Special Education Teacher Quality and Preparation: Exposing Foundations, Constructing a New Model

Article excerpt

Special education teacher preparation has evolved over the past 150 years, since special education teachers were first prepared in residential settings. Shifting perspectives on disabilities, effective practice, and providing services to students with disabilities has led to changes in how special education is conceptualized and organized, and, consequently, how special education preparation programs are structured. Today, special education teacher preparation has lost focus, and there is enormous heterogeneity among programs (Goe, 2006). Redefining special education teacher preparation is difficult, especially when the need to do so occurs as serious questions are being raised about the effectiveness of teacher education generally, and when, for students with disabilities, successful teaching has been redefined to mean satisfactory progress in the general education curriculum. These changes occur against a backdrop of high-stakes assessments, rigorous academic standards, and individualized accountability--and persistent shortages of highly qualified special education teachers. Clearly, special education teacher educators must rethink what makes a quality special education teacher, and that process should be informed by the field's history and by the trends in policy, service delivery, and research that have shaped special education and teacher education practice. This in turn will enable the creation of a framework for redesigning teacher education to fit the current educational context.

Special education teacher preparation has evolved from specialized, clinical preparation in residential facilities into an enterprise that now lacks clear conceptual boundaries. In discussing these conceptual shifts, we will discuss key trends and ways teacher quality and preparation have been linked. Advances in research on teaching and learning have raised serious questions about special education teacher quality and conceptual models for organizing teacher preparation. Current research provides some guidance for ways that special education teacher preparation might be reconceptualized to better prepare teachers to meet the needs of students with disabilities. There are, however, barriers that will need to be overcome, as the field reshapes itself both to meet the challenges of contemporary education and to move toward a clear self-definition that solidifies the professional status of teachers.


The first teacher preparation programs in special education emerged in residential facilities and were directed by pioneering clinicians such as Seguin, Gallaudet, and Itard (Connor, 1976i. With the advent of compulsory education and demands to improve the quality of public education, the preparation of special education teachers gradually moved away from these residential settings to teachers' colleges. By the 1960s and early 1970s, a series of public laws designed to increase the provision of high-quality educational services to students with disabilities produced an era of explosive growth in special education teacher education. These early programs were predominantly categorical in focus and, as such, were designed for the purpose of training individuals to teach students with specific disabilities. This categorical orientation dominated special education teacher education well into the 1970s, but by the early 1980s it gave way to a noncategorical approach. Proponents of this approach viewed the learning and behavioral needs of students with disabilities on a continuum of severity and questioned the relevance of disability categories to effective planning, instruction, and behavior management. In the 1990s, the push to educate students with disabilities in general education classrooms prompted further reconsideration of special education teachers' roles. Because collaboration figured more prominently in inclusive service delivery than it did when students with disabilities were educated in resource rooms or self-contained classrooms, it became an essential feature of special education teacher preparation. …


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