Credit: Julie Leopo/EdSource
Co-teaching is a primary focus of the new standards.

As the pandemic has drawn more attention to the needs of students in special education, the state is moving forward with changes to teacher preparation programs intended to improve learning conditions for California’s nearly 800,000 students with special needs.

Last month, the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing approved the latest in more than a dozen changes to the requirements for credentialing aspiring special education teachers.

With a focus on co-teaching and collaboration between special education and their general education colleagues, the changes are intended to boost achievement among students of all abilities.

The changes are meant to address longstanding problems in special education, affecting more than 13% of California’s K-12 student enrollment.

Even though the landmark federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, approved by Congress 45 years ago, requires special education students to be taught in general education classes — or “mainstreamed” — whenever feasible, that has not happened to the extent that backers of the law envisioned.

In many schools, students in special education are separated from their non-special ed peers and lag academically.

According to the Learning Policy Institute, only 13% of students in special education met or exceeded the state’s math standards in 2018-19, compared to 43% of their peers, even though the majority of students in special education have conditions such as dyslexia, epilepsy, deafness or speech impairments that don’t affect their cognitive abilities.

Advocates say that with the right services and supports, these students should be able to perform at the same level as their peers who are not in special ed programs.

The new standards, slated to go into effect in 2022, are part of a series of changes the credentialing commission launched in February 2018 in the requirements to earn the “education specialist” credential needed to teach special education students. Once implemented, these reforms would cap more than five years of work by the commission.

A primary goal of the new standards is to improve working conditions for special education teachers, who have among the highest turnover rates in education. More than 20% of special education teachers in California quit over the course of a single year (between 2015-16 and 2016-17), according to a recent report by the Learning Policy Institute.

Often special education teachers feel isolated from other teachers and students, according to the Learning Policy Institute report.

To help improve that, the new standards aim to make special education more a part of the overall campus culture in K-12 schools. Special education and general education teachers would be able to co-teach in the same classrooms, and each would receive more training in the other’s field.

For example, a special education math teacher would be able to share a classroom with a general education math teacher, providing instruction to students in both categories if they’re at about the same level academically.

The result, commissioners hope, is that students with undiagnosed or mild learning disabilities in general education classrooms would be identified and receive extra help from special education teachers, and special education students would be more academically challenged and gain social skills by learning alongside their general-education peers.

“It represents a big cultural shift. It’s no longer, ‘Those are special ed kids’ and ‘These are gen ed kids.’ It’s, ‘These are all our students,’” said Anne Spillane, an associate dean of special education at Brandman University who sat on the commission’s special education task force. “The changes to the standards reflect that.”

The first changes were approved in 2018 but every few months the commission has fine-tuned the policy. So far, the primary changes include:

  • More focus on co-teaching, using technology to help special education students in the classroom; teaching English learners with disabilities; and adapting the general curriculum for students with disabilities.
  • At least 600 hours of student teaching and field work in both special education and general education classrooms. Previously, the number of hours wasn’t specified and experience in general education classrooms was not required.
  • Extending preparation for early childhood special education credentials to include kindergarten, to better accommodate schools that offer transitional kindergarten and preschool, typically for 3- and 4-year-olds. Early childhood special education credentials are separate from elementary or high school special education credentials. Previously, early special education services for some children began in infancy but ended when the child began kindergarten and transitioned to the elementary school special education program. Under the new standards, those children would be able to stay in the early special ed program until first grade.
  • A shift in specialization to focus less on students’ diagnoses and more on their individual needs. For example, students with autism can have a wide range of capabilities and needs. Under the new standards, those students would be placed in classes based on their needs, not necessarily with other autistic students.

The standards won’t likely have a major impact on schools for several years, as new teachers get hired and replace those trained under the old standards. But over time, commissioners hope the changes will lead to a more seamless blending of special-education and general-education classrooms.

The new standards are also expected to improve the special education teacher shortage, which has long plagued California schools. According to the Learning Policy Institute report, special education teachers cited inadequate preparation, lack of support, feeling isolated and large classes as the primary reasons they leave their jobs. Working more closely with general education teachers is expected to raise morale for both groups of teachers.

William Hatrick and Sarah Solari, consultants who worked with the credentialing commission on the special education changes, said that making special education less isolated from general education — not just on school campuses but also in teacher preparation programs — should help boost morale for both teachers and students overall.

“This is about breaking the silos that we know exist, on many levels,” Hatrick said. “In years to come, we’ll start to see improvements. Not just with special education, but with general education, as well.”

California’s moves are in line with what’s happening around the country and reflect a broader shift to include more special education students in general education classrooms, said Linda Blanton, an education professor who works with states on special education teacher training through a center at the University of Florida.

