Specialized Instruction in Co-Taught High School Classes

Rodgers, Wendy, Education - Curry School of Education, University of Virginia
Kennedy, Michael, Curry School of Education, University of Virginia

Co-teaching, in which a general and special educator collaboratively teach a class comprised of students with and without disabilities, is a common service delivery model school districts employ to increase inclusion of students with disabilities (SWD) in general education. Co-teaching is intended to provide access to the general curriculum for SWD and to provide the specialized instruction they need. However, despite the widespread use of co-teaching in schools and the high cost of placing two teachers in one classroom, there is still no clear, agreed-upon definition in the literature for what co-teaching should look like in practice (what “specialized instruction” means, for example), nor is there evidence of its effectiveness in improving students’ academic outcomes.

Using joint outcome production theory as a foundation for the conceptual framework, this study adds to the research base on co-teaching by closely examining specialized instruction in co-taught high school classrooms. I employed a concurrent mixed methods design to answer the following research questions: a) What does instruction look like in co-taught high school classrooms? b) What school-level structural factors are in place surrounding co-teaching? and c) What teacher-, classroom-, and school-level factors are related to observed patterns of instruction? To answer these questions, I conducted observations in two rural schools across 10 co-taught classrooms and in corresponding solo-taught classrooms to identify specific examples of specialization and interviewed participating teachers and three administrators to determine their approaches to co-teaching and their experiences with the ways in which it is implemented in their schools. Teachers also completed a survey about their experiences with co-teaching and the details of their daily schedules.

I conducted 60 classroom observations using an instrument called the Classroom Teaching Scan across settings. Statistics were calculated regarding time use in each classroom, rates of questions and feedback, and amount of time spent in specific instructional practices. Data were also collected and analyzed on the implementation of key instructional practices in order to compare the methods used to those recommended by the research with regard to effective instruction for SWD. I compared these data across settings and teams to create detailed descriptions of the instruction provided in co-taught classes and its adherence to evidence-based practices. In addition, I used the information collected through surveys and interviews to describe school-level supports the schools provided for co-teaching, such as whether teams had common planning in their schedules and what kinds of training they received. I then analyzed instructional patterns in light of these supports to determine whether certain supports were related to increased specialization of instruction in co-taught classrooms.

The data showed that teachers generally provided very similar instruction in their co-taught classes and in their solo-taught classes, particularly when comparing general education to co-taught settings. There were no clear patterns of attempted specialization or modification in light of the diverse student bodies in the co-taught classes. Teachers had low rates of questioning and feedback statements across settings, and they primarily used whole-group instruction and independent practice activities in their teaching. They rarely used modeling, nor did they consistently monitor individual students’ understanding; however, they did employ visual aids in most of their lessons.

The teachers in this sample had access to many supports that are theorized to be important to co-teaching, such as common planning time and experience co-teaching together. Administrators provided limited training for them, mostly related to use of co-teaching models (e.g., one-teach-one-assist, station teaching, parallel teaching). However, teachers at both schools expressed concern about finding time to plan together due to excessive non-instructional duties required of the special educators. The presence or absence of school-level supports did not seem to be related to whether or not teachers modified instruction for their co-taught classes or to the quality of implementation of that instruction. The teams that made the effort to plan regularly together did alter instruction; however, the changes did not consistently result in more evidence-based instruction for SWD.

Implications of this study for future research are that a clearer definition of successful implementation of co-teaching must be developed, and features of that definition must be systematically and experimentally studied in light of their effect on student academic or behavioral outcomes. There is strong indication of confusion on the part of both administrators and teachers about what expectations should be, particularly with regard to the role of the special education teacher, indicating a need for a clearer definition and stronger communication. In addition, teacher commitment to co-planning is likely to be an important factor in whether co-teaching can be implemented well, but it does not seem to be useful on its own – it requires teachers to have knowledge of how to plan and what their roles are in that process, and it also requires support from administration in the form of reduced duties to provide special educators with time to plan with their co-teachers. Co-teaching is a theoretically strong model for providing instruction to SWD, but at this point it is not being implemented with much fidelity, making its cost-to-benefit ratio questionable. The data in this study provide a starting point for examining this implementation, but much more work needs to be done moving forward.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
co-teaching, classroom observation, high school, instruction
All rights reserved (no additional license for public reuse)
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