co-directed three national centers addressing special education personnel policies and practices, and has advised national law and policy makers on improving the standards and practices of teacher preparation in special education.

She is the college’s top-funded researcher, with phenomenal success in attracting major federal grants on some of the most vital issues in education. She has generated more than $36 million in federal funding from the Education Department’s Office of Special Education Programs and its Institute of Education Sciences. Last fall, OSEP awarded $25 million—its largest grant ever—to Brownell and her UF co-researchers Paul Sindelar and Erica McCray. The funding supports their effort to create a national CEEDAR Center (Collaboration for Effective Educator Development, Accountability and Reform) at UF, charged with restructuring and improving teacher preparation in special education in 20 states.

Brownell is just as prolific in disseminating her researching findings, to the benefit of her peers, as evidenced by her authorship of three books and dozens of book chapters and articles in refereed journals, and countless conference presentations and invited addresses. She recently collaborated on editing a handbook of research on special education teacher preparation.

“Mary is the most important contemporary scholar of special education and teacher education,” Sindelar said. “She is a brilliant scholar, an accomplished researcher, a demanding teacher and a gifted and committed mentor. The full measure of her impact on classroom and special education teachers, students with disabilities and other struggling learners will not be known for years to come.”

After more than two decades at UF, Brownell’s scholarly productivity and international reputation have helped the University of Florida join the top-tier of American special-education teacher preparation programs. Special education perennially leads all College of Education program areas in research funding and currently rates sixth nationally in its specialty in the U.S. News & World Report rankings of America’s Best Graduate Schools.

Brownell’s sterling research record may be her most measurable accounting, but her students, past and present, might argue that her teaching and mentorship deserve equal billing. At UF, Brownell has directed multiple research and training projects that provided funding for more than 40 doctoral students not only in special education, but also in curriculum and instruction, school psychology and educational psychology. In 2010, she received a university-wide, doctoral-student mentoring award.

“Developing a serious research agenda focused on teacher quality issues and engaging other scholars in that agenda is of great importance to me,” Brownell said after the CEC award ceremony. “I hope others see me not only as an individual researcher but as a scholar who encourages and helps others to become engaged in this work.“

It’s obvious how her students see her: In award nomination letters, Brownell’s first doctoral student, now a teacher educator, refers to Brownell’s “ability to inspire with deep-rooted passion for her career.” Another recent graduate credits Brownell’s support for her success in winning two nationally recognized dissertation awards and helping her land a highly competitive, tenure-track teaching position.

Sean Smith, associate professor in special education at the University of Kansas, writes in his letter: “As a scholar, I recognize (Dr. Brownell’s) critical work, and as a parent of a school-aged child with a disability I rely on her work when I engage educators working with my son.”

Brownell is the fourth UF special education faculty member to receive the Excellence in Teacher Education Award. Previous recipients were current faculty James McLeskey in 2010 and Paul Sindelar in 2001, and former faculty member Vivian Correa in 2006. Last’s year’s recipient, Fred Spooner of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, also has UF ties: he worked and studied at the College of Education for three years in the late 1970s as a doctoral research fellow and research assistant.

   SOURCE: Mary Brownell, professor, special education, UF College of Education,, 352-273-4261
   WRITER: Larry Lansford, director, news and communications, UF College of Education;; 352-273-4137

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Special Education team awarded $25 million to advance teaching of students with disabilities

The University of Florida’s College of Education will receive $25 million over the next five years to address a concern that has plagued American schools for more than two decades—inadequate teaching of children with disabilities.

Mary Brownell

Paul Sindelar

Erica McCray

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs in December granted the first of five annual, $5 million awards to the education college to establish a center to support the development of effective teachers—in general and special education classrooms–and education leaders to serve students with disabilities.

“This grant represents the (Education Department’s) largest investment ever in improving education for students with disabilities,” said co-principal investigator and UF special education professor Mary Brownell.

She said the new Collaboration for Effective Educator Development and Accountability and Reform, also known as CEEDAR Center, will open in January in Norman Hall, home of the College of Education. Other UF co-principal investigators are Paul Sindelar and Erica McCray, also in special education.

Brownell said the CEEDAR Center will work with states in strengthening professional standards and reforming preparation and certification programs for general and special education teachers, and school and school district leaders who work with students with disabilities. The center also will help states revise their teacher evaluation systems to align with the higher professional standards.

“Studies establish that our current systems for licensing, preparing, developing, supporting and evaluating teachers to effectively instruct students with unique needs are wholly inadequate,” Brownell said. “The CEEDAR Center approach is to reform and align these areas with research-proven practices and professional standards.”

“This grant will allow the special education field to take a giant step in improving the education of all students,” she said. “Students with disabilities perform in school more poorly than any other subgroup of students. With truly effective instruction, though, many of these students have abilities that will allow them to advance and succeed in college, career and other postsecondary options.”

