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How to Grow a Special Education Teacher


It's time to rethink the way colleges and universities train special education teachers, says Paul Sindelar, a professor of special education at the University of Florida. He argues for training all of them in a general education program first, giving extra training in response to intervention instructional and assessment techniques to who are interested in special education, and paying them more because of their specialized knowledge.

Sindelar offered these suggestions during a Monday panel that was part of a three-day conference in Washington this week. The 2009 OSEP Project Directors' Conference, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education's office of special education programs, brings together federal officials, researchers, and many of the people who are charged with providing technical assistance to states, districts, and schools on how to improve their special education programs.

Sindelar's recommendations on this panel were just a snapshot from a paper that he says is soon to appear in Exceptional Children, a publication of the Council for Exceptional Children in Arlington, Va. So he didn't have a copy of the paper available for me to read. But some of his co-panelists, like Utah State professor Benjamin Lignugaris/Kraft questioned whether a general education foundation should be a prerequite to a special education career.

"Is it only special education teacher prep that needs to be fixed and not teacher education in general?" he said, to a smattering of applause in the room. He suggested that teacher preparation in general is in need of rethinking, and that model schools that already have successful programs, particularly in response to intervention, should take the lead in preparing special education teachers.


This makes sense to me. As long as we continue to utilize special education teachers primarily as classroom teachers, they need to be well-versed in content, particularly at the secondary level. The other model would recognize special education teachers as specialized in methodology and regular ed teachers as specialized in content--and expect and require ongoing cooperation and collaberation. In many schools this would require a sea change. I was not happy to see that my son's biology, algebra and history teachers were formerly teaching little more than functional math and life skills--and became "highly qualified" through a couple of summer workshops.

Hi, I have to say I agree that all teacher preparation needs to be radically changed--prospective teachers should be in the classroom under expert mentor teachers from day 1, continuously, throughout their trainging. Coursework could be done in the afternoons, after a morning of really working with students under expert guidance. This apprenticeship would help prospective teachers and the profession, and MOST of ALL, students! No longer would brand new teachers have to sink or swim and try to re-invent the wheel constantly--individualized education plans for all students (not just for students needing IEP services) could be designed collaboratively, based on expertise, professional research, and reflective innovating. Meeting needs of every student is paramont to me...apprenticeship can help teachers design teaching based on HOW students learn.

I disagree RtI is a genral education initiative. Gen ed teachers need to be trained in strategic teaching and strategies. Special Education can support this initiative but I have seen too many childeren qualify for special education because of poor teaching.
I also teach at a university and supervise special education services and agree that we need to look at our teacher taraining programs for ALL teachers. Look how many general education teachers come out with little knowledge of classroom management or good literacy training.

This issue should definitely be revisited when the article comes out. I *think* that Sindelar's point was that special education teachers should receive specific training in the "tier 2" and "tier 3" interventions, not that only spec ed teachers would do RTI.

I really like the idea of an apprenticeship model because it seems like that's what we're doing now. New teachers are usually required to do a lot of professional development. Maybe colleges can't really do it all.

Benjamin Lignugaris/Kraft, a 68 year old professor at Utah State questioned whether a general education foundation should be a prerequite to a special education career. Well, Ben, things in the Special Education world have changed quite a bit since you went to school.

What a bizarre statement. I would like to know how Ben thinks Special Education Teachers are going to understand their students' needs and thoroughly explain the curriculum. As a Resource Room Teacher, I find it difficult to achieve an objective in Language Arts, for example if I am not already familiar with the curriculum that I must teach. Spled Teachers are taught to use Direct Instruction (aka "Model, Prompt, Check") and Curriculum Based Assessment but how can we actually bridge our objectives with the lesson plans we must teach if we don't even know that much about the scope and sequence of what is taught in a typical Reading and Language Arts curriculum?

As the Special Ed Teachers, we end up begging the Gened teachers for more information on what is going on in their classrooms so that we can get our kids back up to speed.

I have my Bachelor's degree in Spec. Ed. and a Master's in Early Childhood Ed, but before I received my Master's I felt very unsure about teaching regular Ed. and rightfully so. If I could have done it all again, I would definitely minor in Elemntary Ed.

Meghan, I think that the larger point that Lignugaris/Kraft was trying to make is that looking at special education training in isolation ignores larger issues with teacher preparation in general.

But I also think that you bring up a good point that I've heard from other spec ed teachers, which is that they feel left out of the curriculum planning process. It sounds like that's something you've experienced.

