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Preparing Skilled Special Education Teachers

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This article and photo originally were originally published in SmartBrief Education and are reprinted with permission.

We all know the numbers are sobering. A 2018 brief from the Council for Exceptional Children showed critical shortages of special education teachers in 48 states and the District of Columbia. Fifty-one percent of all school districts and 90% of high-poverty school districts report difficulty recruiting highly qualified special education teachers. The exit rate for special education teachers is nearly twice that of general education teachers and enrollment in teacher training programs has declined by 35% over the previous five years.

It seems a dismal picture, but there is light at the end of the tunnel — one that prepares teachers to enter this dynamic field and equips them with tools to help them skillfully and confidently persist in the profession.

Our preparation program, located in California, prepares special education teachers to implement evidence-based practices by using the CEC’s High-Leverage Practices. It also pushes teacher candidates to proficiently use technology as they learn, as a tool for teaching and accessibility. Aligning technology to HLPs has transformed the way we prepare skilled and lasting teachers.

High-Leverage Practice: Collaboration

Designing and implementing individualized programs for students means frequent communication with multiple stakeholders, including service providers, administrators, parents and support staff. Our program candidates use G Suite tools to help them keep information and communication organized: Google Drive for shared files for IEP planning; Google calendar for planning meetings and due dates; Google docs and forms for collaborative data collection, sharing and lesson planning; and Google student folders and docs for daily journaling and updates, especially helpful for parents of students who are still working on communication.

High-Leverage Practice: Assessment

Assessment factors in to almost everything a special education teachers do, including lesson planning and delivery, IEP goal development, social-emotional and behavioral support planning and development, collaboration with colleagues and families, and monitoring student progress. Preferred formal standardized and norm-referenced measures used for special education service delivery and IEP purposes vary from state to state but Curriculum Based Measures for literacy and mathematics are available, for free, through web-based platforms.

Our candidates use EasyCBM in their fieldwork. EasyCBM, a tool designed by researchers at the University of Oregon, lets teachers administer and score CBMs in early literacy — in both English and Spanish — and in mathematics. We encourage candidates to use CBMs for data-based decision-making and legally-defensible progress monitoring. A full district system is available for a fee, but the lite version—free—provides both paper and pencil and computer scored versions of the probes for individual teacher use.

High-Leverage Practice: Meeting students social, emotional and behavioral needs

Routine, routine, routine! New teachers must create a classroom environment that is consistent and organized, respecting the student and his or her needs. It should be a positive climate where students learn social behaviors—positive communication and self-management—and can get constructive feedback to guide their social-emotional development. For students who need more intensive supports, teachers can create individual behavior plans based on data from functional behavioral assessments.

Tech tools come in handy here as well. Log behavioral notes on Google calendar or in Google folder. Use Google forms to track and analyze frequency and interval data. Create QR codes—we like QRCode Monkey—to quickly allow staff and teachers access to data collection measures or behavior logs for each student.

High Leverage Practice: Instruction

New special education teachers may struggle to implement explicit instruction effectively. They need mentoring and consistent coaching to discover missed opportunities for student learning and to improve their practice.

Video is an effective way to support this effort; it promotes ongoing self-reflection with feedback and can assist with professional development and support efforts. Research by Sarah A. Nagro, Kyena E. Cornelius and Joanne M. Van Boxtel show that video analysis when used as a tool in teacher development—including pre-service training—can lead to positive changes for teachers and improved learning opportunities for students.

Web-based platforms such as Edthena support asynchronous video analysis and self-reflection with features including annotated, time-stamped written and video feedback. Candidates in our program use video coaching throughout the arc of their preparation program. Students move from working with a target student and receiving video feedback to receiving video feedback during whole group lessons during student teaching.

Has a special education teacher’s job become more complex? Absolutely. But while the tasks can seem daunting, numerous tools and strategies exist to support their efforts. And as new teachers implement these resources—from teacher preparation to classroom implementation—they will be able to lead their classrooms with confidence and help their students make meaningful progress.

Joanne M. Van Boxtel is an associate professor and coordinator for the Education Specialist programs at California Polytechnic State University, Pomona. Van Boxtel’s research interests include teacher education and special education, teaching and learning for students with disabilities, Universal Design for Learning, and international inclusive education.

Heather Taylor Wizikowski is an associate professor in the College of Education and Integrative Studies at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. Wizikowski is Director of the SEEDS personnel development 325K grant and her current research interests include effective, culturally-sustaining teacher preparation and effective new teacher mentoring.


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