Systemic Support for Special Education

Making It a More Integral Part of General Teacher Preparation


American Educator, Winter 2020-2021

Aditi is a first-year, eighth-grade social studies teacher. She’s looking forward to honing her practice, but she’s one of several new teachers hired just a couple of weeks before classes started. Perhaps not surprisingly, student achievement at this middle school has been far below the district and state averages for many years. Just in her first-period class, more than 50 percent of her 30 students are performing below proficient on the state assessments in reading and social studies, and seven of her students have documented disabilities. In her four other periods, achievement is similar, class sizes range from 26 to 32, and the numbers of students with disabilities range from five to seven.

Aditi is concerned because during her teacher preparation, she received little training and experience in working with students with disabilities. She believes students with disabilities would benefit from her class because they will have more opportunities to learn challenging curriculum and interact with their peers, but she feels unprepared to integrate effective strategies for these students in her instruction or to leverage the expertise of her special education colleagues.

Experiences like Aditi’s resemble those of many new teachers—but they shouldn’t given the long-standing push to educate students with disabilities in inclusive environments. In 1975, Public Law 94-142 provided legislation guaranteeing a free appropriate education to each child with a disability in the least restrictive environment. As of 2016, 63 percent of school-aged children served under the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (formerly Public Law 94-142) were educated inside the general education classroom for at least 80 percent of the day.1

Inclusion of students with disabilities in general education classrooms has been encouraged due to research showing benefits for students with disabilities and advocacy by the disability community. For instance, in a large-scale analysis of national achievement data, researchers found that time spent in general education predicted higher reading and mathematics achievement for students with disabilities ages 6 through 9.2 Further, students with disabilities who earned 80 percent or more of their high school credits in general education classrooms were far more likely to enroll and persist in postsecondary settings.3 Inclusion promotes other nonacademic outcomes that enrich the quality of life students with disabilities experience in and out of school, such as friendships and improved social skills.4

Despite inclusion’s benefits, the preparation of and support for teachers to educate students in inclusive environments has been insufficient. Research shows that general education teachers are often not prepared to teach students with disabilities and tend not to employ instructional practices that support the learning and social-emotional development of students with disabilities.5 Fortunately, some progress has been made. For example, recent observation studies of reading instruction show that teachers’ use of explicit phonics instruction and comprehension strategies has increased6 (which empirical research has shown to improve the reading achievement of students with disabilities). Still, the field has a long way to go to help general education teachers learn to use research-based practices effectively.7

Teachers’ lack of preparation to educate students with disabilities—and the overall lack of systemic support for excellence in special education—is reflected in the outcomes students with disabilities achieve. On the National Assessment of Educational Progress, average reading scores for fourth-grade students with disabilities have remained “below basic” since 1998. Average mathematics scores for fourth-graders with disabilities have hovered right around “basic” since 2003.8 Outcomes for students with disabilities who are living in poverty or who speak a language other than English are even more dire.9

To reverse this trend, general education teachers must be knowledgeable about integrating research-based strategies for students with disabilities into their daily instruction and understand how to contextualize instructional practices to support student differences in language and culture. They also must be provided with the time, space, and materials to effectively collaborate with special education teachers, other professionals, and families to support the multifaceted needs that many students with disabilities exhibit. General and special education teachers clearly need a sophisticated set of knowledge, skills, and dispositions to optimize learning in inclusive classrooms. Because this expertise cannot truly be cultivated in the relatively short time they spend in preparation programs, they will need access to coherent learning opportunities that extend beyond initial preparation well into their careers. In short, they need to participate in a professional learning system. 

A New, Systemic Approach

In 2013, the US Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) funded the Collaboration for Effective Educator Development, Accountability, and Reform (CEEDAR) Center, which is a partnership between the University of Florida and the American Institutes for Research, to promote a more systemic approach to preparing general and special education teachers, as well as school leaders, to educate students with disabilities in inclusive schools.

