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Preparing general educators to work well with students who have disabilities: what's reasonable at the preservice level?

Abstract. The restructured teacher education program at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee is described specifically with regard to its commitment to prepare general educators to work effectively and responsibly with students with disabilities. Background information is provided about the program, including the features that support a strong relationship between special and general educators. The authors discuss reasonable outcomes for initial teachers in general education and highlight some of the challenges in program implementation.


As the result of a grass-roots teacher education reform effort, preservice teacher preparation for the primary/middle grades at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee has been restructured as a collaborative partnership between special and regular education faculty. The genesis of this work has been documented in detail elsewhere (Hains et al., 1997; Otis-Wilborn & Pugach, in press; Pugach, Winn, Ford, & Jett-Simpson, 1997). In short, we scrapped the longstanding traditional structure of our programs, created a set of shared core values and design principles focused on preparing teachers for urban schools, and now have five years; experience implementing a restructured preservice program predicated on these core commitments. Chief among them is that our graduates in the primary/ middle level program in general education will embrace their responsibilities to work with students with disabilities in urban schools and be well prepared to do so by the time they complete their preservice experience.

The purpose of this article is to describe our program redesign efforts specifically with regard to our commitment to prepare general educators to work effectively and responsibly with students with disabilities. We begin by providing some background information about our restructured teacher education program, including a brief discussion of features that support a strong relationship between special and general educators. We follow this with what we propose as reasonable outcomes for our general education graduates. We conclude with a discussion of the challenges we face in implementation and the impact we expect this program will have on the preparation of special educators.


Through a process of extensive recursive dialogue among faculty and community members, we began the restructuring process with consensus on seven core values. These shared core values became the anchor for our ongoing decision making and resultant program called the Collaborative Teacher Education Program for Urban Communities (henceforth, the "Collaborative Program"):

1.Preparing our graduates to work effectively in urban schools and to place issues of race, class, culture and language at the forefront of their concerns for equity.

2. Placing the developing learner at the center of the act of teaching and learning; teaching is child-centered.

3. Teaching based upon solid content knowledge in all academic areas, forming the foundation for learning.

4. Teaching based on sound pedagogical content knowledge and sound knowledge about creating and sustaining effective learning communities in the classroom.

5. Advocating for and educating students with disabilities effectively in inclusive educational environments.

6. Working closely with families and the community as partners in the educational process.

7. Demonstrating professionalism in all collaborations with teachers, staff, administrators, and family members in relationship to their own professional development and embracing the need for professional lifelong learning.

We first integrated and then separated out the core value on working with students with disabilities. We reasoned in the end that if we grouped disability and concerns for equity related to race, class, culture, and language into one core value, our students may only see the similarities in equity concerns across these issues and not adequately understand the differences (for a discussion of the relationship between diversity and disability, see Pugach & Seidl, 1998).

Early in the program redesign effort, teacher education faculty in primary/middle special and general education agreed that much more could be done to better prepare graduates to teach the students with disabilities who would be members of their classrooms effectively. We agreed that we needed to move beyond the old mainstreaming course and provide our students with a more integrative and cumulative experience in working with learners with disabilities. The teaching contexts in which our students would practice are changing, and in Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS), UW-Milwaukee's principal partner in teacher education, classrooms were becoming increasingly more inclusive. As a result, it was becoming more and more common for special and general education teachers to collaborate in a variety of teaming and co-teaching arrangements across many of the city's 160+ schools where our students were learning how to teach. In addition, special education teachers were increasingly working in cross-categorical models and in general education classrooms.

As we considered how best to prepare our graduates for these changes, we discussed and rejected several program options. At first we considered a dual certification program in which all students would receive both a general and a special education license. This approach was rejected because we believed it did not adequately honor either the specialized expertise special education teachers should have or the time it would take to prepare a new teacher fully for both roles. We believed there was merit in identifying with one of the roles -- being the general educator on the team who knows a lot about teaching learners with disabilities, or becoming the special educator on the team with some overlapping, but many differentiated roles. The challenge was to define the distinctions between the two.