There was a comment posted above stating that Rti is a Gen. ed. initiative. That is correct. I think Gen. Ed. as well as Special Ed. should be trained equally in order to meet the needs of ALL students. Gen. ed. students as well as ESE students learn differently. The better educated we all are will better serve all learning communities at all grade levels.

General education teachers need more expertise individualizing instruction. From my experiences helping and supervising colleagues in the general education classrooms, they have found my assistance more beneficial when compared to teachers providing assistance without any training in special education instruction. This position is further substantiated by general teachers only being offered 2 - 3 classes in their teacher preparation program.

There are so many problems with the education of special education teachers - the primary of which is that special education teachers do not have adequate background in literacy / reading: especially at the secondary level. As a result they fail to question some of the techniques recommended by non-educators (MDs who think reading is pronouncing a list of nonsense words) and those unaware of exactly what literacy is and how it relates to learning. This extends to the teacher education programs where we are teaching non-research based techniques such as direct instruction in our special education teacher education programs. The more background a special education teacher has the better (i.e. an undergraduate degree in elementary ed or subject area teaching and a masters in special education). How can we be RESOURCES to the classroom teacher if we don't know what goes on in the general ed classroom?
(BTW I am a 63 year old teacher educator who has been involved in education for over 40 years. I have a BS in English Education, MA in Learning Disabilities, and PhD in Literacy.)

Prior to teaching special education in a pubic setting, I worked in a clinical setting where language based disabilities were specifically addressed. As I progressed through the training at a well known college for the special education training I kept wondering when will they bring up the specific aspects of the disabilities that make symbolic language difficult and how to train that individual to negotiate printed language. Each course I took taught one to teach reading, rather than how does the brain learn to read which was the focus of the clinical perspective.

Currently, I work in a state that does not recognize dyslexia separate from the general pool of learning disabilities (fear of lawsuits) and instead requires the special education teachers to teach the entire language arts curriculum (designed for normally developing learners) with "modifications" (dumb down) and lots of manipulatives (I guess they look good and make the students look busy).

In a clinical setting these students would receive intensive instruction in tracking sounds and symbols in a way that may not even look like reading instruction to some teachers. The number of exposures and the type of corrections these students require is vastly different from conventional reading instruction methods.

I whole heartedly agree that training for special education needs to be robustly changed, however, a special education should not look like a general education only slower. That is the worst thing we can do.

I am a special education teacher at a school that uses both RTI and inclusion models. My students have pull-out and inclusion minutes. My aid and I go into the general education classrooms and use various inclusion models that work for the grade level and subject area. My day is spent in many classrooms including my own and I use grade level curriculum as well as direct instruction programs. Students don't always need to be in strictly pullout situations. Take a look at the curriculum your school is using and find components that work with goals and benchmarks for IEP's and USE it. There is nothing out there that says special education has to use direct instruction only. Participate in grade level workshops and classes to become familiar with curriculum your district/school is using.

