This paper discusses the history of collaborative teaching as a means of providing special education services in public schools. Since the passage of PL 94-142, educators have been required to collaborate with each other, related professionals, and parents to provide appropriate special education services. Co-teaching has been an increasingly popular way of creating inclusive classrooms that work for all students. This paper also outlines several approaches to co-teaching that are currently being used in the United States. Each of these types of co-teaching affects educators and students in different ways. Lastly, this paper highlights the debate regarding appropriate usage of co-teaching for meeting state and federal regulations.
Co-Teaching in Today’s Classrooms
In 1975, Congress passed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, or PL 94-142. This act required states to provide a free and appropriate public education to all children with disabilities. In order to provide this FAPE through Individualized Education Programs (IEPs), a team approach between professionals and families was necessary. This collaborative approach to designing and implementing services has been the foundation for special education ever since (Spencer, 2005). In 1990, the law was amended. Today it is known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA. Along with IDEA, the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001 encourages collaboration to improve both instruction and student performance (Villa, Thousand, & Nevin, 2004). For many students who receive special education services, inclusion in the general education classroom is the most appropriate option. Co-teaching is one method of providing the needed services without removing the student from the general classroom.
In defining co-teaching, many experts first delineate what it is not. Dr. Lynne Cook of California State University, Northridge, emphasizes the shared delivery of instruction (Spencer, 2005). Often, one teacher is the main instructor and the other serves as an assistant. This is not a co-teaching model. Effective communication among administrators and teachers can help avoid situations in which a special education teacher is treated more like a paraprofessional. When teachers are employed in a school with mandated co-teaching, collaboration often suffers (Spencer, 2005). Teachers need to be informed of the school’s organization, culture, and expectations before being hired. In short, they need to know what co-teaching entails before they make a commitment to it. In educating prospective teachers, administrators can ensure that all teachers are co-teaching voluntarily. In my opinion, a teacher who makes an informed decision to co-teach is more likely to work collaboratively than one who is simply thrown into the situation.
Experts describe four common types of co-teaching taking place in today’s classrooms: supportive, parallel, complementary, and team teaching (Villa et al., 2004). Each of the four types has distinct advantages and disadvantages. Personal preference, prior experience, and administrative decisions can affect which type is conducted. There are, however, some common elements that must be present for success.
The first of these elements is a common goal (Villa et al., 2004). To reduce miscommunication and to keep the spirit of co-teaching alive, teachers must have a plan that is clear and mutually agreed upon (Rea & Connell, 2005). A reasonable, shared goal can help teachers focus their efforts. Writing the goal down might be useful in later dispute resolution, or teachers might choose to edit their goals together as the classroom climate changes.
Secondly, teachers who plan to work together need to share some beliefs (Villa et al., 2004). No two people will agree on every issue, but having similar teaching philosophies will help the co-teaching process run a lot more smoothly. Attitude about parents is a major issue that teachers should discuss from the beginning. For example, one teacher may send notes home, call parents, and involve parents in contingency plans if needed. The other teacher might think, “These parents don’t care anyway.” Such a clash could cause major communication problems and has the potential to make the entire year a struggle.
Third, teachers need to be equally valued (Villa et al., 2004). Each teacher brings with him a bag of tricks and a wealth of knowledge. These individual strengths are based on background experiences that cannot be replicated. Also, co-teaching can produce feelings of success and pride when the required tasks are distributed fairly between the teachers (Villa et al., 2004). Administrators look for co-planned lessons, mutual problem solving, shared classroom responsibilities, and scheduled planning time when evaluating the work distribution among co-teachers (Rea & Connell, 2005).
Lastly, co-teachers should use a cooperative process to get the job done right (Villa et al., 2004). This cooperative process involves many components, and requires different changes for each of the teachers involved (Spencer, 2005). For example, special educators who are accustomed to having their own classrooms and personal space must make adjustments when they become part of a co-teaching team. General education teachers need to learn how to share their space and perceived power. They are also required to have effective face-to-face conversations with adults. Many general educators spend years teaching, and rarely interact with other professionals. They are content shutting their doors and dealing with the kids all day. For these educators to be successful in co-teaching situations requires a great deal of cooperation, which must be taught and enhanced through ongoing training and administrative facilitation (Spencer, 2005). Teachers who work hard to keep these elements in place are likely to experience success, no matter which type of co-teaching they are involved in.
Two types of co-teaching are particularly popular for teachers who are new to the process: supportive teaching and parallel teaching (Villa et al., 2004). These types require fewer structural changes in classroom planning than others, yet work well for students with and without disabilities. In supportive teaching, the teachers basically take turns being the instructor and the helper. The special education teacher might be the primary instructor for a math lesson, while the general education teacher floats around the classroom answering questions as needed. Then, the general education teacher could teach a reading lesson, while the special educator helps those students who struggle in this area (Villa et al., 2004). There is one important point that needs to be considered when using this approach: all of the students must be learning the same curriculum. Whether certain students need differentiation or modifications, they should still be learning from the primary instructor. The special education teacher should not be tutoring the qualifying students all day. If she were to do that, there would hardly be a benefit to doing so in the general education classroom after all.
