Special Education What the Research Says

Co-Teaching: Valuable But Hard to Get Right

By Sarah D. Sparks — July 28, 2022 5 min read
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Two-thirds of students who receive special education services spend 80 percent or more of their days in general education classrooms, where co-teaching has become a common approach for inclusion.

At its best, the model—in which a general and special educator share responsibilities for planning lessons, teaching, and testing students—can help students with disabilities succeed in general education classes and create a less stressful working environment for educators. But too often, collaborative instruction is hamstrung by cramped schedules, power struggles, and confusion over how to adapt lessons for a partner.

In a nationally representative survey, K-12 educators told the EdWeek Research Center that a lack of support from administrators and little time to plan lessons with their teaching partner were their biggest concerns about co-teaching. About 1 in 4 general and special educators said this lack of support turned them off collaborative instruction.

“We commonly hear from teachers that, yes, they have special education support in their schools—it’s legally required—but in practice, the everyday reality is that the support can often be sort of inconsistent or unreliable,” said Virginia Lovison, an education researcher at Harvard University Graduate School of Education.

Even so, she added, “teachers value full-time support from a special education specialist more than any other working condition.”

Studies have found teacher turnover is higher in schools with larger concentrations of students with disabilities, but Lovison and Cecilia Mo, an associate professor of political science at the University of California, Berkeley, found strong team structures can be a boon to recruitment and retention. The researchers asked 1,000 educators to choose a teaching position among hypothetical schools, created to be identical but for differences in the salary, class size, availability of co-teachers, or support staff. The researchers found that general education teachers valued having a full-time special education co-teacher more than perks like a 20 percent raise, teaching three fewer students, or access to an instructional coach.

Team teaching training limited

But teachers often get relatively little preservice training on how to teach collaboratively and rely on school or district professional development. General education teachers were more than twice as likely as special education teachers to tell the EdWeek Research Center that they wouldn’t receive enough training to participate in teaching teams with special educators—and special education teachers were five times as likely to worry that general education teachers couldn’t adapt content instruction to align with their recommendations.

“We need more training in this area—not just training in the collaboration, but training to teach specific content side by side,” said Alyson Collins, a special education assistant professor at Texas State, “so teachers feel confident in the academic area they are teaching and can learn new strategies to work together to identify the children who may struggle the most.”

In New York, for example, researchers found in middle school reading teaching teams, special education teachers spent the majority of their time “subordinate,” serving as an assistant to the general education teacher’s whole-group lessons, rather than targeting lessons to students with disabilities or leading flexible groups.

“We have data that it’s not good when the special ed. teacher doesn’t get to really teach with the general ed. teacher—that they are more of a paraprofessional or an aid—just in the classroom but not really doing the co-planning and co-teaching,” said Margaret King-Sears, a professor of special education at George Mason University.

In part, special education teachers may defer to their general education colleagues because they feel less prepared in specific content areas. For example, researchers at Arizona State University and Texas State University at San Marcos found that general education teachers were more confident in their own skills as writers and believed they were better prepared to teach writing than did their special education counterparts. General education teachers were also more likely than special education teachers to believe that writing skill developed through effort and process rather than being something purely innate.

Co-teaching may help build special education teachers’ confidence in tailoring lessons in content areas, Collins said.

Collins and her colleagues are testing a writing professional development program intended to target teams of general-special education teachers. After the educators learn a writing instructional framework and components, they work through how to plan lessons and formative assessments for the framework, as well as their day-to-day roles.

“That’s where a lot of the co-teaching and co-planning comes in,” Collins said. “They’re thinking through what are the big components we’re working on, when are they going to be teaching simultaneously, and when are we going to see more small-group instruction? A big part of this is learning to set goals for students and make sure they are realistic goals.”

Experts say school and district leaders can take a few immediate steps to support co-teaching teams:

  • Ensure teachers have no scheduling conflicts during co-teaching times. Lovison noted that special educators are particularly vulnerable to being double-booked. “When I talk to school leaders about this, scheduling is an absolute nightmare, there are legal constraints, and there’s only so many ways to fit the puzzle pieces together to get all the kids in the classes that they need,” Lovison said.
  • Provide collaborative planning time, the lack of which is one of the most common needs that teachers report hindering co-teaching.
  • Guide teams in ways to share duties and target instruction in different subject areas. Special education teachers were more than twice as likely as general education teachers to tell the EdWeek Research Center that they did not want to co-teach because one teacher would control the class.
  • Create ongoing professional development for teams. This training would be given to the teachers in their teams, rather than special and general educators receiving separate professional development.

In a 2021 research analysis, King-Sears, from George Mason University, and her colleagues found that students with disabilities performed better on average in both language arts and math in classrooms team-taught by a special and general teacher than they did when taught by a special education teacher alone.

However, across two decades and more than 460 studies, King-Sears found little data on what approaches to balancing roles and support are most effective.

“We need to know more about what goes on in the co-taught settings, and we need to acknowledge that it’s not just about academic performance,” King-Sears said. “There are also some social-emotional goals that are very important for the kids with and without disabilities that need to be investigated as well.”

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Data analysis for this article was provided by the EdWeek Research Center. Learn more about the center’s work.

Coverage of students with diverse learning needs is supported in part by a grant from the Oak Foundation, at www.oakfnd.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.

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