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.

Nearly meets

Analysis of Missouri's policies

Missouri offers a K-12 Elementary Mild to Moderate Option or a K-12 Middle/Secondary Mild to Moderate special education license. The state also offers an early childhood special education certification for birth to grade 3. Elementary special education teachers must take the same multiple-subject content test as general education teachers.

Testing frameworks indicate that teacher candidates applying for the K-12 Middle/Secondary Mild to Moderate special education license will have to pass a middle/secondary multiple-subject content test with separate passing scores required for each test or a single-subject secondary assessment.


Recommendations for Missouri

Ensure that secondary special education teachers possess adequate content knowledge. 
Secondary special education teachers are frequently generalists who teach many core subject areas. While Missouri is on the right track in requiring content testing with separately scored subtests, the state should monitor the rigor of this new test to ensure that it guarantees requisite knowledge needed in the secondary classroom. Further, there is no assurance from the license that a secondary teacher who only takes a single-subject test only teaches that subject. The state is also encouraged to clarify its special education policy by making distinct grade-level licenses. The fact that the licenses are labeled as "K-12" elementary or middle/secondary leaves doubt as to whether these are really discrete grade-level licenses, or that a teacher with a K-12 elementary license is also able to teach at the secondary level without additional content testing.

State response to our analysis

Missouri recognized the factual accuracy of this analysis. 

The state also noted that it is working with Collaboration for Effective Educator Development, Accountability, and Reform (CEEDAR) to research and explore policies that would change the current K-12 Mild-Moderate Cross-Categorical Certification.

According to the state, candidates choose one of three test options for certification in Mild-Moderate Cross-Categorical in order to be considered highly qualified:

  • K-12 Elementary (Elementary Multi-Content assessment)
  • 7-12 Middle/Secondary (Middle/Secondary Multi-Content assessment)
  • 7-12 Single Certification for Middle and/or Secondary (Secondary Content assessments)

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).