Preservice Preparation Of Teachers To Support The Inclusion Of Students With Learning Disabilities

There are few more pronounced and encouraging trends in American education than the steadily rising numbers of students with learning disabilities (SWLDs) in general education classrooms. As a result of a half-century of state and federal legislative efforts to guarantee a free and appropriate public education for SWLDs and multiple affirmations of state responsibilities under these statutes by state and federal courts, more than two-thirds (68%) of SWLDs in public schools spent the majority of their instructional time in general education classrooms in 2015 — up from a mere 11% three decades earlier. The move toward greater inclusion has affected all categories of special education students, but based on the numbers of students involved, the shift in the proportion of SWLDs in general education classrooms represents the largest group of students who have moved from other placement settings into general education classrooms.

While this shift is unquestionably a positive development, the concurrent demands that come with the greater inclusion of SWLDs in general education classrooms are substantial and varied. Among the most far-reaching of these demands are the requirements in general federal education policy, as opposed to disability-specific legislation such as the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA). First in No Child Left Behind and re-inscribed in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), federal legislation requires that schools monitor, publish, and be held accountable for the academic progress of students with disabilities. ESSA requires that as a general matter students with disabilities should be assessed using a state’s regular standardized assessment and, in cases in which the use of an alternative assessment is advisable, the state’s alternative assessment must be designed to promote access to the general educational curriculum. The law goes even further by capping the total number of students who are allowed to take an alternative assessment to one percent of the state student population without seeking a waiver from the U.S. Department of Education. Despite these formal legal requirements concerning the academic progress of students with disabilities, there remains considerable work to be done in securing their equitable academic attainment: For example in New York, in 2015, only 5.7% of students with disabilities were meeting state proficiency guidelines in reading compared to 36.6% of the general student population, and only 10.6% of students with disabilities were meeting state proficiency guidelines in math compared to 43.9% of the general student population.

This gap between policy goals and academic performance of American students, including SWLDs, has led policymakers to redouble efforts to identify and enhance the school determinants of student achievement. Scholars have long recognized that teachers are among the most important school factors. One major strategy for improving teacher quality, and in turn student success, has been erecting more rigorous barriers for entry into the teaching profession. States around the country have pursued this reform by making state licensure contingent on receiving a passing score on a new generation of “teaching performance assessments” (TPAs).

In contrast to an earlier generation of teacher licensure examinations, TPAs replace multiple-choice questions with different measures of teachers’ practices, including lesson plans, classroom artifacts, videotaped lessons, and written reflections on classroom practice (Darling-Hammond, Amrein-Beardsley, Haertel, & Rothstein, 2012). The most prominent and widely adopted of this new generation of teacher licensure is edTPA, which is currently in use in nearly 900 TPPs in 41 states and the District of Columbia (AACTE, n.d.). As a requirement for program completion and/or licensure in over half of these states and programs, edTPA has become a major high-stakes feature of TPPs (Greenblatt & O’Hara, 2015), and thus, a primary vector for improving teacher quality and student performance nationwide. Indeed, proponents and critics of edTPA agree that, for better or worse, the assessment provides a comprehensive vision of curriculum, assessment, and practice.

To this end, it is clear that edTPA does not operate in isolation from the rest of the components of preservice teacher preparation. edTPA is used as a licensure examination by many states, and the assessment is also used by many TPPs as a program requirement for degree completion. Indeed, edTPA has been endorsed by the American Association of Colleges of Teacher Education (AACTE), and AACTE is an official national implementation partner. This close association between accreditors, TPPs, and the licensing examination makes edTPA fundamentally different than licensure examinations in other fields. For example, receiving one’s JD after graduating law school is not conditional on passing the Bar Examination. One upshot is that edTPA exerts more direct curricular and programmatic pressure on TPPs than other kinds of licensure examinations. This is explicitly by design. edTPA’s creators sought to provide, in addition to a more authentic assessment of pre-service teachers, a common language for TPPs and a way for TPPs to be held accountable by accreditors and state officials.

For our purposes, this integration is important for three primary reasons. First, the curricular integration coupled with the design of edTPA to bring together the discrete elements of TPPs – coursework, field experience, and licensure – make it an important aspect of teacher preparation, especially given the evidence that programs vary considerably in how they integrate it into their programs.

Second, and relatedly, one hypothesis for why prior studies identify variability in program quality is due to the lack of TPPs facing external accountability pressures or incentives to innovate their programs. edTPA scores, as both an additional potential measure of program quality and as a high-stakes accountability measure for both pre-service teachers and TPPs, plausibly changes those pressures and incentives.

Third and relatedly, there is potential that edTPA might disrupt overall coherence in programs, as the major program components of coursework and fieldwork are now subject to the frameworks embedded in edTPA. Scholars in the last few decades have drawn increasing attention to the need to develop coherence TPPs, underscoring the importance of establishing explicit relationships between coursework and field work in connection to the program’s vision for teaching and learning.

Research has advocated that coherence in programs fills gaps between theory and practice, offering synergistic opportunities for preservice teachers to learn from their university supervisors, cooperating teachers, and instructors in their programs. Thus, examining coherence along with other components of TPPs is especially relevant given the sheer number of program factors edTPA purports to influence.

01 February 2021
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