English-language learners and students with disabilities—groups of children once taught in isolated classrooms with specially trained instructors—spend more time in general education classrooms now than in years past.
But many general education teachers are not equipped with the necessary skills and knowledge to meet the needs of English-learners or students with disabilities, researchers have found. It’s an issue that could be tackled at least partly through school and districtwide professional development, but the knowledge teachers need does not always reach them.
“There’s been a large increase in students who come from diverse backgrounds that are in schools and unfortunately, in many instances, teachers aren’t adequately prepared to address their needs,” said Jennifer Flores Samson, an associate professor and the chairwoman of special education at the Hunter College School of Education in New York City.
Samson—whose research focuses on how teachers can better serve students who are culturally, linguistically, and ability diverse—has studied whether teachers in states with sizable English-learner populations are adequately prepared to work with those students.
She reached a sobering conclusion: They’re not.
Federal data indicate that 6.7 million students with disabilities, and 4.8 million English-learners are enrolled in public K-12 schools in the United States.
Millions of those students are spending much of their days in general education classrooms, often with teachers not specifically trained to work with them.
In some states, task forces and commissions have tackled the issue, offering recommendations to remedy the problem. In other parts of the country, educators have turned to regional education agencies or colleges of education to fill the professional development gap.
In 2015, California’s Statewide Task Force on Special Education released a report that found students across all categories of disability spend less time learning in general education classrooms than their peers in all but three other states.
“Too often, neither general education nor special education teachers are well prepared to meet the needs of students with disabilities in a general education classroom,” the report concludes.
That’s a problem in a state where roughly 10 percent of students receive special education services, said Mildred Browne, a former California special education administrator of the year who served on the task force. Special education students are taught in general education classrooms whenever possible, driven by federal policy that requires teaching students in the “least restrictive environment” that is appropriate for them.
To that end, general education teachers who work with students with disabilities need to know how to do three things well, Browne said: Read and understand individualized education plans, teach reading, and keep families informed about their students’ progress.
Knowing how to read IEPs is key, Browne said, because students with disabilities often struggle in general education classrooms when teachers don’t understand their needs.
Teachers, especially those who work with students with dyslexia or language-based disabilities, must know the nuts and bolts of reading instruction and vocabulary development to give students opportunities to connect with the curriculum.
Away From Labels
When trying to train teachers to work with students who learn differently or speak a language other than English, the focus should be on the students, not the labels attached to them, researchers and practitioners say.
Teachers should spend more time homing in on the needs of students because “too often disability is seen as something separate from general education,” said Christine Ashby, an associate professor in the teaching and leadership department at Syracuse University’s School of Education.
“The instruction that’s given to [general education] teachers tends to be disability-of-the-week focused,” said Ashby. “It’s much more about learning to see kids as individuals than it is about learning, ‘This is what autism is, this is what learning disabilities are.’”
Janet Hiatt, a former English-learner teacher leader in the Des Moines school district, now helps train educators who work with English-learners in central Iowa. She and Samson both suggest that building and district-level administrators, along with teachers, need training to support the inclusion of English-learners.
In a study published in the National Association of Secondary School Principals Bulletin, Hiatt and a colleague collected data on teachers’ perceived preparedness to work with English-learners.
“Language development is important and crucial and should be incorporated, but … culture should be the starting point,” Hiatt said. “They need to know relevant ELL-specific background” such as each student’s native country, prior education, and literacy level in their first language.
“All of that information informs what they’re going to do in their classrooms,” Hiatt said.
Hiatt also recommends that schools focus on inclusive leadership, not just teaching strategies; research indicates that, in order to help students succeed, school administrators must be equally prepared to support the teachers and students.
That may include developing plans for sustained professional development and avoiding one-day or short-term workshops. Schools should opt instead for training that focuses on helping general education and English-as-a-second-language teachers co-plan lessons and share and analyze data.
Mary Lynn Boscardin, the president of the Council for Exceptional Children, an international organization dedicated to improving the educational success of students with disabilities and gifted and talented students, said most teachers have the content knowledge to work with all students. Where they need support is in developing strategies to collaborate and communicate with families and colleagues.
Before the shift to more inclusion, “each teacher had their own classroom, they were pretty much … isolated,” said Boscardin, a professor of special education at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. “Now we’re transitioning into a teamwork framework.”
In a 2012 report prepared for the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank, Samson and a colleague also found many teachers were ill-prepared to work with English-learners.
While evidence exists that preparation and training have improved in the time since, Samson still thinks the recommendations for professional development she outlined in the report—including focusing on oral language development, academic language, and cultural diversity—remain relevant.
That means teachers working with English-learners must be aware of the similarities and differences between first- and second-language development, and the importance of nonverbal communications and visual aids in language acquisition; recognize the difference between conversational language and academic language—the vocabulary that helps students understand story problems or science concepts, which can be difficult for native-English speakers to grasp and is often even tougher for ELLs; and, perhaps most importantly, teachers must recognize that the cultural norms of their classrooms may be vastly different than what students experience at home.
“They need to support the soft skills of teachers in understanding the backgrounds of the students they work with, the cultures, the families, the socioemotional needs, the challenges they face in the context in which the children live, is really critical,” Samson said.
Administrators must prepare new teachers, even those who had preservice training, to work with English-learners or special education students, because they “have no idea what they don’t know,” Samson said. “They are going to walk into the classroom on that first day and be shell-shocked.”
A version of this article appeared in the May 15, 2019 edition of Education Week as Overlooked: How to Reach All Learners