Examining Opportunities to Learn in Special Education Teacher Preparation

Author: ORCID icon orcid.org/0000-0003-1833-9240
Mathews, Hannah, Education - Curry School of Education, University of Virginia
Kennedy, Michael, Curry School of Education, University of Virginia
Youngs, Peter, Curry School of Education, University of Virginia

The work of special educators is changing rapidly. Policy changes promoting inclusive education and accountability in K-12 settings require that teacher preparation programs strongly focus on preparing special education teachers who are knowledgeable and prepared for complex, demanding, and collaborative work (Brownell, Sindelar, Kiely, & Danielson, 2010). A growing body of research supports the assertion that special education teachers who enter the field with extensive training in teaching students with disabilities demonstrate significantly more effective classroom practice than those without training in the codified knowledge of special education (Feng & Sass, 2013; Nougaret, Scruggs, & Mastropieri, 2005; Sindelar, Daunic, & Rennells, 2004). However, little evidence exists that identifies the characteristics of exemplary special education teacher preparation programs or that examines these characteristics across programs (Brownell, McCallum, Colon, & Ross, 2005). This study seeks to address this gap in the literature through the development of the Survey of Special Education Teaching Candidates and, following this, using data from the survey instrument (n = 90) and interviews (n = 20) to describe special education teaching candidates’ perspectives on their preparation experiences across five domains: extent of opportunities to learn instructional and collaborative practice; extend of instructional support from university supervisors and cooperating teachers; extent to which programs communicate a clear vision of teaching and learning for students with disabilities; candidates’ beliefs about students, instruction, and inclusion; and candidates’ teacher-self efficacy. The development of the survey and the subsequent data analysis are based on Kurz’ (2011) opportunities to learn framework.
Through the use of confirmatory factor analysis, the scales that addressed perceptions of the program demonstrated acceptable to good model fit through the use of a multiple index strategy (Hu & Bentler, 1999) and moderate to strong reliability as indicated by factor reliabilities or internal consistency measures (Cronbach, 1951; Hair, Black, Babin, & Anderson; 2010). Clarity of vision, opportunities to learn high leverage instructional practice, and opportunities to learn explicit instruction practice were represented through three unidimensional models; instructional support and opportunities to learn collaborative practice were represented through a two-factor model. Correlations between scales were significant and positive, suggesting that together they represent the extent to which candidates perceive a system of associated learning experiences in special education teacher preparation. With the exception of the teacher self-efficacy scale—in which the expected three-factor model demonstrated acceptable model fit and strong factor reliability—the belief scales did not converge. Cronbach’s alpha (Cronback, 1951) for the following scales was acceptable: internal attribution, external attribution, mutually beneficial instruction, specialized instruction, and inclusive instruction. Because the sample is small and specialized and the data violate the assumptions of the confirmatory factor analysis, results should be considered preliminary.
Survey data suggested that clarity of vision was consistent across programs, but the items did not reveal the nature of the preparation program’s vision. Inductive analysis of interview data suggested three vision profiles that were consistent within, but not across programs: explicit instruction; general, responsive instruction; and supportive, inclusive collaboration. Two programs fell into each category. According to candidates, their program’s vision was instrumental in shaping their beliefs about professional practice. Following this, I explored trends in the survey data, reporting results for the whole sample, by teacher preparation programs, and by program profile.
Results from the descriptive analysis of survey data indicate that, from the whole sample, candidates reported more extensive opportunities to learn instructional than collaborative practice. Means at the program level suggested patterns that were consistent with their program profile. Significance testing revealed statistically significant differences with reference to opportunities to learn collaborative practice with Individualized Education Plan (IEP) teams. Post hoc tests highlighted that candidates in supportive, inclusive collaboration programs had significantly more extensive opportunities to learn in this domain than candidates in other program profiles.
In analyzing candidates’ beliefs, candidates’ beliefs were general as opposed to content specific. Internal attribution beliefs were low and external attribution beliefs were moderate to high. This indicated that candidates expressed more of an external attribution framework and, perhaps, saw themselves as being able to intervene to support students with disabilities’ and struggling learners’ needs in the classroom. Beliefs around mutually beneficial instruction and specialized instruction were less straightforward. The vast majority of candidates believed that instructional practices that are beneficial for students with disabilities are also beneficial for students without disabilities, but only about half of respondents believed that students with disabilities need unique instructional methods. Beliefs about inclusive instruction revealed that, though most candidates believed inclusive instruction promoted students’ academic and social development fewer believed they were able to meet students’ academic and social needs in inclusive settings. Significance tests revealed that candidates in explicit instruction programs had statistically significantly higher external attribution beliefs than candidates in general, responsive instruction and supportive, inclusive collaboration programs. This suggests that these candidates’ experience might prepare them with more concrete and practical tools to intervene and provide effective instruction to students with disabilities. Teacher self-efficacy was elevated, but normally distributed. Differences were not statistically significantly different by program profile.
For the most part, the program scales (opportunities to learn, program vision, and instructional support) were positively and significantly correlated suggesting a teacher preparation system as opposed to experiences working independently. Teacher-self efficacy was moderately correlated with most of the program scales. Internal attribution was significantly, negatively correlated with both opportunities to learn instructional practice scales, clarity of vision, and the teacher self-efficacy measure. Correlational analyses indicated that, for the most part, the other belief constructs were only marginally associated.
This study is limited by in the conclusions that can be drawn. The sample is small and specialized and the data is self-reported with only program documents as a triangulation point; though these patterns are interesting and speak to the problem of examining the workings of teacher preparation, they cannot be generalized to other teacher preparation programs. Nor can these data be used to draw conclusions about causation.
These data are valuable in helping researchers and teacher educators to look “under the hood” of teacher preparation. Practical implications include a) considering vision within teacher preparation as a way to anchor candidates’ understanding of professional practice, b) examining how preparation programs ready candidates to work in their instructional and collaborative roles, and c) considering how opportunities to learn can be leveraged to support the development of positive beliefs that foster inclusive practice. Implications for research include a) continued and more rigorous study of the survey instrument, b) the importance of using mixed methods to study opportunities to learn and beliefs with special education teacher candidates, and c) future studies that will examine how opportunities to learn high leverage practice in preparation predict performance in the field.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
special education, teacher preparation, opportunities to learn
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