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Special Education

Preparation Of Teachers

Special education is a complex enterprise. Students are classified by disability categories and placed in settings that range from classrooms and resource rooms to self-contained classes and separate schools. Special education teacher education also is complex. Teachers are prepared in specialized programs and often licensed to teach students with a particular disability. Licensure structures are complex and vary dramatically from state to state. Furthermore, how students with disabilities are served in schools has changed dramatically since the early 1980s, with implications for teachers' roles and teacher preparation.

Special Education Students and Teachers

According to the U.S. Department of Education (DoE), in 1998–1999 about 5.7 million school-aged children were provided special education in the United States. Schools employed about 360,000 special education teachers, 90 percent of whom were fully qualified. Teacher preparation is also a substantial enterprise. The approximately 800 special education programs in the United States awarded more than 22,000 bachelor's and master's degrees in 1996–1997. Although such productivity would seem sufficient to address demand, many master's recipients are practicing teachers, and many newly graduated teachers decline to enter the work force.

The federal government has played an influential role in special education teacher education. Through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the DoE has invested tens of millions of dollars annually on the preparation of special education teachers. The department has leveraged these funds to promote program development, most notably in early childhood and secondary special education. The government also has taken an active role in support of programs for teachers of students with low-incidence disabilities–severe disabilities and visual and hearing impairments, to name a few. In many states, the number of students with lowincidence disabilities is so small as to make teacher preparation costly and inefficient. For example, only thirty programs nationally prepare teachers in the area of visual impairments, and sixteen states have no programs for teachers of the hearing impaired. Because it is inefficient for individual states to prepare teachers in low-incidence areas, by the early twenty-first century the DoE had come to consider program support a federal responsibility.

History of Special Education Teacher Education

The development of special education was bolstered in 1975 by the passage of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EAHCA), which was amended in 1997 by the IDEA. With the emergence and diversification of special education services in schools came demand for specially trained teachers and programs to prepare them. Although special education teacher education programs existed before the passage of the EAHCA, its passage spurred growth. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, 871 colleges and universities in the United States prepared teachers in at least one special education field.

In spite of its complexity and distinctive character, special education teacher education has evolved in the same way that general teacher education has evolved. Once guided by causal models that related precisely defined teacher actions to specific student outcomes, teacher educators' conceptions of teaching and learning have broadened to include teacher thinking and decision-making. This shift is most evident in the Interstate New Teacher Assessment and Support Consortium (INTASC) standards for beginning teachers, which use general education practice as the foundation for special education practice, and the realignment of the Council for Exceptional Children's professional standards with those provided by INTASC.

Issues in Special Education Teacher Education

For decades, the overriding issue in special education teacher education has been the shortage of fully qualified practitioners. The IDEA requires that students with disabilities be provided a free and appropriate public education (FAPE), a promise that presumes a qualified teacher in every special education classroom. In 1998–1999, 10 percent of special education teachers were not fully qualified for their work. These 36,511 teachers worked with more than 570,000 students, who arguably may have been denied FAPE.

Shortages also are related to licensure area, geographical location, and diversity of the work force. Perhaps more invidious than overall shortages or variability in licensure areas are shortages of teachers in urban and rural areas–or, perhaps more precisely, in low-income schools in cities and rural areas. Also critical is the shortage of culturally and linguistically diverse (CLD) special education teachers, an issue that has plagued the general teacher work force as well. It is especially important in special education because of overrepresentation of CLD students, particularly African Americans, on special education rosters.

High attrition rates in special education contribute significantly to chronic teacher shortages. Some researchers have argued that attrition is the primary reason for continued shortages, particularly in high poverty schools. Attrition from special education classrooms is consistently higher than in general education. Analyses of the 1993–1994 Schools and Staffing Survey data suggest that, in a given year, more teachers leave the special education work force than enter. Consequently, the number of teachers entering the field each year is never sufficient to replace the demand for teachers created by attrition and growth, creating a chronic need for new teachers. In large-scale studies conducted since the early 1990s, researchers have identified specific teacher and workplace characteristics that contribute to attrition. Less experienced special education teachers are a greater attrition risk than more experienced counterparts, and unlicensed teachers are more likely to leave the classroom than their licensed counterparts. Moreover, studies of teacher induction indicate that high-quality programs may increase beginning teachers' intentions to remain in special education.

The chronic undersupply of teachers has spawned alternative special education training programs, many of which attempt to tap nontraditional pools of teacher candidates, such as retired military personnel and midlife career changers. Although many of these programs are quite rigorous in terms of the courses and field experiences required, not all are. Research on special education alternative programs has shown graduates of some programs to be capable teachers, often as competent and motivated as graduates of traditional programs. Moreover, their competence is associated with the length and intensity of their training. Longer and more rigorous programs have been shown to prepare better teachers than shortcut programs.

Amid concerns for preparing greater numbers of teachers are increasing pressures to improve their competence. Inclusion advocates believe that separate preparation of special and general education teachers does little to help teachers develop the knowledge and skills necessary for implementing inclusive classroom practices. Thus, there has been an increasing movement toward the unified preparation of classroom and special education teachers–at least those special education teachers who work with students with mild disabilities. Although some type of collaborative program was present at nearly 200 institutions by the beginning of the twenty-first century, critics worry that preparation for the distinctive work that special education teachers perform will be lost through unification.

Finally, researchers and teacher educators are concerned about the persistent gap between what is known about effective classroom practices and what teachers actually do. In special education, significant advances in behavior management, technology applications, and teaching reading have brought this issue into the spotlight. Both novice and practicing teachers are more likely to rely on traditional practices, perhaps learned through observation in K–12 education. Although the professional literature has provided substantial information about how best to help teachers improve their practice, state policy-makers are reluctant to support professional development adequately. Moreover, there is limited research in general education and no research in special education delineating the characteristics of preparation programs that enable novice teachers to master and apply research-based practices in the classroom.


Shortages of special education teachers have proven intractable, in spite of the substantial capacity for preparing teachers in the United States and a sustained federal investment in it. Solutions have been sought through studies of attrition, in which factors influencing teachers' decisions to leave the field have been identified, and in programs to attract nontraditional teacher candidates. Special education teacher education faces two additional challenges: preparing classroom teachers for the work they do with students with disabilities and bridging the researchto-practice gap for novice and veteran teachers. Although improving workplace conditions, establishing high-quality teacher induction programs, and providing effective professional development may ameliorate attrition and help resolve teacher shortages, the gap between what is known about supporting teachers professionally and what is done in the public schools persists. There is much to learn about effective practices in the initial preparation of teachers. In spite of these challenges, the special education teacher education enterprise annually produces more than 20,000 bachelor's and master's degree graduates and has sustained a fully qualified work force of more than 300,000 teachers–remarkable accomplishments in and of themselves.


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