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The consulting teacher in the context of educational reform.

The Consulting Teacher in the Context of Educational Reform

In her article "The Consulting Teacher Model: Risks and Opportunities," (February, 1988), Dixie Snow Huefner makes some important and timely distinctions between the roles of resource teachers and consulting teachers and identifies critical issues related to teacher preparation and program evaluation for this model. However, with respect to the literature of general education reform and that of reform in teacher education in particular, I believe her anlysis is flawed and is illustrative of misinterpretation within the special education community regarding the meaning of reform and the potential role of special education consultation. My purpose in writing this commentary is to examine (a) contradictions between the concept of the consulting teacher as master teacher presented by Huefner and the concept of master teacher as represented in the reform literature, and (b) contradictions regarding the role of the consulting teacher itself. The two points are necessarily related.

Proposals for career ladders are a hallmark of both the Holmes Group (1986) and the Carnegie Forum (1986) reports on the teaching profession. According to these reports, career ladders, through advancement within the school, encourage capable teachers to remain in classrooms and discourage them from moving out to administration. The Holmes Group (1986) described career professionals as teachers who "combine outstanding teaching of children with outstanding work with adults in education" (p. 96). Career professionals "would be capable of assuming responsibility not only within the classroom but also at the school level" (p. 65). Using the term lead teachers, the Carnegie Forum (1986) stated that "those who are most experienced and highly skilled play the lead role in guiding the activity of others" (p. 58). Lead teachers "would also take collective responsibility for helping colleagues who were not performing up to par by arranging for coaching, technical assistance, course-work, and other remediation that might be called for" (p. 59). Clearly, the experiential basis for these master teachers is successful teaching in the general education environment, combined with additional, specialized, graduate-level training.

Although the concept of the consulting teacher appears to be consistent with the general idea of differentiated staffing, the preparation and certification structure proposed by Huefner represents a departure from the assumption in these reports that master teachers would come from the ranks of experienced classroom teachers. Dual certification is correctly proposed as the basis for the consulting teacher, but 2 to 3 years of experience in a general or special education classroom is suggested. The assumption here is that, should a consulting teacher choose (or a state mandate) special education experience, preservice preparation alone in general education is sufficient as a basis for consideration as a master teacher--one who "would be expected to improve the educational effectiveness of their colleagues as well as their students" (Huefner, 1988, p. 413). Further, "such master teachers would be asked to perform both regular and special education functions" (p. 413).

With their emphasis on the professionalization of the classroom teacher, it is difficult to imagine that the architects of reform had in mind a narrow band of special education experience as the foundation for the highest rung on proposed career ladders. Yet Huefner's interpretation, I believe, is not atypical of special education's stance relative to reform in general and is based on teh acceptance of traditional special education techniques as the primary source of appropriate remediation for the majority of classroom and classroom teacher problems that consulting teachers would face. She enumerates the following techniques: task analysis, behavioral management, diagnostic assessment, curriculum adaptation, and continuous measurement of progress. Though these represent an important set of skills for all teachers, they stand in stark contrast to the kids of broad-based skills career professional teachers are envisioned as possessing--for example, the large body of knowledge of preservice and inservice teacher education dynamics accompanied by demonstration of instructional and management expertise through experience.

It wou ld appear that the goal of the consulting teacher model needs clarification on the part of the special education profession. Huefner is at once modest and inclusive in her description of the potential roles of consulting teachers. Her analysis indicates that "the ultimate goal is to enable the regular education teacher to successfully instruct children with special needs" (p. 404). That is, the consulting teacher is fundamentally an agent of special education and of handicapped students. Consulting teachers work on teh basis of caseload; caseload is at issue because the fundamental rationale for the consulting teacher is to serve identified handicapped students, albeit through indirect service. (In contrast, the language of special education, that is, "caseload," does not enter into discussions of the role of master teachers; it is assumed that master teachers will teach classes of students for at least part of the day.) Only if teaching skills transfer from the consulting teacher to the generl classroom teacher migh we "prevent some idiosyncratic learners from experiencing the kind of underachievement that woul result in their eligibility for a learning disability label" (p. 406). Only with shared funding on the part of general education would nonhandicapped students benefit from the presence of consulting teachers. Only with appropriate laying of groundwork with general educators will the consultant avoid being seen as an outsider. These aspects of consultation describe what is essentially a limited, special-education-oriented role for consulting teachers.

Without question, however, the client of consultation is the classroom teacher. The consulting teacher is the professional who will manage the broad set of teacher assistance activities known as prereferral interventions. Consulting teachers will hold prominent positions in the skill development of general education classroom teachers, much like the proposed master teacher would. In contrast to resource teachers, who would coordinate efforts for specific handicapped students, consultants would have broad-based responsibilities not tied to individual students. Consulting teachers might develop large curriculum units for general education classrooms. Yet this might occur in teh absence of teaching experience in the general education classroom.

Once the consulting teacher model is conceptualized as playing a major role in the skill development of general education classroom teachers, the definition becomes broadly constructed, necessitating a far greater set of skills than those typically associated with special education preparation, including preparation for consultation. If it is this broad definition that special education seeks, the problem is to identify at what point consultation ceases to be function of special education and becomes a function of general education.

It is my belief that special education as a profession is still unclear regarding the scope of consultation. However, much of the rhetoric we currently read would suggest that special education as a field seems to see itself as being in the best position to reform general education and that only by retaining its commitment to what traditionally comes under the purview of special education will reform be accomplished. For example, one prominent belief appears to be that "the field of special education is special because, more than any other profession in education it has placed its clients' interests over its own" (Skrtic, 1988, p. 475). Likewise, it has been said that the contribution of the last decade in special education is that "people with special education's values concerning the uniqueness and potentials of the individual have been able to move into positions of greater influence within the schools" (Heller & Schilit, 1987, p. 5), and that it is the question of values that will determine the success or failure of the Regular Education Initiative.

Thus, it may not be technique at all that is at issue in the reform debate in which consultation is a factor. Rather what may be at issue is an attitude of superior commitment to children and youth on the part of special educators that leads special education to see itself becoming the standard for the concerns and activities of master teachers in particular and all teachers in general. Before making a commitment to consultation as a model of service delivery, special education professionals needs foremost to look inward and decide whether their goal in consultation is to prevail, or to enter into dialogue. Plainly, the question is one of trust. If we choose to enter into dialogue, we must trust the educational intentions of our general education colleagues, whether or not their techniques look different than those to which we may be routinely accustomed. This is the real challenge we face.


Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy. (1986). A nation prepared: Teachers for the 21st century. Hyattsville, MD: Author.

Heller, H. W., & Schilit, J. (1987). The regular education initiative: A concerned response. Focus on Exceptional Children, 20(3), 1-6.

Huefner, D. S. (1988). The consulting teacher model: Risks and opportunities. Exceptional Children, 54, 403-414.

Skrtic, T. (1988). Letter to the director. Exceptional Children, 54, 475-476.

The Holmes Group. (1986). Tomorrow's teachers: A report of the Holmes Group. East Lansing, MI: Author.

MARLEEN C. PUGACH is Assistant Professor, Department of Curriculum and Instruction, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
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Title Annotation:commentary
Author:Pugach, Marleen C.
Publication:Exceptional Children
Date:Nov 1, 1988
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