“Yes, these changes are necessary, and there is a long social, cultural and policy history supporting inclusive practices,” Blanton said. “What’s at stake? Equity is a critical issue in today’s schools and providing opportunities to learn for all diverse students, including those with disabilities, is the role of every teacher and school leader.”

Exposing special education students to “mainstream” classes can hopefully boost their academic performance — which has long lagged behind that of their peers, Hatrick said.

Kristin Stout, a lecturer at Long Beach State who worked on the commission’s task force, said she’s optimistic about the future of special education in California — provided that districts make good use of the newly trained teachers heading into the workforce.

Some schools have already embraced this approach. Chime, a charter school in the San Fernando Valley, promotes its “inclusive” classrooms and the high academic standards it holds for both special education and non-special-education students. “Inclusive” refers to classrooms that include students in special education as well as those who aren’t.

Wish, a network of charter schools in Southern California, also advertises its inclusive special education program on its website: “Wish was founded on the philosophy of inclusion and the belief, supported by research, that all students achieve and become better and more responsive and caring citizens when they learn together.”

Hopefully, with improved teacher preparation programs, other schools will follow suit, Stout said.

“Special education is complex. It’s not something that’s easily put into textbooks. It’s not a formula,” Stout said. “But by breaking down these (teacher preparation) silos, we feel we can prepare teachers to educate all the students in front of them. And that’s really powerful.”

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  1. Scottie Barnes 2 months ago2 months ago

    Carolyn, do you plan to regularly post about special education topics? As Los Angeles residents, we would love updates about various topics. We look forward to hearing more from you! Our two kids may potentially be students within a few years, and we want to stay updated.

  2. Robert Bartlett 2 months ago2 months ago

    The CTC is leading the state on a wild goose chase and they know it. Nothing new has been introduced. I received a professional-clear mild-moderate credential in 2006 after a full-time, three-year district internship spent almost exclusively in collaboration with gen-ed teachers, including extensive formal and voluntary coteaching. The final project for my professional-clear, which was a graduate-level certificate, was a handbook of inclusion strategies written for and distributed to the general-ed faculty at my … Read More

    The CTC is leading the state on a wild goose chase and they know it. Nothing new has been introduced.

    I received a professional-clear mild-moderate credential in 2006 after a full-time, three-year district internship spent almost exclusively in collaboration with gen-ed teachers, including extensive formal and voluntary coteaching. The final project for my professional-clear, which was a graduate-level certificate, was a handbook of inclusion strategies written for and distributed to the general-ed faculty at my public middle school. I just shared a copy of it with the charter middle school that I work at now, where it’s a 100% push inclusion environment. At the end of my credential program, I had a bookcase full of textbooks on the topic of teaching special-needs students in the general-education classroom. The credential also featured academic studies on collaboration and consulting. We even engaged in role playing on the theme of collaboration, the training was so grassroots. I myself collaborated on a written model of collaboration in my very first job, which was formal coteaching duty in a team-based model.

    The public middle school had closed its RS sections and moved all mild-moderate students into coteaching. In my master’s program, which was sponsored by the sped credential program, I received a master’s in education and I was trained side-by-side with general-ed teachers for many of the courses, even though I was earning a specialty in special education.

    One might say that I am one of the last inclusion experts standing in this state, with 16 years of hard-fought, hard-won experience. Or maybe I’m the only inclusion expert in this state. Every year some principal did their best to end my career (present company excluded, for now). They tried every step of the way. Principals need the training, and superintendents and school boards. Unfortunately, leadership programs don’t aim to improve a person’s character or alert them to the need for decency and respect for all.

    Principals and gen-ed faculties continue to see special education as something that protects them from parents and children, when in fact SpEd law is meant to protect students from the harmful and short-sighted ways of faculties and especially administrators. It’s meant to prevent harm.

    The CTC spent all this time creating a decoy. It’s not the Democratic Party of California and their subtle sponsorship of tax reform and teachers unions at the same time, creating an impossible bind that deprives schools of resources. No, that is not the problem, it’s just that the SpEd teachers need more training.

    The CTC depends on the Democratic Party to keep them in a cozy situation, so they will not be complaining about the budget. They’ll keep pretending that we live in the best of all possible worlds (just look how low the property taxes are!). It’s hard to reach every student in a state fanatically devoted to limited government and consumerism. The pleasure principal can take a state only so far, and definitely far short of inclusion. Best just to write off the special-ed kids and keep the taxes low, especially property taxes and income taxes, that way the Democratic Party can keep backing your union and patronage. The great thing about suggesting more teacher education is that it must be at the teacher’s expense according to state law. I would like to see the CDE create a proposal for reforming the tax system and school budget in ways that would support the small schools, smaller class sizes, and enhanced staffs needed to make inclusion a comfortable and effective part of every classroom. California needs real reform, not just superficial credential reforms that don’t address the underlying crisis.

