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Highly Qualified Special Education Teacher

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No Child Left Behind (NCLB) required that school districts employ highly qualified teachers.  NCLB defined a highly qualified teacher as possessing a bachelor’s degree in each subject they teach, full state certification, and demonstrated competency in each core academic subject they teach (No Child Left Behind, 2004).  While this new definition of a highly qualified teacher posed challenges for general education teachers, it proved to be the most challenging for special education teachers.  Special education teachers are specialist in the field of teaching combing both traditional content knowledge and pedagogical knowledge to support student with disabilities (Zigmond & Kloo, 2011).  Mastropieri, Scruggs and Hauth (2017), noted that not only must a special education teacher who teaches algebra demonstrate competency in math, they must also demonstrate competency in the pedagogical skills needed to teach students with disabilities.  Per this standard, Mastropieri, Scruggs and Hauth (2017) suggest that highly qualified, in reference to special education, should be based around effectiveness and not solely on competency.  They make the suggestion that highly qualified should be replaced with effective to describe special education teachers in today’s classrooms (Mastropieri, Scruggs & Hauth, 2017). The Council for Exceptional Children (CEC) has established professional standards for special education teachers and these standards focus on content knowledge, knowledge of teaching diverse learners, assessment and communication.  Of these standards, many studies have identified that effective special education teachers have extensive knowledge of their students learning characteristics (Stough & Palmer, 2003; Conners, 2008), have mastery of the content areas that they teach (Mastropieri, Scruggs & Hauth, 2017), have the pedagogical knowledge of how to teach diverse learners (Phelps & Shilling, 2004), employ effective behavioral management techniques (Brownell et. al, 2009) and effectively monitor their students’ progress (Seo et. al, 2008 & Stough & Palmer, 2003).

Pedagogical knowledge refers to specialized knowledge that teachers possess for creating effective teaching and learning environments for all students (Guerriero, 2013).  In special education, this means combining a teacher’s content knowledge with effective instructional strategies, as well as making instructional adjustments to meet students’ individual needs (Stough & Palmer, 2003).  Conners (2008) conducted a study seeking to identify qualities of an effective special education teacher.  In their study of effective special education teachers in a large urban school district, Conners (2008) provided compelling evidence that, along with extensive subject area knowledge, the most effective special education teachers had a deep understanding of their students strengths and weaknesses, developed a strong sense of their individual needs and employed their knowledge of disabilities and individual students to create tailored learning experiences for each of their students.  Stough & Palmer (2003) found that effective special education teachers were able to employee a wide range of instructional strategies to tailor instruction to their students’ individual needs.  They also note that for teachers to be able to tailor instruction to individual students needs, they must possess a deep knowledge of pedagogical strategies to support learners (Stough & Palmer, 2003).

In conjunction with pedagogical knowledge, effective special education teachers must also possess a deep knowledge of the core subjects that they teach.  Darling-Hammond and Young (2002) noted that while legislation focuses on content-knowledge only, the research exists that content knowledge and pedagogical knowledge are needed to have a significant impact on student learning.  In their survey of special education teachers, Rankin-Erickson and Pressley (2000) noted a strong correlation between a teacher’s extensive content-related knowledge and their ability to employ subject-specific pedagogy.  They refer to this term as engaged knowledge (Rankin-Erickson & Pressley, 2000). Stough and Palmer (2003) also reference a teacher’s engaged knowledge and their effectiveness in teaching.  They note that a teacher’s ability to understand the content and curriculum in detail, along with understanding the learning process increased their effectiveness in the classroom (Stough & Palmer, 2003).  Mastropieri, Scruggs and Hauth (2017) combine engaged knowledge with instructional practice by stating that a teacher’s subject-matter knowledge, combined with their pedagogical knowledge allow them to analyze student work and make individual instructional changes to support students learning.

A teacher’s ability to employ behavior management techniques that address student behavior in a positive way and keep students engaged on academic tasks, increases the likelihood that student learning will increase.  Brownell et al. (2009) conducted a study of special education teachers and the factors that most influence student achievement.  Their findings indicated that classroom management proved to have the most impact on student achievement (Brownell et. al, 2009).  In their study, teachers who provided “intensive, continuous instruction” and were able to engage students in both instruction and classroom work had a more significant impact on their student’s achievement than teacher whose classroom management was less effective (Brownell et. al, 2009).  Mastropieri and Scruggs (2018) noted that effective special education teachers had efficient use of classroom time, used active instructional techniques, spent less time on seat work and use both whole and small group instruction.  In addition to these characteristics, Seo et. Al, (2008) reported that teachers who employed positive reinforcement and addressed behavior issues immediately using positive redirection increased students’ engagement in the classroom.

Stough and Palmer (2003) found that the most effective special education teachers had extensive engaged knowledge, but also demonstrated effectiveness in monitoring their students’ academic progress.  Based on their monitoring of students learning, teachers were able to employ their pedagogical and instructional skills to increase student engagement and increase student achievement (Stough & Palmer, 2003).  Along with monitoring student progress, effective special education teacher provided their students with extensive feedback and use a variety of materials to meet student needs (Seo et. al, 2008).  Those teachers that employed a change in materials, both instructional and presentation, showed the greatest gains in student achievement.  Seo et. al (2008) also found that effective special education teachers employed a continuous instructional decision-making progress to closely monitor students learning.  Teachers who closely monitored their students’ progress were able to make informed and appropriate adjustments to student learning in their classrooms (Stough & Palmer, 2003).


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Brownell, M.T., Bishop, A., Gersten, R., Klinger, J., Penfield, R., Dimino, J., & Sindelar, P.T. (2009).  The role of domain expertise in beginning special education teacher quality.  Exceptional Children, 75, 391-411.

Conners, N. (2008).  An in-depth study of expert middle school special educators.  Dissertation. George Mason University, Fairfax, VA.

Council For Exceptional Children. (2015).  What every special educator should know:  Ethics, standards and guidelines (7th ed.).  Arlington, VA: Author.

Darling-Hammond, L., & Youngs, P. (2002).  Defining “highly qualified teachers”:  What does “scientifically-based research” actually tell us?  Educational Researcher, 21(9), 13-25.

Guerriero, S. (2013). Teachers’ pedagogical knowledge and the teaching profession. OECD. Accessed on October 17th, 2019.

Mastropieri, M., Scruggs, T. & Hauth, C. (2017).  Special education teacher preparation.  In Kauffman, J., Hallahan, D., & Cullen Pullen, P. (2nd Ed.).   Handbook of special education (pg. 40-52).  New York, NY: Routledge.

No Child Left Behind. (2002). Retrieved September 28, 2019, from

Rankin-Erickson, J., & Pressley, M. (2000).  A survey of instructional practices of special education teachers nominated as effective teachers of literacy.  Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 15, 206-225.

Seo, S., Brownell, M., Bishop, A., & Dingle, M. (2008).  Beginning special education teachers’ classroom reading instruction:  Practices that engage elementary students with learning disabilities.  Exceptional Children, 75, 97-122.

Stough, L.M., & Plamer, D.J. (2003).  Special thinking in special settings:  A qualitative study of expert special educators.  Journal of Learning Disabilities, 35, 504-532.

Zigmond, N., & Kloo, A. (2011). General and special education are (and should be) different. In M. Kauffman & D. P. Hallahan (1st ed.), Handbook of special education (pp. 160–172). New York, NY: Routledge.