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Preparation for role changes in general education and special education: dual certification graduates' perspectives.

The need for professionals to work as team members with children and youth having disabilities is increasing. Services for children with disabilities in the least restrictive environment in many cases has become the general education classroom. The United States Department of Education (1993) documented that approximately 69.3 percent of children with disabilities spend a significant part of each day, if not the whole day, in a general education classroom.

Concerns have been raised on several issues as more students at risk, as well as students with special education needs, attend general education classrooms. Often the return of children with disabilities appears to alter the classroom teacher's role and responsibilities, requiring much more individualization than he/she has been prepared to implement (Evans, 1990). There may also be a dramatic change in the role of the special educator. Often this has been perceived from the special educator's view as devaluing his/her role to providing paraprofessional like supports.

Team members must help children in inclusive classrooms to see themselves as resourceful, even though some of them have been "resource room kids" (Bailey, 1991). Too often children with disabilities have been taught skills in isolation (Graves, 1991) with specialized instruction taking place in a vacuum (Robinson, 1991). Students may experience a lack of integration of knowledge with the curriculum utilized for typical students (Evans, Harris, Adeigobola, Houston & Argott, 1993), These children who often have had the most difficulty with transitions may also need to cope with significantly more transitions as they move between two or more settings with often two or more sets of behavioral expectations and rules. As educators, both general and special, acknowledge the difficulty that these students have in generalizing isolated skills and the fragmentation of a child's day, an even greater emphasis on inclusive classrooms becomes apparent.

Inclusive placements rely on the attitudes and skills of general educators as direct service providers, of special educators as consultants and of both as interactive and cooperative members of the education team (Mainzer, Mainzer, Slavin & Lowry, 1993; Marshall & Herrmann, 1990). Thus, the movement toward inclusive placements for more children with disabilities will require different roles for all educators. The ability to individualize instruction, to adopt role release behaviors, to feel confident enough to ask for help, to acknowledge diversity as a desirable component of a classroom or school environment and to identify strengths in all students are only a few of the changes that both general and special educators must adopt (Mainzer, Mainzer, Slavin & Lowry, 1993).

One possible reason for the development of the extensive army of special education services and personnel was a response to the general educator's perceived lack of specialized skills, time and resources in the regular classroom (Schumm, Vaughn, Gordon & Rothlein, 1994; Semmel, Abernathy, Butera & Lesar, 1991; Hyman, 1989). The time necessary and the amount of content required for teaching typical students was and is considered by many to preclude encompassing student who learn differently. The specialists were able to focus on the perceived special needs of the child and not on the general curriculum (Lewis & Doorlag, 1991). They were trained to work with specific skills and populations. Their work most frequently focused on small numbers of students at a time and often with the help of a teaching assistant. As a result, the ability of special educators to interpret the needs or frustrations of the general educator who has 20 or 30 students in a room may be limited by their lack of experience in a typical classroom (Blanton, Blanton & Cross, 1994; Gans, 1987).

As general education classroom instruction becomes more individualized to meet varied abilities (Quinn, 1991) and process oriented (Wansart, 1991), more educators both general and special are recognizing the similarities and strengths of both perspectives (Reynolds, Wang & Walberg, 1992). As Michael Quinn (1991) suggests, special educators may have been guilty of meeting special needs, but ignoring the more normal needs of children with disabilities: the need to feel confident and competent as a learner; the need to learn skills to express and comprehend; and the need to be part of a safe and nonthreatening community of learners. Special education and general education have more in common than is often recognized when the needs of all children are considered.

Although similarities are being recognized, there are still significant barriers to team collaboration in inclusive settings. The lack of training of general educators in special education techniques is often cited (Blanton, Blanton & Cross, 1994; Evans, 1990; Marshall & Herrmann, 1990; Salend, 1990). Perceptions that preparation has been inadequate to meet the needs of diverse population of learners is prevalent (Aksmit, 1990; Blanton, Blanton & Cross, 1994; Davis & Maheady, 1991; Marshall & Herrmann, 1990). General educators everywhere are also talking about the changing populations of the classroom-decreased motivation, AIDS/HIV and homelessness (May, Kundert, & Akpan, 1994; Evans, 1990), issues with which special educators have been struggling also.

