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Special education teacher preparation: a synthesis of four research studies.

Special Education Teacher Preparation: A Synthesis of Four Research Studies

The preparation of teachers remains one of the major priorities for educational policymakers. Kindled in the early 1980s by attention to the issues concerning educational quality and fueled most recently by the projected teacher shortages in the coming decade (Darling-Hammond, 1984; Feistritzer, 1985; McLaughlin, Smith-Davis, & Burke, 1986; Smith-Davis, Burke, & Noel, 1984), the focus on preparation of new personnel has concentrated specifically on the issues of attracting, training, and retraining the more academically qualified teachers. Special education issues, including those of personnel training, have, however, largely been ignored in reports and policy proposals concerned with education reform in the 1980s (Lilly, 1987; Pugach, 1987; Pugach & Sapon-Shevin, 1987).

The Institute for the Study of Exceptional Children and Youth, University of Maryland, recently completed a series of studies concerning personnel in special education. Collectively, the results of these studies point to several major policy issues confronting the training of new personnel in special education. The research suggests that special education teacher training is being driven by forces such as certification policies that are largely out of the control of the profession and needs of local school districts.


From 1982 to 1986 four separate studies were conducted, each of which investigated different aspects of special education teacher preparation (see Table 1). The two manpower and studies involved telephone interviews with one to three representatives of each state education agency (SEA) division of special education. Interviews were selected through introductory conversations with SEA coordinators of staff development and/or the Comprehensive Service for Personnel Development (CSPD). The interview questions were reviewed, and individuals who could respond to the questionnaire identified. Interviews averaged one hour in length and information was synthesized by individual states. Interviewees were asked to review their state's synthesis as well as the draft report, and revisions were incorporated into the final report.

The study of preservice special education students involved 158 institutions of higher education selected from the universe of 507 special education programs identified by Geiger (1983) through a two-stage, stratified proportional, random sampling procedure. The training programs were stratified on type of degree offered (undergraduate [UG] only, graduate [G] only, and both UG and G), and program enrollment size (3 to 954). Strata were arranged in quartiles to proportionately sample students. The chairperson at each institution was contacted by telephone and asked to distribute surveys to an undergraduate and/or graduate class. The survey instrument was adapted from one used in a major national survey of undergraduate education majors (Joyce, Morra, & Kuuskraa, 1975).

The fourth study involved 68 faculty in 25 special education training programs selected from five states. States were chosen to represent regional diversity and included California, Colorado, Virginia, Maryland, and Massachusetts. In each state the chairperson or the head of every special education training program was contacted by telephone and asked to participate in the study and to select at least two other faculty members, if possible, to participate. In larger faculties of six or more, at least one third of the members were interviewed. Interviews were requested with at least one of the more senior members of the faculty as well as newer faculty members. The number of faculty interviewed in each institution ranged from one to five. The interviews ranged from 30 minutes to 4 hours with an average interview lasting one hour. During the interviews, faculty were asked to complete five Likert-like scales: Degree of Departmental Emphasis on 13 competencies, Degree of Personal Emphasis on 13 competencies, Overall Department Priorities, Opinion of Federal Policy Priorities and LEA Level of Effort in Eight Special Education Areas. All but two of the interviews were face-to-face; those two were conducted by telephone.

Separately the findings from the four studies provide useful information concerning special education personnel preparation. The following presents a synthesis of the findings of the individual studies and the major policy issues for teacher preparation programs that emerged from this synthesis.


Conflicting Perceptions of Teaching Competencies

Issues surrounding teacher competency were a major focus of state department representatives concerned with the employment of new personnel in special education (McLaughlin, Smith-Davis, & Burke, 1986; Smith-Davis, Burke, & Noel, 1984) and to a lesser degree with teacher trainers (Noel, Valdivieso, & Fuller, 1985). In the higher education study, only eight faculty members were concerned about a perceived decrease in quality among their undergraduate and graduate students. The majority of trainers in the institutions either perceived no change, or remarked that there had been a slight "dip" in student quality in the early 1980s which had now reversed. Faculty in two institutions reported a significant increase in the quality of their students over the past 5 years, attributable to increased selectivity of students.