I am one of those special education teachers, who started out with an undergrad focus in elementary education and music education. Due to my diverse interest areas, I was asked if I might be interested in pursuing a special education degree. I completed my Bachelors of Science, with an Arts and Letters and Music focus. I completed my Masters in Special Education back in 2001. I have 38 undergrad credits in history, so I took the social studies Praxis exam for middle school teachers and passed (I have been teaching middle school for the last 6 years), but adding this to my current secondary license was difficult because my first initial license was not in gen. ed. After 5 years of fighting the system, it is now being added. I then completed an autism certification (i.e. 27 graduate credits) because I needed to know how to best meet the needs of 9 students placed on my caseload in 2002, who were diagnosed with autism (High Functioning and Aspergers). Currently this specialty area and all those credits have not been classified by T.S.P.C. as an endorsement, so it can’t be added to my current license (another example of how special education training is viewed as less important than general education training). I have now completed a 24 credit Reading Endorsement Program. Thank goodness that can be added to my current license, but my friend (High School Specialist) was the first specialist in Oregon to ever do this, and I am the second.
Speaking of High School, our high school is taking general education (first year content teachers) and making them teach "merge" (i.e. lower level LA/SS/math/science classes), and yet they have little knowledge or expertise in how to differentiate the curriculum to meet the needs of ESL and/or Special Education students. These teachers usually have (in Oregon) one intro to special education class, and one collaborative class with special education teachers. Most new teachers only teach these classes for one, maybe two years before they beg their department chairs or administration to get them out.
Specialists go into this field because we like the unknown (we don't always know what we are going to have to develop to teach that student, or how many steps it will take to break the material down before that student understands a new concept and is ready to move on to the next thing, and don't even get me started on retention).
I have worked in multiple school districts throughout Oregon, and I hate to say this, but Specialists are usually excluded when it comes to (content area planning). Every year I have to request a scope and sequence from LA/SS, Science, or Math departments (if they have one), or sit down with grade level teachers (6th, 7th or 8th) and verbally find out what they are going to do in their class this year (if they know).
I have all the required things Benjamin Lignugaris /Kraft spoke about and more, but the system still wants more of me? No wonder specialists only teach for about three years, even with good mentors. I am a dually licensed teacher at the secondary level, who went to grad school and obtained my special education license first, and it has caused me more difficulties, than if I had done a gen. ed. program first. I believe that is one glitch in the system that needs to be changed. It should not matter which program you go through to obtain your first initial license, what should matter is that you are a lifelong learner, and I should be able to add these extra endorsements, if I have completed the undergrad and/or grad coursework.
I teach classes with 18+ students, most with disabilities, and their skills range from Pre-K (i.e. Somali children with zero education in their homeland) to grade level students who can’t/won’t (i.e. ADD, ADHD, Autism, Diabetics, Emotional Disturbance, Learning Disability, Lupus, Cerebral paisley keep up the pace of a general education class. My school has 850 students, the students speak 63 languages, and we are a title one school that has met A.Y.P. with our students with disabilities. The federal government has recognized us with academic excellence in regards to the progress our special education population has made in reading and math. I have tried to go into gen. ed. classrooms to support students in the least restrictive environment, but I am usually treated like an aide. Any suggestions I offer are often ignored, and the teacher still has difficulty grading a student on their individual ability (what they did do, vs. what they didn't do). Do to this fact; I obtained my dual secondary licenses, so I could be my students reading specialist, language arts, social studies, and special education teacher. The other specialist in my building is dually licensed in math.
Should we be paid more? (Yes!) I am one of the lucky specialists! I am paid 40 extra hours a year for after school I.E.P. meetings. Should gen. ed. teachers be paid for attending after school I.E.P. meetings, YES! If that was done, teachers would be more willing to be involved in the I.E.P. process. They would play a more active role in being a team member. When they don't get paid for their time, they come to the meetings, say they really need to leave in 10 minutes, they look at the clock constantly, they resent having to be present, and those actions do affect they way they view working with students with disabilities.
We need to support a more collaborative system, and that doesn't mean it has to be a dual teaching situation. Gen. Ed. teachers in my building love what we are doing with our special education program because students who need that extra support are placed in leveled LA/SS classes based on their reading ability. We have a low level classroom (pre-K to 2nd grade readers) the primary focus is reading and the basic of writing. We have a middle level classroom (3rd-5th grade readers), and we have a high level classroom (6th -7th). I follow the gen. ed. scope and sequence, but I use materials crafted for the lower level reader, and we often do not get through all the material by the end of the year. Usually we complete half to three fourths of the material (that depends of the abilities of the students). I use some direct instruction, but I also use novel studies to teach literary elements, and lit circles. As soon as a student can keep up with my pace, and has mastered 5th grade reading materials, they are moved to my higher class. As soon as they are able to be successful (Best quality work, Behaviors-zero, or near to zero, and daily work and projects turned in), they are moved out of our sheltered instruction, and into the gen. ed. classes with Para-professional support. I also have to check in with the teachers on a bi- weekly basis during our PLT meetings, (i.e. Professional Learning Team Meetings held every other day) to make sure the teacher and students are doing well, if not they might have to return to my higher level classroom. We have a similar system in place for our students who are not able to keep up with the concepts or pace in math.
We need more programs like ours, and we need to recognize that specialists are called that for a reason. We are not THOSE teachers, (you know the ones who are supposed to tell gen. ed. teachers how to do this or that). I pride myself on being a resource to our Alternative Education Teachers (their students do not qualify for special education services, but need a smaller more sheltered program), ESL teachers, Gen. Ed. Teachers, and Title One teachers. We must be a collaborative group, and I am always inviting teachers (new and experienced) into my classroom. If I find something I really like, I show others. If they like them, I go to my principal, and see if we can order more copies for them. I am constantly searching for materials that mimic gen. ed. curriculum, but the concepts may be simplified, and/or the reading levels may be modified. This is my job. This is my life, I am a specialist.

