This is part of a weekly series of posts by Roy Ulrickson III, our Master of Social Work Intern. Opinions expressed may not reflect those of MCA, but we want to encourage an open dialogue with our readers.
Soon, all high school students must demonstrate proficiency in a number of different subject matters in order to graduate. The Maine DOE defines proficiency-based education as, “any system of academic instruction, assessment, grading and reporting that is based on students demonstrating mastery of the knowledge and skills they are expected to learn before they progress to the next lesson, get promoted to the next grade level or receive a diploma.” However, in order for students to be successful and become proficient, we must ensure teachers are prepared to educate them.
A Little History
Both the Education of All Handicapped Children Act (enacted only 40 years ago) and its newer iteration the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, state that children with special needs are required to be educated in the least restrictive environment (LRE). As a result, children who had previously been denied a public education or who had been educated separately have been introduced into the mainstream classroom. This practice has placed any ever increasing amount of pressure on classroom teachers to successfully educate all students in the class.
Both the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (AACTE) and the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD) note that in inclusive classrooms 57% of students with special needs spend more than 80% of their time included in general education instruction with their peers (Blanton, Pugach & Florian, 2011). In Maine, students identified with special needs comprise nearly 17% of the student population. During the 2014-2015 school year, 57.5% of these special needs students spent 80-100% of their time in a general education classroom. This inclusion benefits both the children with special needs and builds an environment of tolerance and understanding amongst the general education students.
“It is therefore imperative that pre-service teachers are prepared for inclusive classrooms given current mandates under IDEA and NCLB.” Unfortunately, I have witnessed that many classroom teachers were simply not prepared to have these special needs children in their classrooms. This was especially true for new teachers” (Harvey, Yssel, Bauserman & Merbler 2008).
New Opportunities & Challenges
Over the last 40 years, another trend has emerged as more children have been identified and diagnosed Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). In Maine, from 2009 to 2015, students diagnosed with ASD increased from 6.3% to 9.3% of the student population, meaning that over 800 more students with ASD are entering general education classrooms.
Children with ASD come with a unique set of needs and research suggests that most teachers do not feel prepared to educate them. Ideally, a special education teacher will work collaboratively with a classroom teacher to modify instruction and behavior plans. However, many special education teachers also lack the skills to work with this student population.
Educating the Educators
In a study of higher education teacher training institutions, survey results found a lack of standardization in course offerings related to student inclusion, strategies to modify instruction and teacher/special education teacher collaboration. As a result, many teachers feel unprepared to educate special needs children in their classroom.
Gehrke and Cocchiarella (2013) noted that pre-service teachers lacked confidence regarding their abilities to implement inclusive practices because they lacked the coursework and exposure to real-world experience. This was true among all of the teacher institutions they surveyed.
A recent study showed that pre-service teacher’s confidence towards inclusion could be improved by a specially designed two-week course and 10 hours of field work (Jung, 2007). All respondents demonstrated a greater willingness to include special needs children in their classroom and confidence in their ability to educate them. Research involving special education teachers showed the same deficiency in readiness. Though Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), a systematic intervention techniques that alter challenging behaviors, has demonstrated to be highly effective when used with children diagnosed with ASD.
I have worked in three different school districts and have seen excellent teachers struggle with managing all the diverse needs of students in their classroom. I once had a discussion with a Kindergarten teacher say “they never taught us how to deal with this in college.” She was right. Even in my discussions with experienced teachers, they indicate that in order for teachers to be successful they must work well with a diverse population and have good classroom management. They noted that nowhere in their college studies or student teaching were they provided those skills.
In my investigation of Maine teacher education institutions, I found only one required course that addressed strategies in working with special needs children. In Maine, a teacher can graduate with a B.A. in Education having taken only one course that provides instruction on educating special needs children. This is a problem. There are dozens of evidenced-based interventions, programs and techniques that work to change challenging behaviors, modify classroom instruction to meet the needs of special needs students and provide an inviting environment for all students.
Why aren’t teachers better prepared on how to instruct a diverse population? In an educational environment whose goal is inclusion, we must provide our teachers with the tools to accomplish that goal. At this point, it appears that we are failing both our kids and our teachers. In order to improve our education system, we must enhance the education of our educators. This will not only benefit our teachers, it will benefit our students and the workforce they enter.
The real underlying issue is this: there is no such thing as “general” education. All education is, in fact, “special” education. Every child learns, interprets and demonstrates understanding of the materiel in their own special way. While many children in the classroom can adapt their learning styles to conform to the teaching style of the classroom teacher, when teachers have a full understanding of the diverse differences in the student population they can modify their instruction to fit a much wider audience. Until teachers truly understand how to educate the entire classrooms, it will not be inclusive. Maine needs to have teachers who are proficient in educating the entire population of students.
Blanton, L. P., Pugach, M. C., & Florian, L. (2011). Preparing general education teachers to improve outcomes for students with disabilities. American association of colleges for teacher education, 20005.
Gehrke, R. S., & Cocchiarella, M. (2013). Preservice special and general educators’ knowledge of inclusion. Teacher Education and Special Education: The Journal of the Teacher Education Division of the Council for Exceptional Children, 36(3), 204-216.
Harvey, M. W., Yssel, N., Bauserman, A., & Merbler, J. B. (2008). Preservice teacher preparation for inclusion: An exploration of higher education teacher-training institutions. Remedial and Special Education.
Jung, W. S. (2007). Preservice teacher training for successful inclusion. Education, 128(1), 106.
Loiacono, V., & Allen, B. (2008). Are special education teachers prepared to teach the increasing number of students diagnosed with autism? International Journal of Special Education, 23(2), 120-127.