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The consulting teacher model: risks and opportunities.

The Consulting Teacher Model: Risks and Opportunities

The consulting teacher model for delivering service to special education students is one that has garnered increasing attention in the special education literature and in state offices of education in the 1980s (Haight, 1984; Idol, 1986; Idol-Maestas, 1983; Idol, Paolucci-Whitcomb, & Nevin, 1986; Lilly & Givens-Ogle, 1981; West & Brown, 1987). Although the model has been discussed since the early 1970s (McKenzie et al., 1970), over the last several years books and entire journal issues have addressed themselves to the topic, among them the summer 1985 issue of Teacher Education and Special Education (Blankenship & Jordan, 1985), the February 1981 issue of Behavioral Disorders (Nelson, Neel, & Lilly, 1981), and the report of the National Task Force on School Consultation, Collaborative School Consultation (Idol, 1986). The model is in use statewide in several states, among them Idaho, Massachusetts, and Vermont. Other states, such as Utah and Washington, are experimenting with the model in certain schools and districts.

Consulting teaching has been described as "a process for providing special education services to students with special needs in which special education teachers, general education teachers, other school professionals, or parents collaborate to plan, implement, and evaluate instruction conducted in general classrooms for the purpose of preventing or ameliorating students' academic or social behavior problems" (Idol, 1986, p. 2). In other words, it is a special education service geared primarily to students and teachers in the mainstream, with the intent of reducing the need for pullout special education services.

The consulting teacher model is a natural outgrowth of the special education thrust to broaden the continuum of services for handicapped students, so that services are available in the least restrictive environment appropriate to a given student's needs, and so that those who are capable of functioning in regular classrooms can be educated in mainstream settings. The model is also an outgrowth of a decade of disillusionment with the rising numbers of low achieving students who have been mislabeled as handicapped and with the lack of special services for millions of other slow learning students who are not so labeled. Finally, the model has gained momentum from the recent regular/special education initiative at the federal level (Will, 1986a and 1986b), spurring more intensive involvement of regular education in the problems of underachieving students.

In crucial ways, what is also driving interest in the model is the reality that special education budgets are higher in many states than political and economic realities can sustain, and state administrators are looking for ways to cut or contain special education costs. Many administrators assume that the consulting teacher model of service delivery will be more cost-effective than existing models, presuming that consulting teachers can reach more children in need of special help than can pullout teachers and without the discontinuities of programming or the need for extra space in which to serve them. The net result of these various catalysts for change is that the consulting teacher model is being touted as a model whose time has come.

Nonetheless, as with other models that have been adopted wholesale in a wave of enthusiasm--notably the resource model in the 1970s--premature and uncritical adoption can lead to as many problems as the model was meant to solve. Commentators such as Haight (1984) have pointed out some of the problems of role confusion between consulting teachers and other special education teachers, notably resource teachers.

This article continues the dialogue between advocates and skeptics, addressing such issues as cost-effectiveness, program evaluation, funding mechanisms, adminstrative goals, and structural incentives, along with role definition, caseload management, and training requirements. The purpose of the article is not only to review the hope and the hazards of the consulting teacher model but also to illuminate the need for caution and care by state policy makers prior to any adoption of the model on a statewide basis.


According to those who have studied the potential of the model, consulting teaching is not designed to have the special educator delivering special education instruction in the regular classroom (Idol, 1986). Whereas a special educator, especially one in a school with few special education students, might be a resource teacher for part of the day and a consulting teacher for the remainder, the pure consulting teacher model itself is essentially one of indirect service to students (Idol, 1986; Lilly & Givens-Ogle, 1981).

The benefit of the model derives from its collaborative dimension, with regular and special education teachers planning together and sharing responsibility for instructional outcomes. If the special education teacher merely "takes over" for the regular teacher and instructs a certain number of children for a portion of the regular teacher's day, the chances to share are diluted and the particular skills of the consulting teacher underutilized. In addition, "turf" conflicts may arise, in which it is not clear who is responsible for the performance of given students. While the special educator may want to model certain methods or strategies of instruction, using the class as a whole or a portion thereof, and may want to engage in team-teaching for limited purposes, the ultimate goal is to enable the regular education teacher to successfully instruct children with special needs. The goal is not to relieve the regular education teacher from the responsibility for teaching difficult students.

