Special Report
Special Education

What It Takes to Make Co-Teaching Work

By Sarah Schwartz — December 05, 2018 6 min read
Fifth grade teacher Kara Houppert, right, and special education teacher Lauren Eisinger co-teach a class at Naples Elementary School in Naples, N.Y.
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In Lauren Eisinger and Kara Houppert’s co-taught 5th grade classroom, every instructional choice requires a lot of planning.

When Eisinger, a special education teacher at Naples Elementary School in upstate New York, and Houppert, a 5th grade teacher, wanted to start a class book club last year, they knew they would have to think creatively to accommodate reading levels spanning 2nd to 6th grades.

So they did a “book tasting,” giving students a choice among several different, appropriately-leveled texts. Once they grouped students, teachers ran the activity like “more of a guided reading,” said Houppert, with both of them reading aloud to different groups to support special education students who struggled with fluency and decoding.

“You need to be very flexible, and underneath everything, you need to trust each other,” said Eisinger, who co-teaches 1st and 5th grade classes at Naples Elementary. “If you don’t have that kind of mindset—that you’re both there to do the best that you can for your kids—I think it would be really difficult.”

Co-teaching, in which a special educator and a general educator share the responsibility of instructing and assessing students, has long been a standby in inclusion classrooms, which encompass both general education students and those with disabilities.

When done well, co-teaching should enable students with disabilities to receive the general education curriculum and special services that they need in the same setting, said Sara Cook, an assistant professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, who researches special education.

But for it to work, teachers need the time, training, and resources to effectively integrate their distinct instructional expertise, said Marilyn Friend, a co-teaching expert and professor emerita of education at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

“Co-teaching used to be called a professional marriage, and I’m kind of tired of that metaphor,” she said. “It really needs to be more like a business partnership.”

Research Is Mixed

Co-teachers should have parity in the classroom, Friend said. And in Eisinger and Houppert’s 5th grade class, they co-sign all emails to parents; both of their names and pictures are displayed in the classroom.

First grade teacher Brittany Ritz and Eisinger, who works with more than one class at Naples Elementary, have a planning session.

But even though they’re equals, co-teachers shouldn’t perform the same roles, Friend said. While general educators are the experts in the curriculum and content, special educators devise and implement a plan for addressing students’ individualized education programs.

It’s difficult to determine how many students are in co-taught classrooms nationally or how popular co-teaching is in comparison with other inclusion models.

The federal government collects data on special education students’ instructional environment: In 2015, a little more than 60 percent of students spent 80 percent or more of their day in a general education classroom. But there’s no information included on how students are receiving services, Friend said.

Still, she said, there’s evidence that co-teaching is becoming more popular. “A lot of states with high populations are really actively encouraging this as a service model,” said Friend, citing Texas, which revised its co-teaching guidance this year, and California, which has scaled up its co-teaching efforts over the past several years.

Findings on co-teaching’s effect on student outcomes are mixed, said the University of Hawaii’s Cook. (The Center for Exceptional Children’s 2018 practice recommendations for co-teaching, which Cook co-authored, suggests that educators proceed with caution.)

“It is hard to determine, from current research, what may make some co-taught classrooms more effective than others as co-teaching is not always clearly described in studies,” Cook said. The strategies and interventions used aren’t always explained, she said.

“Research should look at what’s happening in the co-taught classroom,” Cook said. “Are teachers using evidenced-based practices in the classroom to meet the individual needs of students?”

Time: The Key Component

The Naples school system, where Eisinger teaches, doesn’t yet have comprehensive results regarding whether co-teaching has raised student achievement, said Katie Piedici, the director of pupil-personnel services in the nearly 700-student district. But the model has helped the district put more students in the least-restrictive environment, she said.

To meet student needs in their classes, Eisinger, Houppert, and 1st grade teacher Brittany Ritz use different strategies from day to day and lesson to lesson.

In the 1st grade classroom, for example, one teacher sometimes leads whole-group instruction while the other provides support, or students will break into teacher-led math and reading groups.

“I have some kids right now who struggle with just knowing that they have five fingers on each hand,” said Ritz. Still, she’s able to keep the pacing of the general curriculum consistent, she said, as Eisinger can work with students who need modifications to master foundational skills.

As a co-teaching team, Eisinger, far right, and 1st grade teacher Ritz use different strategies from day to day and lesson to lesson in serving the diverse needs of their students.

To do this kind of collaboration, all three teachers said, they need time—to plan together, to debrief lessons, to talk about how they want the classroom to run.

Eisinger shares one 40-minute planning period a week each with Houppert and Ritz, a scheduling triumph she attributes to her school leaders intentionally making time for co-teachers to work together.

The district has communicated the expectation to building leaders that co-teachers need this time, Piedici said. Pairs also have a half day they can take during the year to catch up on planning, and new co-teaching partners undergo summer professional development.

It’s important that school systems have a plan for how to prepare, schedule, and set norms for co-teachers, said Friend. “It doesn’t matter how good the teachers are: If there’s not an administrator really actively supporting [co-teaching], it’s really difficult to implement and sustain.”

District-sponsored training was Ritz’s main introduction to co-teaching—she doesn’t remember her general education preservice program covering the model in any detail.

Source: Individuals with Disabilities Education Act

Some general education programs offer courses that address co-teaching, like Syracuse University, which requires all elementary teacher-candidates to get dual certification in special education. But many programs at the middle and high school levels don’t cover the method, Friend said. “It varies wildly.”

The Naples district sent Ritz and two other co-teachers to a conference, and she also attended workshops in the district. She learned how to use different co-teaching methods—parallel teaching, team teaching, small-group instruction. “Before then, I really had no idea what those even meant or would look like,” said Ritz, who has taught for eight years at the school.

As the sole classroom teacher, “You don’t really need to communicate to someone else what you’re doing or how you’re thinking,” Ritz said. “You just do it.” Looping in a co-teacher on all her plans was a hard adjustment to make at first, she said, and something she still struggles with occasionally.

During especially busy weeks, co-planning periods can get taken up by other tasks—like prepping for parent-teacher conferences, Houppert said. In those instances, she and Eisinger rely on the professional relationship that they’ve built. It’s important, said Houppert, that she knows Eisinger will be able to jump right into a math lesson with just a two-minute briefing about what they’re doing that day.

“It takes a lot of communication, and realistically, it does take a lot of trust in one another,” Houppert said.

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A version of this article appeared in the December 05, 2018 edition of Education Week as Co-Teachers Combine Forces on Strengths and Specialties

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