Special Education Teacher Preparation:

2015 Delivering Well Prepared Teachers Policy


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

Meets a small part

Analysis of Michigan's policies

Michigan offers only a K-12 special education certification. 

The state requires an initial provisional teaching certificate at either the elementary or secondary level. However, because special education endorsements are valid for all grades, there is no guarantee that teachers teaching special education at the elementary level will have passed the elementary content test, or that secondary special education teachers will have passed a single-subject content test. 


Recommendations for Michigan

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 Michigan 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, Michigan should require a rigorous content test that reports separate passing scores for each content area. Michigan 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 do other teachers who teach only one subject, Michigan's current policy of allowing an elementary content test is problematic and will not help special education students to meet rigorous learning standards. To provide a middle ground, Michigan 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

Michigan recognized the factual accuracy of this analysis.
The state added that regarding the second recommendation, candidates pursuing a special education endorsement with elementary certification are required to pass the elementary education MTTC and cannot be recommended for stand-alone K-12 endorsement in special education without an accompanying elementary certificate. With regard to the third recommendation, Michigan indicated that the state will not approve initial K-12 special education certification programs at the secondary level without an accompanying course of study in a teachable content area. However, it is possible that candidates could complete such a program of study and receive a secondary certificate with only a K-12 special education endorsement if they do not take or are unable to pass the MTTC for the accompanying content area.

Michigan also stated that the recommendation to consider customized HOUSSE options for teachers providing special education instruction at the secondary level is incorporated into Michigan policy. According to the state, without a demonstration of appropriate content knowledge at the secondary level via passage of a secondary level MTTC, a teacher with an elementary certificate and a K-12 special education endorsement is restricted to coteaching with a certified content area teacher or providing noncontent-specific academic support in a resource room setting at the secondary level. Passage of a secondary level MTTC content area assessment would permit the elementary certified teacher with a K-12 special education endorsement to provide instruction to special education students in the respective content area.

Last word

Michigan's assertion that an elementary special education teacher can only coteach at the secondary level if he or she has not passed a content test only seems to be the case for teachers seeking HQT status. By relying on federal HQT provisions rather than articulating its own certification requirement that teachers must demonstrate subject-matter knowledge, the state is putting the burden on LEAs to ensure that their teachers are HQT instead of making this part of licensure.

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).