Big changes in requirements to become a special education teacher in California

December 12, 2017

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The California Commission on Teacher Credentialing is making big changes in how special education teachers will be trained, adding core courses and an assessment already mandated for general classroom teachers.

Commissioners view the overhaul of preparation requirements as critical to improve the education of the state’s roughly 740,000 students with disabilities and predict the changes could be transformative: More students with disabilities will be identified and served earlier, taught more effectively and “mainstreamed” more often in classrooms serving all students.

Though four years, several reports and iterations in the making, the commission’s most recent decision came one day after the state released data showing that students with disabilities did worse than other student groups in California on multiple indicators of achievement. Two-thirds of the 228 districts that will receive assistance from county offices of education were designated because of the poor performance of students receiving special education services.

“Our kids in special ed are doing extremely poorly. The training and credentialing system has been broken for years,” said Linda Darling-Hammond, chair of the teaching commission and organizer of a state task on special education that recommended key ideas the commission is implementing.

The most significant change will require all aspiring special education and general education teachers to initially take foundational courses on instructional techniques and skills, including classroom management and lesson planning. They would then branch off to specialize in an academic area or, for special education teachers, expertise in disabilities. The goal would be to prepare all teachers for all students with diverse backgrounds, including English learners and students with disabilities.

The common courses, plus other requirements, would qualify special education teachers to teach in a general education classroom — something they have not been certified to do for 20 years. They will be able to co-teach as equals or be part of a team concentrating on students with disabilities and to provide early intervention for students with learning challenges not coded as a disability.

In 1996, responding to a shortage of special education teachers, California created a shortcut to obtain a special education credential without requiring instruction in general education and requirements for student teaching, Darling-Hammond said. Special education teachers could no longer teach students who hadn’t been identified as having a learning or other disability.

Although federal law requires that students with disabilities should have the opportunity to be educated with non-disabled peers, to the greatest extent appropriate, California’s credentialing system set back the move toward integrating special education students. Instead, many were taught in self-contained special education classes, often to the detriment of special education students, Darling-Hammond and others say. California is now among bottom tier of states in the amount of time that students with disabilities learn with other students, said Kristin Wright, special education division director for the California Department of Education.

“The models we support, and research and evidence show that having more access to general education classes correlates to better achievement,” she said.

Added training for general education candidates, too

Last week’s decision parallels an action the commission took in 2016 to better prepare general education teachers to teach students with disabilities. It revised the Teacher Performance Expectations, a document that lays out principles of effective teaching schools of education are using to modify their teacher prep curriculums. This is the first year that teacher candidates are taking courses affected by the new expectations. The 36-page document refers throughout to the need to accommodate students with disabilities in engaging students, organizing subject matter and designing learning experiences.

The approach to mainstreaming should not be “dump and hope” — place students in general education classrooms and “hope for the best,” said Donald Cardinal, dean of the College of Educational Studies at Chapman University and director of the Center for Ability and Disability in Orange County. “We have two decades of literature on how to do inclusion,” he said in commending the commission’s proposal as “brilliant.”

Patricia Pernin, an administrator overseeing intern teachers in Los Angeles Unified, which has 80,000 special education students, praised the goal of creating “a collaborative culture” between teachers with different specialties starting with their credentialing programs.

Autumn Sannwald, a student liaison for the commission who is pursuing a special education credential for mild and moderate disabilities, said she is taking only one course in common with candidates for general education credentials. “It is important to be in classes with general ed peers; general education students benefit, too,” she said.

The endorsements were not unanimous, however. Sally Spencer, a professor in the Department of Special Education at CSU Northridge, worried that the training of special education teachers would be watered down under the new system.

“Teaching students with learning disabilities is hard; they need special interventions that are focused, with practice, so that interventions stick over time,” she said. “Teachers tell me it keeps them up at night because they can’t break through. The needs of these kids should not be pawned off on general ed teachers” with huge classes, she said.

The commission is proposing no changes for certificate programs for working with blind and deaf children, preschool children and children with severe physical impairments. The vast majority of special education credentials, to which the new requirements would apply, are for mild to moderate disabilities and moderate to severe disabilities. Teachers in those two specialties currently can work with students in all grades starting in kindergarten. One issue still be to resolved is whether to differentiate credentials by grade span — K-8 and high school — under the new system.

Pernin cautioned the commission to be “realistic” in creating new grade-span requirements, noting that they could add to the already severe shortage of special education teachers.

The commission approved, in concept, additional changes for candidates pursuing a special education credential. They would be required to (see note at bottom of the story**):

Commission staff must flesh out the commissioners’ guidelines. The commission still has important choices to make, possibly at its February meeting, including: How many foundation courses will all teacher candidates take in common? Will the performance assessment be tailored for special education credentials?

Darling-Hammond said the new requirements will likely extend the minimum nine months required to get a teaching credential, though it’s too soon to say by how much. Speakers at the meeting expressed concern that lengthening the process could discourage candidates from going into special education.

But Kristin Stout, program coordinator for the special education program at Long Beach State University, said even though her school’s dual credential program that leads to general and special education credentials requires more course credits, there is a waiting list for admission. Darling-Hammond said that the state’s policy, combining undergraduate degrees in education and a teaching credential in four years, also creates new opportunities for expanding the pool of special education teachers.

Advocates of the new requirements are hoping that a stronger foundation in teaching and their acceptance of special education teachers as co-equals with general education teachers will reduce the high turnover rate, which is compounding a shortage of qualified special education teachers. Last year, the commission issued equal numbers of emergency credentials and new credentials for fully qualified special education teachers.

“As special education teachers feel more supported, and teachers believe their counterparts are capable, then you have partnerships and not silos,” said Wright. Special ed teachers are more likely to stay longer “if they feel they are no longer all alone.”

**Note: An earlier version incorrectly stated that a special education credential did not require passage of the California Subject Examinations for Teachers, known as CSET, the academic content knowledge exam.  Currently most special education teachers pass a multi-subject credential test required for  K-8 teachers. The issue facing the credentialing commission is to what extent, if any,  additional testing will be required for special education teachers hired to work in high schools.

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