BLOOMFIELD, N.J. — When Mary Fair became a teacher in 2012, her classes often contained a mix of special education students and general education students. Placing children with and without disabilities in the same classroom, instead of segregating them, was a growing national trend, spurred on by lawsuits by special education advocates.
But in those early days, Fair had no idea how to handle her students with disabilities, whose educational challenges ranged from learning deficits to behavioral disturbance disorders. Calling out a child with a behavioral disability in front of the class usually backfired, and made the situation worse. They saw it as “an attack and a disrespect issue,” Fair said.
Over time, Fair figured out how to navigate these situations and talk students “down from the ledge.” She also learned how to keep students with disabilities on task and break down lessons into smaller, easier bits of information for students who were struggling.
No one taught her these strategies. Although she earned a bachelor’s degree and teaching certificate in math instruction for both elementary and middle school, she never had to take a class about students with disabilities. She was left to figure it out on the job.
The need for teachers who have both the knowledge and the ability to teach special education students is more critical today than ever before. A national push to take students with disabilities out of isolation means most now spend the majority of their days in general education classrooms, rather than in separate, special education classes. That means general education teachers are teaching more students with disabilities. But training programs are doing little to prepare teachers; Fair’s experience is typical.
Many teacher education programs offer just one class about students with disabilities to their general education teachers, “Special Ed 101,” as it’s called at one New Jersey college. It’s not enough to equip teachers for a roomful of children who can range from the gifted to students who read far below grade level due to a learning disability. A study in 2007 found that general education teachers in a teacher preparation program reported taking an average of 1.5 courses focusing on inclusion or special education, compared to about 11 courses for special education teachers. Educators say little has changed since then.
A 2009 study concluded that no one explicitly shows teachers how to teach to “different needs.” Because of time constraints, the many academic standards that must be taught, and a lack of support, “teachers are not only hesitant to implement individualized instruction, but they do not even know how to do so,” the report stated.
Fair says teacher preparation programs should be doing more. At the very least, “You should have a special education class, and an English language learner class,” she said. “You’re going to have those students.”
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Between 1989 and 2013, the percentage of students with disabilities who were in a general education class for 80 percent or more of the school day increased from about 32 percent to nearly 62 percent. Special education advocates have been pushing for the change — especially for students who have mild to moderate disabilities like learning disabilities or a speech impairment — in some cases by suing school districts.
Some research shows as many as 85 percent of students with disabilities can master general education content if they receive educational supports. Supports can include services, such as access to a special education teacher, or accommodations and modifications, such as having test questions read aloud, or being allowed to sit in a certain part of the classroom.
Students with disabilities who are placed in general education classrooms get more instructional time, have fewer absences and have better post-secondary outcomes, research shows. Studies also show there is no negative impact on the academic achievement of non-disabled students in an inclusion classroom; those students benefit socially, by forming positive relationships and friendships and learning how to be more at ease with a variety of people.
Alla Vayda-Manzo, principal of Bloomfield Middle School about 30 miles outside of New York City, said she’s seen the benefit of inclusion for students. The school serves about 930 students, nearly 20 percent of whom have a disability, according to state data. When students with disabilities are included in classrooms with their peers, Vayda-Manzo said the high expectations and instructional strategies “lend themselves to those students being more successful than they would be had they been in a separate, self-contained environment.”
But as more districts move to make classrooms inclusive, they’ve been caught flat footed when it comes to finding teachers prepared to make the shift. Academic outcomes for students with disabilities have remained stagnant for years, even as more students with special needs are integrated into general education classrooms. Students with disabilities are less likely to graduate and more likely to earn an alternate diploma that is not equivalent to a general diploma in the eyes of many colleges and employers. And year after year they score far lower than their peers on standardized exams.
Experts say the problem is that it takes much more than just placing students with disabilities next to their general education peers: Teachers must have the time, support, and training to provide a high-quality education based on a student’s needs.
