Teaching Profession

Pairing Up

A Maryland initiative seeks to scale up co-teaching as a way to support students of all needs.
By Liana Loewus — October 12, 2011 12 min read
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.
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When it comes to good co-teaching, fluidity is the name of the game.

In Katierose Dobrzykowski and Sara Dunaway’s co-taught 3rd grade classroom, there are few awkward pauses, jerky transitions, or blank stares from students. Instead, there’s constant motion, split-second decision-making, and an assembly of self-assured, active bodies. The teachers lead their students in a swift and graceful dance.

The teaching team at Norwood Elementary, in Baltimore, Md., begins an end-of-year division lesson with a homemade movie clip: A group of teachers are standing in the school supply closet, attempting to split a stash of pencils. How many pencils should each teacher get? Is it fair if one teacher gets five and another gets 40? The kids are enraptured, smiling at seeing their teachers on camera, shaking their heads “no” at the silly suggestion.

With a click of the remote, the projector is off and the kids turn their attention to the live action in front of them. Dunaway, the general education teacher, asks for a definition of “divide.” Dobrzykowski, the special education teacher, writes the word on the board and steers some students toward the word wall, where the definition is posted. All students’ eyes are tracking their teachers. Even the one boy sitting under a desk at the front of the room—because, as Dobrzykowski later explains, that’s where she is most comfortable working—is engaged and involved in the lesson.


Teaching Video 'Co-Teaching Is a Marriage'
October 14, 2011

Baltimore County teachers Sara Dunaway and Dawn Peake talk about how co-teaching benefits their relationships with their students—and each other.

The teachers then glide into whole-group guided practice, during which they discretely place colored tiles on students’ desks. Both to an observer and to students, it’s unclear—and seemingly unimportant—what the colored tiles mean. But the teachers are assessing and signifying who needs to be re-taught prior skills, who should continue practicing the day’s lesson with guidance, and who is ready for individual work. Students will break out into groups for the next activity—stations—based on the color they received.

The payoff of Dobrzykowski and Dunaway’s partnership becomes truly apparent during stations. They do not take a typical approach, in which equal groups rotate through a defined set of activities on the buzzer. In their classroom, students move to the next station, to practice a higher skill set, only when they’re ready.

Dobrzykowski sits at a table with those who received green tiles. Today green indicates the kids who are still struggling with prior skills, so she reviews the foundations of division with this group. When students show mastery—which takes just a few minutes for some kids and the majority of the period for others—they move over to Dunaway’s station to practice the day’s division lesson. After practice with Dunaway, students slide into desks at an individual practice station. Upon completing the individual work, students find their differentiated assessment, a clipboard, and a spot on the rug to take their post-lesson test. Once all of Dobrzykowski’s students have graduated from re-teach, students who have finished their assessments circle back to her for an extension lesson.

Students travel between the five stations with whatever manipulatives they prefer to use: whiteboards, graphic organizers, or blocks, for example. Each station has a bucket of props and writing tools as well, so materials are always on hand. There isn’t a moment of idle time.

Every so often during the 45-minutes of stations, the two teachers exchange quick, serious whispers. As Dobrzykowski says later, “it wasn’t going how we thought it would go”—an admission that would surprise most observers. But having worked together for three years now, says Dunaway, “we can do more on the fly.”

At the end of the lesson, the class regroups to review what they have learned. Dobrzykowski leads the inquiry while Dunaway monitors behavior and punctuates the wrap-up with questions of her own. The students are on task until the minute they head out the door for lunch.

Principal Support

Co-teaching Approaches

Co-teaching: Concepts, Practices, and Logistics, Marilyn Friend, Ph.D., August, 2006


Co-teaching is a method of instruction in which a general educator and special educator teach together in one classroom. The idea is that the general educator serves as the content and curriculum expert, while the special educator is the learning-process expert, ensuring the content is accessible to students with and without disabilities.

Within a school, most educators agree, co-teaching works best when initiated from the top. According to Marilyn Friend, president of the Council for Exceptional Children and author of several books on co-teaching, “administrators absolutely make or break co-teaching at a school site across all school levels. They set the standards of practice; … they set the culture in terms of receptivity.”