We also rejected the notion of moving to a five-year program in general teacher education. We agreed to continue working within the framework of a four-year undergraduate program to meet the needs of the UWM student population, many of whom are first-generation college students who also hold jobs while they attend UWM. We could not envision asking our students to make a commitment to a five-year general education preservice program. Furthermore, we redesigned the program so that undergraduates seeking special education certification could continue for a fifth year, making dual licensure possible. If our core primary/middle program exceeded four years, we felt certain we would be meeting neither the needs of our students nor the overwhelming demands in the local MPS schools for special education teachers. Throughout the restructuring process, we continually reminded ourselves that we were preparing beginning teachers, in a state with newly adopted stages of teacher licensing. For example, our graduates will receive an initial license for five years, progress to a professional license upon successful completion of a professional development plan, and have the option of achieving a master teacher license through national board certification or a master's degree and performance review. Finally, we retained our longstanding commitment to serving part-time and postbaccalaureate students seeking primary/ middle certification.

We resisted as well the decision either to integrate special education content or to have a dedicated course, opting for a combination. Equally significant was our agreement that special education faculty would have a much higher presence in the general education program across the professional sequence. In addition to reconfiguring teaching loads so that special education faculty could teach across the professional semesters, special education faculty would become active members of the steering group that emerged for the purpose of overseeing the implementation of the program. Figure 1 provides a basic outline of this program.
Figure 1. Block-by-block outline of UWM's Collaborative Teacher
Education Program for Urban Communities.

Fifth Year Special Education Option
* Special Educator: Teaching Experience II & III
* Curriculum & Accommodations I & II
* Assessment & Monitoring
* Literacy II
* Behavioral Supports
* Linking Seminars II & III

Block IV: Defining Roles & Expanding
* Student Teaching
* Linking Seminar
* Integrating the Arts (if not taken in a previous
Field Commitment: Full time -- 20 weeks

Block III: Middle Level
* Teaching of Reading & Language Arts
* Teaching of Math/Assessment
* Teaching of Social Studies
* Linking Seminar
Field Commitment: 1 1/2 days a week

Block II: Primary Level
* Teaching of Reading & Language Arts
* Teaching of Mathematics
* Teaching of Science
* Linking Seminar
Field Commitment: 1 1/2 days a week

Block I: Child at the Center
* Language and Urban Schooling
* Intro to Learning and Development
* Social & Affective Issues in Urban Classrooms
* Child, Learner, Disability
Field Commitment: 1 day a week

Program Features That Support a Strong Relationship Between Special and General Teacher Education

From the outset of these reform efforts, we created and implemented several program features that deliberately connect teacher preparation for general and special education. Students move through their coursework and field experiences in cohort groups and enroll in an integrated set of courses (or program "blocks") in a prescribed sequence each semester. Faculty across departments who teach in these program blocks work as an integrated team, coordinating their teaching, participating in performance assessments, and contributing to continuous program improvement through participation in regular program meetings. In addition to the major courses and field experiences students complete in each block, they are also enrolled in a linking seminar every semester, which provides a structured opportunity for reflection and for linking their learning in courses with the field. Linking seminars provide weekly opportunities to explore, for example, the difference between methods and practices students might be learning in their classes and what they are observing in the field. It is the place where the program's core values are revisited in relationship to the focus of that particular semester. Further, the linking seminar provides a location to explore, prepare for, and discuss end-of-semester performance assessments. These design features are all in place and have become normative for our teacher education programs.

We planned for a high presence of special education faculty throughout the four program blocks in several ways. The dedicated course in special education now occurs in the first block, which focuses on the child at the center of the act of teaching and learning. In this course, which is taught by a faculty member in special education, students learn to see children with disabilities first as children, then as learners, and then as students with disabilities. In the subsequent blocks, where related issues are integrated across the preservice curriculum, we planned for special education faculty to participate directly either by teaching the linking seminar or by engaging in some level of co-teaching, particularly in courses in literacy and on issues of curricular and behavior management accommodations during the student teaching semester. Our view is that it is critical for faculty who identify with special education and whose professional commitment is clearly situated within special education to participate actively in the preparation of general education teachers across the preservice curriculum. That fact that general teacher education faculty are committed to accepting the need to prepare our graduates to work with students with disabilities in principle is not a powerful enough teaching strategy, even in combination with a dedicated course in special education. It does not provide our students with access to faculty who are steeped in special education as their fundamental professional identity. Rather, a heavy, regular and continuous presence of special education faculty is necessary across the general education preservice program if we are to ensure that our graduates are prepared to work effectively with students with disabilities. As we will discuss later, achieving this goal continues to be a challenge.