Mike Flom, a parent and co-founder of the advocacy group New Jersey Parents and Teachers for Appropriate Education, said many factors impact inclusion’s effectiveness. His twin daughters, now in seventh grade, were placed in an inclusion classroom beginning in fifth grade. Initially, Flom said his daughters had “mixed reviews” on whether inclusion was beneficial.
“I think the teachers were really motivated to be helpful,” Flom said. “I don’t know the extent to which they were permitted to do the things, or had enough training to do the things, that were required to be more effective.”
“It’s not just getting a child included … that is only a small portion of the battle,” he added.
Inclusion done right
These days, Mary Fair navigates her classrooms with ease. She has learned through experience how to teach students with a variety of disabilities, and works with a veteran special education teacher to modify lesson plans and tests.
On a recent morning in a seventh -grade math inclusion classroom at Bloomfield Middle School, Fair and her co-teacher, special education teacher Christina Rodriguez, were starting a lesson on the order of operations.
Fair stepped up to the front of the classroom as Rodriguez circulated to make sure students were on task.
“We’re starting order of operations,” Fair said. “It’s something you did in sixth grade, but today we are doing it differently.”
“Ms. Fair, I want to see if they remember,” Rodriguez said to Fair, who smiled and nodded.
“Put your hand up if you remember what the order of operations is,” Rodriguez said.
More than half of the students raised their hands
“Who remembers ‘PEMDAS’?” Rodriguez asked, referring to the mnemonic device used to remember order of operations (Parentheses, Exponents, Multiplication and Division, Addition and Subtraction). More students eagerly shot their hands in the air.
Fair cut in and explained that although they learned PEMDAS in sixth grade, they were going to learn a new rule about the order of operations today. “Take your yellow paper and fold it horizontally,” Fair said, referring to a yellow sheet of paper that sat on each student’s desk.
“Like this,” Rodriguez said, holding up a piece of paper and demonstrating how to fold it horizontally.
“Like a hamburger,” Fair added.
To an outsider, it’s impossible to tell who is the general education teacher and who is the special education teacher. Both Fair and Rodriguez have desks at the front of the room. They switch off during lessons, effortlessly picking up where the other has left off. They both give directions and explain content. They are careful not to fall into what educators say is a common trap: seeing general education students as the responsibility of one teacher, and special education students as the responsibility of the other.
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That’s how a good inclusion class should be, Rodriguez said, but it takes practice and time. Like Fair, Rodriguez didn’t receive any training in special education before she entered the classroom. She became a teacher through an alternate program. When she got a job teaching special education six years ago, she relied on strategies she learned while working as an aide in a class for students with autism. In 2014, she received her master’s degree in teaching students with disabilities from New Jersey City University; she now teaches a class for Montclair State University’s dual-certification teacher preparation program.
Although most traditional teacher preparation programs nationwide do include some training on students with disabilities, usually in the form of one course over the entirety of the program, educators say this course is often generic and perfunctory. Aspiring teachers also may be given assignments in other classes that require them to adapt a lesson for a hypothetical special education student.
Fair said she had some assignments like those, but “we didn’t really know what we were talking about, because we weren’t taught it.” Her colleague, science teacher Jessica Herrera, said she was only offered one class in special education — called “Special Education 101” — when she went through a traditional teacher preparation program in New Jersey.
“A lot of my training was for that ‘middle of the road’ kind of kid,” Herrera said. “I was prepared for the regular ed student.” In her 13 years as a teacher, Herrera has taught some inclusion classes; she said she picked up strategies from working with “good special education teachers.” When she earned her master’s degree from Montclair State, she was finally taught how to teach a “range of learners,” she said.
Fair and her co-teacher Rodriguez say there are certain things they wish were included in all teacher education programs, like an explanation of the different kinds of disabilities, and ways to address the various struggles students may encounter. They also say teacher preparation should include more classroom management and “subtle ways” to keep students focused and on task.
Rodriguez says it’s also important for teacher candidates to be exposed to different classrooms, including inclusion classrooms, to ensure teacher preparation is not “so out of context.”
