Teaching Profession

Co-Teaching and Specially Designed Instruction: Is It Happening?

By Christina A. Samuels — June 16, 2015 2 min read
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A few weeks ago, I sent out a message on Twitter asking teachers to get in contact for a story I was writing on co-teaching. I was exploring whether special educators feel that they are getting an opportunity to use their expertise in the classroom, or if they feel that they are relegated to a “helper role.” Special education is defined in the Individuals with Disabilities Act as “specially designed instruction, at no cost to the parents, to meet the unique needs of a child with a disability.” Note that this definition talks about an individual child’s unique needs—not classroom-wide interventions for all of the students who may be struggling.

Here’s an excerpt from the finished piece on co-teaching and specially-designed instruction, where I attempt to answer the question: Is the “special” being taken out of special education?

In 2003, about half of school-age students with disabilities spent most of their school day in classrooms with their typically developing peers. By 2013, that number had risen to 61 percent. At least part of that change can be tied to wider use of co-teaching, an instructional method that pairs a general and a special education teacher in the same classroom. Co-teaching is meant to provide specialized services to students with disabilities in regular classrooms, while ensuring they also get access to the same academic material as their peers. But poorly implemented co-teaching practices may be taking the “special” out of special education, say many who train teachers and districts in best collaboration practices. School administrators and even teachers themselves end up believing special educators must strive to be indistinguishable from their general education peers. “When [co-teaching] is really, really strong, it is clear that there are two different teachers with two types of expertise,” said Marilyn Friend, a co-teaching guru who has studied collaboration for decades and provided professional development to schools and districts around the country. And when it’s not strong? “You might as well keep pulling kids out [of the classroom],” said Ms. Friend, a professor emerita of education at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. “Because they’re not going to get what they need.”

I appreciated all the teachers who contacted me after my Twitter request. What I also found interesting is that there were many teachers who declined to be interviewed on the record when they learned what I was writing about—or they just didn’t respond to further inquiries.

No hard feelings: Dealing with reluctant sources is a part of my job. But I am interested in hearing your thoughts on this article, and what you think might be other fruitful areas to explore. (And in the comments, you can be anonymous!)

For example, this story wasn’t able to touch on planning at all, but I heard time and again how essential planning time is for a co-teaching partnership to work well. I’d love to do a story on the creative methods teachers have found to plan lessons together.

The article also didn’t touch on how challenging it can be for school principals to appropriately evaluate teachers in a co-teaching partnership. And I could only mention class structure very briefly. But one teacher was very forthright in saying that it’s challenging for partnerships when classrooms are filled with struggling learners—whether they are officially special education students or not. Does co-teaching work well in that circumstance, when there are so many students who need help?

Clearly, there’s much more to the co-teaching story that needs to be told.

File photo from 2011: Special educator Katierose Dobrzykowski, right, checks in with a student while co-teaching 3rd-grade math with general educator Sara Dunaway at Norwood Elementary School in Baltimore, Md.—Nicole Frugé

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A version of this news article first appeared in the On Special Education blog.