Special Education Teacher Preparation

Delivering Well Prepared Teachers Policy

Special Education Teacher Preparation

The state should ensure that special education teachers know the subject matter they are licensed to teach.

Best practices

Unfortunately, NCTQ cannot award "best practice" honors to any state's policy in the area of special education. However, two states—New York and Rhode Island—are worthy of mention for taking steps in the right direction in ensuring that all special education teachers know the subject matter they are required to teach.  Both 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 newly developed multisubject content test for special education teachers comprised of three separately scored sections. Rhode Island requires its secondary special education teachers to hold certification in another secondary area. 

Suggested Citation:
National Council on Teacher Quality. (2013). Special Education Teacher Preparation National Results. State Teacher Policy Database. [Data set].
Retrieved from: https://www.nctq.org/yearbook/national/Special-Education-Teacher-Preparation-20
Best practice 0


Meets goal 0


Nearly meets goal 4


Meets goal in part 8


Meets a small part of goal 10


Does not meet goal 29


Progress on this goal since 2011

  • Improved
  • Stayed the same
  • Regressed

State requires a test of elementary special education candidates’ content knowledge that reports separate scores for each of the four elementary subject areas to earn an elementary special education license.

Figure details

The state requires a test that reports separate scores for each of the four elementary subject areas. : AL, IA, LA, MA, NJ, NY, PA, RI, TX, WI, WV

The state requires a test that reports separate scores for each of the four elementary subject areas, but it permits candidates to earn an overly broad K-12 special education license.: CO, ID, NC

The state requires a test that does not report separate subscores for each of the four subject areas.: AK, AR, AZ, CA, CT, DC, DE, FL, GA, HI, IL, IN, KS, KY, MD, ME, MI, MN, MO, MS, MT, ND, NE, NH, NM, NV, OH, OK, OR, SC, SD, TN, UT, VA, VT, WA, WY

The state does not require a test of all candidates.:

IA: Iowa does not require the same content test as general education elementary teachers.
IL: Illinois requires a special education general curriculum test.
PA: In Pennsylvania, a candidate who opts for dual certification in elementary or secondary special education and as a reading specialist does not have to take a content test.
WV: West Virginia also allows elementary special education candidates to earn dual certification in early childhood, which would not require a content test.

Research rationale

Generic K-12 special education licenses are inappropriate for teachers of high-incidence special education students.

Too many states make no distinction 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.  And because the overwhelming majority of special education students are in the high-incidence category, the result is a fundamentally broken system.

It is virtually impossible and certainly impractical for states to ensure that a K-12 teacher knows all the subject matter he or she is expected to teach.  And the issue is just as valid in terms of pedagogical knowledge. Teacher preparation and licensure for special education teachers must distinguish between elementary and secondary levels, as they do for general education. The current model does little to protect some of our most vulnerable students.

Special education teachers teach content and therefore must know content.

While special educators should be valued for their critical role in working with students with disabilities and special needs, the 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. Providing instruction to children who have special needs requires knowledge of both effective learning strategies and the subject matter at hand. Failure to ensure that teachers are well trained in content areas deprives special education students of the opportunity to reach their academic potential.

HQT requirements place unique challenges on secondary special education teachers.

No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and the 2004 reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) present conflicting expectations for the subject-matter preparation of new secondary special education teachers. Although the latter, which was passed after NCLB, offers greater flexibility and is more realistic than what NCLB suggests, it may not adequately address teachers' subject-matter knowledge. States can provide some middle ground, while meeting the requirements of both laws.

Under IDEA, states can award "highly qualified teacher" status to new secondary special education teachers who:

  • have a major  or have passed a subject-matter test in one of three content areas: language arts, mathematics or science (without explanation, the law excludes social studies) and
  • complete a single HOUSSE route for multiple subjects in all other subjects that they are likely to teach during their first two years of teaching.

States need to provide more specific guidance on this issue. They should require secondary special education teachers to have broad coursework in multiple subjects and to become highly qualified in two core academic areas. This will make teachers more flexible and thus better able to serve schools and students. States can use a combination of testing and coursework to meet this goal.

Special Education Teacher Preparation: Supporting Research

For an analysis of the importance of special educator content knowledge see N. Levenson, "Something Has Got to Change: Rethinking Special Education", American Enterprise Institute, Future of American Education Project, Working Paper, 2011-01.

For the impact of special education certification see L. Feng and T. Sass, "What Makes Special-Education Teachers Special?: Teacher Training and Achievement of Students with Disabilities" Calder Institute, Working Paper 49, June 2010.