At the time, there were educator preparation programs—such as those at Portland State and Bowling Green State universities—that were providing outstanding preparation for general and special education teachers in inclusive practices. Graduates from both programs received preference over teachers who were not dually prepared in the hiring process for local school districts. Programs of this caliber, however, were uncommon, and policies that encouraged general education teacher preparation for students with disabilities were uneven across states. State teaching standards and program approval processes for general education teacher preparation programs and especially alternative route preparation programs lacked specific detail about the knowledge and skills general education teachers and school leaders needed. Most states’ teaching standards were limited in number, were written in broad terms, and lacked uniform meaning (e.g., standards like “understands students’ diverse and developmental learning needs” and “creates an inclusive environment” are often interpreted differently by different educators). Only five states provided detailed standards capturing the knowledge and skills needed to educate students with disabilities (Arkansas, California, Indiana, Minnesota, and New Jersey); however, no states developed standards using more commonly understood terminology (e.g., “teachers will use evidence-based instructional practices” or “teachers will have the knowledge and skills to implement instruction within a Multi-Tiered System of Support framework”). Further, only about half the states required general education teacher candidates to have clinical experiences in which they had opportunities to teach students with disabilities in inclusive environments.10 The lack of standards for alternative preparation programs was even more glaring. According to a report by the US Government Accountability Office, general educators participating in alternative programs were half as likely as those in campus-based programs to take coursework focused on meeting the needs of students with disabilities.11

OSEP recognized that general education teachers needed more support in order to educate students with disabilities to achieve high standards in inclusive schools. For the first time, OSEP funded a systemic approach to improving teacher education. This approach focused simultaneously on improving and aligning state policies (such as licensure and certification, and program approval/review standards) and educator preparation practices for general and special education teachers and school leaders. OSEP wanted to ensure that states had preparation policies that supported teacher and leader educators in providing their candidates with effective learning opportunities that would enable them to implement evidence-based practices for students with disabilities. OSEP understood that special and general education teachers had to be prepared and supported to implement research-based approaches, and school leaders had to be prepared and supported to help general and special educators work together to meet the learning needs of students with disabilities.

At CEEDAR, we took these ideas one step further. We knew that state policies for teaching, student learning, teacher preparation, and professional development in general and special education had to be aligned. We understood from research on professional expertise that it would take seven to ten years to develop the highly effective general and special education teachers and school leaders that students with disabilities need. Thus, initial preparation would be insufficient. Each state would need to lay the groundwork for a professional learning system—one that provided coherent, genuine opportunities for teachers to learn and practice effective strategies in initial preparation and during induction into their career. Finally, major stakeholders invested in the preparation and ongoing development of teachers and school leaders had to be committed to partnering in the creation of a more systemic approach for preparing, supporting, and improving teachers’ and leaders’ practices if their efforts were to be sustained and scaled statewide.

At CEEDAR, we focus on content and process in working with states.* The content aspect of our approach supports states in learning about and implementing research on effective instruction for students with disabilities and pedagogies that support teacher learning. Special education has amassed considerable research on effective instruction in such areas as reading, writing, and behavior management that should inform the content of teacher education, as outcomes for students with disabilities depend on teachers’ use of these effective instructional practices. There is also an emerging knowledge base about how to best construct teacher candidates’ opportunities to learn about effective instructional practices. For teacher candidates to be effective, they need access to active learning opportunities that incorporate such strategies as modeling and feedback.

To assist states in using this content, we apply what we have learned from implementation science to inform our process for working with states—a systematic statewide approach to educator preparation reform. Research on implementation science suggests there are critical drivers of reform efforts that allow reforms to take hold systemwide; these drivers include leadership, communication, professional development, collaboration among the key stakeholders, policy implementation, data-based decision making, alignment, and resources. We designed our process for working with states around these drivers. In what follows, we detail our work with states to improve teacher preparation to illustrate our broader approach for improving teacher and school leader preparation.

The Content of Reform

To become effective teachers, candidates need access to extended, high-quality, deliberate practice opportunities in which they can learn to use instructional strategies that have been demonstrated effective in improving student outcomes.12 It is only through high-quality opportunities to practice research-based instructional skills, in preparation programs and throughout their careers,13 that general and special education teachers can learn to implement strategies in ways that are responsive to how students with and without disabilities learn. To help states develop these high-quality practice opportunities, we develop research-based resources that assist preparation programs and state education agencies in ensuring that their programs and policies, respectively, address the instructional practices pre-service and in-service teachers should learn and provide effective opportunities to learn them.

