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Introduction to Special Education Teacher Preparation

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The enactment of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 dramatically increased the need for special education teachers (Coe, Cook, Bobbitt & Terbanian, 1998).  This legislation, also known as PL 94-142, mandated that all schools receiving federal funds must provide equal educational access for all students with disabilities (No Child Left Behind, 2002).  The passing of PL 94-142 increased the need for special education teachers due to students being placed in inclusive, educational environments (Kaplan & Owings, 2003).  Along with PL 94-142, the enactment of No Child Left Behind in 2001 increased the demand for teachers in the United States (Mastropieri, Scruggs & Hauth, 2017).  The passing of this legislation lead to the U.S. Department of Education encouraging states the create alternative routes to licensure (Feistritzer, 2005).

Traditional teacher preparation programs in special education require individuals to complete course work involving the pedagogy and practices for supporting students with disabilities.  These courses focus on content knowledge, characteristics of exceptional learners and a focus on one grade band such as elementary education (Darling-Hammond & Barrattz-Snowden, 2005).  In contrast, alternative routes to licensure allow for individuals to obtain teacher certification in a variety of avenues.  Alternative routes to licensure include: shortened teacher preparation programs, applying a teaching endorsement to a non-education focused bachelor’s degree and emergency licensure that requires individuals to complete a teacher preparation program within a specified time (Washburn-Moses & Rosenberg, 2008).  These alternative routes look to change the traditional routes for teachers, from receiving a bachelor’s degree in education to fast-tracking candidates to move into the classroom (Rosenberg & Sindelar, 2001).  These fast-track strategies are designed to remedy quantity issues with teacher shortages, often with little to no attention paid to the impact these alternative and noncategorical routes have on teacher quality (Brownell, Sinelar, Kiely & Danielson, 2010).

Noncategorical certification refers to a licensure status that does not have specific categories.  Special education teachers who fall under this licensure status can teach students with varying disability categories no matter the severity (Education Commission of the States, 2004).  Often referred to as a generalist, these teachers do not train specifically in one disability category area and often serve students ranging from specific learning disabilities to autism (Walsh, 2001).  There is an increasing trend amongst states deciding to move towards noncategorical licensure has been seen in recent years (Chapey, Pyszkowski, & Trimarco, 1985, Belch, 1979 & National Education Association, 2005).  A district can use special education teachers with noncategorical licenses to serve in a variety of classrooms settings (e.g. resources or self-contained) and serve a variety of disabilities (Cranston-Gingras & Mauser, 1992), remedying the shortage special education teachers the districts.

Standards and requirements for teacher licensure are controlled by individual states and requirements vary amongst regions, states, and even districts (Feistritzer, 2005). The lack of consistent requirement from state-to-state for teacher licensure means that there is no standard definition for special education teacher qualifications.  States require different degrees, course work and testing requirements for a special education teacher to receive licensure.  These discrepancies in preparation have a direct impact on special education teacher quality (Carlson, Lee & Schroll, 2004).  In fact, Boe and Cook (2006) note that teacher licensure status is the most basic indicator of teacher quality in that they are the only teacher certification that is required both by federal and state policy.  No Child Left Behind (2002) requires that all teachers hold full state certification, and certification that is gained on an emergency or provisional basis does not meet this requirement.  Fall and Billingsley (2008), find that the provisional certification, as noted by NCBL, along with the lack of requirements by states, increases the likelihood that teacher quality is greatly impacted.

Along with certification status, special education teacher preparation programs also contribute to teacher quality.  Zigmond and Kloo (2010) examine the skills needed for general education and special education teachers.  General education teachers are prepared to teach content and curricula while special education teachers are prepared to apply pedagogical skills and instructional strategies (Zigmond & Kloo, 2010).  This distinction between skills and preparation beseech an examination of the teacher preparation programs and their ability to prepare special education teachers for today’s classrooms.  A 2009 federal report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office report that 95% of higher education teacher preparation programs require at least one course focusing on students with disabilities.  The courses required for teaching students with disabilities vary in topics, content and preparation.  States that require special education teacher candidates to only take one class for how to teach students with disabilities meets the minimal requirement for certification in teaching students with disabilities (U.S. Government Accountability Office, 2009).

With all the variation in preparation, licensure and quality, this paper will examine these issues in detail and attempt to answer the question:  Does research indicate that alternative routes to licensure, regardless of special education training, adequately prepare teachers to support special education students?


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