The Atlantic

How Teacher Training Hinders Special-Needs Students

Strong progress has been made to integrate students with disabilities into general-education classrooms. Educator instruction hasn’t kept up.
Source: Jackie Mader / Hechinger Report

BLOOMFIELD, N.J.—When Mary Fair became a teacher in 2012, her classes often contained a mix of special-education students and general-education students. Placing children with and without disabilities in the same classroom, instead of segregating them, was a growing national trend, spurred by lawsuits by special-education advocates.

But in those early days, Fair had no idea how to handle her students with disabilities, whose educational challenges ranged from learning deficits to behavioral disturbance disorders. Calling out a child with a behavioral disability in front of the class usually backfired and made the situation worse. They saw it as “an attack and a disrespect issue,” Fair said.

Over time, Fair figured out how to navigate these situations and talk students “down from the ledge.” She also learned how to keep students with disabilities on task and break down lessons into smaller, easier bits of information for those who were struggling.

No one taught her these strategies. Although she earned a bachelor’s degree and teaching certificate in math instruction for both elementary and middle school, she never had to take a class about students with disabilities. She was left to figure it out on the job.

The need for teachers who have both the knowledge and the ability to teach special-education students is more critical today than ever before. A national push to take students with disabilities out of isolation means most now spend the majority of their days in general-education classrooms, rather than in separate special-education classes. That means general-education teachers are teaching more students with disabilities. But training programs are doing little to prepare teachers; Fair’s experience is typical.

Many teacher-education programs offer just one class about students

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