Numerous research studies have established the strong relationship between teachers' vocabulary (a proxy for being broadly educated) and student achievement. For example: A.J. Wayne and P. Youngs, "Teacher characteristics and student achievement gains: A review," Review of Educational Research, Volume 73, No. 1, Spring 2003, pp. 89-122. See also G.J. Whitehurst, "Scientifically based research on teacher quality: Research on teacher preparation and professional development," presented at the 2002 White House Conference on Preparing Tomorrow's Teachers; R. Ehrenberg and D. Brewer, "Did Teachers' Verbal Ability and Race Matter in the 1960s? Coleman Revisited," Economics of Education Review, Volume 14, No. 1, March 1995, pp. 1-21.

Research also connects individual content knowledge with increased reading comprehension, making the capacity of the teacher to infuse all instruction with content of particular importance for student achievement. See D.T. Willingham, "How knowledge helps: It speeds and strengthens reading comprehension, learning—and thinking," American Educator, Volume 30, No. 1, Spring 2006.

For the importance of teachers' general academic ability, see R. Ferguson, "Paying for Public Education: New Evidence on How and Why Money Matters," Harvard Journal on Legislation, Volume 28, Summer 1991, pp. 465-498; L Hedges, R. Laine, and R. Greenwald, "An Exchange: Part I: Does Money Matter? A Meta-Analysis of Studies of the Effects of Differential School Inputs on Student Outcomes," Educational Researcher, Volume 23, No. 3, April 1994, pp. 5-14; E. Hanushek, "Teacher Characteristics and Gains in Student Achievement: Estimation Using Micro Data," American Economic Review, Volume 61, No. 2, May 1971, pp. 280-288; E. Hanushek, "A More Complete Picture of School Resource Policies," Review of Educational Research, Volume 66, Number 3, Fall 1996, pp. 397-409; H. Levin, Concepts of Economic Efficiency and Educational Production," in Education as an Industry, ed. J. Froomkin, D. Jamison, and R. Radner (Cambridge, MA: Ballinger, 1976); D. Monk, "Subject Area Preparation of Secondary Mathematics and Science Teachers and Student Achievement," Economics of Education Review, Volume 13, No. 2, June 1994, pp. 125-145; R. Murnane, "Understanding the Sources of Teaching Competence: Choices, Skills, and the Limits of Training," Teachers College Record, Volume 84, No. 3, Spring 1983, pp. 564-569; R. Murnane and B. Phillips, Effective Teachers of Inner City Children: Who They Are and What They Do? (Princeton, NJ: Mathematica Policy Research, 1978), 44 p.; R. Murnane and B. Phillips, "What Do Effective Teachers of Inner-City Children Have in Common?" Social Science Research, Volume 10, No. 1, March 1981, pp. 83-100; M. McLaughlin and D. Marsh, "Staff Development and School Change," Teachers College Record, Volume 80, No. 1, 1978, pp. 69-94; R. Strauss and E. Sawyer, "Some New Evidence on Teacher and Student Competencies," Economics of Education Review, Volume 5, No. 1, 1986, pp. 41-48; A. A. Summers and B.L. Wolfe, "Which School Resources Help Learning? Efficiency and Equity in Philadelphia Public Schools," Business Review (Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, February 1975).

Sandra Stotsky has documented the fact that teacher candidates often make inappropriate or irrelevant coursework choices that nonetheless satisfy state requirements. See S. Stotsky with L. Haverty, "Can a State Department of Education Increase Teacher Quality? Lessons Learned in Massachusetts," in Brookings Papers on Education Policy: 2004, ed. Diane Ravitch (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2004).

On the need for colleges and universities to improve their general education coursework requirements, see The Hollow Core: Failure of the General Education Curriculum (Washington, D.C.: American Council of Trustees and Alumni, 2004). For a subject-specific example of institutions' failure to deliver solid liberal arts preparation see, The Coming Crisis in Citizenship: Higher Education's Failure to Teach America's History and Institutions (Wilmington, DE: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2006).

For information on teacher licensing tests, see The Academic Quality of Prospective Teachers: The Impact of Admissions and Licensure Testing (Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service, 1999). A study by C. Clotfelter, H. Ladd, and J.Vigdor of elementary teachers in North Carolina also found that teachers with test scores one standard deviation above the mean on the Elementary Education Test as well as a test of content was associated with increased student achievement of 0.011 to 0.015 standard deviations. "How and Why Do Teacher Credentials Matter for Student Achievement?" The Calder Institute (2007).