Yet another barrier may be the perceived incongruence between general and special education about appropriate and acceptable interventions (Bacon & Schulz, 1991; Johnson & Pugach, 1992; Schumm, Vaughn, Gordon & Rothlein, 1994). Everyone's time is wasted if suggestions or strategies are outside the experience of those expected to implement them or that are too overwhelming in time and energy. All too often a child's Individualized Education Plan leads to individualized isolation (Sunstein, 1991) because the goals and objectives have little relationship to the actual general education classroom and curriculum or are so general they are useless.

As educators, both general and special, the goal should be to focus on effective strategies and modifications for the diverse population of all learners (Bacon & Schulz, 1991). The focus should be less on the setting and more on finding and implementing sound educational practices (Leinhardt & Palay, 1982). The demystifying of special education (Evans, 1990; Phillips, Allred, Brulle & Shank, 1991) and the development of proactive strategies to prevent failure for all children (Pugach, 1992) should be the result. The development of a common language is necessary (Blanton, Blanton & Cross, 1994).

The resulting role changes may force both general and special educators to consider children first. The perception that one's role is less valuable or important should not take precedence if the needs of the children in the classroom are being met. Both general and special educators will need to become interdependent -sharing knowledge and skills to benefit all students.

One method for beginning to develop this double knowledge base is the dual certification of educators (Aksamit, 1990; Mainzer, Mainzer, Slavin & Lowry, 1993; Simpson, Whelan & Zabel, 1993; Vautour, 1993). General educators with special education certification are more likely to be confident in their ability to teach students with learning or behavior problems (Asksamit, 1990; Lewis & Doorlag, 1991), are less likely to refer (Aksamit, 1990), and are more likely to request assistance in developing adaptations (Billingsly & Cross, 1991). To increase the credibility of special education recommendations, special educators need to have experiences in the knowledge of regular classroom curriculum, methodology and programs (Stainback & Stainback, 1989).

The Department of Education at the University of New Hampshire has provided the option for students in the Masters degree programs in Education to become dually certified since 1982. Sixty-five students became eligible for dual certification in general and special education from 1982 to 1993. As greater emphasis is placed on inclusionary programs and more principals are seeking dually certified teachers for general education classrooms, it became necessary to specifically survey the graduates to ascertain whether their preparation had been adequate to meet the changing roles of an educator.


Selection of Participants

The sample included all students who had successfully completed the certification requirements for elementary/secondary general education and special education. It represented the total population (N=65) who had completed the requirements by May 1993.


An extensive 11 page survey was developed containing 25 questions with subheadings and additional questions to collect demographic data. The survey was developed using instruments currently utilized by other programs in the department; from information gleaned from the literature around changes in teacher preparation and role expectations; and from verbal feedback from some of the graduates. The questions asked students to rank how well prepared they felt when entering the field in areas such as assessment, classroom modifications, collaboration and knowledge of current best practices, among others. Respondees were also asked to describe their philosophy of education, their roles as an educator and whether they were prepared for those roles. Graduates were asked to identify strengths, as well as gaps in their university preparation. The survey included open-ended responses, forced choices, as well as rank ordered responses. The survey was field tested with five graduates who were eligible for only special education certification. Their feedback led to the revision of questions for clarity, but did not eliminate any topics. It was estimated through the field test that it would take approximately 45 minutes to complete the survey. Although there was the potential to decrease the return rate due to the length of the survey, it was felt that the information sought was important enough that the inclusion of all questions outweighed the concerns. Due to the small number and the close continued contact with many of the former students, it was hoped that many of the sample would see their input as valuable and would respond by filling out the survey.

Survey packets were mailed in May of 1994 to all candidates who had successfully completed dual certification requirements. A signed coverletter described our concerns and asked for their help to improve the program to meet the changing roles of educators. The survey with an individual number for tracking purposes was enclosed with a stamped return envelope. Respondents could indicate by writing on the outside of the envelope that they wished to have a copy of the results. Follow-up postcards were mailed two weeks later to thank those who had responded and to remind those who had not completed the survey. A data entry system was developed and data was entered by the author and a student assistant.


