Roughly 7 million students in the K-12 public school system—14 percent—are identified as students with disabilities. Of these, more than 62 percent spend a large majority of their day in general education classrooms. Given the numbers, it is clear that general education teachers should possess the tools necessary to help students with disabilities succeed. Teacher preparation programs can be a powerful and critical lever for ensuring this support; however, most teacher preparation programs do not center students with disabilities in their curriculum for general education teachers.
Implications for students with disabilities
The K-12 public school system is simply not meeting the needs of students with disabilities, leading to huge gaps in their preparedness for college and careers. Students with disabilities consistently score lower on proficiency tests than their nondisabled peers. High school graduation rates are also significantly lagging: In the 2016-17 academic year, the public high school four-year graduation rate for students with disabilities across the United States was 67.1 percent, compared with an 84.6 percent rate for all students. A look at the disaggregated data shows that approximately 65 percent of African American, Latino, and American Indian/Alaska Native students with disabilities graduated high school with diplomas, compared with 76.7 percent of white students with disabilities. As a result, these students are less likely to have access to opportunities after high school than their white peers.
The K-12 public school system’s failure to effectively serve students with disabilities also negatively affects these students’ ability to enroll in college and obtain a good job. Even when students with disabilities do enroll in higher education institutions, two–thirds of them do not graduate within eight years. Meanwhile, 60 percent of their nondisabled peers graduate within six years. Additionally, only 37 percent of people with disabilities in the United States are employed, meaning that there is much to be done to sustain positive outcomes for this population.
Highly trained teachers with both the knowledge and ability to teach students with disabilities can be powerful resources to ensure that they score higher on proficiency tests; graduate from high school; and leave the K-12 education system ready for their future education, training, and careers.
The challenge for teacher preparation programs
Teacher preparation programs have a large role to play in ensuring that incoming teachers are equipped to meet the needs of students with disabilities. To better prepare teachers, programs can focus on specific learning strategies and how to read and understand the federally required individualized education program (IEP), which articulates various supports and accommodations needed for students with identified disabilities.
A 2009 U.S. Government Accountability Office report revealed that approximately 73 percent of elementary school teacher preparation programs required at least one course dedicated to supporting students with disabilities, while 67 percent of secondary school teacher preparation programs required the same. However, only 73 percent of secondary school teacher preparation programs report focusing on explicit teaching strategies such as the universal design for learning, a method of teaching intended to remove barriers to learning and help all students succeed. As a consequence, far too many general education teachers are not learning the strategies they need to fully support every student in their classroom. According to a 2019 teacher survey, “only 30 percent of general education teachers feel ‘strongly’ that they can successfully teach students with learning disabilities—and only 50 percent believe those students can reach grade-level standards.” This highlights a concerning misalignment between the intended outcomes of teacher preparation courses and actual levels of teacher preparedness.
Without explicit training and confidence on how to do essential things such as reading and understanding an IEP, general education teachers are being asked to provide a quality education for students whose needs they are unprepared to meet. Having a teacher without this specialized knowledge not only hurts students with disabilities but also puts all students at a disadvantage. For example, during the 2011-12 academic year, 5.4 percent of elementary school students and 18.1 percent of secondary school students with disabilities were suspended, compared with only 2.6 percent of all elementary school students and 10.1 percent of all secondary school students, respectively. These disproportionate suspension rates indicate that teachers may be treating manifestations of disabilities as disciplinary issues, rather than instructional issues. Research has shown that this issue not only affects the students being punished but also their classmates—all students in classrooms with higher rates of suspension see lower achievement rates. Teachers need the proper tools to manage behavior in the classroom while at the same time making sure that all students can learn. Providing adequate knowledge for how to do so via teacher preparation programs is vital in potentially reducing disparate discipline rates.
In order to ensure that teachers are adequately prepared to guide students with disabilities to success in the classroom and beyond, various entities must step up to the challenge. As part of their teacher licensure or certification processes, states should:
- Require general education graduates of traditional and alternative teacher preparation programs to complete coursework dedicated to supporting students with disabilities
- Require teaching candidates to demonstrate an understanding of how to meet the needs of students with disabilities
- Ensure that ongoing teacher training requirements include education on supporting students with disabilities
In addition, to better prepare graduates to teach students with disabilities, teacher preparation programs should:
- Audit the required coursework for general education teachers to determine if there are and address any gaps in content related to teaching students with disabilities
- Emphasize in coursework the needs of students with disabilities at the intersection of race, class, gender, immigration status, and LGBTQ identity, as disability can manifest differently across different communities
- Provide fieldwork and student teaching opportunities that allow general education teachers to interact with and understand IEPs
Finally, to ensure classroom success for all students, specifically students with disabilities, school districts should:
- Provide onboarding opportunities for general education teachers to gain additional experience with the district’s processes and available supports for students with disabilities
- Partner with teacher preparation programs to develop effective ongoing preservice training and professional development opportunities for in-service teachers to support students with disabilities
Teacher preparation programs can be powerful measures for supporting the success of students with disabilities. General education teachers need to have the training and skills to teach the growing population of students with disabilities who spend most of their instructional time in general education classrooms. Ensuring that general education teachers are appropriately equipped is not an impossible task. With the right educational supports, students with disabilities can master the same rigorous, grade-level academic content as their peers without disabilities. Adapting to meet the needs of students with disabilities is integral to providing a quality education to every child in America.
Vasilisa Smith is a former intern for K-12 Education at the Center for American Progress.