Focusing on the dimensions of effective instruction. Special education has an impressive history of research on effective instruction for students with disabilities that should inform the ways in which general and special educators craft their instruction. To help teacher educators integrate this research into programs, we worked with the Council for Exceptional Children (the largest professional association for special education) to identify high-leverage practices (HLPs) for teaching students with disabilities (see here).14 HLPs are those practices that are foundational to implementing effective teaching (e.g., explicit instruction, feedback, and formative assessment), and are used by general and special education teachers at all grade levels and across content areas to promote the learning of students with disabilities. HLPs can be taught through deliberate practice to improve teachers’ instruction.15 (To learn more about HLPs, including how to begin implementation by adopting two critical HLPs—explicit instruction and feedback—see the companion article “High-Leverage Practices for Teaching Students with Disabilities—and All Students Who Need a Learning Boost” by Mary T. Brownell, Stephen Ciullo, and Michael J. Kennedy.)

These HLPs should be combined with instruction in evidence-based practices (EBPs), which typically are more content specific or behavioral approaches. EBPs are instructional and behavioral strategies that have been developed for students with disabilities and students with other learning and behavior difficulties, and their efficacy has been established through quantitative research.16 Examples of EBPs include teaching students how to segment and blend sounds in words, employ cognitive strategies, apply problem-solving approaches to summarizing text, or engage in self-questioning while reading. These EBPs are more powerful when implemented using HLPs.

Since HLPs are foundational to implementing effective instruction, teachers can develop sophisticated and thoughtful use of them as they practice implementing EBPs and analyzing their effect on student learning over time.17 The HLPs we developed, such as providing explicit instruction and positive and constructive feedback to guide student learning and behavior, complement the HLPs identified for teaching nondisabled students, such as explaining and modeling content, and strategies for reinforcing productive student behavior. (For more on these practices, see here.) Teacher educators can help candidates analyze commonalities and differences between these two sets of HLPs to develop a more integrated view of inclusive instruction for students with and without disabilities.

Simply helping teachers learn to use HLPs, however, will be insufficient. Teachers’ instruction is not content free; they must be able to provide instruction in critical content-specific strategies, such as comprehension and writing strategies. These content-specific strategies are EBPs (i.e., strategies determined to be effective through empirical research for promoting the learning of students with disabilities).18 To effectively implement EBPs, teachers must use HLPs. For example, many students with disabilities struggle to become readers; thus, teachers need to use explicit instruction and other HLPs, such as formative assessment, to teach EBPs that have been identified in the areas of decoding, vocabulary development, developing background knowledge, and comprehension, among other EBPs, to support students in acquiring critical reading skills. For instance, a teacher may teach summarization using the HLP “explaining and modeling content, practices, and strategies” from TeachingWorks (see here). However, not all students would be successful with common strategies for teaching summarization. Students with disabilities need explicit instruction that is more structured and intensive. In this case, the teacher could use Get the Gist, an evidence-based approach to teaching summarization (for an overview and example, see here). The teacher would first explain and model how to use Get the Gist while thinking aloud, then students would apply that strategy through teacher-controlled, highly interactive practice opportunities in which students receive constructive feedback on their attempts to use the strategy with increasingly complex texts. This process of gradually releasing control of the strategy would take longer and appear more structured than what a teacher might use for students without disabilities.

To promote the use of HLPs and EBPs, CEEDAR has worked with scholars nationally to produce sample course modules that organize research on EBPs in different content areas, such as reading and mathematics, so teacher educators can easily integrate these practices into teacher education programs. For instance, we have a course module on evidence-based reading instruction that provides teacher educators with sample syllabi, PowerPoint presentations, activities, media, and other resources they can use to construct and enhance their teacher education courses. We also have videos and descriptions of HLPs universally available here.