Shawn summed it up by stating that special education shouldn't look like regular education only slower. But I wanted to respond to Shawn's comment about the state not allowing students with dyslexia to be identified as other than LD due to fear of lawsuits. Not too sure what that is all about, but it sounds like there are some misinterpretations of law somewhere along the line. The specific categories of disability are specified at the federal level, although I am not certain that they have ever been considered to be exhaustive. ADD has always been a case in point. I believe that the feds did finally issue some specific guidance to say out loud that if a student's ADD interfered with their ability to learn then it did in fact constitute a dysability. Prior to that I know that some were able to shoe-horn it in under the definition of Other Health Impairment. But, what is really important is that those categories of eligibility are just that--they determine eligibility, they don't define services. And if someone is telling you that they do, well, they are just wrong. It may be appropriate to note the specific diagnosis of dyslexia in the MFE, or to refer to it in the present levels of performance. But the services provided should always (not saying that they are) be selected based on the student's individual needs.

I would say that Shawn brings a very important perspective, the clinical perspective, to the education of students. Not saying that it's always appreciated, or even noticed, but don't let anyone tell you that you cannot respond to a student's diagnosed disability because the district could get sued. Wrightslaw and other sites provide really good and accurate presentation of the legal side of issues.

I'm thrilled at the number of responses this little entry has spawned. I don't want to interrupt the flow, but please, feel free to keep talking!

One of the main reasons for NOT requiring special ed teachers to have a general teacher education degree is the great shortage of qualified special educators. Although I am a strong advocate for high quality teacher preparation and would like for special educators to have general education degrees, the more stringent and difficult it become to earn a license in special education, fewer and fewer individuals choose this career. Shortages were mentioned in the meeting, but apparently missed by the reporter.

From 1976 to the present, I have watched the field of Special Education change radically at least in the South.
I was specially trained in Speech/Language Impairment and later in Learning Disabilities. In the 80s, many states offered multiple certifications in Varying Exceptionalities(as well as other labels)to save labor costs by hiring three teachers in one.
Recently, under No Child Left Behind legislation, teachers certified under any Exceptional Ed. category were no longer considered "highly qualified" and in many cases, were required to add gen.ed. fields to their certification to continue employment.
So it is not surprising to me that there would be shortages of qualified people willing to go into Special Education today. When I began my career, Specialists were rare and were offered signing bonuses. Now it appears that at least some are considering a new direction and vision for these professionals.
Finally, I appreciate the excellent comments made on this issue and agree that colaboration especially in curriculum development, is missing as well.

I am dual certified, meaning I have a Masters degree in general and special education, I also have training in both. I work in a co-teaching model, I find the process frustrating because the general ed teacher does not always include the sped teacher in the lesson planning process. I feel I am more of a aide in the class. I am forced to deal with behavior of EBD students in the instead of teaching, because the general ed. teacher often not intentionally provoke these students.

General teachers also need to be taught how to work with special ed. students especially in classroom management. In my district special ed. teachers are sent for many trainings and the general ed. teacher has none, yet we are expected to work together.

As a parent of sp.ed student, I follow these comments very closely. It has been my feeling for YEARS there is not enough prep/training about dealing with sped kids' LD's in the gen classroom. Cai, thank you for your hard work and devotion to this field. My son goes into 8th this fall and I dread every minute of what the year holds. Your district is lucky to have you. You are the kind of teacher I have prayed for for my son. We are still waiting. :( And he is a kid with very little behavior issues! But the negativism toward him astounded me, and I honestly think its because the average teacher doesn't have a clue about LD's!! And not to sound pompous, but I really believe I know more about the neurology of LD's than any of the teachers he has had.. and that is sad. I am all for inclusion if done right..but that seems impossible. Their idea of inclusion has been keeping him in reg. classrooms and expecting us to teach the math at home.Literally, that is what happened--thank God my husband is a math whiz. But I don't need to tell you the typical hell of a homework session. The sped teacher had 10 other kids to attend to, along with my son, in the schools version of a 45 min "pullout." I don't know what the future holds..but I do feel a bit better knowing there are teachers like Cai out there.


You said, "...we are teaching non-research based techniques such as direct instruction in our special education teacher education programs."

I am under the impression that direct instruction, like Reading Mastery, IS research based with its immediate corrective feedback, frequent reinforcement, and instruction based on the National Reading Panel's 5 big ideas (phonemic awareness, alphabetic principle, fluency, vocabulary, comprehension).

