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«Improving Pre-Service Middle School Teachers’ Confidence, Competence, and Commitment to Co-Teaching in Inclusive Classrooms By Toni Strieker, Bryan ...»

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Toni Strieker, Bryan Gillis, & Guichun Zong

Teacher Education Quarterly, Fall 2013

Improving Pre-Service

Middle School Teachers’

Confidence, Competence,

and Commitment to Co-Teaching

in Inclusive Classrooms

By Toni Strieker, Bryan Gillis, & Guichun Zong


The ability of university based teacher education programs in the United States

to produce competent educators who are ready to meet the challenges of 21st century

schooling has been closely scrutinized and hotly de-

bated in recent years (Lewin, 2011). Teacher education Toni Strieker is a currently faces an urgent responsibility to transform professor, Bryan Gillis its curriculum, pedagogy, structure, and delivery to is an assistant professor, better prepare pre-service teachers to negotiate the and Guichun Zong is changing landscape in educational policies and prac- a professor, all in the tices that influence K–12 classrooms (Boyle-Baise & Department of Secondary McIntyre, 2008; Darling-Hammond, 2010; Fullerton and Middle Grades & Ruben, 2011; Grossman & McDonald, 2008). Ac- Education of the Bagwell cording to Hulett (2009), one of the major changes College of Education has been the redefining of both general educators’ at Kennesaw State and special educators’ roles as a result of legislative University, Kennesaw, mandates such as The Individuals with Disabilities Georgia. Education Act (IDEA) and the No Child Left Behind 159 Pre-Service Middle School Co-Teaching Act (NCLB). To effectively teach large numbers of students with disabilities in inclusive classrooms, content teachers and special education teachers must face the reality and challenge of developing effective partnerships that provide equitable instruction and increase the performance outcomes for all students.

According to Grant and Gillette (2006) and Shamberger (2010), classroom teachers often lack the necessary knowledge and skills to deliver instruction ef- fectively to a diverse group, particularly when faced with teaching students with disabilities in the general education classroom and curriculum. One of the skills that classroom teachers often lack is the ability to collaborate. In 2008, Paulsen reported that classroom teachers do not have the collaborative skills necessary to improve learning for diverse students through interaction with their professional colleagues, families, and community members. To address this obvious disconnect between teacher preparation and the reality of teaching in P-12 schools, scholars in teacher education have recommended co-teaching as a viable solution because it partners teachers who possess content knowledge with those with expertise in special education (Bauwens, Hourcade, & Friend, 1989). As early as 1995, Cook and Friend defined co-teaching as two or more certified professionals delivering instruction to a heterogeneous group of students in a single classroom or space.

According to Friend (2011), co-teaching generally extends to co-planning, coassessment and co-instruction. In terms of co-instruction, Friend describes six different models: one-teach/one assist, one teach/one observe, station teaching, parallel teaching, alternative teaching and team teaching.

Since its inception, co-teaching has evolved into one of the most widely used approaches for providing students with disabilities with access to the state-approved curriculum in the general education classroom. With the implementation of NCLB in 2001 and IDEA in 2004, the expectation for general classroom and special education teachers to co-teach has increased substantially (National Center for Educational Statistics, 2008). However, the increased popularity has not led to increased understanding and effective execution of the practice. In 2008, Friend reported that even when teachers are highly experienced, co-teaching is more difficult than it appears. Thus, it is not surprising that these difficulties are compounded when pre-service teachers are required to co-teach as they simultaneously develop the basic pedagogical skills requisite to effectively plan, deliver, and evaluate content area lessons effectively. Pre-service teachers obviously need systematic preparation in order to understand the theory and practice of co-teaching.

In response to this need, teacher educators have begun to explore creative ways to model collaboration and integrate co-teaching into their undergraduate programs. An emerging body of professional literature documents various efforts to restructure teacher preparation programs, curriculum, and pedagogy to prepare pre-service teachers in general education and special education with the knowledge, skills and dispositions to assume the responsibilities of co-teaching (AlverezMcHatton & Daniels, 2008; Arndt & Liles, 2010; Fullerton & Ruben, 2011; Parker,

160 Toni Strieker, Bryan Gillis, & Guichun Zong

Alverez-McHatton, Allen & Rosa, 2010). Based upon their comprehensive review of collaborative teacher education, Brownell, Leko, Kamman, and King (2008) argue that although various practices and programs have grown in number over the past two decades, there is still not enough information to assess the impact of these changes on the preparation of inclusive teachers. Pugach (2005) concurred, stating “Outcomes of this high level teacher education activity to prepare general education teachers to work with students with disabilities, however, are not as well documented” (p. 552).

To sum, whereas there is a plethora of literature that describes what co-teaching is and the importance of this policy initiative, the research base on the effectiveness of co-teaching and preparation of general education teachers for the task has been inadequate. Very little is known about the complex nature of developing content teachers’ ability to collaborate with special education teachers in a co-teaching environment as a means to improve learning and achievement for all learners.

Therefore, the broad intent of this study is twofold. First, we briefly describe our systematic approach that includes interactive seminars, field-based observations and interviews, reflections, and debriefings. Second, we report our findings of a four-year study on the effectiveness of our systematic approach to improve preservice teachers’ knowledge of and attitudes toward co-teaching in middle school

content classrooms. Specifically the research questions that guide this study are:

1. What developing knowledge of and attitudes toward co-teaching with special education professionals do pre-service middle school teachers possess?

2. What, if any, impact does the systematic approach and its various components have on the pre-service teachers’ knowledge of and attitudes toward co-teaching with special education professionals?

