Special Report
Special Education

Highly Qualified?

Teaching students with disabilities to high standards will depend on the skills of their teachers.
By Lisa Goldstein — January 08, 2004 11 min read
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Geometry teacher Christina Person never uses an overhead projector. The transition from “lights on” to “lights off” and back can cause some students, especially those with disabilities, to lose focus for the rest of the class. Person also provides every student with a packet of notes on each day’s lesson for the semester so her charges can focus on learning, not just frantically copy down facts. And, perhaps the tactic students love best, she tells them what will be on every test. Not the verbatim questions, but the types of information.

“I want them to know exactly what I expect them to learn, and I want to help them do it,” says the 33-year-old teacher at Chantilly High School here in Fairfax County, Va.

Those are just a few of the techniques the 10th grade mathematics teacher uses to tackle a complex and daunting mission: providing students with disabilities access to the general education curriculum. Person is not a special educator, but like other general education teachers, she increasingly has to think like one. Three of the 29 students in her 10th grade geometry class receive special education services.

Recent federal law demands big changes in how schools educate the nation’s nearly 6.6 million students receiving special education services. In the past, such children had been largely left out of state testing and accountability systems—and, often, outside of mainstream instruction. Now, the assumption is that most students with disabilities will participate in the general education curriculum and reach the “proficient” level on state tests.

Educators know such an ambitious public policy is only as effective as the teachers who can serve it up—or not. And experts say the current workforce, both special and regular education teachers, largely is unprepared for the task.

Worlds Colliding

That’s because all but the newest generation of teachers cut their teeth under a completely different education paradigm.

Traditionally, special educators learned how to teach remedial lessons, how to modify curriculum materials, and otherwise meet the special needs of students with disabilities. In their training, general education teachers had little exposure to the world of special education.

Special educators focused on helping students meet the tailored goals set forth in their individualized education plans, or IEPs, not the goals set forth by state tests. Nor did general education teachers think much about reaching special education students.

Now those worlds have collided.

Both groups, says Bill East, the executive director of the Washington-based National Association of State Directors of Special Education, are being asked to teach “in a manner in which they have not been trained.”

“When our in-service training and teacher-preparation programs catch up, it will not be a problem,” he says. “But right now, it is a major problem, not for lack of trying or caring or effort. We need a new kind of teacher, a teacher who can work with all kinds of kids.”

In fact, most general education teachers already have students with disabilities in their classrooms. A poll of special and general educators conducted for Quality Counts found that 76 percent of teachers teach students who are receiving special education.

That poll found that about six in 10 special education teachers feel “very prepared” to teach students receiving special education according to their states’ academic- content standards for students their age. But fewer than four in 10 general education teachers say the same. Only about three in 10 general educators, and four in 10 special education teachers, feel “very prepared” to interpret results from state exams to inform the instruction of students with IEPs.

Carol Thompson, the chairwoman of the special education department at Chantilly High, says she has seen the divide in preparedness between younger and veteran teachers. Her school faces the first academic year when all students in Virginia must pass a set of six tests in core subjects to earn standard diplomas.

“Young teachers take to teaching to standards like ducks to water,” Thompson says. “Colleges are better at preparing teachers now at adapting the curriculum. Some older teachers are less flexible.”

Thompson will send teachers to workshops or conferences if they don’t feel comfortable following standards to teach students with disabilities.

But educators say the mechanisms of change at the teacher-preparation level are at work. More undergraduate teacher-preparation programs are offering dual certification for teachers in special education and in a subject area, such as English or math, says Kim Reid, an education professor at Teachers College, Columbia University.

“Increasingly, newer teachers are more sophisticated,” Reid says. “But education is a massive bureaucracy, and changing it is really hard.”

In the meantime, school administrators are bracing themselves for finding and keeping teachers who can rise to the newest challenge, especially at a time when special education teachers are already in short supply. The U.S. Department of Education estimates the nation will need more than 200,000 new special educators during the next five years, but colleges and universities currently have the capacity to prepare only about half that number.

Driven Out?

Enter the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, which requires all teachers to be “highly qualified” in the core academic subjects they teach, including math, English, and science.

The federal law applies to special education teachers as well, essentially requiring them to be certified both in that field and in any core subject they are solely responsible for teaching. Exceptions exist for special education teachers who work collaboratively with general educators.

If the law’s definition stands, it would unfairly affect special educators, argues Patti Ralabate, a special education adviser for the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers’ union.

“The criteria would be higher for special education teachers than for anybody else,” Ralabate says. “This will have a devastating effect for districts trying to comply.”

Some special education advocates say the law’s definition is unrealistic and out of touch. For example, special educators often teach several core subjects, not just one. In which subject should they earn a license? Those advocates say requiring dual certification is a lot to ask of special educators, who already are stretched thin by the demands of bureaucratic red tape related to complying with federal and state special education laws.

The federal requirement may drive some special educators out of the field, they warn.

“There’s going to be a lot of children hurt by this definition,” says Richard Mainzer, the assistant executive director for professional standards and practice for the Council for Exceptional Children, an Arlington, Va.-based group for special educators.

Others contend that for students to succeed, their teachers need to be extremely knowledgeable about the academic content they teach.