I don't mean to distract from the main idea of this post, but I would like to know if I am somehow shortchanging my students. Please point me in the right direction if I am mistaken.



I am currently working on dual certification in general and special education. I currently work in the special education classroom. However, I have worked in both classrooms and I agree with Patricia posting that the general education teachers do treat special education teachers like they are only in the room to work with the special education students. I know the purpose of co-teaching is so that both teachers can plan and implement instruction. Both teachers need to be familiar with each area of teaching and know the characteristics of the students with a disabilty.


This blog was just what I needed. I am currently working on my master's degree in special education. I am a general educatator, but I co-teach in an inclusive setting.

I am working on my master's in spec ed because of the new research based strategies that are innovative for meeting the needs of all students. I support the idea of dual-certification for new educatators. With the school climate ever changing, and inclusion being a solution to better meet the needs of all children, I feel more confident as an educator having more strategies in my bag of "teaching tricks"

At the preshool level, I have not had much experience with RTI, but I am interested in learning more about it. Breaking down the modifications and adapations provided by teachers appears to help all children as does differentiated instruction.

Holding a dual certification will provide me the knowledge base that I require as a general educator. Co-teaching with a special educator has taught me many strategioes to help the students with special needs.

I cannot imagine teaching special education without my general education certification. I think the point is understanding how to create effective inclusion environments as well as truly understanding how to adapt interventions so that they make a difference for special education students in the general education classroom. As a special educator and general educator, I feel like I understand the perspectives of both sets of professionals and have a clear view of how to reconcile much of the discrepancies that exist. I believe that special education is turning into more of a continuum of services for students needing intervention, whether or not they are identified. Recognizing and understanding a wide variety of students, the curriculum, and expectations/achievements of typical peers is extremely important for a special educator! In this new culture of RTI, effective co-teaching must include team teaching, station teaching, and parallel teaching more than just one teach and one assist which emphasizes special educator work with only sped students. By obtaining an understanding of the generalized curriculum, special educators can truly understand and effectively carry out their role as professional specialized instructors.

I am currently teaching Preschool Special Education and I enjoy it. However, I want to eventually teach in a general education classroom or be apart of a co-teaching environment. I want to learn as much as I can in both areas teaching 3rd-5th grade. Right now I am continuously learning about different disabilities and trying to learn about the curriculum and the expectations and or achievements made by students with disabilities.

I would agree that teacher training in both general education and special education needs to be re-visited. While students are being supported in inclusive general education settings, some special educators lack the in- depth curricular knowledge needed in order to adapt or modify as appropriate. Likewise, some general education teachers lack the knowledge and expertise needed to implement academic and behavioral interventions that students may need in tiers 1 and 2. Additional pre-service time in both settings with effective mentoring would help facilitate this process.

I also feel that special educators need to have further training in more specific methodology such as TEACCH and ABA. While these are very precise methods for addressing the needs of students in the Autism spectrum, the cost of providing these programs is astronomical. If methodologies are research-based, then special educators need to have the training needed to implement as appropriate so that students with ASD are able to attend their neighborhood schools with peers.

Cai seems to have a real handle on teaching students with special needs. The proof is that students with special needs in his school have been meeting AYP. I believe part of his success is in teaching students in small focus groups based on ability, while following the scope and sequence of the general ed curriculum. Another aspect is his continuouse self improvement and collaboration with other teachers, sharing successful materials and strategies. Also, by meeting biweekly with the PLT(Professional Learning Team) meetings he is able to maintain communication and continue successful collaboration with general ed teachers and other involved staff. His students, school and district are extremely fortunate to have such a motivated, dedicated, professional employed in their district. As a general education teacher working on my master in special education, I am working on ways to improve communication and collaboration between special ed and general ed teachers in my school.

I like to know what jobs or careers can I have with a masters in speical ed without being certified.

Based on what I have read about the RTI tier paradigm, it is geared to have a dual certified general/special ed teacher with a certified TA in the classroom. Basically designed to cut out one full-time teacher.
Also, the Education bureaucrats always like to use the buzzword research- based, but they never tell you where the research was done and what variables were used to conclude the success of their model.Research conducted at a University, in which the setting is arranged for success, does not mean that it will translate outside the lab setting, in which the variables are not controlled.
It has been my observation, for the most part, that the education system in this country adopts a lot of qualitative theory based paradigms without quantitative results to back it up.

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