Through the CEEDAR Center, the UF group is partnering with nine other organizations in plans to eventually roll out a special-education reform program to 20 states. The center’s primary partner is the American Institutes for Research. Other collaborators include the University of Kansas, the New Teacher Center (a national non-profit), the University of Washington at Bothell, the Council for Exceptional Children and several other national professional organizations.

SOURCE: Mary Brownell, UF professor of special education,; (c) 352-273-4261; (h) 352-331-2404
SOURCE: Paul Sindelar, UF professor of special education,; 352-273-4266
SOURCE: Erica McCray, UF assistant professor of special education,; 352-273-4264
WRITER: Larry Lansford, director, news and communications, UF College of Education;; 352-273-4137



CEC honors special ed alum for stellar career in teacher education

The Council for Exceptional Children, the world’s largest international organization of special education professionals,  recently awarded University of Florida alumnus Fred Spooner (PhD ’80, special education) its prestigious 2012 TED/Merrill Award for Excellence in Teacher Education.

The honor recognizes Spooner for a lifetime of research productivity, masterly teaching and inspirational leadership in the special education field and advocacy for children with disabilities. Spooner, a longtime professor in special education at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, received his Ph.D. degree in special education from UF in 1980 and also was awarded the College of Education’s 2008 Alumnus Achievement Award.

Spooner’s latest honor from the CEC comes from an organization with more than 45,000 members. He is a past president of the North Carolina teacher education division of the CEC. Spooner received the TED/Merrill Award at the CEC’s annual convention in Denver.

During his 31-year career at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, Spooner has become known as one of the nation’s leading authorities on teaching students with significant disabilities. He has published six books and more than 90 refereed articles and his work has appeared in influential publications such as The Journal of Special Education, Research and Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities and Exceptional Children.

His academic success led him to editorships at three of the nation’s leading special education journals: Teaching Exceptional Children, The Journal of Special Education and Teacher Education and Special Education. He has also been a pioneer in the use of online instruction to prepare special education teachers—work that has gained Spooner national attention and convinced various state agencies and universities to seek out his advice on online education.


    WRITER: Larry Lansford, director, news & communications, UF College of Education, 352-273-4137;


UF launches $1.5 million effort to restructure teacher-preparation programs

Aided by a $1.5-million federal grant, the University of Florida has announced plans to restructure the College of Education’s special education teacher-preparation program to meet increasingly higher national standards for new teachers.

Co-researchers McLeskey and Cox

Like many American education colleges, UF is revamping its teacher-education programs to include more practical teaching experience. UF special education professors James McLeskey and Penny Cox are leading the effort.

Politicians, federal education officials and policymakers are holding U.S. colleges of education accountable for teacher education—and ultimately for student learning—as never before. Many cite the need for more hands-on classroom and field experience in teacher preparation programs.

Students in UF’s unified elementary ProTeach program complete a five-year blend of coursework and hands-on teaching experiences, resulting in a master’s degree in elementary education and the option of dual certification in K-12 special education.

McLeskey said UF’s special education program, ranked fourth in the nation by U.S. News & World Report’s annual survey of America’s Best Graduate Schools, already integrates its theoretical and real-world teaching experiences. Under the grant, though, the researchers are working to relate the two more closely by applying research on effective instructional practices with work being done in real-world classrooms.

The UF effort, funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs, is called Project RITE—short for Restructuring and Improving Teacher Education. McLeskey and Cox will collaborate with special education professionals across the nation to ensure UF’s ProTeach graduates will be well prepared to improve educational outcomes for students with disabilities.

The researchers will develop a statewide mentoring program that pairs each new special education graduate at UF with an experienced classroom teacher who will provide support and feedback in their first year of teaching. Mentor teachers will be selected in collaboration with local school district administrators for their knowledge of effective teaching methods, experience, and effectiveness in improving outcomes for students who struggle learning basic skills. The program emphasizes high-need schools to better prepare students for Florida’s diverse classrooms.

“Florida is a ‘majority minority’ now,” McLeskey said. “Wherever you go, you’re going to get students from different cultural backgrounds.” McLeskey is UF’s former chair of special education and also directs the college’s Center on Disability and Policy Practice.

“Increasingly, our student-teachers need to learn things in natural contexts, which means they need to spend more time in schools,” he said. “We’re moving teacher preparation much further in the direction of building everything into what they’re doing in the classroom.”

Cox said UF ProTeach students will begin to see the instructional changes next fall.


SOURCES:  James McLeskey, professor of special education, UF College Education;; 352-273-4278

MEDIA RELATIONS: Larry Lansford, director, news and communications, UF College of Education; 352-273-4137;

WRITER: Jessica Bradley, communications intern, UF College of Education.