To fulfill our commitment to a field-based, urban teacher education program, preservice students are placed in MPS classrooms each of their four professional semesters; undergraduates also complete a one-semester preprofessional field experience prior to admission to the School of Education. Because inclusive education is widespread in MPS, by the time our regular education students reach their final semester of a 20-week full-day placement in the schools, nearly all have observed and experienced some level of collaborative teaching on a regular basis and have had some direct experience working with students with disabilities. During the final semester, many general education students are placed in inclusive classrooms where they co-teach with a special education teacher on a daily basis. Many also have had experiences outside of their preservice program working with students with disabilities -- in their jobs in daycare centers or summer work as camp counselors, or in volunteer settings. Together, these experiences provide a nearly continuous authentic context for what students have been learning and thinking about in relationship to working with students with disabilities.

These program design features (core values, cohorts, integrated blocks of courses and field experience, and semester-by-semester performance assessments) were purposefully created to be parallel across the primary/middle preservice programs in special and general education, thus providing a common framework and language for our collective practice of teacher education. As we redesigned these programs together, we committed ourselves to a much higher level of expectation for what it means to make sure that our general education graduates are well prepared to meet their professional commitments to students with disabilities.

Reasonable Outcomes for Our General Education Graduates

With the design of our Collaborative Program taking shape, we were able to further explore what our general teacher education graduates should be able to know and do with respect to teaching learners with disabilities. At this point in our development, we believe that it is reasonable to expect them to:

* be committed to teaching the full range of learners with disabilities;

* have an understanding of disability that demystifies it and goes beyond the label to appreciate more fully "what's going on with a learner";

* be reasonably prepared to anticipate high-priority needs and effectively teach and make routine accommodations for students with IEPs;

* be prepared to work within an inclusive classroom and a collaborative teaching structure; and

* demonstrate awareness of the political, social and historical context of special education, particularly as it relates to the urban schools/districts in which they work.

These represent the outcomes we are striving for our students to achieve upon completion of our preservice programs. They also represent what we believe we can reasonably accomplish in the time allotted to the professional programs and define a level of responsibility that we think reflects what general education teachers need to know and be able to do in their classrooms. We now provide a brief explanation of each of these outcomes and describe where and how they are addressed in the program.

Being committed to teaching the full range of learners with disabilities. It comes as no surprise to our preservice students that as general educators they will be responsible for teaching learners with disabilities. In class surveys and discussions, many of them tell of friends or acquaintances with learning disabilities who were once classmates; a few have had IEPs themselves. They soon come to understand that of the 10-12% of school-age youth with disability labels, most fall under the categories of learning disabilities and speech and language disorders and, thus, have long been the primary responsibility of the general classroom teacher. Generally, they readily commit to the notion that students with learning disabilities, speech and language disorders, mild cognitive disabilities and emotional/behavioral disabilities will be enrolled as full members of their classes. They know that while some of the teaching responsibility will be shared with special educators, much is expected of them on a day-to-day basis when teaching students with disabilities. Indeed, this is what they experience in their field placements, and they are anxious to develop their teaching repertoires in this regard.

To what extent will our graduates develop expertise in teaching learners with more extensive needs -- students with autism, severe cognitive or emotional disabilities? Here we resolved that our graduates would leave with a sincere commitment to teaching students with significant disabilities (translation: They would not resist having a child with significant disabilities enrolled in their class; they would be open and receptive collaborators). Expertise in addressing highly individualized needs (unique communication, social/behavioral, and physical and daily functioning needs) would be gained as they experienced children with these needs and worked alongside special educators and parents/families to develop effective methods of instruction and support. While some of the field placements include students with significant disabilities, the opportunities are far more limited given the lower incidence of these students. Furthermore, only a small, yet growing number of area schools enroll the full range of students with disabilities and educate them in a fully inclusive manner. Thus, at present, only a portion of our students experience field placements in which they share the responsibility for teaching a student with significant disabilities. With these and other considerations in mind, it seemed reasonable to expect a high level of commitment, but not necessarily an extensive repertoire of strategies, for students with significant disabilities.

