Content Knowledge: Pennsylvania

2017 Special Education Teacher Preparation Policy

Goal

The state should ensure that special education teachers know the subject matter they are licensed to teach. This goal was reorganized in 2017.

Meets in part

Analysis of Pennsylvania's policies

Content Test Requirements: Candidates applying for the special education PreK-8 certificate must have a dual certificate in one of the following: early childhood, elementary/middle, reading specialist, or a content-specific PreK-12 certificate. Therefore, only candidates with a dual certificate in either early childhood or elementary/middle would be required to pass the same elementary content test as general education elementary teachers. This general elementary test does not report subscores for all core content areas.


Candidates applying for the special education 7-12 certificate must have a dual certificate in either secondary, reading specialist, or a content-specific PreK-12 certificate. Similarly, candidates opting for the dual certificate as a reading specialist or with a PreK-12 certificate would not be required to pass a content test.

Citation

Recommendations for Pennsylvania

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 necessary subject matter, Pennsylvania should require a rigorous content test that reports separate passing scores for each content area. Pennsylvania should also set these passing scores to reflect high levels of performance. Failure to ensure that teachers possess requisite content knowledge may deprive 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 Pennsylvania is on the right track in requiring dual certification in a secondary content area, which would ensure content knowledge in at least one subject area, the state allows teachers who opt for dual certification in reading specialist to not pass any content tests. 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, Pennsylvania's current policy will not help special education students to meet rigorous learning standards.

State response to our analysis

Pennsylvania recognized the factual accuracy of this analysis, however this analysis was updates subsequent to the state's review.

Updated: December 2017

How we graded

4A: Special Education Content Knowledge 

  • Elementary Content Knowledge: The state should require that all new elementary special education candidates pass a licensure test across all elementary subject areas that is no less rigorous than the test required of general education candidates.
  • Secondary Content Knowledge: The state should require that all new secondary special education candidates possess adequate content knowledge.
Elementary Content Knowledge
One-half of the total goal score is earned based on the following:

  • One-half credit: The state will earn one-half of a point if it requires all new elementary special education candidates to pass an elementary content knowledge test that is no less rigorous than the test required of general education candidates.
  • One-quarter credit: The state will earn one-quarter of a point if it requires elementary licenses in conjunction with special education licenses but does not offer special education elementary licenses. 
Secondary Content Knowledge
One-half of the total goal score is earned based on the following:

  • One-half credit: The state will earn one-half of a point if it requires all new secondary special education candidates to pass a special education licensure test across all secondary subject areas that is no less rigorous than the test required of general education candidates.
  • One-quarter credit: The state will earn one-quarter of a point if it requires secondary licenses in conjunction with special education licenses but does not offer special education secondary licenses.

Research rationale

Generic K-12 special education licenses are inappropriate for teachers of high-incidence special education students. Too many states do not distinguish 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.[1] And because the overwhelming majority of special education students are in the high-incidence category, the result is a fundamentally broken system.

Special education teachers teach content and therefore must know content.[2] While special educators should be valued for their critical role in working with students with disabilities and special needs, each 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.[3] Providing instruction to children who have special needs requires knowledge of both effective learning strategies and the subject matter at hand.[4] Failure to ensure that teachers are well trained in content areas—presumably through subject matter licensing tests—deprives special education students of the opportunity to reach their academic potential.


[1] Levenson, N. (2011). Something has got to change: Rethinking special education (Working Paper 2011-01). American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research. Retrieved from http://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED521782
[2] For an analysis of the importance of special educator content knowledge, see: Levenson, N. (2011). Something has got to change: Rethinking special education. American Enterprise Institute (Working paper 2011-01, 1-20).; For information on teacher licensing tests, see: Gitomer, D. H., & Latham, A. S. (1999). The academic quality of prospective teachers: The impact of admissions and licensure testing. Educational Testing Service. Retrieved from http://www.ets.org/Media/Research/pdf/RR-03-35.pdf; For a study on teacher testing scores and student achievement, see: Ladd, H. F., Clotfelter, C. T., & Vigdor, J. L. (2007). How and why do teacher credentials matter for student achievement (NBER Working Paper, 142786). Retrieved from http://www.caldercenter.org/sites/default/files/1001058_Teacher_Credentials.pdf
[3] Feng, L., & Sass, T. R. (2010). What makes special education teachers special? Teacher training and achievement of students with disabilities (Working Paper 49). National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research. Retrieved from http://www.urban.org/UploadedPDF/1001435-what-makes-special.pdf; Monk, D. H. (1994). Subject area preparation of secondary mathematics and science teachers and student achievement. Economics of Education Review, 13(2), 125-145.
[4] For research on the importance of teachers' content knowledge, see: Boyd, D. J., Grossman, P. L., Lankford, H., Loeb, S., & Wyckoff, J. (2009). Teacher preparation and student achievement. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 31(4), 416-440; Willingham, D. T. (2006). How knowledge helps: It speeds and strengthens comprehension, learning—and thinking. American Educator, 30(1), 30-37.