Mimi Corcoran, president of the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD), said teacher preparation should better address topics in special education. “We do a disservice to the teachers we’re sending [to schools] in the way we’re training, and we’re doing a disservice to kids,” Corcoran said. “We’ve got to step up to the plate and think differently and act differently, and that’s hard because everybody gets comfortable and systems are hard to change.”
Some teacher preparation programs are trying to better prepare graduates to teach students with disabilities, especially in inclusion classrooms. At Syracuse University in upstate New York, George Theoharis, a professor and the chair of Teaching and Leadership, said the school’s elementary special education program has been one of the leaders nationwide in training educators for inclusive education.
Every teacher who graduates from Syracuse’s Early Childhood or Elementary Education program is dual-certified in special education and spends time in inclusion classrooms. Theoharis says it’s an approach that more preparation programs should take. “All of our programs need to be inclusive,” Theoharis said, referring to teacher preparation. “Regardless of what job teachers get, people need to be prepared to work with all children and see all children as their responsibility,” Theoharis said.
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At Montclair State University in New Jersey, students can receive a dual certification in special education and a subject-level or grade-level range. The school also offers a unique concentration in “inclusive iSTeM,” which specifically prepares science, technology, engineering and math teachers for inclusion classrooms. Students in the program receive a Master of Arts in Teaching, a certification in math or science, and are endorsed by the state as a teacher of students with disabilities.
Jennifer Goeke, a Montclair State professor and the program coordinator, said the dual certification program prepares teachers to be hired as either a general education or special education teacher. “They know how to perform both roles easily and effectively,” Goeke said.
On a recent afternoon, Goeke was holding class in the Bloomfield Middle School media center. She asked her 17 students to first discuss issues they were having in their “fieldwork classrooms,” where they are currently observing and working with general and special education teachers. She listened to a few descriptions of struggles and then reminded her students that part of their job is to be an example for other teachers.
“I’m not trying to minimize or trivialize what you might be learning in your content area,” Goeke said. “It’s very important that you have a strong grounding in the methodology and the philosophy of your discipline … and know how to teach your content.” But, Goeke added, “You have to remember that most people do not have any diverse learners in mind. Their training did not teach them to take those students into account.”
Goeke’s students nodded and a few scribbled down notes.
In Montclair’s program, students work with two mentor teachers for a year in an inclusion classroom and in small-group settings and receive extensive training in how to work with students with disabilities, as well as how to effectively teach content, like math and science, or grade levels, like early education or elementary education.
Bloomfield Middle School, where Fair, Rodriguez, and Herrera teach, chose to partner with the iSTeM program in 2012. Bloomfield has hired two graduates of the iSTeM program and offered teaching positions to several more, who eventually chose jobs in other districts. Bloomfield Principal Vayda-Manzo says the graduates of the program are “like unicorns in the field,” as it’s rare to find teachers who are dual-certified in general and special education.
Current teachers at Bloomfield have also benefited from iSTeM, Vayda-Manzo said. The program provides professional development for inclusion teachers at the school who agree to be mentor teachers for iSTeM students, and those teachers also observe each other and work with professors from Montclair State. Vayda-Manzo said the school makes sure co-teachers have the same planning periods so they have time to plan lessons together each day.
Teacher Herrera, who mentors iSTeM teachers, said the professional development provided through the program has improved her ability to teach students with disabilities. “I feel like I got a lot of additional strategies through that,” Herrera said.
On-the-job training is essential to ensure teachers have the skills needed to teach all students in their classroom, especially those teachers who may have attended teacher preparation years ago or missed out on training about disabilities, according to Mimi Corcoran of NCLD. “We have to be fair for the educator,” Corcoran said. For “many that are already in field, the concepts of special education and how to include kids has shifted, and [teachers] need the supports.”
Vayda-Manzo said it has been an easy choice to continue the program.
“I saw the impact that it made in our inclusion classes,” Vayda-Manzo said. “We saw tremendous gains.”
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about teacher preparation.