Special Education Teacher Preparation: Rhode
Island

2015 Delivering Well Prepared Teachers Policy

Goal

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

Meets

Analysis of Rhode Island's policies

Rhode Island does not offer a K-12 special education certification. The state offers an early childhood (birth to grade 2), elementary (1-6), middle grades (5-8) and secondary grade (7-12) certification in special education. All special education candidates must hold a general education certification at a specific grade level to receive the corresponding special education certification. 

Candidates applying for the elementary (1-6) special education certificate must pass the same elementary content test as is required of the general education elementary teachers. The Praxis II Elementary Education: Multiple Subjects (5001) test is comprised of four subtests with individual scores in math, reading and language arts, science and social studies. Candidates must pass each subtest to be eligible for licensure. The state also offers an early childhood special education certification for birth through grade 2; however, the Praxis II Early Childhood: Content Knowledge (5025) test does not report separate subscores in the core content areas of language arts, math, science or social studies.

Middle grades (5-8) special education candidates must now earn a middle grades certificate in one of the following areas: English, mathematics, science, social studies or a world language.

Candidates applying for the secondary grades (7-12) special education certificate must hold certification in one of the following areas: agriculture, biology, business education, chemistry, English, general science, math, physics or social studies. 

Citation

Recommendations for Rhode Island

Ensure adequate content testing for middle grades special education teachers. 
Although middle grades special education candidates are required to pass a content test, those teaching on the elementary certificate would have only passed the elementary content test. Therefore, Rhode Island should strengthen its policy and require teacher candidates who are teaching the middle grades to possess adequate content knowledge before entering the classroom. 

Ensure that secondary special education teachers possess adequate content knowledge. 

Secondary special education teachers are frequently generalists who teach many core subject areas. Rhode Island has taken a step in the right direction by requiring general education certification. Although candidates choosing core content areas as their general education certifications will have subject-matter knowledge in at least one area, those choosing other subject areas will not. To provide a middle ground, Rhode Island 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

Rhode Island was helpful in providing NCTQ with facts necessary for this analysis.  The state also noted that a review of federally reported highly qualified teacher data demonstrates that Rhode Island is not experiencing significant gaps with secondary special educators. Prior to 2010, special educators were able to use a HOUSSE rubric to demonstrate content proficiency. According to the state, with fewer self-contained secondary classrooms, there is less need for secondary special educators to be the sole content teacher across multiple content areas.

How we graded

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.  Further, 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.

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).