Theoretical Framing and Review of Literature This study is grounded in theory and research on teacher development, particularly as it relates to the inclusion of students with disabilities in content classrooms. Recent studies reveal that general education teacher candidates have specific reservations about inclusion and secondary education majors tend to have high levels of anxiety about including students with special needs and more doubts about their own efficacy to teach students with special needs (McCray & McHatton, 2011; McHatton & McCray, 2007) when compared to their elementary education counterparts. Theorists and researchers in teacher education suggest that teacher candidates’ concerns and anxieties may be alleviated through carefully designed pre-service teacher education programs that promote infusion of special education content across curriculum, particularly in methods courses, employment of pedagogy that emphasizes evidence-based instructional strategies, and effective integration of guided field experiences. They have identified the following core

161 Pre-Service Middle School Co-Teaching

values and competencies as essential proficiencies in successful inclusion of students with disabilities in general educational settings: a positive attitude toward increased inclusions of students with disabilities, a high sense of teaching efficacy, a willingness and ability to making curricular and instructional accommodations, skills in collaborative teaming and teaching, and knowledge and skill in areas of positive behavior support (Martinez, 2003).

Learning to become an effective middle grades teacher requires in-depth content knowledge, a clear understanding of young adolescent learners, and a mastery of the varied modes of instruction necessary to reach diverse groups of students.

Increased accountability for the performance outcomes of students with disabilities in inclusive classrooms has resulted in significant changes in the roles of classroom teachers in educating these students (Forlin, 2001). Therefore, middle school teachers must be able to use conceptual and practical teaching tools and become aware of their own attitudes, particularly as related to educating the increasingly diverse student body in P-12 schools (Darling-Hammond & Bransford, 2005).

Over the past 20 years, the language used to describe inclusive philosophy, inclusive practices, and inclusive classrooms has been inconsistent, which has led to inconsistencies in the development of coherent teacher preparation programs (Oyler, 2011).

For the purposes of this research, the term inclusion is defined as the “act of creating environments in which any individual or group can be and feel welcomed, respected, supported, and valued to fully participate. An inclusive and welcoming climate embraces differences and offers respect in words and actions for all people” (Clayton-Pedersen, O’Neill, & Musil, 2007, p. 9). Given that definition, inclusive classrooms are those that actively and intentionally engage diverse learners on an on-going basis in the state-approved curriculum as well as the social and intellectual communities.

This study is also informed by research on the development of pre-service teachers’ attitudes, perceptions, and/or beliefs and how those attitudes influence their feelings of self-efficacy in co-teaching, as well as their views on including students with disabilities in their future classrooms. Results of well-defined studies indicate that elementary (Yellin et al., 2003) and secondary (Henning & Mitchell, 2002; Stella, Forlin, & Lan, 2007) pre-service teachers experience greater feelings of self-efficacy after attending sessions in their education methods classes devoted to inclusive practices. More recently, Brownell et al. (2008) conducted a quantitative study to determine the effects of embedding special education content into pre-service general education assessment courses on 208 teacher candidates’ knowledge of and attitudes toward teaching students with learning disabilities.

Results indicated that embedded instruction significantly increased participants’ knowledge of inclusion terminology and assessment adaptation, and improved the confidence levels in meeting the needs of students with learning disabilities.

While the results from quantitative studies provide much needed empirical evidence and paint a broad picture of the impact of efforts to prepare classroom teachers to co-teach, qualitative inquiries reveal that prospective teachers must go

162 Toni Strieker, Bryan Gillis, & Guichun Zong

through a more detailed and complex process to develop the requisite knowledge, skills, and commitment to educate students with disabilities effectively in inclusive classrooms. Results of investigations of pre-service general and special education teachers’ perceptions towards co-teaching found the subjects to be generally favorable. However, even though these pre-service teachers were open-minded, the general education teacher candidates consistently voiced concerns about their capabilities to include students with disabilities in their classrooms and to co-teach with a special education teacher (Arndt & Liles, 2010; Alvarez-McHatton & Daniel, 2008).

The degree to which general and special education teachers are able to meaningfully collaborate in inclusive classrooms, and the role of higher education to prepare them to do so, has been closely scrutinized over the past decade (McKenzie, 2009).

According to Kamens (2007), many teacher education programs lack a systematic approach to preparing pre-service teachers to collaborate with their prospective professional colleagues. Furthermore, Griffin, Jones, and Kilgore (2006) state that fewer than one-third of general educators and fewer than one-half of special educators receive instruction on collaboration during their pre-service preparation. This may be due, at least in part, to the pervasive perception that collaboration is either intuitive (Friend, 2000) or developmental in nature (Salend, 2008).

The current investigation utilizes qualitative methods to describe and analyze how our systematic approach impacts 120 pre-service content middle grades teachers’ knowledge of and attitudes toward collaborating and co-teaching with special education professionals. Developed by an interdisciplinary team of university teacher education faculty, this approach delivers co-teaching content through collaboratively taught seminars and field experiences. The purpose of this approach is to move toward building confidence and competence in these pre-service teachers so that they are able to more effectively meet the expectations for co-teaching in middle school content classrooms. Our hope is that by exploring factors that are critical to the understanding of the changing role of teacher education in the development of prospective teachers, our study will contribute to the emerging body of professional knowledge on collaboration and co-teaching in inclusive classrooms.

Program Context The systematic approach used in this study was designed, developed, implemented, and reviewed by faculty who teach in a large public state university in the Southeastern United States. At this institution, the College of Education annually prepares approximately 960 prospective teachers in early childhood, elementary, middle and secondary education, special education, and instructional technology. Teacher preparation in middle grades education provides the context for the present study.

Preparation of Prospective Middle Grades Teachers The middle grades program emphasizes high expectations for content knowledge

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