Valuable but hard to get right
Two-thirds of students who receive special education services spend 80% or more of their days in general education classrooms, where co-teaching has become a common approach to inclusion.
At its best, the model—in which a general educator and a special educator share responsibilities for lesson planning, instruction, and student testing—can help students with disabilities succeed in general education classes and creating a less stressful working environment for educators. But too often, collaborative teaching is crippled by tight schedules, power struggles, and confusion over how to tailor lessons for a partner.
In a nationally representative survey, K-12 educators told the EdWeek Research Center that lack of support from administrators and little time to plan lessons with their teaching partner were their biggest concerns about co-teaching. About 1 in 4 general and special educators said that this lack of support deterred them from collaborative teaching.
“We often hear teachers say that, yes, they have special education support in their schools – it is legally required – but in practice the daily reality is that the support can often be somehow inconsistent or unreliable,” said Virginia Lovison, a teacher. researcher at Harvard University Graduate School of Education.
Even so, she added, “teachers value the full-time support of a special education specialist more than any other working condition.”
Studies have shown that teacher turnover is higher in schools with a greater concentration of students with disabilities, but Lovison and Cecilia Mo, an associate professor of political science at the University of California, Berkeley, found that structures strong teams can be a boon to recruitment and retention. The researchers asked 1,000 educators to choose a teaching position among hypothetical schools, created to be identical but for differences in salary, class size, availability of co-teachers or support staff. Researchers found that general education teachers valued having a full-time special education co-teacher more than perks like a 20% raise, teaching three fewer students, or access to an educational coach.
Limited team pedagogical training
But teachers often receive relatively little initial training in how to teach collaboratively and rely on school or district professional development. General education teachers were more than twice as likely as special education teachers to tell the EdWeek research center that they would not receive enough training to participate in teaching teams with special educators – and special education teachers were five times more likely to worry that general education teachers could not adapt teaching content to align with their recommendations.
“We need more training in this area — not just collaboration training, but training to teach specific content side-by-side,” said Alyson Collins, assistant professor of special education at Texas State, “so that teachers feel confident in the academic area they are teaching and can learn new strategies for working together to identify children who are having the most difficulty.
In New York, for example, researchers have found in college reading teaching teamsspecial education teachers spent the majority of their time ‘subordinate’, serving as an assistant to the general education teacher’s group lessons, rather than targeting lessons to students with disabilities or leading groups flexible.
“We have data that it’s not good when the special ed. the teacher can’t really teach with the ed. teacher – whether it’s more of a paraprofessional or a helper – just in the classroom but not really doing the co-planning and co-teaching,” said Margaret King-Sears, professor of special education at George Mason University.
In part, special education teachers may defer to their general education colleagues because they feel less prepared in specific content areas. For example, researchers at Arizona State University and Texas State University at San Marcos found that general education teachers were more confident in their own skills as writers and believed they were better prepared. to teach writing than their counterparts in special education. General education teachers were also more likely than special education teachers to believe that writing skills develop through effort and process rather than being something purely innate.
Co-teaching can help build special education teachers’ confidence in matching lessons to content areas, Collins said.
Collins and his colleagues are piloting a writing professional development program intended to target teams of general and special education teachers. Once educators have learned a teaching framework and writing components, they work on how to plan lessons and formative assessments for the framework, as well as their day-to-day roles.
“That’s where a lot of co-teaching and co-planning comes in,” Collins said. “They’re thinking about the big things we’re working on, when are they going to teach concurrently, and when are we going to see more small group teaching?” A big part of this is learning how to set goals for students and making sure they are realistic. »
Experts say school and district leaders can take a few immediate steps to support co-teaching teams:
- Ensure teachers do not have scheduling conflicts during co-teaching hours. Lovison noted that special educators are particularly vulnerable to double booking. “When I talk to headteachers about this, the planning is an absolute nightmare, there are legal constraints and there are only so many ways to put the pieces of the puzzle together so that all kids are in the classrooms they need,” Lovison said.
- Provide collaborative planning timethe absence of which is one of the most common needs that teachers say hinders co-teaching.
- Guide teams on ways to share tasks and target instruction in different domains. Special education teachers were more than twice as likely as general education teachers to tell the EdWeek research center that they did not want to co-teach because one teacher would control the class.
- Create continuous professional development for teams. This training would be given to teachers in their teams, rather than to special and general educators receiving separate professional development.
In a 2021 research analysis, King-Sears of George Mason University and colleagues found that students with disabilities performed better on average in language arts and math in classrooms taught by a special needs teacher and general than they were when taught by a special educator alone.
However, across two decades and more than 460 studies, King-Sears found little data on the most effective approaches to balancing roles and support.
“We need to know more about what’s happening in co-teaching settings, and we need to recognize that it’s not just about academic performance,” King-Sears said. “There are also very important socio-emotional goals for children with and without disabilities that also need to be investigated.”