Developing deliberate, extended, coherent practice opportunities. To ensure teachers can appropriately integrate EBPs and HLPs in their instruction, teacher educators should use effective pedagogies for promoting teacher learning. Without knowledge of these effective pedagogies, teacher educators will struggle to craft high-quality deliberate practice opportunities for teachers, and states may not develop program approval standards that support the use of these pedagogies. To respond to this need, CEEDAR has developed a free resource, Learning to Teach,19 that is based on current research on learning and the development of professional expertise. This resource first highlights features of effective practice, such as modeling, feedback, and analysis. It then helps teacher educators analyze the practice opportunities they currently provide and identify research-informed pedagogies that can improve them, such as video modeling, bug-in-the-ear coaching, and virtual simulations.

To further help states, we facilitate cross-state, virtual learning groups. In these groups, state department of education leaders, teacher education faculty, and local school district leaders share practice-based opportunities that their educator preparation and induction programs have created, examine those opportunities for the learning experiences they afford, create additional practice-based opportunities, and share statewide approaches to support improved clinical practice. These cross-state groups are intended to assist states in developing a continuum of effective practice opportunities for teacher candidates, beginning teachers, and teacher mentors.

The Process of Improvement

Efforts to improve the content of teacher education and induction programs are not easy given the historic differences between general and special education regarding philosophical underpinnings of instruction.20 For instance, general education teacher educators often privilege student-led instruction in their coursework. In this instruction, students’ interests, questions, and ideas play a prominent role. Teachers are facilitators of student-to-student conversations. In special education, however, teacher educators promote teacher-led, explicit instruction that gives students multiple opportunities to practice concepts, strategies, and skills with repeated feedback. Navigating these differences has been challenging. State departments of education, colleges of education, and school districts are different organizationally and culturally.21 Further, people working within these organizations have different roles and responsibilities. These differences can present barriers to establishing a professional learning system, one where policy and practice are mutually reinforcing. Thus, we embrace a systemic approach that emphasizes collaboration and alignment of efforts to reforming teacher education and induction.

Facilitating partnerships among key stakeholders for shared commitment. We understand that partnerships among key stakeholders help create a foundation for improving teacher preparation. Partnerships establish the trust and communication necessary for systemic reform.22 When people trust each other, discuss ideas openly, and communicate about the benefits of reforms, they are more likely to develop the commitment needed to do the hard work reform requires and encourage others to join their efforts. They are also more likely to navigate successfully various stakeholders’ different perspectives.

To support the formation of partnerships, we have worked with 26 states to form state leadership teams comprised of key stakeholders from state departments of education, professional educator standards boards, teacher and leader education programs, and school districts. These stakeholders—including representatives from general and special education and principal leadership—comprise the team tasked with (1) developing a vision and plan for educator preparation and induction reform that is based on research on effective instruction for students with disabilities and research on deliberate practice, (2) critically analyzing current policies and practices to ensure alignment with their vision, and (3) creating and executing a shared plan of action designed to revise and develop preparation and induction policies and practices to achieve one goal: more teachers and leaders who can effectively educate students with disabilities in inclusive environments.

Aligning and leveraging policies and reform efforts. Another component of our systemic approach is to help state leadership teams align and leverage policies and reform efforts. Crafting a professional learning system requires collaboration and coordination within and among federal, state, district, and school-level stakeholders/partners.23 These efforts should be guided by research on effective instruction for students with disabilities and reinforced through states’ teaching standards. Initial preparation and induction policies and reform efforts must be aligned for teacher candidates and practicing teachers to develop clear understandings of effective instructional practice for students with disabilities. Policy analyses conducted by our center suggest that states should articulate more specific teaching standards about what teachers need to know to successfully educate students with disabilities. For instance, California’s revised Teaching Performance Expectations are more helpful than most other state standards because they include specific guidance, such as beginning teachers’ need to use multi-tiered systems of support, assistive technology, and universal design for learning to address all students’ needs.24 Such specific teaching standards should be reinforced by certification and licensure assessments, program approval standards, teacher evaluation methods, induction and mentoring policies and standards, and professional development policies. Without a clear vision of what effective instruction for students with disabilities looks like, and an agreed upon path for getting there, states will not succeed in creating cohesive professional learning opportunities across teachers’ careers.