  3. Amber 2 months ago2 months ago

    When are the general education teachers going to be required to put in more student teaching hours to include time in a special education class? They need to understand the SpEd kids’ needs. The fact that SpEd teachers always have to attend gen ed meetings and SpEd meetings tells me they already know the needs of the students. Going to drive more away from SpEd

  4. PJ 2 months ago2 months ago

    The real reasons special education teachers are leaving the profession has to do with the exhorbinant amount of paperwork, lack of respect, lack of materials to do the job, and the increased number of advocates and lawyers who want "special" treatment for their client. Most of the special education teachers that I know do not like or support the "collaborative" teaching model because they feel more like a teacher's aide than a teacher. … Read More

    The real reasons special education teachers are leaving the profession has to do with the exhorbinant amount of paperwork, lack of respect, lack of materials to do the job, and the increased number of advocates and lawyers who want “special” treatment for their client. Most of the special education teachers that I know do not like or support the “collaborative” teaching model because they feel more like a teacher’s aide than a teacher.

    When special education students are reading at a second grade level, how are they accessing the general education curriculum? Some teachers are working with a group of special education students at a table away from the rest of the class; this is a violation of HIPPA and does nothing for their self-esteem.

    If the state of California improved working conditions, decreased the mountain of paperwork, and didn’t give in to parental whims, I think there would be more special education teachers who stayed in the profession. Years ago, I was a teacher of the Communicatively Handicapped and when the credentials were changed to Mild-Moderate and Moderate-Severe, students suffered for it. Now one teaching method is used for all, when in reality, a Communicatively Handicapped student learns very differently from a Learning Handicapped student. Plus, an Education Specialist knows little to nothing about a student with a Severe Language Disorder. (End of Rant)

  5. AEdington 2 months ago2 months ago

    Maybe they should also consider looking into the prep programs for the general education teachers too! They my tend to be the least flexible with co-teaching models and supporting special education teachers and students!

  6. Susan Langer 2 months ago2 months ago

    I saw in the article that credentialing programs are going to add more training for special education teachers in general education classes. Are they going to also give training to general ed teachers and how to work with special education teachers and children? That is the issue most special education teachers are facing when trying to work with special education students in general education classes. Very few general education teachers have any experience working with special education students.

    Replies

    • AEdington 2 months ago2 months ago

      Susan you took the words right out of my mouth!

  7. KCE 2 months ago2 months ago

    As special ed administrator for 15 years, the real truth of why so many teachers (and other staff leave special ed) is because of the the parents and their attorneys that file Due Process because their children are not “cured.” Sadly, the best and brightest don’t want to go into special ed because of the nightmare it has become. The students are the ones who suffer as a result.

    Replies

    • Anna J 2 months ago2 months ago

      Fascinating. As a parent of a SWD and educator working directly with SWD, many of my SPED colleagues leave the profession due to administrators who seek to deny services to SWD, don't show up at IEP meetings, create district and school-wide policies that discriminate against SWD and retaliate against teachers and staff that advocate for their SWDs. I have yet to meet a SPED teacher who leave the profession due to parents filing for due … Read More

      Fascinating. As a parent of a SWD and educator working directly with SWD, many of my SPED colleagues leave the profession due to administrators who seek to deny services to SWD, don’t show up at IEP meetings, create district and school-wide policies that discriminate against SWD and retaliate against teachers and staff that advocate for their SWDs.

      I have yet to meet a SPED teacher who leave the profession due to parents filing for due process. I have met SPED teachers who leave the profession whose districts file for due process to retaliate against families who earnestly advocate for their child. Been at this for 11 years so not as long as you. But seen enough systemic hate and bigotry against SWDs to make me question your statement and opinion.

  8. Kathi Kobylarz 2 months ago2 months ago

    Those are good changes, but those are not new ideas. That’s how I was taught in the early ’90s and that’s how my current school district has programmed for the 11 years I’ve been there.

  9. Susan Keonard-Giesen 2 months ago2 months ago

    As excited as these changes may be for special ed teacher preparation, schools will not implement inclusive practices in a meaningful way until general ed teacher preparation programs change to prepare them for inclusive practices.

  10. MH 2 months ago2 months ago

    What exactly is the evidence from research that supports this approach? No mention in the article.

  11. Susan Houg 2 months ago2 months ago

    As an older teacher, it’s somewhat dismaying to see these “big changes” come around again … and again… and …. In our district we have been co-teaching special ed/general ed for years, at least since 1990. I suspect that any secure, adventurous, collegial gen-ed teacher will welcome eagerly a co-teaching RSP. There are so many ways to do it!

  12. Christopher A Ross 2 months ago2 months ago

    Get back to school!!! These children are suffering especially keeping them at home for almost 1 year. Start making a plan!