The importance of being committed to teaching the full range of learners is addressed in several ways throughout the program. When students first learn about the Collaborative Program, they are introduced to the core values. From the start, they know they are applying to a program that stresses the inclusion of all learners with disabilities. Later, as students share their teaching experiences in their linking seminars each semester, they are likely to hear fellow cohort members discuss a student with autism or a learner with extensive emotional or behavioral support needs. If they have not yet had direct teaching experience with students with significant disabilities, their awareness of the positive experiences of colleagues helps to strengthen their commitment. Finally, in the Child, Learner, Disability course, students are presented with examples, research and perspectives from parents, teachers, and learners with disabilities on the topic of inclusive education. Here, they engage in a more direct and critical examination of their personal views on including the full range of learners in general classrooms.

Having an understanding of disability. Many continue to view disability from a deficit model ("What's wrong with this student?") and adopt terminology from a "medicalized" perspective (using terms like diagnosis, IQ, classification, disorders, syndromes, therapies and interventions). Preservice students are no exception. Early in our program, students are asked to examine how they view disability and explore alternate views. We attempt to demystify disability and stress the importance of seeing the person first; we also discuss the need to go beyond the label to appreciate more fully "what's going on with a learner." The process of self-examination is not new to our students. In the required preadmission block of courses called Schooling and the Urban Community, students examine concepts like institutionalized racism, white privilege, and the marginalization of groups of learners in schools, engaging in self-reflection intended to foster an understanding of their own experience and beliefs about these fundamental issues.

In Block I: The Developing Learner, students spend one day a week in the classroom: helping out, getting to know students (and their families, where possible) and completing structured observations about how the class works (Teaching Experience I). They take several courses designed to help them understand how children learn and develop, including Child, Learner, Disability, which is taught by special education faculty. Part of this course addresses the question "Who are the learners with disability labels in our schools?" Students become familiar with some of the conventions of special education -- how the children and youth in their field placements became eligible for special education services, basic criteria/characteristics of various disabilities, and some of the promising work in the field that provides insights into learners with particular disabilities. This more "clinical" perspective is balanced with an in-depth, person-first view of disability. This is achieved in many ways, including guest speakers and reading a required book written by a person with a disability (for example, Christopher Lee, who writes about his learning disability in Faking It, or Henry Kisor, who discusses his life as a deaf man in What's That Pig Outdoors?), and case studies of families from a wide range of cultural backgrounds and with children with a range of disabilities (Harry, Kalyanpur, & Day, 1999). For one of their projects, students write a profile of a child with a disability that focuses on the child first, learner second, and disability third. The profile is shared with the parent (and the child, if appropriate) and a brief interview is conducted to gain further insight into the child's experience at home and at school.

Anticipating high-priority needs; effectively teaching and making routine accommodations for students with IEPs. Our graduates are expected to know about the IEP process and the importance of their participation on the IEP team as a general education member. Through case examples, they learn that highly specialized strategies and accommodations exist, that some will be needed for some learners to be successful in their classes, and that, most often, a special educator will work directly with them to develop these strategies. But mostly they learn that many effective accommodations are not highly specialized (e.g., partner structures, advanced organizers, more processing time, multimodality instruction, assignment notebooks) and that such accommodations often benefit all learners and should become routine practice in their classrooms. Indeed, they discover through a "universal design" process (Pisha & Coyne, 2001) that it is most efficient to be conscious of the range of learner needs at the start of the planning process rather than only in response to a specific student's needs.

By anticipating high-priority needs of students with IEPs, our graduates can go beyond the basics of "accommodations." Our expectation is that they develop some specialized expertise in high-priority need areas such as:

* Daily, structured reading groups where students read from carefully selected texts, written at their instructional level with appropriate attention given to word analysis and comprehension strategies. Graduates learn how to achieve specialized, small-group instruction without stigmatizing a student and disrupting the rhythm and flow of the student's day. They learn the importance of collaborating with reading specialists and special education staff to maximize instructional effectiveness. Blocks II and III each have six credits devoted to literacy coursework. Two members of the special education faculty who have strong literacy backgrounds have joined with the reading faculty to design the literacy coursework and on occasion they teach the linking seminar that is associated with these blocks. Determining when small-group instruction is needed in mathematics also is addressed.

* Explicit and ongoing instruction to help students become self-managed and organized learners. Our graduates learn that the success of many students who have IEPs will depend on explicit instruction in learning and organizational

habits that others may already have acquired. Learners who struggle with self-management and organization often need ongoing instruction and continuous monitoring in working independently, completing assignments, managing homework, and preparing for and taking tests. Through fieldwork experience, classroom observations, and linking seminars, our students focus on these important learning habits and develop ongoing strategies that can be implemented with individuals or groups of children in their field setting. The emphasis is placed on producing performance outcomes -- for example, providing evidence that the students have improved their homework submission rate from 28% to 90%.