Parallel teaching is another way of co-teaching that is fairly easy to implement. In this approach, two or more teachers work with different groups of students in the same classroom simultaneously (Villa et al., 2004). It is like a learning centers approach, except for the fact that all students may not participate in each center. For example, the same reading lesson could be taught to two different groups, in two different ways. Some students may prefer to read aloud, while others might learn better by answering comprehension questions after hearing the story read by a teacher. Some potential issues with this approach are noise levels and the threat of tracking. If teachers are going to divide the class into groups, it is important for the groups to be different each time. Students will catch on if ability grouping is occurring. This could damage any of the possible social advantages of including students with disabilities in the general classroom. As far as noise levels, this is one of the issues that teachers need to discuss cooperatively. If one teacher really struggles with a loud classroom, and the other is not bothered at all by it, there is a potential problem. Co-teachers need to express their personal preferences from the beginning so that no one is placed in a situation that makes him or her uncomfortable.
Complementary teaching is more complicated than either of these types of co-teaching, as it requires that each teacher supplement the instruction provided by the other(s) (Villa et al., 2004). This type of co-teaching requires a great deal of planning, and teachers need to be very comfortable with each other in order to provide quality instruction that flows. The planning that is required to implement a complementary teaching style must be supported by the school’s administration (Spencer, 2005). This is one of the primary difficulties with this type of co-teaching. Teachers need to have a shared planned period, extended lunch, or some other means of getting together to make the lessons cohesive and orderly. Ideally, other specialists who may work with special education students would be available during this planning time (Spencer, 2005). It is unlikely that all of these professionals will have the same one-hour block of time available each day for planning, and this is a very real concern of educators who want the best for their students. Sometimes, co-teaching requires that teachers do what they can with what is available. However, administrative support in allowing planning time and more flexible scheduling can make a huge difference in the success of complementary teaching.
Once teachers are comfortable with one another’s strengths and weaknesses, team teaching can be a very rewarding and successful experience (Villa et al., 2004). In this type of co-teaching, both teachers take the lead role. How well these teachers communicate with each other is publicly known, because they do so in front of an entire class. In team teaching, one teacher may comment on the other’s lessons, reinforce teaching and learning styles, or provide examples that fit the other’s stated definitions. Any miscommunication could cause mass confusion for the students. However, this type of co-teaching also has the greatest potential for success. The expertise and personal experience of each teacher can be highlighted in creative lessons that model effective communication. Again, like complementary teaching, this model requires a great deal of administrative support and pre-planning (Spencer, 2005).
Each of these types of co-teaching have been used, especially recently, to address specific mandates (Rea & Connell, 2005). Administrators might set up a co-teaching classroom in a secondary setting in which the special education teacher is not certified to teach specific subject areas, for example. The regulations imposed by the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 require highly qualified and certified teachers to be present for core subject instruction (Villa et al., 2004), and this is one way that special educators can do their work without becoming further certified. As long as professionals and specialists are working in conjunction with a highly qualified teacher, this arrangement can be beneficial for all. Every co-teacher needs initial and ongoing training, however. Co-teaching should not be seen as a short-term solution to a problem that will forever exist.
In some elementary schools, co-teaching has recently been used to address class size laws (Sack, 2005). In 2002, Florida voters approved a state constitutional amendment requiring smaller class sizes. In order to address this law, schools have set up co-teaching arrangements of forty to fifty students per classroom (Sack, 2005). This is poor practice, as co-teachers in these situations have undoubtedly entered the situations involuntarily. The teachers have likely had poor training, if any, in proper co-teaching practices. Also, the “letter and spirit of co-teaching” has been diluted by the focus on meeting class size requirements (Rea & Connell, p. 34, 2005). Co-teaching is designed to promote communication and collaboration among professionals. This collaboration should always have the goal of improving instruction for all students, including those with disabilities. I cannot imagine any time when a student with ADHD or a learning disability would improve in a classroom of forty-five other kids. Even children without these disabilities would likely struggle to focus in such an arena. The Florida Department of Education agrees. In the summer of 2005, they announced that co-teaching shall not be used to meet this requirement after the 2005-2006 school year (Sack, 2005). While the department is not trying to shut down co-teaching altogether, it is disappointed by its widespread improper usage.
Many of the school districts are arguing that the co-teaching arrangements have helped many students improve. While this may be true, the schools are now racing to find other ways to reduce their class sizes economically (Sack, 2005). A properly organized and efficiently run model of co-teaching should not require much additional funding. The district should have already hired the general educators, special educators, and other professionals that are needed. Co-teaching is just a matter of coordinating these efforts so that all students can enjoy the benefits of learning in inclusive classrooms.
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