Meanwhile, the comments of state education agency representatives regarding quality were far more negative. Among the 57 jurisdictions surveyed, representatives of only 9 expressed no concerns about personnel quality. The remaining 48 commented on the lack of skills related to procedures involved in implementing aspects of P.L. 94-142 such as developing Individualized Education Plans (IEPs), participating in multidisciplinary team meetings, and "understanding due process." In addition, the representatives noted that consultation skills are becoming a priority, specifically collaboration with regular educators. Yet, over a fourth of the SEA representatives considered training programs to be unresponsive to developing those skills. In addition, thequality of generic or cross-categorical teachers was questioned by a large number of individuals.

The following are examples of comments made by the SEA representatives regarding the competence of new graduates:

There is a lot of criticism from districts about preservice training. New graduates lack knowledge of state rules and regulations, eligibility criteria, writing IEPs, working on teams and communication.

The absence of categorical competence is absolutely appalling over the country. Trainers seem to have a penchant for small issues and forget that there is a whole technology for education of the deaf . . . for example. People are coming out of programs as generalists, but it's hard to say what in.

Preservice programs aren't competency based, and students don't get enough practical experience; they don't know what they're doing when they get into public school classrooms. Many new grads don't even know about due process.

Special education faculty, while not negating the importance of local education agencies' (LEAs) input into their programs, stated that they did not train teachers to match the idiosyncratic features of local programs. Generally, the major program priorities for all training programs were in areas related to assessment skills and developing "lesson plans" and instructional programs. While faculty acknowledged the importance of the technical/procedural skills involved in managing paperworks, these skills were not generally considered to be high priorities in the training curricula. In addition, while the emphasis on training consultation skills varied among programs, this competency was rated 12th out of the 13 training priorities emphasized by departments.

Mismatch Between Training and Job Expectations

The information obtained from SEA representatives and teacher trainers suggests a mismatch between teacher training and the realities of the job market. While the SEA representatives were quick to point out that new personnel were not coming to the public schools with the full range of skills necessary to teach students, they did also acknowledge that specific actions on the part of their SEA have contributed to a discrepancy between preservice training and job demand. For example, there has been increased movement among SEAs toward generic or cross-categorical certification, which permits teachers to instruct several types of handicapped students. Such programs may increase the general availability of teachers because of the flexibility they offer administrators in making classroom assignments; yet SEA representatives generally believed that new teachers did not have the full range of skills necessary to instruct the different types of students found in these cross-categorical classrooms.

Also, while faculty indicated that their programs had intensified the emphasis on assessment procedures and developing instructional plans, SEA representatives say teachers cannot develop local district IEPs and manage the other paperwork required by the districts. These conflicting statements suggest a mismatch between what institutions of higher education (IHEs) and local districts consider important. As one SEA representative noted, "New teachers should be considered as unfinished products. We must provide the additional training they need to teach in our districts."

Job Preferences. At another level, evidence from the student survey indicates that training programs may not be responding to the needs of the present job market. For example, 56% of the students sampled indicated preference for teaching in a self-contained classroom, and over 58% of the students preferred teaching mildly handicapped, elementary level students. However, according to several sources (Grosenick & Huntze, 1983; U.S. Department of Education, 1987) the major program expansions and teacher shortages are at the secondary level and in the area of the severely handicapped. In addition, the two manpower studies indicated that the area of learning disabilities is the only area that has begun to show a surplus of teachers, particularly in suburban communities and other attractive teaching locations. Despite these discrepancies, almost two-thirds of the students sampled were confident that their training was adequately preparing them for the position they wanted in special education.

The job preferences of the students surveyed may be simple personal choice; however, the preferences may have been determined by narrow training experiences as well as lack of appropriate career counseling, particularly because only 40% of the students indicated that they had received any career advisement during their college experience. In any case, the effects of this mismatch between job expectations and job market realities could lead to general dissatisfaction among special education teachers and higher attrition, both reasons for concern.