Return Rate

A total of 65 questionnaires were mailed. Of these 16 were returned as undeliverable. All of the forty-nine completed surveys were usable for a return rate of 77%. It is not known if the undeliverable surveys represent a different population. However, the returned sample parallels the undelivered surveys for gender and elementary or secondary certification. It is expected that there are no major and discrepancies between the groups.

Description of Respondents

The respondents were mostly female (n=37) and were teaching in New Hampshire (n=39). They were evenly divided in the age levels at which they were teaching, with 16 teaching in elementary classes, 15 teaching in middle school and 16 teaching in high school. One individual was teaching in preschool and one was teaching in postgraduate education. Twenty-nine respondents are currently hired in special education positions. Fifteen are hired in general education positions. Five are hired as both general and special educators. Other states represented in the sample were Arizona, Delaware, Florida, Maine, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Virginia and Wisconsin.

Data Analysis

Forced choice responses and rank order responses on the survey were analyzed using frequencies, percentages and standard deviations. Rank order responses were based on a 5 point scale: very good, adequate, mediocre, poor and too little experience to judge. The data sample was too small to consider evaluations for gender or other demographic factors. Comparisons of responses from graduates in New Hampshire and outside of New Hampshire although not included in this data were similar. Given the extensive open ended responses on all surveys, the data was integrated into themes. These themes were identified independently by the author and the student assistant with a 85% correlation between the two.

Results of Data Collection

Survey responses reflect graduates perceptions of their abilities to meet the role expectations of both general and special educators. Tables 1 and 2 delineate areas of strength and areas of concern. A cut off point of 70% of the combined responses of adequate or very good was arbitrarily set as the differentiating point for strength or concern.

Graduates emphasized strengths in meetings the needs of a diverse student population. The ability to focus teaching to the student's ability level, to plan whole class activities that meet a variety of levels of learning and to organize the classroom for diverse learners were all rated at about 90% or higher which indicated that most of the respondents felt very good or adequate in this area. Eighty-nine percent felt that communication with other professionals was a strength; while 84% felt that working in collaboration was an area of strength. The ability to develop appropriate discipline expectations, to design meaningful lessons for diverse groups and to modify for content areas were also perceived by more than 73% as very good or adequate skills.

Areas which fell below the arbitrary cut off and identified by the author as areas of concern were focused primarily in collaborative roles. The ability to work with a wide range of adults and to use consultation skills were seen as adequate or better by only 68% of the sample. While the ability to provide appropriate tasks for parent volunteers was seen by less than 60% as adequate or better. Supporting others in professional growth and providing leadership was seen by about half of the sample as adequate or better. Finally, the ability to plan and affect change was identified by less than 45% of the sample as strengths.

Open ended responses describing the graduates philosophy of education clearly delineated the perception that all students are seen as important. Eighty-two percent of the responses used the words "inclusion," "all students," "every child" and "children are more alike than different" within the statement of philosophy. These were often filled with examples and explanations of how the philosophy related to the reality of the classroom. Several respondents indicated they felt their philosophy would be very different without their dual certification.

When asked to describe their own perception of their strengths, graduates focused on individualization of teaching and the ability to interact effectively with other professionals. These statements parallel the information documented in Table 1.

Areas in which graduate indicated they felt least competent were in consultation and the ability to plan and affect change within a system. Again, this confirms some of the data in Table 2.


The need for collaborative team members in education is increasing as more students who have special education needs or who are considered at risk enter the general education classroom. Personnel preparation programs need to address the needs teachers will have in the field through preservice training. Evaluation of graduates' perceptions of their abilities, skills and knowledge to meet the current and future role expectations after program completion is crucial.

This survey was an initial attempt to ascertain our graduate's perceptions of their preparation to teach in today's changing schools. Dual certification has been available at UNH since 1982 and the Masters degree in General Special Education was implemented in 1988. The numbers of dually certified graduates has continued to grow since that time. It was obvious that our graduates took the responsibility of program evaluation seriously. All questions were completed and extensive written responses were included on more than 90% of the surveys. Many former students continue to take classes and often stopped to informally provide further feedback.