The consulting teacher is also not the equivalent of a resource teacher who simply spends more time consulting with the regular classroom teacher. In spite of overlapping roles, there are also significantly different skill requirements. A resource teacher's training tends to be focused on (a) diagnosis, instruction, and continuing evaluation of special education students who are referred for pullout services and (b) coordination of special and regular classroom programming for those students. The resource teacher is expected to determine when to adapt regular curriculum materials and methods and when to substitute more specialized and intensive instructional interventions. Although consulting may be part of the role of resource teachers (Brown, Kiraly, & McKinnon, 1979; Dugoff, Ives, & Shotel, 1985; Evans, 1980), surveys over the last decade suggest that resource teachers have only limited time and ability to consult on even those matters directly affecting the actual children whom they teach in pullout programs (Brown et al., 1979; D'Alonzo & Wiseman, 1978; Evans, 1980; McLoughlin & Kelly, 1982; Speece & Mandell, 1980). Given the demands of direct instruction, it may be unrealistic to expect resource teachers to assume consulting responsibilities beyond those required for management of the IEP process. (See Friend, 1984.)

In contrast, the consulting teacher obviously must consult more or less continuously. To do so successfully requires excellent inter-personal communication and teaming skills with other adults, suggesting the need for high-level training in collaborative problem-solving skills. Problem solving in the regular classroom requires not so much the mastery of highly specialized techniques for hard-to-teach learners as mastery of questioning, listening, and strategizing skills. It also requires familiarity with the regular curriculum, the demands of large group instruction, and the possibilities for curriculum adaptation and behavioral change in the regular room. As Sabatino (1972) pointed out over 15 years ago, the role of a consulting teacher extends into the regular classroom more than that of the standard resource teacher; it goes beyond assessing a variety of regular classroom students, formulating individualized objectives, and procuring special instructional materials and may also include team teaching, designing whole curriculum units for use by the regular classroom teacher, and establishing priorities for referral to other agencies. Moreover, the job may also call for management of the so-called prereferral process, at least if the consulting teacher is funded by both general and special education monies and, therefore, can assume certain general education responsibilities.

The prereferral process requires collaboration to prioritize alternative strategies for remediation prior to initiation of a formal special education referral. It involves careful identification of the problem (perhaps including systematic observation of interactions in the classroom and exploration of family expectations and conditions), identification of key instructional variables, design of classroom intervention strategies to modify appropriate variables, and monitoring student progress in the classroom environment. (See Graden, 1986.) The resource teacher generally is not trained to problem solve or collaborate in a way that prevents the necessity of referrals in the first place (McGlothlin, 1981; West, 1985).


In addition to decreasing special education enrollment, allowing more handicapped learners to satisfactorily compete in the mainstream, and perhaps reducing special education costs, the consulting teacher model could, if implemented successfully, produce the following benefits:

1. Reduction of Stigma

If handicapped students in need of extra help could be served appropriately in the regular room, they could avoid some of the stigmatization that frequently accompanies students served in pullout programs (Will, 1986a, 1986b; Hobbs, 1975).

2. Better Understanding Across Disciplines

If regular classroom teachers could work side by side with consulting special education teachers, the mystique attached to special education could be reduced, appreciation for the talents and challenges of both regular and special educators could increase, and the communication gap between regular and special education could be narrowed.

3. On-the-Job Training for Regular Educators in Special Education Skills

Some of the specialized skills stressed in special education, such as task analysis, behavioral management, diagnostic assessment, curriculum adaptation to meet individual needs, and continuous measurement of student progress typically are not part of the training of the average regular educator. Yet some of this so-called technology of special education could be shared with regular educators via the consulting teacher model. If the sharing is successful, regular educators might feel increasingly comfortable managing and teaching mildly handicapped students during the portion of the school day in which they are solely responsible for them.

4. Reduction of Mislabeling of Nonhandicapped Students

If some students with special needs are being mislabeled as handicapped to obtain special services to meet their needs, the consulting teacher model might provide a way to serve them without mislabeling and without the extra costs generated by the procedural protections required by P.L. 94-142. Of course, this assumes that the model could be funded in part with general education monies, and such funding is by no means assured. (See the section on Inadequate Funding Mechanisms on page 408.)