We support state leadership teams in creating alignment between policies and reform efforts by facilitating their analysis of various initiatives designed to improve the education of all students, particularly students with disabilities. During team meetings, we help teams consider how their various improvement efforts and policies can be aligned with the research on effective instruction for students with disabilities and teacher learning. For instance, we have helped teams in Michigan and Colorado analyze their statewide goals for improving student literacy and align their goals for improvement with those efforts. We also have helped teams in Georgia and Mississippi consider how improvement efforts, such as efforts to improve teacher candidates’ effective use of HLPs, and associated resources can be leveraged to improve teacher preparation, induction, and ongoing professional development in their particular context.

Fostering leadership capacity. We work collaboratively with states to develop the leadership capacity needed to sustain and scale teacher preparation and induction reforms. To sustain and scale complex reforms, those involved must be committed to and have the capacity to communicate openly and positively about the reform and its benefits.25 Informal and formal leaders move reform agendas forward; they develop goals, operationalize tasks, and guarantee that timelines are met. Formal leaders are important for ensuring that preparation and induction policies and practices are revised and that those implementing revisions have the needed resources. Informal leaders generate enthusiasm and buy-in about the reform in their respective institutions and professional communities by helping colleagues see the benefits of the reform. This buy-in can translate into the hard work that reform requires.

To develop leadership capacity, we engage in two strategies. First, we foster partnerships among key stakeholders on the state leadership team by working with states to identify leaders in their respective organizations. As these stakeholders collaboratively analyze their current reform efforts and develop a vision and plan for improving teacher preparation and induction systems, they begin to take ownership for enacting it. Second, to help teacher educators on these teams deepen formal and informal leadership within their programs, we have developed a resource for preparation programs, the Roadmap for Educator Preparation Reform.26 We use this resource to help teacher preparation program leaders and faculty members guide CEEDAR’s reform efforts within their institutions and then scale those efforts across other preparation programs. This tool provides facilitation guidance to help implement specific strategies to support reform, such as conducting a needs assessment, determining a program review topic, developing an action plan, implementing reforms, and practicing continuous review.

State Initiatives

Our approach combined with the dedication and effort of states is resulting in systemic changes that are increasing teachers’ and leaders’ use of effective practices. States like Arizona, Georgia, Kentucky, Michigan, and Mississippi have developed statewide visions to improve preparation, induction, and professional development through the widespread and consistent use of HLPs and EBPs. For example, in Georgia, colleges of education involved in the state leadership team have reviewed their coursework and field experiences to ensure that EBPs, HLPs, and culturally relevant pedagogies are embedded throughout their general and special education teacher education programs. These higher education programs are also connecting statewide to improve the induction of beginning teachers through seven regional collaboratives (i.e., P20 collaboratives). The intention of these collaboratives, which involve professionals from preschool through postsecondary education, is to use high-leverage practices to focus the practice opportunities teacher candidates, beginning teachers, and practicing teachers engage in. The collaboratives also aim to create a system of learning and mentoring that will enable all teachers to implement such practices successfully in the multi-tiered system of instructional support framework that Georgia schools use.

California is another example of a state that has aligned and leveraged reform efforts statewide to ensure students with disabilities are educated successfully in inclusive environments. California initially engaged with our center to increase the number of teacher preparation programs offering dual certification for general and special educators. Programs that now offer such certification, such as California State University, Long Beach, are providing teacher candidates with the coursework and clinical experience opportunities needed to acquire knowledge of the general education curriculum, how to differentiate that curriculum, and how to complement it with intensive intervention with students who need it. Further, initial data collected on teacher candidates in at least one of those programs show that they are better able to use HLPs to effectively implement EBPs in reading.27

These efforts to reform preparation programs in California occurred at the same time a statewide task force for improving the education of students with disabilities was underway, and together, they prompted the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing to revise its teaching standards for general and special education teachers. These cumulative efforts have stimulated the creation of the California Alliance for Inclusive Schooling (CAIS), which seeks to scale and sustain statewide preparation and K–12 efforts to ensure all students are educated in inclusive environments. Recently, CAIS launched a mini-grant competition that provided funding to integrate the new teaching standards into coursework and field experiences in eight colleges of education that were not part of the original California state leadership team. Although it is too early to know the outcomes of these efforts, the alignment of statewide reform in teacher preparation and K–12 education is likely to have a positive impact on students with disabilities.