Quality Counts’ teacher poll found that 80 percent of teachers think it’s “very important” that special education teachers demonstrate competency in all the academic subjects they teach.

“You need teachers who can do more than read the book and stay one day ahead of the kids,” Thompson of Virginia’s Chantilly High says. “It does make a real difference when the special education teacher has the content skills.”

With concerns persisting on both sides of the debate, Congress is trying to clarify further what constitutes a “highly qualified” special education teacher. Lawmakers are facing the issue as they rewrite the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, whose reauthorization was still pending in late 2003.

While the House version would require special education teachers to be highly qualified in the core subjects they teach, the Senate version would not. The proposed Senate bill, not yet approved by the full chamber, would require that special education teachers be certified only in special education. Such a standard reflects more realistic expectations, Senate aides say.

Quality Counts’ policy survey of the 50 states and the District of Columbia found that in the 2003-04 school year all but eight states require an individual to demonstrate knowledge of special education to earn a license in that field, either by earning a minimum degree or by passing an exam in special education.

But no state requires special educators at the secondary school level to demonstrate knowledge of the subjects they plan to teach.

Thompson says her school’s efforts to encourage special education teachers to seek dual certification in core subjects completely backfired.

“Once they get their certification in a subject, they want to jump the fence and teach regular education students,” she says. “Of course, it’s good for regular students to have a teacher who knows how to modify the curriculum, but then we’ve lost a teacher in special education.”

Keeping Expectations High

In addition to ensuring teachers’ subject-matter expertise, keeping their expectations high for special education students may present one of the toughest roadblocks to offering all young people a standards-based education.

“One of the biggest challenges is keeping teacher expectations consistent,” Thompson says. “We need to keep everyone’s curriculum expectations up for these students.”

Not only does Chantilly High School special education teacher Michelle Harris hold high standards, she also lets her students know it. In her self-contained 11th grade English class, she makes it clear to her students that they are learning the same material as their peers without disabilities.

“When they hear they are using the same books and the same lessons as their peers, they are thrilled,” Harris says.

“I hate to use alternative texts for special education students. I want to use the same book, so when they see their friends in 11th grade pull out a copy of ‘The Crucible,’ they know they are reading that, too.”

“We are, of course, learning the material in our own way, with a lot of discussion, repetition of directions, and review,” she adds.

But not all teachers agree that students in special education should have to meet the same academic-content standards as other students their age. More than 80 percent of teachers polled for Quality Counts said they believe that most special education students should be expected to meet an alternative set of academic standards.

Administrator Support

Experts in special education also caution that teachers can’t be effective without administrators’ support.

Administrators can do a lot to enable teachers to meet the new challenges, says Ralabate of the NEA. “Teachers are willing to have special education students in their classrooms, but it falls apart when they don’t have the training or supports,” she says. “School systems need to make sure general educators and special educators receive support to do the job well.”

Yet principals and superintendents often lack education or experience involving special education.

That situation exists for many reasons, people knowledgeable about the field say. For starters, a national shortage of certified special education teachers has made it imperative for many districts to keep qualified teachers in their current slots. Special educators are more likely to move up within their field to become special education directors, rather than be hired as building principals or district superintendents.

In addition, leadership programs at colleges and universities often lack special education materials, says Susan Hasazi, the director of the University of Vermont’s doctoral program in educational leadership.

With the help of a $1 million grant from a private donor, her university has teamed up with six others to form the National Institute for Leadership, Disability, and Students Placed at Risk. The institute will prepare teaching modules related to special education and student disabilities for use in education leadership classes.

Teachers say what they need from administrators is help in creating the conditions needed to do their jobs. Special education experts say that when class sizes are too large, for example, both special and general education teacher have a hard time individualizing instruction. Moreover, teachers need to have enough routine planning time to consult with one another, parents, and specialists about children’s progress.

“It helps a great deal to have time to communicate,” Ralabate says. “In the districts that don’t build in planning time, teachers have to catch each other in the hallway or at lunch, and that is not true collaboration.”

Collaborative teaching arrangements, in which a general education teacher works with a special education teacher in the classroom, offer one approach to merging the two areas of expertise.

At Chantilly High, 11th grade students in Kristin Dreyer and Kerry Wood’s English class don’t realize one of them is a special education teacher. As the students read The Catcher in the Rye, Dreyer walks around “shushing” students who are talking. She leans in to answer questions from a few students and keeps others from acting up. Her help enables Wood to continue her lecture uninterrupted.

The class of about 30 has several students who have individualized education plans.

“When there’s only one teacher, there is no down time,” says Wood. The English teacher says she’s thrilled to have Dreyer, a special education teacher, help her modify the curriculum and materials as needed.

“It makes me feel better about teaching the class,” Wood says. “It’s really helpful to have each other as a resource.”

In March 2024, Education Week announced the end of the Quality Counts report after 25 years of serving as a comprehensive K-12 education scorecard. In response to new challenges and a shifting landscape, we are refocusing our efforts on research and analysis to better serve the K-12 community. For more information, please go here for the full context or learn more about the EdWeek Research Center.

A version of this article appeared in the January 08, 2004 edition of Education Week as Highly Qualified?


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