Principals also control perhaps the most important factor in a co-teaching scenario: scheduling. Co-teachers need common planning time, ideally during school hours, though some administrators offer stipends for teachers who plan together outside the school day. Patrice Goldys, the principal at Norwood, says she creates a co-teaching schedule at the beginning of the year with input from the participating teachers. Throughout the year, the schedule takes “a whole lot of tweaking,” she says, but the teachers are willing to adapt “because they know it’s better for the kids.”

In addition, administrators determine how students are divided into classes. There’s some temptation to put the majority of a grade’s low-performing students and troublemakers into a co-taught class, but that can create a perfect storm that impairs both teaching and learning. Friend recommends that co-taught classes be made up of no more than one-third students receiving special education services—a higher ratio than in most classes, since generally about 10 percent of all students fall into that category. And the rest of the class should “represent a heterogeneous mix,” she says, “rather than all struggling students.”

Having district-level support makes co-teaching easier as well. The central office can shift staffing allocations, train teachers and administrators, and fund technology to help co-teaching run smoothly.

Maryland’s ‘Nested Boxes’

Co-teachers Sara Dunaway, top, and Katierose Dobrzykowski administer differentiated learning stations during a math lesson on division.

In Maryland, a push for co-teaching is coming from even further up the ladder. In 2008, the Maryland State Department of Education launched an initiative to support its lowest-performing schools, as required by the federal No Child Left Behind law, and targeted special education as an area for improvement. Pointing to success in several Maryland districts, including Howard County Public Schools—where state officials say students with disabilities made significant academic progress in co-taught classes—the department upped its efforts to take co-teaching statewide. The state developed a framework for co-teaching, providing a common language and guidelines for all districts to use. The framework spelled out the roles and responsibilities for staff members at the district, school, and classroom levels.

Principals at 25 Maryland schools across seven districts agreed to participate in a co-teaching pilot program, funded in part by a federal State Improvement Grant. They each chose one special educator and one general educator to teach in a content area for at least a year, attend state and local-sponsored professional development and, ultimately, train their school-site colleagues about co-teaching. Under the same grant, administered by the federal Office of Special Education Programs, MSDE plans to expand its professional development website to house free co-teaching resources, including podcasts, video clips, and webinars.

Bob Glasscock, executive director of the Breakthrough Center, a state agency focused on school turnarounds that is helping coordinate the co-teaching initiative, explains that co-teaching arrangements are often “episodic” or inconsistent. But by integrating support from state, district, and school leaders, the state coordinators are hoping Maryland’s initiative will be more sustainable. “What we didn’t find in the literature and professional development was connecting all three levels,” he says. “That’s what’s different about this.”

Paul Dunford, MSDE’s director of cross-divisional initiatives, adds, “Think of it as nested boxes. In that center box is the classroom teacher.” The outside boxes each provide a layer of support, he explains.

MSDE officials are quick to point out, however, that the co-teaching initiative is not about compliance. The framework is not a list of requirements but rather suggested best practices, and professional development sessions are presented as an opportunity for district leaders to learn from one another. “What we’re seeing now is schools replicating different ideas from different principals,” says Dunford. “We didn’t say, ‘This is how to do it.’” The buy-in comes easier when the state is there to be supportive rather than punitive, state officials explain.

An Equal Partnership

That said, representatives from the state do go into classrooms to check in on how things are going. The observers want to see, for instance, that teachers are using a variety of co-teaching approaches. The Maryland framework is based on Friend’s extensive research, which lays out six different co-teaching models. Friend says teachers need to be using at least three of the six models over time, and “one should be a high-intensity strategy,” such as station teaching, as the Norwood team often uses, or parallel teaching, in which the teachers split the class into two equal groups. A co-taught class should look notably different than a class with only one instructor. “Because two times the same old thing is really the same old thing,” Friend says.

The Breakthrough Center’s Glasscock says that a common pitfall noticed during observations is that too many teams resort to “one teach, one assist”—or what he refers to as the “shark” method, in which one teacher leads instruction and the other hovers, providing quiet individual assistance.

