Special Education Teacher Preparation :

2011 Delivering Well Prepared Teachers Policy


The state should ensure that special education teachers know the subject matter they will be required to teach.

Meets in part
Suggested Citation:
National Council on Teacher Quality. (2011). Special Education Teacher Preparation : Maryland results. State Teacher Policy Database. [Data set].
Retrieved from: https://www.nctq.org/yearbook/state/MD-Special-Education-Teacher-Preparation--6

Analysis of Maryland's policies

Commendably, Maryland does not offer a K-12 special education certification.

However, Maryland does not ensure that its elementary special education teacher candidates are provided with a broad liberal arts program of study relevant to the elementary classroom. It also does not require that they pass the same subject-matter test as general education candidates. 

Further, Maryland fails to require that secondary special education teacher candidates are highly qualified in at least two subject areas, and it does not customize a HOUSSE route for new secondary special education teachers to help them achieve highly qualified status in all subjects they teach.  


Recommendations for Maryland

Provide a broad liberal arts program of study to elementary special education candidates, and require that they pass the same content test as general education teachers.
Maryland should ensure that special education teacher candidates who will teach elementary grades possess knowledge of the subject matter at hand. Not only should the state require core-subject coursework relevant to the elementary classroom, but it should also require that these candidates pass the same subject-matter test required of all elementary teachers. 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 teacher candidates graduate with highly qualified status in at least two subjects, and customize a HOUSSE route so that they can achieve highly qualified status in all subjects they plan to teach.
To make secondary special education teacher candidates more flexible and better able to serve schools and students, Maryland should use a combination of coursework and testing to ensure that they graduate with highly qualified status in two core academic areas. A customized HOUSSE route can also help new secondary special education teacher candidates to become highly qualified in multiple subjects by offering efficient means by which they could gain broad overviews of specific areas of content knowledge, such as content-driven university courses. Such a route is specifically permitted in the 2004 reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).  

State response to our analysis

Maryland asserted that a liberal arts background is provided through the general college or university requirements that elementary and special education candidates complete before they enter teacher education programs. 

The state also noted that secondary special education teachers must be certified in a content area to be highly qualified if they are the primary teacher of content in the classroom or the teacher of record. Those holding professional certification in special education may add content in one of two ways: presenting a qualifying score on the appropriate content assessment, or presenting a minimum of 15 semester hours in the age-appropriate area of special education and 15 semester hours in related content areas.

Maryland pointed out that even for teachers who are not currently teachers of record, and while not a requirement, the state has supported programs that help secondary special educators become highly qualified in the core academic areas assessed on the Maryland School Assessment (MSA) in middle school and the High School Assessment in high school.

In addition, the state contended that it plans to phase out HOUSSE by the conclusion of school year 2013-2014. The use of HOUSSE will end for general educators who wish to use experiences they have had prior to the 2005-2006 school year. The HOUSSE process for 1) elementary and secondary certified teachers in special education and teaching core academic subjects in special education assignments, and 2) K-12 teachers in English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) and teaching core academic subjects, will be available only to teachers with experience prior to the 2010-2011 school year. The use of HOUSSE for these educators (excepting multi-subject special educators who are highly qualified in language arts, mathematics or science at the time of hire) will also end at the conclusion of the 2012-2013 school year, regardless of prior experience.  
Finally, Maryland added that teachers who are certified in both elementary education and special education are required to pass both the elementary content test and the Praxis II Special Education assessment. Teachers certified in special education either at the elementary or secondary level, and listed as the teacher of record, must have this dual certification, including the testing referenced above, to be considered highly qualified under the rules of NCLB.

How we graded

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.

Research rationale

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 (2011). 

For the impact of special education certification see Feng and Sass, "What Makes Special Educators Special: Teacher Training and Achievement of Students with Disabilities" Calder Institute, Working Paper 49 (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 3, No. 1 (2003): 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 Teachers; R. Ehrenberg and D. Brewer, "Did Teachers' Verbal Ability and Race Matter in the 1950s? Coleman Revisited," Economics of Education Review 14 (1995), 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 Willingham, D. T., "How knowledge helps: It speeds and strengthens comprehension, learning—and thinking," American Educator 30(1), (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 28 (1991), 465-498;; R. Greenwald, L. Hedges, and R. Laine, "Does Money Matter? A Meta-Analysis of Studies of the Effects of Differential School Inputs on Students' Outcomes," Educational Researcher 23, no. 3 (1994), 5-14; E. Hanushek, "Teacher Characteristics and Gains in Student Achievement: Estimation Using Micro-Data," American Economic Review 61, no. 2 (1971), 280-288; E. Hanushek, "A More Complete Picture of School Resource Policies," Review of Educational Research 66 (1996), 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 and J.R. King, "Subject Area Preparation of Secondary Mathematics and Science Teachers and Student Achievement," Economics of Education Review 12, no. 2 (1994), 125-145; R. Murnane, "Understanding the Sources of Teaching Competence: Choices, Skills, and the Limits of Training," Teachers College Record 84, no. 3 (1983); R. Murnane and B. Phillips, Effective Teachers of Inner City Children: Who They Are and What Are They? (Princeton, NJ: Mathematica Policy Research, 1978); R. Murnane and B. Phillips, "What Do Effective Teachers of Inner City Children Have in Common?" Social Science Research 10 (1981), 83-100; M. McLaughlin and D. Marsh, "Staff Development and School Change," Teachers College Record 80, no. 1 (1978), 69-94; R. Strauss and E. Sawyer, "Some New Evidence on Teacher and Student Competencies," Economics of Education Review 5 (1986), 41; 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, "Can a State Department of Education Increase Teacher Quality? Lessons Learned in Massachusetts," in Brookings Papers on Education Policy, 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).