5. Spillover Benefits to Regular Students

If the skills of the consulting teacher transfer to the regular educator, ordinary regular education students could also benefit from them. Successful sharing of some of the technology of special education could not only help individualize the education of all students but could probably prevent some idiosyncratic learners from experiencing the kind of underachievement that would result in their eligibility for a learning disability label.

6. Suitability of the Model to Needs to Secondary School Students

The model seems particularly well suited to improve service delivery at the secondary school level. With the multitude of content areas and the easy avoidance of responsibility for special education students by the regular secondary school faculty, many secondary school resource teachers have resorted to delivering tutoring services, hardly a specialized special education function. Projects such as that under-taken in the Pittsburgh public schools (Laurie, Buchwach, Silverman, & Zigmond, 1978) suggest that consulting teachers can help content-area teachers modify curriculum and instructional methods to meet the individualized needs of mildly handicapped students. Additional studies, however, are needed to ascertain whether such students can significantly improve their performance in regular classes with such help. The consulting model would be highly valued if it could make the overall secondary school experience substantially more satisfactory to many mildly handicapped students than it is now.

7. Prospect for Master Teacher Staffing in Special Education

The consulting teacher model holds out the prospect of introducing a "master teacher" level to which special education teachers can aspire. Thus, it is consonant with national and current education reforms directed at increasing the professionalism of educators and the career rewards of education. For instance, both the Holmes report (1986) and the Carnegie report (1986) argue for recognition of the differences in skills and knowledge among professional teachers. The Holmes report suggests three levels of differentiated staffing: (a) instructors, who would teach under supervision; (b) professional teachers, who would be autonomous teachers with subject-matter and pedagogical specialization; and (c) career professional teachers, who would be skilled at improving the educational effectiveness of other adults in schools. The Carnegie report urges reimbursement of teachers based not only on levels of certification and seniority but also on levels of responsibility and demonstrated ability to contribute to improve student performance. The concept of a master consulting teacher is compatible with both reports.



Notwithstanding the potential of the consulting teacher model, at least seven serious risks attach to wholesale adoption of the model without adequate preparation and conceptualization. Minimization of each risk will require careful assessment of existing systems and personnel, along with realistic goal-setting. It will also require policy makers to resist the urge for a "quick fix." The following risks are inherent in inadequate preparation for implementation of the model.

1. Ineffective Caseload Management

Since any local education agency (LEA) constantly searches for ways to save money, there is a tremendous temptation to ask the consulting teacher to manage a caseload too heavy to enable effective consultation. Lilly (1977), in advocating a noncategorical special education delivery system, stated that a teacher could deliver both direct (resource) and indirect (consulting) services to a maximum of only 15 students. The National Task Force on Teacher Consultation (Idol, 1986) concluded that special educators whose responsibilities are exclusively consulting may be able to handle a caseload of up to 35 students. Ironically, this ratio is not much more than the current resource teacher's maximum load in several states (e.g., Utah, Arkansas, and Nebraska). If a consulting teacher were assumed to be capable of handling no more than this, such a program might not save as much money as some have assumed.

Haight (1984) stated that, as of 1984, no nationally accepted procedure had been established for determining an appropriate caseload for teacher consultants. While the Teacher Consultation Task Force figures, which are apparently based on experience and collective judgment, do not rebut Haight's statement, they do suggest that if the consulting teacher is asked to deliver services to too many students, the role will be substantially weakened before it ever begins. If big caseloads result in only marginal changes in student performance, the model may not really pay for itself. Thus, if the consulting teacher model is underfunded, it will fail just like all the other underfunded models that do not allow teachers to perform the job for which they were trained. While the caution is an obvious one, it is often honored only in the breach.

The problem of caseload size is intensified by the complexities that arise because individual students may require varying degrees of consultative involvement over time. For instance, as students begin to achieve at or near grade level as a result of the involvement of a consulting teacher, they may need continuing contact on only a "maintenance" basis. Caseload determinations ultimately will need to reflect varying levels of service to different students. Such considerations merely dramatize the point that great care needs to be given to the determination of a manageable caseload size for consulting teachers.

