Differences in the skills and knowledge of teachers are crucial factors in determining where students with disabilities can receive the best education. Regular classroom teachers are expected to know a lot about the academic subjects that they teach. Special education teachers are expected to know how to help students with disabilities to learn most effectively.
Colleges in Pennsylvania often do not prepare teachers to have both sets of skills. The state rules for teacher certification also currently require completely different things for regular classroom teachers and special education teachers.
This problem area could undergo a revolution if the State Board of Education and the Pennsylvania Department of Education can agree on new proposals for how colleges prepare teachers in the future. The proposals could have a big impact on the challenges parents and schools face regarding “mainstreaming” students with disabilities in inclusive classrooms.
For most of this year, the Department studied ways to improve college education programs and teacher certification for teachers in pre-kindergarten and elementary grades. It proposed a requirement that all new teachers in these grades hold “dual certification” – a certificate in special education plus a certificate in either early childhood or elementary education.
But the State Board, which has the power to make final decisions on this issue, has developed a different approach.
The Department says that dual certification would better prepare regular classroom teachers to ease the inclusion of students with disabilities into mainstream classrooms.
But on November 16, the Board’s Chapter 49 Committee rejected the dual certification proposals. The committee expressed its intent to require teachers to take three college classes in special education subjects, instead of earning full dual certification in special education. The Board would also require teachers to take a class in how to teach English language learners. These changes would apply not just to new elementary teachers but to all new teachers from pre-kindergarten through grade 12.
Board members explained that they backed off from dual certification because of concerns that Pennsylvania colleges could not handle such large scale restructuring of teacher education programs. There is also a concern that the extra classes needed for dual certification would force college students to stay in school for an extra semester. Many colleges have pressured the state to allow current programs to continue without major reforms.
On the other hand, at least 20 Pennsylvania colleges already offer successful dual certification programs. Many parents appreciate the extra skills brought to the classroom by dually certified teachers and might question whether three college classes in special education are enough for regular classroom teachers to understand how to teach students with disabilities and other diverse learners.
Despite disagreements about dual certification, we can expect to see approval in March 2006 on a set of teacher certification reforms already agreed on by the Department and the Board that would:
- Split up the K-6 elementary education certificate into two parts, a PreK-3 early childhood education certificate and a 3-6 elementary education certificate. This would allow regular classroom teachers to have more expertise in the grade levels they teach.
- Replace K-12 special education certification with a PreK-6 special education certificate and a 7-12 special education certificate, requiring special education teachers to have more expertise about the grade levels they teach.
- Require all new PreK-6 special education teachers to hold a certificate in either early childhood or elementary education and require new special education teachers in middle and high schools to become certified in an academic subject, such as reading or math. This would prepare special education teachers with more skills to provide academic instruction and to support the work of regular teachers in inclusive settings.
The Board is expected to hold additional public hearings in January 2006. If the Board gives final approval for the new rules at its meeting in March 2006, the first cohort of newly certified teachers could enter the workforce by 2009.
An overview of these proposals is available on the State Board of Education website (www.pde.state.pa.us/stateboard_ed).
You can express your views on these issues to Dr. James S. Fogarty, Chairperson, Chapter 49 Committee of the State Board of Education, 333 Market Street, Harrisburg, PA 17126-0333, 717-787-3787.
To learn more about these issues, contact Baruch Kintisch at the Education Law Center, firstname.lastname@example.org or 215-238-6970, ext. 320.