Changing Student Composition. Related to the issue of matching training to job requirements is the growing number of part-time graduate students who are full-time teachers returning to school to obtain additional degrees or credits in special education. Over half (51%) of the graduate students responding to the student survey indicated that they intended to continue their teaching careers and did not aspire to supervisory or administrative positions, nor to further graduate study. Faculty interviews confirmed the fact that increasing numbers of classroom teachers are attending graduate school part-time to upgrade skills or to get additional credits for salary increases, as opposed to ascending the career ladder. Thus, despite the growing number of part-time master's students, faculty generally acknowledged that their programs adhered to a traditional full-time training model in which graduate level courses were typically organized as seminars and emphasized knowledge of research and writing skills. About one-fourth of the faculty interviewed did question the relevance of the content of courses to the career-teacher/graduate-student who was returning to school to refine classroom skills, but stated that their departments were not examining this issue.

One chair of a large special education department did recognize a problem with the continued use of the traditional model for teacher training at the graduate level and indicated that he was exploring alternatives. However, with the exception of adding off-campus and evening courses, only four departments were considering adapting their curriculum or examining their training sequences and practical experiences to meet the needs of these returning students.

The lack of agreement on competencies and the relevance of coursework to job demands is exacerbated by the lack of communication between the state departments of education and higher education teacher training faculty and leads to perhaps the most important issue confronting teacher education--who controls the preparation of special education teachers?

External Influences on Special Education

The Federal Government. Two major influences on teacher training were identified in the higher education study. The first, the federal government, was perceived as a supportive benefactor, but not a powerful shaper of training programs. Several of the newer faculty members interviewed during the higher education study did indicate that their positions were a direct result of federal grants, most notably in the areas of the severely handicapped and early childhood education. However, overall, few faculty believed that federal priorities had actually influenced the content or philosophy of the training programs at their colleges or universities. Instead, federal grants were perceived as providing the funds to expand or broaden the basic curriculum into specialized areas, such as early childhood, vocational education, or the severely handicapped. Also mentioned by faculty as being a positive influence was the availability of federal grant monies to support full-time graduate students. Faculty reported that full-time graduate students enriched programs, particularly in the area of conducting research, and that without these students the special education program was reduced to a mechanical, technical training program, and general morale within the department sank.

State Department of Education. The second major influence on training programs were state departments of education; their influences were quite different from those of the federal government. The influence of the SEA was cited by faculty as the most powerful external influence on training programs, through control of the licensing of new personnel. State departments set the course requirements necessary for certification, and the overwhelming majority of faculty perceived these requirements to be the sole major influence on the content of their department's training program. Certification policies were largely responsible for determining whether programs were categorical or noncategorical, undergraduate or graduate, and dictated the amount of emphasis placed on specific coursework areas.

Among the more prevalent comments expressed by faculty about SEAs were those related to feeling frustrated by the conflicts of developing a program that meets the state certification requirements and the institutional requirements for graduation, and also provides students the coursework and experiences the faculty believe are necessary. It was not unusual for a faculty member to say that a specific competency area (most frequently working with parents and consultation skills) should have a full course devoted to it, but due to the restrictions of credit hours and general education requirements, the topic had to be spread across several courses and instructors. State certification requirements consumed credit hours, and programs were reluctant to increase requirements to include additional training for fear of a negative effect on enrollment. In short, faculty perceived the SEA As too influential and intrusive, and faculty felt put-upon and ignored, and did not believe that SEAs were concerned with quality, only with ensuring a sufficient supply of relatively low-cost teachers.

Even in states which had enacted new and precriptive certification requirements designed to increase quality, a large number of the teacher trainers said their programs had not participated in developing the new requirements. They perceived the entire quality movement as a further erosion of higher education's control over entry into the special education profession.