2. Converting the Model to a Tutoring or Aide Model

If the consulting model includes direct, substantive service to students in the regular classroom on a continuing basis, there will be pressure to turn the model into a classroom tutoring or aide model, underutilizing the consulting teacher's potential contribution to regular education programs in general. If direct service is to be included, then the purpose and context (e.g., to model instructional methods or to team teach on a specific project) need to be carefully delimited from the outset.

3. Unrealistic Expectations

(a) Viewing the Consulting Teacher Model as a Panacea. If the consulting teacher model is seen as a panacea for the supposed ineffectiveness of many resource rooms, services to special education students are likely to seriously deteriorate. Historically, we have a habit in special education of jumping on the latest bandwagon. When the bandwagon becomes weighted down, we tend to jump onto the next one, baggage and all, only to discover too late that the new one can not carry excess baggage either. It is critical that the consulting teacher model not be seen as a be-all and end-all. In many schools it may not be necessary at all, and even where useful, consulting services often will not substitute for more intensive intervention in a pullout program.

Some mildly to moderately handicapped students predictably will require different short-term or long-term instructional strategies and methods from those that can be successfully implemented in the regular room. Therefore, the consulting teacher model should not replace the resource room as a primary service delivery system but should be parallel or supplementary to it, and placement decisions should continue to be made on the basis of individual needs. Where feasible, differentiated staffing--both a master consulting teacher and a resource teacher--within the same school can broaden the options available to special education students. Where such staffing is not feasible, the resource room may well be the option of choice for genuinely handicapped students.

(b) Undertraining and Overloading the Resource Teacher. If a combined resource/consulting certificate is introduced wholesale into the public school system, many underprepared persons will be certified as consulting/resource teachers without the necessary experience and skills to do the job effectively. To be capable of delivering consulting services to regular education, many if not most resource teachers will want more experience and more sophisticated teaming skills than they currently possess. It is one thing to coordinate regular and resource services to a resource student, but it is quite another to intervene in a regular room in a manner that negates the need for a referral to special education and that allows special education skills to transfer to the regular classroom teacher.

As Haight (1984) has observed, added skill and experience in problem solving, in negotiating and collaborating with adults, in modeling appropriate methods, and in delivering follow-up services are required. Some resource room teachers are brand new teachers, lacking both teaching experience and, in some state, regular education certification. Some are skilled with child interactions but are less comfortable working with adults in peer relationships. To train effectively for both pullout and consultative roles in the same certification program may be unrealistic unless current program requirements are expanded significantly. Perhaps the consulting teacher could better serve the system if recognized as an experienced master teacher, not a newly certified teacher.

Additionally, if resource room teachers--even those trained in a consulting model--are simply relabeled resource/consulting teachers and asked to manage both roles simultaneously without a decrease in their resource caseload, a serious decline in effectiveness can be expected. Consultation with the regular classroom teacher is time-consuming, as noted by Miller & Sabatino (1978). The amount of time, predictably underestimated, must ultimately come out of the regular school day, not from overtime work. The caseload to be carried by resource teachers must be diminished accordingly, if they are to collaborate on problems in the regular classroom. Idol (1986) gives examples of reduced resource loads to offset increased consulting loads, but the total caseload for a resource/consulting teacher still rises. Perhaps instead, during any transition from resource to resource/consulting teacher, while teachers are experimenting with how to establish an effective communication and case management system, the total caseload actually should be allowed to drop rather than forced to expand.

4. Inadequate Support from Regular Educators

The success of the consulting teacher model is dependent on support from adminstrators in a given school and on preparation of the regular faculty to use the consulting teacher effectively. (See Idol-Maestas & Ritter, 1985.) Even a good consulting teacher can not make the model work without inservice training of the regular education staff and administrators. There is real danger that, without careful preparation, regular educators will see the consulting teacher as a tutor, an intruder, or at the least as an outside consultant rather than an inside collaborator. There is also a high risk that regular educators will resent a decrease in the time that so-called problem students are out of their classrooms.

