Special Education Teacher Preparation:

Delivering Well Prepared Teachers Policy


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

Does not meet goal
Suggested Citation:
National Council on Teacher Quality. (2013). Special Education Teacher Preparation: Arkansas results. State Teacher Policy Database. [Data set].
Retrieved from: https://www.nctq.org/yearbook/state/AR-Special-Education-Teacher-Preparation-20

Analysis of Arkansas's policies

Based on new rules governing educator licensure effective December 2012, Arkansas now allows K-12 special education certification as an initial licensure area. 

According to these rules, concurrent licensure in a general education area at the same level as the special education license is no longer required. 

Candidates applying for the K-12 special education standard license are not required to pass a content test. 


Recommendations for Arkansas

End licensure practices that fail to distinguish between the skills and knowledge needed to teach elementary grades and secondary grades. 

It is virtually impossible and certainly impractical for Arkansas to ensure that a K-12 special education teacher knows all the subject matter he or she is expected to be able to teach, especially considering state and federal expectations that special education students should meet the same high standards as other students. While the broad K-12 umbrella may be appropriate for teachers of low-incidence special education students, such as those with severe cognitive disabilities, it is deeply problematic for the overwhelming majority of high-incidence special education students, who are expected to learn grade-level content. 

Require that elementary special education candidates pass a rigorous content test as a condition of initial licensure.

To ensure that special education teacher candidates who will teach elementary grades possess sufficient knowledge of the subject matter at hand, Arkansas should require a rigorous content test that reports separate passing scores for each content area. Arkansas should also set these passing scores to reflect high levels of performance. Failure to ensure that teachers possess requisite content knowledge deprives special education students of the opportunity to reach their academic potential.

Ensure that secondary special education teachers possess adequate content knowledge. 
Secondary special education teachers are frequently generalists who teach many core subject areas. While it may be unreasonable to expect secondary special education teachers to meet the same requirements for each subject they teach as other teachers who teach only one subject, Arkansas's current policy of requiring no subject-matter testing is problematic and will not help special education students to meet rigorous learning standards. To provide a middle ground, Arkansas should consider a customized HOUSSE route for new secondary special education teachers and look to the flexibility offered by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which allows for a combination of testing and coursework to demonstrate requisite content knowledge in the classroom.

State response to our analysis

Arkansas asserted that all special education teachers are required to meet highly qualified teacher (HQT) requirements in order to teach any core academic class. The state has three HQT designation forms: a single-subject form that is available to all teachers and two multisubject forms (middle childhood and secondary) that are available for special education teachers. Because all core academic classes are taught by highly qualified teachers, and all highly qualified teachers must demonstrate content knowledge, the state contended that special education teachers possess adequate content knowledge.

Arkansas added that the K-12 special education license is a new program that will not be accepting candidates until at least fall 2014, and it will be two to three years before a licensure test is in place. At this time, the state has not made a final decision on licensure tests, but it plans to require the K-12 special education test as well as additional content tests.

Arkansas then offered the reasons for making the change to K-12 initial licensure. In the last 10 years, the number of individuals on an ALP (additional licensure plan) has gone from 91 individuals to more than 500. In 2002, the number represented 25 percent of the total number of ALPs. In 2012, the number represented 37 percent of the ALPs, and the number grows every year. At this rate, it is believed that in five years, 25 to 30 percent of teachers needed for special education will not be licensed.

For the last 10 years, Arkansas has required candidates to license in another area with special education being an "add-on." Special education is a field that doesn't attract large numbers of applicants, and adding more college classes and therefore more student loans compounds this issue. Anecdotal data have shown that even after potential candidates are told of shortages in special education—and that they can get a job almost anywhere—they were not interested once they found out about the additional one to two years of coursework.

Arkansas pointed out that it has been reviewing the K-12 special education program for almost two years.  Experts in special education and content specialists have attended many meetings to determine competencies to prepare candidates in these programs. While Arkansas prefers that candidates receive a content degree, that approach is not working.

Arkansas noted that it is committed to preparing effective special education teachers for its students with special needs. But Arkansas is a very rural state and has many small schools that may have one special education teacher providing instruction to students in more than one content area. It is important that Arkansas ensures that programs are preparing candidates in rigorous math and language arts content.

Last word

It is understandable that Arkansas saw the need to rethink its dual certification requirements, especially in light of the difficulties attracting candidates to special education programs.  It is also understandable that rural and remote districts appreciate the flexibility offered by the K-12 license, but the state must consider whether it really meets the needs of special education students. A significant number of states have moved away from the K-12 license, recognizing that it represents an anachronistic view of special education in which little academic progress was expected of students with disabilities. In order for special education students, especially those with high-incidence learning disabilities, to meet the same high standards as typical students, they must have teachers with grade-appropriate knowledge and skills.   

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).