In the period since the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB, 2001) and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA, 2004), the criteria defining a "high-quality teacher" have become the subject of much debate. Value-added research results indicate that certain teachers are more effective than others in securing student achievement gains (Sanders & Rivers, 1996), but what underlies the ability to be effective seems less understood. Classroom practice is one dimension of teacher quality that has been shown to make a difference (Kennedy, 1999; Stallings, 1974). In the 1970s, researchers began identifying classroom practices that result in academic achievement. One characteristic of classroom practice that consistently emerges as "important" is the ability to engage students in learning (Berliner, 1988; Brophy, 1979, Gettinger, 1985; Greenwood, Delquadri, & Hall, 1984; Rosenshine & Berliner, 1978).
Although often measured as time spent on task, academic engagement is conceptualized as a broader construct that refers to "the intensity and emotional quality of children's involvement in initiating and carrying out learning activities" (Skinner & Belmont, 1993). This broad construct includes a composite of specific classroom behaviors and emotional responses, including participating in tasks and activities, reading aloud, asking and answering questions, asking teachers or peers for help, using learning strategies, raising a hand to volunteer, losing track of time, and showing interest and enthusiasm for certain topics (Greenwood, Horton, & Utley, 2002). Teachers who consistently evoke these behaviors are highly skilled in engaging students.
Unfortunately, students who are at risk for reading difficulties often are not engaged in academic instruction. Greenwood and his colleagues (e.g., Greenwood, 1991; Greenwood et al., 1981) found that students who were at risk for reading failure spent less time engaged in academic tasks than did their counterparts; the less time students who were at risk spent engaged in academic tasks, the more likely they were to perform poorly on standardized achievement tests. Moreover, observational studies in special education showed that students in special education classrooms often did not spend sufficient portions of time in teacher-directed instruction (Hayes & Jenkins, 1986; Leinhardt, Zigmond, & Cooley, 1981; Sindelar, Smith, Harriman, Hale, & Wilson, 1986), nor did they receive instruction that was differentiated to meet their needs. Consequently, these students made little progress.
In contrast, these same studies demonstrated that when special education teachers engaged students in sufficient amounts of direct, intensive instruction in reading that included sufficient feedback, students in both resource rooms and self-contained classrooms made achievement gains (Hayes & Jenkins, 1986; Leinhardt et al., 1981; Sindelar et al., 1986). These studies, conducted more than 2 decades ago, are reinforced by a more recent study linking beginning special education teacher practice to student achievement (Brownell et al., 2007) and provide some general insights into the classroom practices special education teachers use to engage students successfully. The studies all include such a small number of students, however, that the data is not sufficient to inform policy about dimensions of special education teacher quality. The ability to engage students appears to be a critical dimension of special education teacher quality; therefore, it is important to understand how effective special education teachers craft engaging instruction.
The present study examined the engagement practices of special education teachers previously identified as effective at teaching reading. To provide a backdrop for the study, this article summarizes the research findings on teacher effectiveness associated with student engagement identified in earlier process-product research and more recent studies of exemplary reading teachers in general education. …