Love/Hate Relationship. The relationship between the teacher training programs and state departments of education was not perceived as entirely negative even though changes in certification regulations can wreak havoc on programs. In fact, this relationship could best be described as one of love/hate. For example, faculty representing seven separate programs within one state indicated it had taken their departments 3 years or more to make the necessary curricular changes following the last certification change in their state. These faculty reported that they were unable to focus on teaching or improving curricula while the changes were being made. At the same time, however, the change in credential requirements forced teachers to return to school for additional credits to maintain certification, causing increased enrollments in several programs. For the smaller schools, certification changes had actually meant survival for their programs.

According to both faculty and SEA representatives, communication between the state bureaucracy and the training programs is almost exclusively limited to discussions of certification. Yet, faculty consider themselves powerless in any decisions made about certification, believing that local school districts exert almost total control over certification requirements.

An illustration of this dilemma occurred in one state where the SEA requested that a training institution begin an undergraduate program in a particular specialty area because there was a shortage of trained teachers in that area and districts needed teachers, in the words of the program chairperson, "fast and cheap." Faculty members at the IHE were reportedly against the idea of an undergraduate level program; however, faculty succumbed to pressure from the state.

Almost all programs, private and public, depend on the good will of the state for survival and believe that they must respond to its needs, or at least not "buck the system." In response to a question about how higher education might be able to influence the state, one faculty member interviewed in the higher education study stated:

Frankly, I don't think we'd know what to do with power if we had it. We don't use the power we have. We have never done anything to embarrass the state officials, which we could do. We have the power of knowledge and a certain amount of reputation with the public. One of the jobs of the university is to keep a watchdog eye on these things, and we have almost been seduced by the public schools and the SEA. We have courted them because they have something we want--program approval, and the faculty wants to be called on to do occasional consultation.


Collectively, the synthesis of the four studies has pointed to some specific areas where changes in policy and programs in teacher preparation need to be investigated.

Teacher Competencies

We need to confront the fundamental disagreement between producers and consumers on what competencies a special education teacher must possess. Teacher quality should be a broader concept than skills needed at any one point in time. Mere classroom technocrats are not the most desirable outcome, yet procedural competence is critical to the operation of local special education programs. Higher education and the school bureacuracy must work together to define roles and responsibilities and reach some consensus on programs in teacher education. One solution may be to share the training of teachers by designating certain responsibilities to districts and other responsibilities to higher education.

At present, efforts to develop competency statements and professional standards appear to have had minimal or no influence on defining program standards or certification requirements. To effect agreement between the two, national quality indicators for special education personnel need to be developed and accepted; these indicators would add consistency to preservice and inservice training efforts. Most importantly, indications are that some form of compromise or agreement on "quality," defined as skills or competencies possessed, is a necessary precursor for any revision or reform of training. In addition, consideration must be given to what happens to teachers who will, in all probability, find themselves in jobs that do not match their expectations and perhaps their training experiences. Thus, districts must offer ongoing inservice and teacher support programs to help teachers gain the confidence and experience necessary to provide quality educational services.

Alternatives for Part-Time Students

Related to this is the need to examine the structure and content of the training programs themselves. Alternatives to the present graduate courses in terms of building classroom skills should be examined. This does not mean that attention should be focused solely on expanding teaching competence as opposed to building research skills. Instead, the needs of returning students must be recognized, and options developed that recognize their career goals. There is also a need to focus on ways of encouraging more full-time graduate study. In addition to providing increased financial support to students returning for graduate training, models for combining full- and part-time study at the graduate level are necessary. Available financial supports (e.g., assistantships) are meager at best and represent a major financial sacrifice for anyone attending school full time. However, despite the availability of support, many students choose not to make a commitment to full-time study because they do not want to leave their full-time jobs. For these students, graduate programs need to explore options such as requiring short periods of full-time study or other structured experiences to encourage more interaction with faculty and other students outside of classes. More than 3 hours of coursework a week is necessary to establish a professional identity and membership in a professional community.