* Supporting students socially and behaviorally. In our program, considerable emphasis is placed on creating a classroom climate that is productive, welcoming, and safe -- both psychologically and physically. With each new field experience, students develop strategies for fostering a collaborative class environment including class meetings, class-generated rules/goals, cooperative learning groups and partner systems (Cohen, 1994; Johnson, Johnson, & Holubec, 1998), peer mediation (Johnson & Johnson, 1995), and discipline with dignity (Curwin & Mendler, 1988). Beginning with the social development course in Block I, and throughout the linking seminars, these strategies are applied to case examples from the field. It is often through these case examples that students begin to see the value in developing individual behavior plans. It is our intention that graduates leave with an understanding that: (a) it is extremely worthwhile to invest time upfront analyzing why a behavior is occurring; (b) the problem solving that follows is best done with active participation of the parent, student and other key staff (e.g., special education teacher); (c) acceptable, externally driven strategies that work are available (e.g., daily reports or social contracts with rewards and/or loss of privileges, sitting in a space away from the group, social skills role-playing sessions); and (d) the ultimate goal is to work toward more natural and internally rewarding strategies (e.g., peer support, mentors, self-monitoring, developing talents/interests; having more choices; developing more appropriate ways to communicate). Similarly, we expect our general education graduates to be reasonably adept at supporting students with diverse communication abilities. For example, they are asked to consider many of the principles and strategies learned in Block I related to supporting bilingual learners, and extend this knowledge to students who use sign language or augmentative communication systems and students with speech difficulties (e.g., modeling a sincere effort to understand the communication; not finishing students communication; learning and using some of the basics of the primary language; advocating for appropriate interpreting services).

Being prepared to work within an inclusive and collaborative structure. It is critical that our graduates see themselves as part of a team. Early in their field experiences they are asked to examine the collaborative structures in schools that result in quality services for all children -- including students with disabilities and those considered "at risk." They ascertain the roles of each team member and the factors that appear to be contributing to successful collaboration. In the years preceding our restructuring, students paid little attention to the collaborative structures in their teaching placements. Rarely, for example, did they mention the teaching assistant who was assigned to work with several students in class or the special education teacher who pulled groups out for reading. But there is a heightened awareness in our current students. For example, in the first week or so of their field placements, students often know the name of the special educator and what type of collaborative structure is at work to serve students with IEPs. Increasingly, they have direct experience working with the special educator -- co-developing unit plans, developing behavioral plans, completing progress reports, and developing IEPs.

Demonstrating awareness of the political, social and historical context of special education. It is important that our graduates understand the political, social and historical context of special education, particularly to better understand current practice and future directions in the urban schools/districts in which they are learning to teach. As we mentioned previously, society's evolving response to people with disabilities has altered who is labeled and considered eligible for special education (Sapon-Shevin, 1989; Skrtic, 1995). Students often start the program with the belief that disability is totally within the child and that there are clear and reliable ways of determining who has a disability and who does not. This assumption is challenged as they meet students with IEPs and compare them with others (without labels) who they believe are similarly situated. They are also exposed to studies that reveal state and district variability in labeling (Shapiro et al., 1993; U.S. Department of Education, 2000) and are made aware of continued cultural bias in the special education identification process (Harry, 1992; Kalynapur & Harry, 1999). In short, they learn enough about past practice to appreciate why the advocacy efforts around inclusion, disability, and overrepresentation remain strong. Some of this awareness occurs in the Schooling and the Urban Community preprofessional block when students examine the social and political contexts of schooling. A more direct examination of these topics then occurs when students take the Child, Learner, Disability course in Block I.

Are these outcomes sufficient for beginning general educators? Have we been able to design and implement a program that truly addresses these outcomes? We return to these questions often as we review the implementation of our program, size up our graduates, and engage in the program's continuous improvement. We now have some clarity on the question of how well prepared our beginning teachers will be with regard to teaching students with disabilities. Arriving at a set of reasonable outcomes was an important starting point -- and indeed, without understanding these outcomes we would not be able to evaluate the impact of our implementation efforts.