Graduates felt very strongly that their program did prepare them for the field as noted in the following remarks: "I would highly recommend the program because it, rightly so, helped to minimize the notion of special education/regular education dicotomy." "The program prepared me to teach in the field-not doubt about it!", and "The courses offered were excellent and I was able to apply the knowledge immediately."

Open ended responses were grouped by date of completion of the program to consider whether internal changes relating to the implementation of the Masters degree were involved. This readily demonstrated an impact as noted in the following statements: "Philosophically it was an excellent program. I sense from observing a current student that consultation and curriculum modifications are now getting more attention." and "The program continues to develop and I believe it is more able to meet student needs than four or five years ago."

Respondents truly cared about children and the adults with whom they work. Interpersonal skills and working with teachers were mentioned again and again throughout the open ended comments. That each student is valued and respected, is unique and individual also appeared over and over in the comments. Although these comments may not define the roles of educators, the perceptions held by educators do impact their performance of that role.

Graduates described the fact the program had a basic underlying philosophy of integration/inclusion, but provided information about other viewpoints. This allowed graduates to develop arguments and strategies that they utilized when working with parents, teachers and administrators. This focus has continued as a variety of issues continue to revolve around general and special education-inclusion, the reauthorization of IDEA, Medicaide waivers, and others. The knowledge of others' viewpoints, as stated by graduates, allows them to build a more convincing argument to support their own perspective.

The year long internship seminar was also cited as a strength. The development of a collegial network that has lasted more than ten years for some former students has been of great value in accessing resources. The seminar was also noted as an important training opportunity for brainstorming and problem-solving of actual situations. Utilizing real situations where the follow-up and resolution is part of the learning experience, rather than case studies or role playing, allow students to ascertain how situations might be resolved or further convoluted. Issues of confidentiality are continually reiterated during the seminar. This is especially crucial since videotapes of interns' classrooms are now included as springboards for discussion or problem solving. This has been particularly important as the utilization of videotape can provide critical information for teachers and teams.

Graduates also noted the importance of continued connection with the field, both from the program's and the graduate's view. They stated that there is a need for the program to remain grounded in what is happening currently in real schools with real children. Faculty continue to supervise interns and to provide in-service workshops to maintain this connection. Many graduates are now serving as cooperating teachers for new interns, as practicum supervisors for introductory special education classes or reading methods classes. These continued connections have enhanced both the schools and the university.

Graduates saw themselves as competent teachers who knew their students, were capable of assessing learning styles and learning, were able to communicate with others and were knowledgeable about a variety of strategies for teaching. Several noted that this was due to the continual linking of the general and special education coursework. They knew the jargon of both general and special education, as well as the teaching strategies. One respondent noted that "good teaching is good teaching" and what she learned in one course was reemphasized and reaffirmed in another.

Another respondent stated: "I feel most confident in the knowledge that I could and would learn more about my students and how to be a more effective teacher; that I had the skills to attain this knowledge."

Areas that continued to appear as problematic or areas of concern may reflect the changing role of an educator and the program's expectation that our graduates become leaders in the field. The role of an educator, both general and special, requires more contact with more adults-volunteers, specialists, and paraprofessionals. One respondent indicated that she has eleven different adults in her classroom during at least one day each week: "You never prepared me for the logistics of organizing so many helpers."

Another respondent who works as a special educator is responsible for supervising eight paraprofessionals is twelve different classrooms: "The styles of 12 different teachers and 8 different aides matching 24 children can be overwhelming. We didn't talk about this when I started the program, but it's the reality now!!!"

As we move toward increased collaboration the need to prepare both special and general educators, not only with the skills to work together, but to organize the logistics becomes crucial. This is an area we continue to grapple with as we problem solve in seminar.

Although the respondents indicated that they were not as competent in planning and affecting change, their remarks belied this perspective. They are serving on committees to restructure service delivery, to prepare in-service training for paraprofessionals, and to develop guidelines for collaboration/consultation. They are rewriting curriculum guides with a variety of strategies or modifications to meet a range of learning styles and needs. They are serving on district level committees and on state level task forces. Perhaps they read the question to mean that they personally were organizing changes and felt their involvement was what any teacher should be doing. If so, there are many active leaders in the field who are planning and affecting change in ways both great and small.


