Special Education Preparation in Reading:

Delivering Well Prepared Teachers Policy


The state should ensure that special education teachers know the science of reading instruction and are sufficiently prepared for the instructional shifts related to literacy associated with college-and career-readiness standards.

Meets a small part of goal
Suggested Citation:
National Council on Teacher Quality. (2020). Special Education Preparation in Reading: Massachusetts results. State Teacher Policy Database. [Data set].
Retrieved from: https://www.nctq.org/yearbook/state/MA-Special-Education-Preparation-in-Reading-69

Analysis of Massachusetts's policies

Massachusetts's requires teacher candidates who teach students with moderate disabilities and those who teach the visually impaired to pass its own Massachusetts Tests for Educator Licensure (MTEL) Foundations of Reading test, which is based on the state's standards and addresses the core areas of scientifically based reading instruction. However, candidates may also satisfy this test requirement by passing the MTEL Reading Specialist test. This test does not adequately address all of the components of the science of reading instruction: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension.

Massachusetts's Foundations of Reading assessment requires teachers to "understand how to apply reading comprehension skills and strategies to informational/expository texts." The state then offers an extensive list of examples for achieving this competency and incorporate the instructional shifts in the use of text associated with Massachusetts's college- and career-readiness standards for students. The Reading Specialist test does not address the use of informational texts.

In addition, Massachusetts requires its PreK-8 special education certificate to pass the MTEL General Curriculum test. Its standards for language arts require teachers to "recognize types of nonfiction (e.g., informational text) and common organizational features of nonfiction (e.g., chronological order, comparison and contrast, illustrations, captions, keys)."

The state also requires that the 5-12 special education certificate candidates pass either the General Curriculum test or a single subject-matter test at either the 5-8 or 8-12 level. The MTEL secondary English assessment mentions "the application of strategies before, during, and after reading to promote comprehension of expository texts" as an example under the standard "understand language acquisition, reading processes, and research-based theories relating to reading", however, the testing framework does not address knowledge of informational texts.

Neither teacher standards nor testing frameworks in other content areas address incorporating the incorporating literacy skills into the core content areas.

Massachusetts's Foundations of Reading and Reading Specialist tests fully address the needs of struggling readers.


Recommendations for Massachusetts

Require teacher candidates to pass a rigorous assessment in the science of reading instruction.
Massachusetts is commended for requiring the Foundations of Reading assessment that ensures that its special education teacher candidates are adequately prepared in the science of reading instruction before entering the classroom. The state undermines this strong policy by allowing candidates to meet the requirement with the Reading Specialist test.  This assessment does not fully test knowledge and skills related to the science of reading and address all five instructional components of scientifically based reading instruction: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension.

Ensure that new special education teachers are prepared to incorporate informational text of increasing complexity into classroom instruction.

Although Massachusetts is on the right track with its requirement of the Foundations of Reading test, which addresses knowledge of informational texts, the in-depth coverage of the topic is presented as examples. Therefore, the extent to which this information is required is unclear. Massachusetts is encouraged to make certain that its framework captures the major instructional shifts of college- and career-readiness standards, thereby ensuring that all special education candidates have the ability to adequately incorporate complex informational text into classroom instruction. Because candidates may also satisfy the reading test requirement by taking the MTEL Reading Specialist test, which does not address the knowledge of informational texts, Massachusetts is encouraged to require all candidates to take the Foundations of Reading test.

Ensure that new special education teachers are prepared to incorporate literacy skills as an integral part of every subject. 
To ensure that special education students are capable of accessing varied information about the world around them, Massachusetts should—either through testing frameworks or teacher standards—include literacy skills and using text to build content knowledge in history/social studies, science, technical subjects and the arts.

State response to our analysis

Massachusetts recognized the factual accuracy of this analysis. However, this analysis was updated subsequent to the state's review. 

Updated: September 2020

Research rationale

Reading science has identified five components of effective instruction.
Teaching children to read is the most important task teachers undertake. Over the past 60 years, scientists from many fields have worked to determine how people learn to read and why some struggle. This science of reading has led to breakthroughs that can dramatically reduce the number of children destined to become functionally illiterate or barely literate adults. By routinely applying in the classroom the lessons learned from the scientific findings, most reading failure can be avoided. Estimates indicate that the current failure rate of 20 to 30 percent could be reduced to 2 to 10 percent.

Scientific research has shown that there are five essential components of effective reading instruction: explicit and systematic instruction in phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension. Many states' policies still do not reflect the strong research consensus in reading instruction that has emerged over the last few decades. Many teacher preparation programs resist teaching scientifically based reading instruction. NCTQ's reports on teacher preparation, beginning with What Education Schools Aren't Teaching about Reading and What Elementary Teachers Aren't Learning in 2006 and continuing through the Teacher Prep Review in 2013 and 2014, have consistently found the overwhelming majority of teacher preparation programs across the country do not train teachers in the science of reading. Whether through standards or coursework requirements, states must direct programs to provide this critical training. But relying on programs alone is insufficient; states must only grant a license to new special education elementary teachers who can demonstrate they have the knowledge and skills to teach children to read.

Effective early reading instruction is especially important for teachers of special education students. 
By far, the largest classification of students receiving special education services are those with learning disabilities. Based on data from the U.S. Department of Education, it is estimated that reading disabilities account for about 80 percent of learning disabilities. While early childhood and elementary teachers must know the reading science to prevent reading difficulties, special education teachers, and especially elementary special education teachers, must know how to support students who have already fallen behind and struggle with reading and literacy skills. That some states actually require less from special education teachers in terms of preparation to teach reading than they require from general education teachers is baffling and deeply worrisome. 

College- and career-readiness standards require significant shifts in literacy instruction.
College- and career-readiness standards for K-12 students adopted by nearly all states require from a teachers a different focus on literacy integrated into all subject areas. The standards demand that teachers are prepared to bring complex text and academic language into regular use, emphasize the use of evidence from informational and literary texts and build knowledge and vocabulary through content-rich text. While most states have not ignored teachers' need for training and professional development related to these instructional shifts, few states have attended to the parallel need to align teacher competencies and requirements for teacher preparation so that new teachers will enter the classroom ready to help students meet the expectations of these standards. For special education teachers, preparation and training must focus on managing these instructional shifts while also helping students who may have serious reading deficiencies.

Elementary Teacher Preparation in Reading Instruction: Supporting Research
For evidence on what new teachers are not learning about reading instruction, see NCTQ, "What Education Schools Aren't Teaching About Reading and What Elementary Teachers Aren't Learning" 2006) at:http://www.nctq.org/nctq/images/nctq_reading_study_app.pdf.

For problems with existing reading tests, see S. Stotsky, "Why American Students Do Not Learn to Read Very Well: The Unintended Consequences of Title II and Teacher Testing," Third Education Group Review, Vol. 2, No. 2, 2006; and D. W. Rigden, Report on Licensure Alignment with the Essential Components of Effective Reading Instruction (Washington, D.C.: Reading First Teacher Education Network, 2006).

For information on where states set passing scores on elementary level content tests for teacher licensing across the U.S., see chart on p. 13 of NCTQ "Recommendations for the Reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Removing the Roadblocks: How Federal Policy Can Cultivate Effective Teachers," (2011).

For an extensive summary of the research base supporting the instructional shifts associated with college- and career-readiness standards, see "Research Supporting the Common Core ELA Literacy Shifts and Standards" available from Student Achievement Partners.