Challenges We Face in Implementation

The implementation of this program is not without challenges. On several counts, however, we did not face some of the more typical challenges that emerge when special and general education faculty attempt to engage in joint program reform in teacher education. For example, our prior agreements on the core values and the basic program design features meant that we were all working by choice within a similar conceptual and structural framework that we had developed together. We also agreed on other critical issues, focusing on one of the most contested areas of the curriculum, literacy. Across special and general education, we came to consensus that a balanced approach to literacy was the most appropriate one for children with and without disabilities. Together, we value a comprehensive agenda for literacy based on meaningful, authentic instruction and are wary of the degree to which direct instruction is fast becoming the literacy program of choice in many of our local schools. That said, we also believe that explicit instruction is appropriate and may often be needed for students who are struggling in acquiring literacy skills. So we did not have to expend energy pitting, for example, approaches like whole language against direct instruction. We agreed as well on the important role of curricular knowledge for general and special education teachers alike.

In other words, we did not face the levels of faculty resistance that commonly characterize attempts to restructure teacher education across special and general education. We account for this relative absence of resistance in three ways. First, we had actively recruited new faculty members who were committed to this level of collaboration from the outset; every time a position became vacant in either the special or general education program, we worked hard to identify prospective colleagues who would welcome practicing collaborative teacher education. Next, the two departments (Exceptional Education and Curriculum and Instruction) had a history of relative respect for the mutual contributions of each area of expertise to the preparation of all teachers. For example, our special education students long had a requirement for a field placement in a general education classroom, and our general education students long had instructors with backgrounds in special education within the Department of Curriculum and Instruction as well as a required mainstreaming course. Finally, these program reform efforts focused on a subset of our teacher education programs (early childhood, primary, middle) where collaborative initiatives were already underway.

Given these levels of agreement, exactly what challenges do we face? First, although inclusive education is widespread in MPS and many of our students see good models in place, many still see poor models. Schools do not always structure inclusion in a way that provides the necessary special education supports to students or to general education teachers. While this is a longstanding problem for teacher education across the board ("We don't have enough good clinical placements"), we struggle with keeping our students out of placements that do not reflect good models of inclusion.

Second, although we prepare our students to construct and implement a balanced literacy curriculum, we fall short on integrating enough about alternate models of explicit literacy instruction in our literacy courses in general teacher education. Our faculty members in literacy in both general and special education have and desire to team teach to meet this need, but we have not yet been successful in sustaining an ongoing structure for making sure that special education professors regularly contribute to the literacy program blocks. Also, because many schools in MPS have adopted a strict direct instruction model in literacy in general education for all students, we need to spend more time with our students looking at the relationship between authentic instruction and models that are scripted and highly teacher directed.

A third challenge is how to best develop methods of accountability for the progress of all learners in the class. Do our graduates hold themselves accountable for the progress of students they teach directly -- as well as those who may be learning in other groups? Developmentally, this appears to be a difficult stage to reach in our program. In our students' early teaching experiences, much of the focus is on evaluating their own performance ("Did I keep all of the students engaged?" "Was my pace OK?") and less on that of their learners ("Have the students achieved the expected level of performance?" "Who hasn't and why not?"). When they reach a point where they begin to hold themselves accountable for progress, the focus is mainly on the students/groups they teach directly. Rarely, for example, can they account for the performance of a student who receives reading instruction from another teacher. Our challenge is to infuse a sense of accountability earlier in the program where successful teaching is always associated with evidence of learning for all students. Later in the program, we need to help our developing teachers use manageable and meaningful strategies for measuring student performance, including ways to account for learners who are involved with other teachers for specialized instruction.

Fourth, we recognize that we need to do more to help our students learn to coordinate schedules when working with special education teachers to make sure that they are using their instructional time with students in the most productive manner possible. This goes far beyond mere coordination of time. We want to make sure our graduates recognize the power of having two fully licensed teachers working together in a classroom where several students might require intensive instruction. More emphasis needs to be placed on planning and implementing flexible instructional groups to meet those needs in the context of a very strong classroom community that first ensures that all students, and particularly those with disabilities, are fully participating members of that classroom.

