Under federal pressure to increase the amount of time special education students spend in general education classrooms, the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing announced it will require all future teachers to learn techniques proven to foster the success of students with disabilities, including small group instruction, behavior management and using frequent informal assessments to identify and address learning gaps.
The new standards for general education teacher preparation are the first statewide change to emerge from a push to improve the academic outcomes of students with disabilities, prompted in part by warnings from the U.S. Department of Education about the poor academic performance of California students with disabilities, compared to their peers in other states. A second major improvement effort is expected this spring, when new standards for special education teacher preparation are scheduled to be released.
“We have to be more effective in our teaching,” said Teri Clark, director of the professional services division of the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, which sets standards for the state.
“Our job is to teach and we have to try to do it in 10 different ways, if that’s what we have to do,” said Sarina Duncan, a middle school teacher who holds a dual credential in general and special education.
Research has found that students with special needs learn more when they spend time in general education classrooms, which is known as mainstreaming or inclusion, according to the March final report of the Statewide Special Education Task Force, a group formed in 2013 to propose ideas for system change. About 90 percent of California students who receive special education services have the same range of intellectual capacities as students in general education, according to the task force.
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan last year called on all states to provide research-proven academic interventions so that children with learning disabilities or speech and language impairments – the vast majority of students in special education – as well as students with other special needs can excel. “I want to stress that the vast majority of students with disabilities do not have significant cognitive disabilities,” Duncan said last year in announcing stricter accountability for academic improvement for students with disabilities.
In 2014, the U.S. Department of Education determined the California special education program was in need of federal intervention because of the lack of significant academic progress for students with special needs. In June 2015, the department issued a less dire finding and said that California special education is in need of assistance.
In California, about half of students with disabilities spend the bulk of their day — defined as 80 percent of their time — in general education settings, compared to 60 percent nationwide, according to the Legislative Analyst’s Office 2015 overview.
The new teacher preparation standards are the culmination of a yearlong effort “to ensure that all general education teachers are well-prepared to teach all student populations,” the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing said in a statement last week.
But the idea of teachers teaching all students has caused a commotion among those who attended any of the eight meetings held by the commission in the past six months to vet ideas about how to train special education and general education teachers to work together.
“I feel like there are people in a room trying to figure out how to destroy special education,” said K.C. Walsh, a retired special education teacher who worked in Oak Grove, at a meeting this fall in Burlingame.
The anxiety was triggered by a one-page chart, handed out at the meetings by commission staff, that described three teacher preparation models for both general education and special education teachers. Model 3 was described as “there is no special education credential,” except for highly specialized credentials for specialists who work with students who are deaf or hard of hearing, visually impaired or enrolled in early childhood special education.
Model 3 also stated that “all elementary teachers are prepared to teach students with and without disabilities and may teach students with disabilities in secondary schools.”
At a meeting of the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing in early December, chairwoman Linda Darling-Hammond suggested that the elimination of a special education credential be “taken off the table” and the commissioners agreed.
Among the new requirements for teacher preparation, which go into effect in the 2017-18 academic year, are instruction in what’s known as multi-tired systems of supports — in which academic and behavioral instruction are given with various levels of specificity — as well as training in how to co-teach a class with a special education teacher. In addition, prospective teachers will be required to learn about implicit bias in discrimination, classroom management skills, social-emotional skill building, and how to use technology and art in the curriculum.
Classroom training is also being increased. Students studying for their teaching credential will be required to complete at least 600 hours of work in classrooms, a change from the previous standard which did not specify a minimum.
Some of the roughly 100 teacher credentialing programs in the state already require that students spend hundreds of hours in classrooms, said Clark from the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing. Some programs, too, provide training in how to manage student behavior and how to use data from assessments to provide targeted supports. But the new standards will make such practices the norm. “Now they are required,” Clark said.
Shannon Ward, a high school English Language Arts teacher in Marin County, completed a dual credential last spring in special education and general education at Dominican University, one of the few such programs offered. As a general education teacher, she said she uses skills from her special education training, including strategies for improving reading comprehension, every day.
But the most useful technique she learned in her special education teacher preparation, she said, is “thinking about what different behaviors are indicating.” If a student isn’t following the rules on assignments and tests, for example, Ward said she learned that it is helpful to ask the student what is going on, instead of jumping to a punitive response. “Now I know that it’s usually a cry for help,” she said.
California’s efforts to improve teacher training are echoed around the nation, said Mary Brownell, director of the Collaboration for Effective Educator Development, Accountability and Reform, a federally funded project that is working with California and 19 other states to improve training to help teachers interact with all kinds of learners.
Given the drive to include students with special needs in mainstream classrooms, Brownell said the question is “Are there 12 or 13 practices we can help general education teachers acquire?” These instructional techniques often help both general and special education students, she said. They include using strategies that have been shown to improve engagement and comprehension, such as presenting “digestible” amounts of text, engaging in a brief discussion with the class, and then presenting another chunk of material.
For Sarina Duncan, a middle school language arts teacher in the South Bay who holds a Dominican University dual credential in special and general education, her special education training has made her committed to being flexible in how she presents information to students.
“Our job is to teach and we have to try to do it in 10 different ways, if that’s what we have to do,” Duncan said. “It’s not extra work — it’s just the job. That understanding has helped me so much.”