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Does Co-Teaching Work?


The 12,500-student West Aurora district in Illinois plans to expand its co-teaching model this school year, and the teachers involved seem all for it:

West Aurora High School teacher Nancy Brown can't wait for the school year to start.

"It's the first time in a long time that I've been so excited," she said.

The cause of Brown's excitement? A new and improved collaborative teaching program that West High will debut this school year, where special education and general education students will learn side by side in classes taught by two teachers.

Brown and nine other teachers have been preparing all summer, learning new classroom strategies for teaching in tandem. Paula Kluth, a nationally recognized expert in integrating classrooms, conducted a two-day seminar this week with the teachers that ended in a chair-burning ceremony.

"It symbolizes getting out of that chair ... and taking a more-hands on approach to learning," explained Crysta Morrissey, the district's director of special education.

Wow, I wish I could have been there for the chair burning!

The last time I wrote about co-teaching, John Wills Lloyd, a special education professor and fellow blogger, pointed me to the "Current Practice Alerts," a joint initiative between the Council for Exceptional Children's Division for Learning Disabilities and the CEC's Division for Research.

Right now, co-teaching gets a "use caution" label from the groups:

The research base on the effectiveness of co-teaching is woefully inadequate. While there are many resources available to tell practitioners how to do it, there are virtually no convincing data that tell the practitioner that it is worth doing. Research is still needed to determine whether students with disabilities experience a wider range of instructional alternatives in co-taught classes than would be possible in a class taught by just one teacher; whether their participation and engagement levels increase in co-taught classes; and whether co-teaching enhances performance outcomes for students with disabilities.

The jury is still out - but the research to date does not suggest any academic advantages to the co-teaching model.

The full "practice alert" on co-teaching can be found here. (pdf)

Edited to add: As I read the practice alert, one question that comes to mind for consideration is how co-teaching might compare to what a school was doing before implementing such a model. The research gathered for the report says that co-teaching in elementary schools appears to be "as good as" what is commonly called a "resource room" or "pull-out" style of teaching, but no better.

But if some children in a particular school had little or no access to the general curriculum before co-teaching, perhaps there is a positive value in such a program. And I imagine that could be a positive effect on students when teachers are enthusiastic, and perhaps an intangible benefit for kids when school personnel believe that responsibility for all students rests with all teachers, not just a few. A hard thing to measure though, for sure...

As always, I certainly welcome the views of practitioners; please feel free to add them to the comments.


These teachers are all excited about a teaching practice that has no data supporting that it “enhances performance outcomes for students with disabilities”. However, it apparently makes the teachers feel good.

Isn’t this typical of what goes on in our public schools?

Thank you for those links to information about effective teaching practices. I’m currently trying to convince our school to provide my child academic services that WORK.

This research surprised me! It also made me realize that I had assumed co-teaching was effective and best practice (even though I typically dislike it), without reading the research. I am curious as to how this fits with RtI, where it is common to have small group instruction in the classroom or elsewhere. Additionally, I wonder about the implications of having instructional aides acting in the role of teachers in the classroom and/or responsible for small group instruction...(And, as I've mentioned before, what does the research reveal about school psychologists teaching students in an RtI model? I need to delve further into these studies...).

So, if “research to date does not suggest any academic advantages to the co-teaching model”, how does co-teaching figure into the IDEA requirement that schools must use “scientifically based instructional practices” for students under an IEP?

I am preparing to ask my school for information about the scientifically based instructional practices they are using in the services for my daughter. Since they have placed her in a collaborative class for one subject, I wonder if they’ll share any information about co-teaching studies.

I would be interested in any comments about this, because I confess I don’t even know if the school is required to answer my question. My prediction is that their first response will be, “No one ever asks for that”.

Honestly, I think many schools would be hard-pressed to demonstrate the scientific basis for instructional practices of any sort. I don't say that to criticize schools, only to suggest that it's not something they're commonly asked, as you say. And there's a challenge translating research-to-practice, which is one of the reasons the Department of Education has a whole division dedicated just to this.

I'd be interested in seeing what answers you get as well...and you may want to address this question to the folks at the Wrightslaw blog, which I thought was in my blogroll, but I see it's not -- they're at:

I know of 2 teachers who are really doing a great job with coteaching and thought you might be interested in knowing more about them. I believe their program is successful because both teachers do a great job with collaboration. Their website is: http://herricks.org/webpages/spcollaborative/


I also am interested in the response that you get. I usually just get patted on the head or referred to someone else. My impression overall aligns with Christine's that the research question just doesn't get much attention. My son's IEP now says that he will receive "direct instruction" in the resource room due to his "need for a smaller classroom with fewer distractions." Does this mean that there is in fact a research based entity known as "direct instruction" that someone can substantiate is going on in the resource room (and not in the classroom) and that there is some empirical evidence of greater distractions in the regular classroom that interfere with his learning. Probably not. But it sounds good. If challenged, they could take these words in front of a hearing officer and use them as proof that they are meeting their responsibilities.

This is one of the advantages that I see to response to intervention--that someone is required to get a bit more specific about what they tried, when, why and what the results were. But as Christina points out--it is always difficult to account for exactly what is practiced in the classrom.

I'm not sold on the "co-teaching" idea. I taught in a resource room and saw growth with my students. Now, I work with gen ed teachers, but I have to time to do direct interventions or strategies within the classroom. Seems like a "one size fits all" approach to me. I'm discouraged...

This past year my high school tested the waters of co-teaching with four teachers. Two were general education and two were special education. I am one of the special education teachers, who is also licensed to teach general education as well. Our experience and that of the students' was exceptionally positive. We are including more co-taught sections next year and we will continue to collect hard data in the hopes of publishing the results.

We experienced none of the negatives mentioned here. Student comments ranged from noting special education's past segregation into resource classes that many students felt was similar to that of the Tuskegee Airmen in WWII to their overwhelming feelings of joy at being treated as people not an IEP. Moreover, with the explicit and conscious use of differentiated instruction we met everyone's needs in a way that they felt resource classes never had. One student noted that he had a learning disability, but that does not mean he does not need challenging learning materials. Instead he shared his learning strategies with a variety of groups.

The other teacher and I entered into this venture with an attitude that our students are all perfect as they are, they are not broken and do not need to be fixed, rather they all deserve the opportunity to learn in the manner that is best for each of them. In the end, the teachers and the students both are excited about next year's eleventh grade co-taught classes. The students (all of them) have submitted ideas for next year's activities that they feel will help them to learn. I have never had a more positive experience with more positive results.

It's wonderful that your experiences were so positive. I think that having teachers willing to work together is certainly a foundation for success.

I agree that the experience is based on the teachers' attitudes. I know teachers that are excited about co-teaching or the class within the class (CWC) model. There are great things happening out there with CWC classes. I know students that are benefiting both from being in the gen ed setting and student in special education that has a teacher in the CWC setting. I know that sounds strange, but it allows the special educator to see what is being taught in the general ed class and bring it back with modifications. It is a win win all the way around as long as teachers are ready to jump in together for the good of the students!

That alert is from 2001. Is there anything more recent than that? That's pre-2004 IDEA.

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