March 10 — 12:00 am, 2005

State lowers the bar for special ed teachers

In recent months, the Pennsylvania Department of Education and the State Board of Education have changed the rules for the certification of special education teachers. These changes will have a major impact on the education of children with disabilities.

Until recently, most special education teachers were certified only in "special education," These teachers went to college and passed exams showing that they know how to teach children with disabilities. Few earned certification to teach specific academic subjects at either the elementary or secondary levels.

Thousands of children with disabilities receive instruction in core academic subjects in self-contained special education classrooms. These segregated children typically do not learn math, science, or other subjects from a teacher who is fully certified in those subjects.

New federal laws changed the basic requirements for teacher certification. The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) requires that by June 2006, all teachers, including special education teachers, be "highly qualified" in every academic subject that they teach.

Pennsylvania initially responded to NCLB by requiring all middle and high school teachers to get a regular certificate in each subject where they serve as the primary instructor. This meant that all teachers, including special education teachers, either had to have a college major, earn a graduate degree, or pass an exam for each subject they teach.

Many parents supported raising the level of knowledge for teachers of children with disabilities. But some special education teachers objected to the stricter rules, asserting that they were already highly qualified based on their long teaching experience.

Since 2002, the state has not actively enforced those rules. In June 2004, the state adopted a different approach. The Department and the Board created the Bridge Certificate Program, or Bridge I. Bridge I allows special education teachers and some other groups of teachers to earn regular certificates without going back to college or passing an exam. Through the Bridge I program, middle and high school special education teachers can take professional development classes and use their experience to earn a regular certificate in one or two academic subjects.

In January 2005, the Department and the Board adopted a second Bridge Program (Bridge II) for some groups of middle and high school teachers. Bridge II allows teachers of multiple subjects, such as special education teachers, to be designated as "highly qualified" (though not certified), as long as they passed one class in each subject when they attended college. The final rules for Bridge II are still being drafted and may change when the Board meets in March. The state is also thinking about lowering certification standards for special education teachers in elementary schools.

The idea of an alternative path to certification that values teacher experience is not necessarily a bad one, but these two Bridge programs are not rigorous and greatly weaken the original state requirements for "highly qualified" teachers. Most students with disabilities still will not have teachers with the same level of subject knowledge as the teachers for other students.

What message are we sending children with disabilities when we lower the expectations for teachers in special education classrooms? All children deserve the highest expectations for their education, including expectations for the knowledge of their teachers.

Of equal importance, the education system ought to avoid repeatedly fiddling with certification rules and instead provide consistency and support for the hard work of special education teachers.

Far too often, the education system automatically segregates students away from mainstream classrooms just because they have disabilities. The state can do more to encourage schools to include students with disabilities in regular classrooms with appropriate supports. Schools should make it easier for special education teachers to co-teach or "team teach" with regular classroom teachers. This is one way of insuring that all students receive instruction from teachers who are highly qualified in their subject area

In cases when it is necessary for a special education student to receive instruction in a self-contained classroom, the state should help special education teachers to gain more knowledge about their academic subjects. The Bridge programs should contain rigorous requirements for teacher expertise, so that "highly qualified" means high standards for all teachers.

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