Content Knowledge

2017 Special Education Teacher Preparation Policy

2017 Goals for Content Knowledge

The state should ensure that special education teachers know the subject matter they are licensed to teach. This goal was reorganized in 2017.

Best practices

Unfortunately, NCTQ cannot award "best practice" honors to any state's policy in the area of special education teacher licensure. However, Louisiana, New York, Missouri, and Rhode Island deserve recognition for taking steps in the right direction to help ensure that all special education teachers know the subject matter they are licensed to teach. Each of these states require that elementary special education candidates pass the same elementary content tests, which are comprised of individual subtests, as general education elementary teachers. Secondary special education teachers in New York must pass a multi-subject content test for special education teachers comprised of three separately scored sections. Louisiana and Rhode Island both require their secondary special education teachers hold certification in another secondary area.





Best practice 0

States

Meets goal 3

States

Nearly meets goal 2

States

Meets goal in part 6

States

Meets a small part of goal 7

States

Does not meet goal 33

States

Do states require elementary special education candidates to demonstrate sufficient knowledge of every subject they are licensed to teach?

2017
2015
Add previous year
Figure details

Yes. State requires an adequate elementary subject-matter test to earn an elementary special education license.: AL, LA, MA, MO, NJ, NY, PA, RI, WI

Partially. State requires an adequate elementary subject-matter test, but it permits candidates to earn an overly broad K-12 special education license.: AR, CO, DE, ID, IL, MI, NC

No. State does not require an adequate test.: AK, AZ, CA, CT, DC, FL, GA, HI, IA, IN, KS, KY, MD, ME, MN, MS, MT, ND, NE, NH, NM, NV, OH, OK, OR, SC, SD, TN, TX, UT, VA, VT, WA, WV, WY

Do states require secondary special education candidates to demonstrate sufficient knowledge of every subject they are licensed to teach?

2017
Figure details

Yes. State requires an adequate secondary subject-matter test.: MO, NY, WI

Partially. State requires a subject-matter test, but it does not require secondary special education candidates to demonstrate sufficient knowledge of every subject they are licensed to teach.: AR, DE, LA, MA, MI, NJ, PA, RI

No. State does not require a test.: AK, AL, AZ, CA, CO, CT, DC, FL, GA, HI, IA, ID, IL, IN, KS, KY, MD, ME, MN, MS, MT, NC, ND, NE, NH, NM, NV, OH, OK, OR, SC, SD, TN, TX, UT, VA, VT, WA, WV, WY

How we graded

4A: Special Education Content Knowledge 

  • Elementary Content Knowledge: The state should require that all new elementary special education candidates pass a licensure test across all elementary subject areas that is no less rigorous than the test required of general education candidates.
  • Secondary Content Knowledge: The state should require that all new secondary special education candidates possess adequate content knowledge.
Elementary Content Knowledge
One-half of the total goal score is earned based on the following:

  • One-half credit: The state will earn one-half of a point if it requires all new elementary special education candidates to pass an elementary content knowledge test that is no less rigorous than the test required of general education candidates.
  • One-quarter credit: The state will earn one-quarter of a point if it requires elementary licenses in conjunction with special education licenses but does not offer special education elementary licenses. 
Secondary Content Knowledge
One-half of the total goal score is earned based on the following:

  • One-half credit: The state will earn one-half of a point if it requires all new secondary special education candidates to pass a special education licensure test across all secondary subject areas that is no less rigorous than the test required of general education candidates.
  • One-quarter credit: The state will earn one-quarter of a point if it requires secondary licenses in conjunction with special education licenses but does not offer special education secondary licenses.

Research rationale

Generic K-12 special education licenses are inappropriate for teachers of high-incidence special education students. Too many states do not distinguish between elementary and secondary special education teachers, certifying all such teachers under a generic K-12 special education license. While this broad umbrella may be appropriate for teachers of low-incidence special education students, such as those with severe cognitive disabilities, it is deeply problematic for high-incidence special education students, who are expected to learn grade-level content.[1] And because the overwhelming majority of special education students are in the high-incidence category, the result is a fundamentally broken system.

Special education teachers teach content and therefore must know content.[2] While special educators should be valued for their critical role in working with students with disabilities and special needs, each state identifies them not as "special education assistants" but as "special education teachers," presumably because it expects them to provide instruction. Inclusion models, where special education students receive instruction from a general education teacher paired with a special education teacher to provide instructional support, do not mitigate the need for special education teachers to know content.[3] Providing instruction to children who have special needs requires knowledge of both effective learning strategies and the subject matter at hand.[4] Failure to ensure that teachers are well trained in content areas—presumably through subject matter licensing tests—deprives special education students of the opportunity to reach their academic potential.


[1] Levenson, N. (2011). Something has got to change: Rethinking special education (Working Paper 2011-01). American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research. Retrieved from http://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED521782
[2] For an analysis of the importance of special educator content knowledge, see: Levenson, N. (2011). Something has got to change: Rethinking special education. American Enterprise Institute (Working paper 2011-01, 1-20).; For information on teacher licensing tests, see: Gitomer, D. H., & Latham, A. S. (1999). The academic quality of prospective teachers: The impact of admissions and licensure testing. Educational Testing Service. Retrieved from http://www.ets.org/Media/Research/pdf/RR-03-35.pdf; For a study on teacher testing scores and student achievement, see: Ladd, H. F., Clotfelter, C. T., & Vigdor, J. L. (2007). How and why do teacher credentials matter for student achievement (NBER Working Paper, 142786). Retrieved from http://www.caldercenter.org/sites/default/files/1001058_Teacher_Credentials.pdf
[3] Feng, L., & Sass, T. R. (2010). What makes special education teachers special? Teacher training and achievement of students with disabilities (Working Paper 49). National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research. Retrieved from http://www.urban.org/UploadedPDF/1001435-what-makes-special.pdf; Monk, D. H. (1994). Subject area preparation of secondary mathematics and science teachers and student achievement. Economics of Education Review, 13(2), 125-145.
[4] For research on the importance of teachers' content knowledge, see: Boyd, D. J., Grossman, P. L., Lankford, H., Loeb, S., & Wyckoff, J. (2009). Teacher preparation and student achievement. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 31(4), 416-440; Willingham, D. T. (2006). How knowledge helps: It speeds and strengthens comprehension, learning—and thinking. American Educator, 30(1), 30-37.