Conflict Between Higher Education and the SEAs

A final policy issue concerns the conflicts between higher education and the bureaucratic functions of the SEAs. These conflicts may arise out of individual interests. Faculty in higher education have invested their careers in specific areas of study. Many have a long history of seeing what does and does not work, and there may also be a certain amount of resistance to change. Meanwhile, state department personnel must react to political pressures and protect the public by ensuring that certain minimum levels of quality have been met.

The issues of who is controlling entry into the profession and to what degree higher education must be the servant of the state should be examined. Such issues urgently need resolution, particularly in the face of new school reform legislation, such as teacher testing, beginning teacher internships, and similar state bureaucratic policies which will impact special education teachers. Working relationships, not paper committees and formalized rubber stamping, are required between consumers and producers to identify training needs and develop training programs that will maintain a supply of teachers for the handicapped and at the same time preserve the quality of their personnel.


The issues and implications that have been presented represent only a preliminary agenda for teacher preparation. A number of subissues are embedded in these major areas. Time and tradition have solidified two very strong, yet very different, bureaucracies--higher education at the public schools. Despite the differences, the mission should be the same: to provide a solid education to children. If only one recommendation is made from the research, it is that those two policy actors need to accept a major change in the ways they function in determining and setting standars for teacher preparation, if we are to ensure quality educational programming for students.


Darling-Hammond, L. (1984). Beyond the commission reports: The coming crisis in teaching. Santa Monica, CA: The Rand Corporation.

Feistritzer, C. E. (1985, August). Commentary by publisher. Teacher Education Reports, p. 7.

Geiger, W. (1983). 1983 National directory of special education teacher preparation programs. Reston, VA: The Council for Exceptional Children.

Grosenick, J., & Huntze, S. (1983). More questions than answers: Review and analysis of programs for behaviorally disordered children and youth. Columbia, MO: National Needs Analysis Project, University of Missouri.

Joyce, B. R., Morra, F., & Kuuskraa, V. A. (1975). National survey of the preservice preparation of teachers: Questionnaire for students, 1975. Washington, DC: National Center for Educational Statistics.

Lilly, M. S. (1987). Lack of focus on special education in literature on educational reform. Exceptional Children, 53, 325-326.

McLaughlin, M. J., Smith-Davis, J., & Burke, P. J. (1986). Personnel to educate the handicapped in America: A status report. College Park, MD: Institute for the Study of Exceptional Children and Youth.

Noel, M. M., Valdivieso, C. H., & Fuller, B. C. (1985). Determinants of teacher training preparation: A study of departments of special education. College Park, MD: Institute for Study of Exceptional Chldrn and Youth.

Pugach, M. (1987). The national education reports and special education: Implications for teacher preparation. Exceptional Children, 53, 308-314.

Pugach, M. & Sapon-Shevin, M. (1987). New agendas for special education policy: What the national reports haven't said. Exceptional Children, 53, 295-299.

Smith-Davis, J., Burke, P. ,J., & Noel, M. M. (1984). Personnel to educate the handicapped in America: Supply and demand from a programmatic viewpoint. College Park, MD: Institute for the Study of Exceptional Children and Youth.

U.S. Department of Education (1987). To assure a free appropriate public education of all handicapped children: Ninth annual report to Congress on the implementation of the Education of the Handicapped Act. Washington, DC: Author.

MARGARET J. MCLAUGHLIN is Associate Director, Institute for the Study of Exceptional Children and Youth, University of Maryland, College Park. CAROL H. VALDIVIESO is Director, National Information Center for Children and Youth with Handicaps, Rosslyn, Virginia. KATHLEEN L. SPENCE is Assistant Professor, University of Connecticut Health Center, Farmington. BRUCE C. FULLER, is Research Sociologist, World Bank, Washington, D.C.
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Title Annotation:Institute for the Study of Exceptional Children and Youth, University of Maryland, 1982-1986
Author:McLaughlin, Margaret J.; Valdivieso, Carol H.; Spence, Kathleen L.; Fuller, Bruce C.
Publication:Exceptional Children
Date:Nov 1, 1988
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