The inclusion of students with disabilities in general education classrooms is a trend that will and should continue. Outcomes for these students demonstrate that general and special education teachers and their school leaders need better preparation and ongoing professional development if they are to help students with disabilities achieve their full potential.

Efforts underway at CEEDAR are providing the resources and supports states need to craft professional learning systems. Navigating differences in perspectives and goals underlying general and special education teacher education and state departments of education, colleges of education, and school districts has not been easy and takes time, but our state initiatives demonstrate that our approach offers a comprehensive set of codified steps for ensuring that new teachers like Aditi will have the knowledge and skills needed to effectively educate students with disabilities in inclusive environments, and that she and others like her will have school leaders who know how to support their efforts.

Mary T. Brownell is a distinguished professor of special education at the University of Florida and director of the Collaboration for Effective Educator Development, Accountability, and Reform (CEEDAR) Center. Lynn Holdheide is a managing technical assistance consultant for the American Institutes for Research. Margaret. L. Kamman is an associate scholar in the School of Special Education, School Psychology, and Early Childhood Studies at the University of Florida. Erica D. McCray is director and an associate professor in the School of Special Education, School Psychology, and Early Childhood Studies at the University of Florida. Holdheide, Kamman, and McCray also codirect the CEEDAR Center with Brownell. The content of this manuscript was produced under US Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs, Award No. H325A170003. David Guardino serves as the project officer. The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent the positions or policies of the US Department of Education. No official endorsement by the US Department of Education is intended or should be inferred.

* Our reference to states includes state departments of education, professional standards boards, colleges and schools of education, and local school districts. (return to article)


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7. S. Ciullo et al., “Implementation of Evidence-Based Literacy Practices in Middle School Response to Intervention: An Observation Study,” Learning Disability Quarterly 39 (2016): 44–57.

8. National Assessment of Educational Progress, The Nation’s Report Card, 2019, and

9. Ciullo et al., “Implementation of Evidence-Based Literacy Practices.”

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14. J. McLeskey et al., High-Leverage Practices in Special Education (Arlington, VA: Council for Exceptional Children and CEEDAR Center, January 2017).

15. Ball and Forzani, “The Work of Teaching.”

16. B. G. Cook and S. C. Cook, “Unraveling Evidence-Based Practices in Special Education,” Journal of Special Education 47 (2013): 71–82.

17. M. Windschitl et al., “Sharing a Vision, Sharing Practices: How Communities of Educators Improve Teaching,” Remedial and Special Education 40 (2019): 380–390.

18. CEEDAR Center, “The CEEDAR Center Evidence Standards,”

19. A. Benedict et al., Learning to Teach: Practice-Based Preparation in Teacher Education (Washington, DC: Center on Great Teachers and Leaders and CEEDAR Center, 2016).

20. M. Pugach, L. P. Blanton, and V. Correa, “A Historical Perspective on the Role of Collaboration in Teacher Education Reform: Making Good on the Promise of Teaching All Students,” Teacher Education and Special Education 34 (2011): 183–200.

21. J. L. Russell et al., “Designing Inter-Organizational Networks to Implement Education Reform: An Analysis of State Race to the Top Applications,” Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis 37 (2015): 92–112.

22. C. E. Coburn, W. R. Penuel, and K. E. Geil, Research-Practice Partnerships: A Strategy for Leveraging Research for Educational Improvement in School Districts (New York: William T. Grant Foundation, 2013).

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24. Commission on Teacher Credentialing, California Teaching Performance Expectations (Sacramento, CA: 2016).

25. D. Fixsen et al., “Scaling-Up Brief,” State Implementation and Scaling-Up of Evidence-Based Practices Center (Number 1, September 2013).

26. L. Hayes et al., Roadmap for Educator Preparation Reform (CEEDAR Center, 2019),

27. M. T. Brownell et al., “A Continuum of Pedagogies for Preparing Teachers to Use High-Leverage Practices,” Remedial and Special Education 40 (2019): 338–355.

[illustrated by Rachel Sender]

American Educator, Winter 2020-2021