The responses of our graduates have implications for UNH and the greater education community. Although the sample was small and represents a unique population, issues that the respondents addressed are ones that appear in the literature and in anecdotal discussions with faculty in personnel preparation around the country. The ideas that were generated by the respondees are important to consider whether our students teach in urban or rural settings with culturally and ethnically homogeneous or heterogeneous groups in special education or in general education. They reflect changes experienced across the country-fewer resources, more challenging student populations and a greater need to collaborate.

It is clear that preservice preparation must include more opportunities for gaining knowledge about and practicing consultation. Our graduates indicated that they felt competent in communicating and collaborating with others, but consultation was an area in which they felt a need for more preparation. How to ask questions, how to provide guidance, and how to support one another's professional growth were areas in which our graduates felt uncertain. Information on consultation is now part of our coursework, as well as an integral part of the internship seminar. Former students are asked to participate in seminars to provide continued practical experiences. We will reevaluate this in a year to ascertain whether this is sufficient preparation.

Graduates indicated that they had little experience or opportunities for developing strategies to support or work with volunteers and aides. Many graduates have worked previously as aides, which has provided them with knowledge about what aides really do, but no strategies to provide the necessary supports. Therefore, information about supervision of aides is now included in introductory special education classes that are often taken by general educators, as well as being required for special educators. Teams of effective teachers and aides visit seminar to discuss how they have become successful. It is hoped that these experiences will provide a baseline of information from which students can build.

Although respondents indicated that they did not see themselves as capable of affecting change, their open-ended responses suggest that they are active in the field promoting change. To provide even further impetus for students, they are now required to become an active member of some professional organization (i.e. CEC, AAMR, AERA, etc.) The journals and conventions of these organizations are noted and students are encouraged to submit articles to the journals or presentations to regional or national conferences. The Special Education program at UNH has also begun an annual mini-conference called 'Special Education Information Night' presented by the special education interns for all of the general education interns, their cooperating teachers and other invited guests. Approximately half of the special education interns each year are seeking concurrent dual certification. Each special education intern becomes an 'expert' on an area which he/she feels would be useful for a general education intern. They develop handouts and visual materials to support their poster sessions. This experience has generated requests for joint seminars on particular topics, as well as enhanced the feelings of leadership competence of special education interns. These activities appear to have increased the level of perceived leadership of recently graduated students. Again, we will evaluate this in the near future.

A final area that respondees indicated they needed greater information is knowledge of outside services and resources. All teachers have limited time and energy with which to search for materials, technology or new strategies. To try to meet this request, several methods have been incorporated into the program. As a university class project, students may choose to develop personal resource banks for use once they begin teaching. Other students have donated these projects to a central location so that others may also access the resources. Interns are required to access information through ERIC and on-line bulletin boards as part of their internship requirements. Part of each seminar is devoted to sharing this information, as well as notices of up coming workshops, relevant television programs or readings. As noted earlier, the network established during the internship seminar has remained an important resource for many former interns. It is hoped that these methods will provide students with a variety of strategies to access information and resources. One resource which has been of continual use is program faculty who continue to provide guidance long after students exit the university. This continued relationship has benefited both students and faculty alike.

As both general and special education continue to change to meet the needs of a diverse and challenging student community, one graduate voiced her perspective which we should all remember: "The program started me in a direction that would see 'life long learning' about 'how we learn' and 'thinking about thinking' as a teacher's responsibility-not a special teacher, not a regular teacher, but a teacher!"


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Table 2

Areas of Concern
Responses of Very Good or Adequate

Able to work effectively with a wide range of adults           68.4%
Able to use consultation skills with parents, professionals
and others                                                     68.4%
Have knowledge of range of materials for diverse population
of students                                                    63.2%
Able to provide meaningful and appropriate tasks for
volunteers                                                     57.9%
Able to organize parent volunteers                             52.6%
Able to provide support for personal growth and change for
those supervised                                               52.6%
Able to provide leadership                                     47.4%
Able to plan and manage efforts to affect significant and
lasting change                                                 44.4%
Able to affect change                                          42.1%
Able to conduct workshops                                      26.3%
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Author:Kerns, Georgia M.
Date:Dec 22, 1996
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