A fifth challenge involves making good on our commitment to having a consistent, high presence of special education faculty across the entire general education professional program. Earlier we discussed our goal of having a high presence of special education faculty in the literacy sequence. Although we have been successful in having faculty who identify with special education as instructors in many of our linking seminars, thus permitting issues related to disability to be addressed across the four semesters, we have been less successful in having specific faculty presence in the methods courses themselves. Consequently, our students do not benefit from having special education faculty with, for example, expertise in literacy directly participate with general education literacy faculty to address issues of explicit instruction. When faculty are in short supply to staff the preservice special education programs themselves, it is difficult to stretch faculty loads to cover other program demands as well. Thus, the course assignments of some newly hired faculty members will need to be more deliberately defined with the Collaborative Program as the top (rather than second) teaching priority.

A final challenge concerns faculty development. Some faculty development takes place naturally as a consequence of having faculty work in teams and meet regularly for program development and student assessment. In addition to block instructor meetings in which program development takes place, we have begun to hold programmatic faculty development sessions across blocks and programs. These are extremely well attended and are becoming a regular feature of our work. However, we have not yet taken on focused, long-term faculty development on issues of preparing general teachers to work with students with disabilities. We believe this is critical next step; as we continue to challenge ourselves to break down what each of the seven core values means in practice, it is imperative that we engage in collaborative discussions about how we are each addressing issues of disability within and across our classes and field experiences. Such dialogue will force us to continue to refine how we define the repertoire of a general education teacher with regard to teaching students with disabilities as productively as possible.

Implications for Preparation of Special Education Teachers

In early planning discussions, faculty developed an initial conceptualization of the fifth-year postbaccalaureate program in special education, identifying distinctions between a special and a general education teacher graduating from the Collaborative Program. The following excerpt comes from an early description of the special education option for students in the program:
 For those interested in assuming the role of special educator, which will
 require additional expertise, a fifth-year postbaccalaureate option is
 available. Therein, the special educator is expected to extend his or her
 expertise in a manner that strengthens the interdependency of the team, and
 not simply provide a body of decontextualized knowledge. In this scenario,
 teams would be able to depend on a special educator to bring expertise in
 accommodating the "more difficult to educate" student who has learning,
 developmental, or emotional/behavioral disabilities." (Hains et al., 1997,
 p. 186)

Special educators' additional expertise would be grounded in the same conceptions of teaching and learning as the general education program, based upon the same core values and professional standards. However, these would be extended to identify the unique and more specialized knowledge and skills a special educator needs in order to support learning and development in children with significant disabilities.

In designing the fifth-year postbaccalaureate program in special education, we gave considerable thought to how expectations for special educators would change in light of the anticipated increase in the skills of their general education colleagues. As has been the case in many special education certification programs across the country, UWM's special education program has traditionally focused most of its efforts on preparing teachers to meet the needs of students with mild/moderate disabilities, while being less explicit in preparing teachers to meet the needs of students with more significant disabilities. However, as supportive education for students with mild/moderate disabilities in general education becomes the rule rather than the exception, the need to focus on building educational programs to accommodate students with more challenging learning and behavior issues in inclusive contexts increases.

Basic to our rethinking and distinguishing the role of future special educators are the following parameters that are recurrent themes throughout the Collaborative Program. We maintain the importance of the team structure and a collaborative process in developing educational programs for students with disabilities. Additionally, we see the context of education for all students with disabilities within the general education program and classroom. Finally, in the same way we consider children as individual learners who are not defined solely -- or first -- by their disability, we envision special educators who are not defined (nor define themselves) by disability categories or labels.

We expect, for example, that the role of the special educator is to develop in-depth understanding of the nature and impact of disability on a child and the influence of context on a child's learning and development. We assume that special educators would have a working knowledge of appropriate assessment strategies to gain insight into students' strengths, learning challenges, and the impact of instruction. They must be mindful of sources of bias and the potential for misidentification and recognize the need for communication supports or alternative response formats. In addition, special educators begin with a strong understanding of the general education curriculum, which serves as a context/ framework within which they adapt and/or develop specialized instruction to meet the needs of students with disabilities. They develop expertise in specialized approaches, materials, programs, and assistive technologies to meet the high-priority needs of students who are not showing success even with adaptations to the general curriculum. For example, in literacy instruction special educators can draw upon specially designed phonics and decoding programs such as Orton-Gillingham (Gillingham & Stillman, 1970) or Benchmarks (Gaskins, Ehri, Cress, O'Hara, & Donnelly, 1997), but within a broader context of comprehension.