5. Inadequate Funding Mechanisms

Consulting teacher program may not be able to be funded legally under P.L. 94-142 or some state special education budgets without a determination that all students served thereunder are eligible for special education as handicapped students. Since one of the purposes of the consulting model is to forestall the need to label a student as a special education student, considerable thought must be given to addressing the states' categories for service eligibility and to the mechanisms for funding the consulting teacher model. This problem could be turned into an opportunity for experimental funding using both regular and special education funding mechanisms and might help pave the way for closer links between special and regular education. (See Stainback & Stainback [1984] for a related discussion of the advantages of merging special and regular education into a joint discipline.) Wang, Reynolds, and Walberg (1986) have suggested experimental waivers to allow funding of integrated categorical programs; their suggestion could extend to the funding of consulting teacher models that serve all children at risk in the regular classroom, regardless of whether they are special education students. Longer term reconceptualization of funding mechanisms could then await the results of the experimental waivers. To avoid the drain of the available special education funds from more seriously handicapped students, regular education should fund a significant portion of the costs of implementing a consulting teacher model.

6. Faulty Assumptions Regarding Cost Savings

The research literature is devoid of studies assessing the actual cost of the consulting teacher model, and there is little data to substantiate the assumption that the model is cost-effective. Paolucci-Whitcomb (1986) has stated that the cost per pupil is $200 less than the cost per pupil served in the resource room, but the statement is based on data collected in the early years of implementation of the model in one state, Vermont (Paolucci-Whitcomb, personal communication, October 1987). Costs per state can vary dramatically depending on the form of actual implementation of various service delivery modes. While the possibilities for cost-savings are plausible, wholesale adoption of the model should be based not on faith and hope but rather on careful economic analysis of alternative possibilities.

Furthermore, if a district is driven by desire for immediate short-term savings, it may achieve them only at the expense of efficient long-term cost-benefit ratios. That is, reducing the number of resource teachers and giving large caseloads to a consulting teacher may save money in the short run, but if student performance does not improve as a result, the shift is inefficient. If consulting teachers are employed merely to stopgap special education budget cuts, the consulting teacher model would be reduced to a mere band-aid to slow the "bleeding" from program cutbacks. Ultimately, delayed remediation of aggravated student deficits may cost more than greater financial investments at an earlier time.

7. Faulty Assumptions Regarding Program Effectiveness

There is equally little empirical evidence to substantiate the assumption that the consulting model is program effective. (Since this article was first submitted, West and Idol [1987] have published their analysis of the limited empirical data available and have made a number of recommendations for strengthening the research base.) The arguments for the model are intuitively attractive and rational, but well-designed research studies assessing the effectiveness of the few models already in existence are sparse. An examination of the literature in special education journals over the last 9 years revealed four studies with comparative student performance data arguably supporting the model (Knight, Meyers, Paolucci-Whitcomb, Hasazi, & Nevin, 1981; Lew, Mesch, & Lates, 1982; Miller & Sabatino, 1978; Wixson, 1980).

The results of the Miller and Sabatino study (1978) are equivocal. For instance, after comparing student performance data over a 6-month period from classrooms utilizing consulting teachers with those using resource and regular teachers, Miller and Sabatino reported that equivalent student gains were made in word recognition and arithmetic across resource, consulting teacher, and regular classroom models. Interestingly, the control group of regular classroom students made significantly greater gains than either the resource or consulting teacher groups on reading comprehension measures. And while the regular teachers who collaborated with consulting teachers made more gains in such affective areas as acceptance of feelings and increased communication with students, the student behaviors did not change significantly under either special education model.

The Knight study (Knight et al., 1981), while not plagued with equivocal student outcomes, nonetheless reflects methodological problems. Although significantly higher gains on the Stanford Achievement Test were made by students receiving consultant teacher services than students receiving other services (presumably special education services), the report of the research is silent on such variables as the nature of the curriculum and services in the two sets of schools involved (e.g., was one set teaching to the test and not the other?), the comparative teacher/pupil ratios, and the extent of intervention time.

The Lew study (Lew et al., 1982) can only be cited for the proposition that Simmons College enables its consulting teachers-in-training to produce significant progress with their special education pupils, given the student-teacher/pupil ratios and the use of a competency-based instructional and evaluation system. One does not know from the Lew article whether the Simmons College consultant student-teachers were more effective than standard resource teachers spending equivalent amounts of time with each special education student and using the same competency-based instructional system. In other words, use of the Simmons' data to support conclusions about relative program effectivenss of alternative special education models is untenable. Also, the article, while useful in describing the Simmons' model, does not pretend to evaluate the effectiveness of consulting teachers under real-life conditions.