While this method is appropriate every once in a while, Friend agrees it’s used too often. “The goal is to get both people teaching—that’s how you increase the intensity.” One teach, one assist can also cause tension between instructors. In many cases, the special education teacher is dubbed the assistant, either because the general educator does not want to give up reign of the classroom or because the special educator is disinclined to step up.

Dobrzykowski and Dunaway at Norwood say they work hard to maintain an equal partnership, or what they refer to as their “marriage with children.” From the beginning of the year, they present themselves as a team. Both of their names are on the classroom door and on report cards. They give a joint presentation at back-to-school night and conduct parent-teacher conferences together. “I made it really a point to say ‘we,’ not ‘I,’” says Dunaway. “It’s ‘us, ours, our kids.’ I didn’t want her to feel like you’re an aide or just some extra person I didn’t want in here.”

In addition to using their common planning time, the two teachers speak on the phone every night. They discuss student progress and go over the next day’s lesson, or “visualize the fight,” says Dunaway, “like in boxing.” The planning has gotten easier over the years, but it’s still time-consuming, they explain. Like in any marriage, “you have to trust each other,” says Dunaway, “and both people have to put forth the work.”

Data Challenges

Friend notes that there has been “little research that clearly establishes the efficacy of co-teaching.” For one, co-teaching involves so many variables that it’s one of the toughest instructional practices to collect reliable data on. In order for a study to have validity, says Friend, “there would have to be comparable classrooms with and without co-teaching with comparable students, comparable teachers, and comparable activities,”—a logistical impossibility in most large samples. The study would also have to show evidence that co-teaching was implemented with fidelity in each classroom, says Friend.

As of now, the Maryland initiative has been unable to definitively tie co-teaching to test scores or other student data. “Teaching partners are not staying the same, principals are not staying the same, and obviously the kids are changing,” says Fran Sorin, chair of MSDE’s co-teaching initiative. “So we don’t have a constant.” Further, while some Maryland principals and co-teachers have begun to train their school-site colleagues, others have not, making it hard to measure schools against each other.

With students at lunch, special educator Katierose Dobrzykowski, left, and general educator Sara Dunaway take a few minutes to debrief in the hallway after a co-taught math lesson.

Yet Friend stresses gathering data at the school and district level is both feasible and critical. Doing so “not only gives momentum internally but also demonstrates to others outside the effect that co-teaching can have,” she explains. Schools and districts around the country are showing positive results for students with and without disabilities in co-taught classes, she says, but for the most part those data are never published.

At Norwood, after the first year of co-teaching in 2007, 95 percent of 3rd graders tested on or above grade level—up about 7 percent from the year before and 23 percent from 2005, according to Goldys, Norwood’s principal. That class was the first one at Norwood to have more than 90 percent of students achieve proficiency in math.

However, over the next couple of years, the proportion of students who were proficient in math went back down. Last year, it hovered around 81 percent. Goldys attributes the decline to inconsistent funding for co-teaching and changes in enrollment, including increases in student mobility. She says she remains committed to expanding co-teaching to all grades.

Friend encourages schools to measure effectiveness with factors other than just standardized test scores, such as formative test data, discipline records, absences, and parent and student satisfaction surveys. Schools should also try to track “the intangibles, [such as] students as members of classroom and school communities, peer acceptance, [and] decreases in behavior problems,” says Friend.

The Norwood team says their co-taught students are unquestionably more engaged, less likely to act out, and, as shown by their daily assessment records, more likely to master an objective during a co-taught than solo-taught lesson.

This fall, Dobrzykowski and Dunaway will face the challenge of inconsistency as well. Dobrzykowski will move down to kindergarten, and Dunaway, inspired by her co-teaching experience to work toward a special education certification, will loop to the 4th grade as the special educator. Yet their partnership will not come to an end entirely. Both will continue to lead staff development on co-teaching at their school—just the type of on-the-ground effort the Maryland department is counting on to sustain the co-teaching initiative. And while there’s no guarantee they’ll be able to recreate their classroom fluidity within new “marriages,” both are committed to continuing co-teaching.

Very simply, “I get more out of it,” says Dunaway. “The kids get more out of it.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 13, 2011 edition of Teacher PD Sourcebook as Pairing Up


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