It is important to note that this vision of a special educator does not mean retrenchment and a return to roles of the past where special educators and children with disabilities were separated physically and philosophically. That model created the dual system we are working to change. To help create and maintain a collaborative structure that provides ongoing support to students with disabilities in inclusive educational settings, the special educator must become a full member of the school community, actively contributing within a collaborative team structure and working effectively with families and community agencies. Further, as special educators expand their knowledge and refine their skills in working with families and community agencies, teachers, and children, we anticipate that they will be strong advocates for, and be actively involved in, educational reform efforts in their schools.

Differentiating the contributions of special and general education teachers to the education of students with disabilities is in transition. The roles that we have described for special educators depend upon the growing expertise of general education teachers to support children with mild disabilities and teachers' commitments to include all students with disabilities in general education programs. At this point our vision is one part reality and one part "plan for the future." As we engage in ongoing program development, we expect not only to be responsive to changes in schools toward meaningful inclusion of students with disabilities, but also to be a stimulus for change. Graduates of the Collaborative Program in general and special education should enter the profession with a special identity regarding their work with students with disabilities and an agenda for equity.

And in Conclusion, a Caveat about Differentiated Expertise

In sharing this programmatic framework, our goal is to describe the specific ways we have begun to differentiate how we view the preparation of general and special education teachers. There is danger in the ambiguity of merely saying we should prepare all teachers to work well with students with disabilities without a clear idea of precisely what that means -- for ourselves and for our students. We believe it is critical for us to move beyond glib promises that we can do it all at the preservice level to a clearly articulated view of what is reasonable and defensible in terms of preparing both general and special education teachers. Consequently, we have pushed the role of specificity in our own thinking, moving towards a few carefully crafted standards that make sense given our valuing of inclusive education and the realities of classrooms and schools.

As we challenged ourselves to move beyond rhetoric and to raise the bar for what it means to prepare our general education graduates to work responsibly with students with disabilities, we have tried to be ambitious in our expectations within reasonable parameters. In so doing, we recognize that some degree of overlap will always exist between the work of general and special education teachers, especially when they engage in collaborative teaching teams. Given the decades in which such overlap was virtually nonexistent, it is a characteristic of contemporary teaching practice that we welcome and value greatly and one we would expect to see in the best examples of inclusive teaching. The real challenge is to consider what lies beyond the overlap and how we define the relationship between special and general education teachers in the context of the differentiated expertise we are trying so hard to pin down.

However, once we agree to engage in such differentiation and push out the boundaries of what constitutes special education, we have to guard against reverting to past practice that separated special education from its general education context. Although we are arguing for differentiation in expertise and roles, we are not arguing for a return to the isolated practice of special education. Nor are we arguing for a categorical approach to the preparation of special education teachers. Rather, it is crucial to hold general education as a constant, as the active backdrop against which the practice of differentiated special education occurs. If special educators fail to engage continuously with general education, children and youth will once again be disconnected from their natural classroom communities just at the time when we have finally begun to figure out how to include them. If special education teachers are prepared categorically, they will not be able to support the normal range of students with disabilities in their natural school and neighborhood communities. Likewise, if general educators view differentiated special education as an opportunity to move instructional responsibility solely back to special education, we will have lost the painful lessons of the past 25 years with regard to the need to situate special education teaching within the curricular frameworks of general education and meaningful instruction.

The context in which special education is practiced has been undeniably changed by our collective move toward greater inclusion. This move, we believe, represents a significant and necessary improvement for how special education is practiced in relation to general education. It does not, however, preclude the need for expertise that is above and beyond the reasonable practice of general education teachers who are committed to inclusive education. But as we attempt to define this expertise more specifically, turning the clock back is simply not an option. Instead, the challenge is to redefine the relationship between what it means to prepare general and special education teachers. By raising our own expectations for what is possible to accomplish in programs of preservice teacher education and by continuously refining our programs in light of the quality of our graduates' work with children and youth in schools, we can begin the task of understanding our complementary roles.


Direct correspondence to: Alison Ford, Department of Exceptional Education, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, P.O. Box 413, Milwaukee, WI 53201. Email:


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ALISON FORD, Ph.D., is associate professor of special education,
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
MARLEEN C. PUGA CH, Ph.D., is professor of teacher education,
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
AMY OTIS-WILBORN, Ph.D., is associate professor of special education,
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
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Author:Otis-Wilborn, Amy
Publication:Learning Disability Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2001
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