The Wixson study (1980) compared the effectivenss of direct and indirect services delivered by resource teachers to learning and behavior disordered (LBD) students. Using reintegration into regular classrooms as the measure of success, he found more success with indirect service to regular teachers than direct service to LBD students. Wixson noted, however, that students receiving indirect services were typically less disabled than those receiving direct service, so more success was not surprising. Other articles describe various pilot models that could be replicated (McGlothlin, 1981; Nelson & Stevens, 1981), but comparative performance data are lacking.



The dearth of solid research data need not negate the validity of the public policy mandate for a consulting teacher model, a point well made by Lilly and Givens-Ogle (1981). However, it does suggest that time and effort should be spent in designing ways to enhance the odds of program effectiveness and to measure it, once in place. Furthermore, states would be well advised to pilot the consulting teacher model before adopting it on a widespread basis, drawing on university researchers and federal funds where available. Pilot projects could be designed to evaluate consulting teacher programs at multiple sites, with control of such variables as the time spent in consulting, the number of students in the consulting caseload, and the experience and training of teacchers involved in the programs. Data reflecting the time expended by consulting, regular, and support staff in collaborative planning should be gathered. Initially, consulting teachers perhaps should serve the same number of students that are presently served in a district's resource rooms, as well as the same kind of student eligible for resource help. In this way, data could be gathered on relative student progress for comparable special education students served under each model.

Similarly, if students are to be served by a combination resource/consulting teacher, the caseload in the resource room should be decreased one for one, so that the total number served could be held constant. In this way differential student outcomes would not be a function of an increase or decrease in the caseload. At the same time costs could be held relatively steady as well, while various measures of relative program effectiveness are assessed. If positive outcomes for special education students can be maintained or increased with a consulting caseload that is the same as the resource caseload, the next step would be to see if cost savings could be achieved and student progress maintained while the consulting caseload is increased. If so, several results could ensue, among them: (a) a net savings to the district, (b) freeing of funds with which to pay higher salaries to consulting teachers who serve as master teachers, or (c) both. Of course, additional savings to the district are possible if, over time, consulting teachers are also able to facilities the regular educational instruction of children with special needs so that the referral levels drop on a continuing basis.

Emerging from this discussion are two sets of program evaluation measures: (a) pre- and post-measures of handicapped student achievement and behavior in given areas of difficulty, and (b) the number of special education referrals from each grade for a suitable period of time prior to implementation of the model, compared to the number of referrals for a suitable period of time after implementation. Another measure of program effectiveness might be surveys of involved students, parents, and teachers for positive/negative responses to consulting teacher intervention. In comparison, West and Idol (1987) approach program evaluation by suggesting examination of three levels of change: (a) change in the skills and behavior of the consultant and the consultee (i.e., the regular classroom teacher), (b) change in the student (e.g., in achievement and behavior), and (c) system change (e.g., in the nature and number of special education referrals and the number of special education students successfully reintegrated into regular classroom programs). All three levels are interdependent to some extent, that is, one change contributes to the other, and all are relevant to the discussion of cost-effectiveness in the previous paragraph. If teachers, students, and the system do not change for the better, the program may not be cost-effective--unless it is both less expensive than and as satisfactory as the alternative model(s) it replaced.

Interestingly, in a follow-up article by Idol and West (1987), measures of system change have been converted directly into measures of cost-effectiveness, such as (a) the number of special education students successfully reintegrated into the mainstream, (b) the number of handicapped/special needs students successfully maintained in the regular classroom, and (c) the number of referrals handled successfully by consulting services. (The second category appears to be a subset of the third, at least if a referral is necessary to identify which at-risk students are indeed handicapped or special needs students.) In addition, Idol and West suggest measuring (d) the time spent in indirect versus direct specialized services (which they translate into personnel costs), and (e) the average differential or excess cost per handicapped student receiving consulting services.

The point is that program effectiveness is intertwined with cost-effectiveness, and systematic measures of both should be built into any new program initiatives. If there is no system to assess the effectiveness of the consulting teacher model and if states encourage unsystematic implementation of variations of such models by local districts, states may lose an important opportunity to promote effective program design and to evaluate program and cost-effectiveness simultaneously.



If the seven risks enumerated earlier are to be minimized, at least three kinds of implementation issues must be addressed. First, the actual policy objective of the consulting teacher model must be clearly established. Second, administrative incentives that will encourage rather than inhibit achievement of the policy objective need to be created. Third, a structure must be designed to train teachers so that they have the skills to facilitate the success of the model.

Policy Choices

It is quite possible that various policy makers who support a consulting teacher model may have conflicting goals. Some may see the model as enhancing the goal of equitable access to special services across all groups of students; in other words, a concern for equity may be driving their support. Others may see the model as creating more cost-efficient service delivery; a concern for financial savings may be driving their support. Finally, others may see the model as increasing the possibility of quality individualized instruction at a building level; that is, the desire for educational excellence may be driving their support. Equity, efficiency, and excellence all have been primary motivators in various reform movements of the past, but usually one has been promoted at the expense of the other (Mitchell & Encarnation, 1984).

Implementation of the consulting teacher model could vary drastically, depending on whether one goal is preeminent. For instance, a goal of equitable access to a consulting teacher could push implementers toward rapid expansion of the model in each school to ensure maximum integration of children with special needs. Such a focus on equity is not worth much, however, if expanded access is merely access to undertrained or undersupported teachers who cannot make an appreciable difference in the children's learning outcomes. Similarly, a goal of cost savings could push administrators toward higher ratios of students to consulting teacher. Any cost savings from such a thrust will be undercut, however, if teachers are overloaded and thereby forced to collaborate on the run. Piecemeal collaboration is a highly inefficient use of time and is likely to tie up staff time in a diffused way. Finally, while excellence could push schools toward more attention to teacher screening and training, if such preparation costs too much, consultant service delivery may be constricted to only a portion of the at-risk children or eliminated altogether.

In contrast, if equity, efficiency, and excellence are seen as equally important and compatible long-term goals, then presumably attention would have to be paid to gradual rather than wholesale expansion of the model, to determination of effective student/teacher ratios, to intensified teacher training, and to evaluation of outcomes. The educational system might benefit more if educational priorities swung less vigorously from one end of the pendulum to the other. Perhaps educators should work instead to ensure that each generation of at-risk students is provided equal access to an individualized opportunity to master reading, writing, computational, and study skills and materials at a level sufficient to enable reasonable self-sufficiency and productivity in adulthood. Equity and excellence need not be incompatible, if excellence is seen as mastery of material and skills at an appropriate level of performance for a given child's needs and abilities.

In other words, standards of excellence need not be independent of the capabilities of a given child and need not demand the same level of maximum performance from every student. They should, however, require working mastery of appropriate content and skills, not erratic or marginally competent performance in meeting one's individual educational objectives. If instruction sufficient to master individually determined competencies can be provided to all special needs students, the goals of equity and excellence can be realized together. Furthermore, the goal of efficiency will be met as well because the cost-benefit ratio will be more efficient than if one focused on mere economies of scale without attention to student outcomes.

Administrative Incentives

Simultaneously promoting equity, efficiency, and excellence in the process of implementing a consulting teacher model requires that administrative incentives not reward achievement of one policy objective at the expense of the others. Among the incentives that have the potential to promote all three goals are (a) research and development monies from federal or state government for model development and field testing; (b) differential staffing for master consulting teachers and perhaps differential pay for those regular and consulting teachers whose students demonstrate mastery of or superior progress toward grade-level learning objectives; (c) additional funds for school-wide use in a school demonstrating superior student outcomes and systematic program evaluation measures; (d) professional reinforcement (e.g., formal recognition, pay increases or increased training opportunities) for administrators who understand, support, and are themselves skilled at collaboration between regular and special educators; and (e) state-level encouragement of additional screening or advanced certification for consulting teachers. Each of these incentives tends to encourage adequate preparation, evaluation, and support for a consulting teacher model adopted by a school district.

Conversely, some incentives would work against simultaneous achievement of the goals of equity, efficiency, and excellence. Among the high risk incentives would be the following: increased pay for teachers who volunteer as consulting teachers, on-site inservice training if its content is limited to motivational "peptalks," regulations establishing increased student/teacher ratios that are not field-tested, relaxation in certification requirements for consulting teachers, and funding waivers that are not tied to systematic evaluation of student outcomes. All of these incentives would tend to promote widescale adoption of the model merely as a way to save money.

Training/Certification Structure

Finally, what training/certification structure would enhance the chances of achieving equity, efficiency, and excellence? To create sufficient odds of success over time and across varying conditions, state departments of education should insist that a consulting teacher have both regular and special education certification plus at least 2 to 3 years' successful experience in either a special or regular classroom. In addition, one should either be recommended by the principal or one's colleagues as an effective master teacher or else be additionally certified as a consulting teacher. For instance, to obtain a consulting teacher certificate in Idaho, one must be qualified for or hold both a regular and special education certificate; have taught at least 3 years, two of them in a special education setting; and complete a post-baccaulaureate program of consulting teacher competencies. Measures of classroom management and instructional skills, peer acceptance, communication and problem-solving abilities, and student progress while under the teacher's supervision would be among the relevant criteria for screening by one's principal or colleagues. It might even be wise to consider imposing a screening requirement as part of the process for admittance to a consulting teacher certification program. In that way, one could limit the program to those already deemed successful and effective teachers by their colleagues.

Options short of these levels of experience and training will tend to sacrifice one goal for another. For example, choosing a resource or regular education teacher without additional experience or training will require too much on-the-job training, and children's learning may be sacrificed in the meantime. Additionally, inservice training has all too frequently been an inadequate alternative to successful and relevant classroom experience or preservice training. Where needed, it should be provided before and not just after a teacher assumes the role of consulting teacher. And, if it is to be effective, inservice training should provide supervised, hands-on training with regular follow-up by the trainers and with implementation of systematic evaluation measures.

Consonant with the ongoing interest in the Holmes (1986) and Carnegie (1986) reports and their proposals for differentiated staffing patterns in the schools, the establishment of separate certification or screening requirements for a consulting teacher could create genuine master teachers within the regular school. Such master teachers would be asked to perform both regular and special education functions and to assume broader responsibilities than the average resource teacher. The role of "master consulting teacher" would reflect increased experience, training, teaming skills, and responsibilities.

Whereas resource teachers would continue to be trained to work effectively with regular teachers in coordinating efforts on behalf of given special education students, consulting teachers would be expected to improve the educational effectiveness of their colleagues as well as their students. Of course, creation of a master consulting teacher need not eliminate the possibility of having a teacher perform in both resource and consulting roles, where necessary. Salary could be based on the portion of time spent in each role, and the consulting responsibilities could be reimbursed at a higher rate than the resource responsibilities, reflecting the added training, skills, and experience required for the consulting job.


The many potential benefits of the consulting teacher model can be realized only if its sophisticated demands are also accommodated. To accelerate student progress, more is required than a superficial system change that provides an excuse to increase the caseload of special educators. If states allot the time to carefully conceptualize, design, and field-test the implementation of the consulting model before moving to widespread implementation, they will be in a better position to ensure its long-term success. They will be resisting the tendency to jump on the bandwagon without sufficient attention to its underpinnings. Additionally, states could produce data that would be useful nationally and locally to further the efforts to incorporate meaningful program evaluation systems into district special education programs. Finally, if states involve key local district personnel in the formative stages of their decision-making process, the emergent model is less likely to be undermined by its implementers. Experience teaches that if implementers of a service delivery model do not participate, support, and accept some "ownership" in its development, they are likely to ignore or defeat it.

State departments of education are the key agencies in the move to establish a widespread consulting teacher model. Their leadership is crucial because they set the certification and regulatory requirements. With care and preparation, the consulting teacher model may indeed reduce stigma and mislabeling, reach more students with special needs, enhance cooperation between regular and special education, improve student outcomes, and ultimately prove to be a cost-effective service delivery alternative. It may also create a master teacher level in special education. Without thoughtful attention, however, to multiple policy objectives, shared decision-making processes, training requirements, caseload management, role differentiation, funding mechanisms, program evaluation, and long-term cost effectiveness, the potential of this model may be greatly diminished by the very policy makers who would give it life.


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DIXIE SNOW HUEFNER is Clinical Assistant Professor, Department of Special Education, University of Utah, Salt Lake City.
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Author:Huefner, Dixie Snow
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Date:Feb 1, 1988
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