Universities Respond to the Extra Training Needs for Special Education Teachers

The need for all educators to have multicultural training is essential, but it is even more crucial for teachers of students with disabilities, especially when your university is “a stone’s throw across the border from Mexico,” says Linda Shaw, a professor in the University of Arizona’s College of Education.

“Being bilingual and culturally competent is becoming a huge need everywhere, but especially in Arizona, a border state,” says Shaw, who heads UA’s Department of Disability and Psychoeducational Studies.

Students for whom English is not their first language often have learning or intellectual disabilities that go undiagnosed because of language barriers, Todd Fletcher says. He is an associate professor in the Department of Special Education, Rehabilitation, and School Psychology in UA’s College of Education and oversees the school’s bilingual/multicultural special education program.

Dibuja tu sueño — Students in Guanajuato, Mexico, discuss the future and “draw their dreams” with a University of Arizona student.
Dibuja tu sueño — Students in Guanajuato, Mexico, discuss the future and “draw their dreams” with a University of Arizona student.

“And it often goes the other way,” he says. “Non-native English speakers are sometimes overdiagnosed with disabilities because they have trouble making themselves understood or they are quiet and unresponsive in class.”

Fletcher began developing the bilingual special education program at the University of Arizona in 1985, and it eventually received continuous funding through 2010 to support underrepresented students and teachers in bilingual special education.

“Usually, when the funding dries up, so does the class, but we decided that this was important enough to integrate into all coursework,” Shaw says.

Now, all graduate students in the Department of Disability and Psychoeducational Studies are required to complete Fletcher’s Cultural and Linguistic Diversity in Exceptional Learners class. Master’s students can earn their bilingual/multicultural special education certification through either the cross-categorical special education or learning disabilities tracks.

“We have to prepare teachers to know what is normal and typical for bilingual learners,” Fletcher says. “The issue is teasing out diversity’s impact on learning processes.”

Fletcher calls this teasing out an “ecological assessment” because it takes into consideration a number of factors, including a student’s cultural background and previous academic performance.  For example, before referring a bilingual student for evaluation, special education teachers must assess that student’s level of development in his or her native language.

The coursework offered by UA’s DPS is meant to train students in cultural competence, and graduate students are not expected to learn a foreign language. Fletcher says they have had success recruiting bilingual students to the special education program, though, and each summer he takes UA students from a range of majors on a trip to Guanajuato, Mexico, to work with students with disabilities in local schools and community centers.

Fletcher’s Verano en México trip immerses students in a different context, in which the language and culture are unfamiliar. The goal of the trip is to further students’ cultural understanding of Mexican education because many students come to the U.S. from schools in Mexico.

Shaw and Fletcher say students always tell them what a life-changing experience the trip is.

Boise State University
Nearly 850 miles north of Tucson, Boise State University recognized its own geographical challenge: Idaho is one of the most sparsely populated states in the country, and special education teachers often struggle to complete certification coursework while on the job.

Evelyn Johnson, professor in the Department of Special Education and Early Childhood Studies at Boise State
Evelyn Johnson, professor in the Department of Special Education and Early Childhood Studies at Boise State

“Historically, special education teachers will take a position they do not have certification for but will teach under a letter of authority, which gives them a certain amount of time to get certified,” says Evelyn Johnson, professor in the Department of Special Education and Early Childhood Studies at Boise State. “But it’s hard for them to get in at local colleges while also staying in their jobs, so their only option is for-profit, online courses. And they don’t get support and feedback from those programs.”

Johnson says a new program launching at Boise State this summer intends to “break business as usual for teacher training” and make special education certification more accessible for Idaho’s teachers.

Richard Osguthorpe, dean of Boise State’s College of Education, says expanding the school’s offering in its Master of Education in Special Education program was the result of an extensive process of program prioritization.

“This new program is designed to make an impact on P-12 learning and development for students with special needs, and the College of Education is committed to that noblest of outcomes,” Osguthorpe says.

Participants in the program will take classes online through Boise State and undergo a yearlong, intensive internship with support and supervision through the university. The goal is to end issues of special education teacher turnover.

“We’ll actually be working statewide because a number of small and rural districts have struggled to recruit and retain special ed teachers,” Johnson says.

Professors at Boise State will monitor teacher progress through in-person evaluations when possible or by classroom video footage shared through Google Communities.

Training will focus on evidence-based research methods, such as progress monitoring, which teaches educators how to analyze, track, and respond to student data.

“This research has been around since the late 1970s. But in a lot of places, it’s still not being implemented,” Johnson says. “We’ll know we’ve been successful if we can increase the use of evidence-based methods to enable student growth. And we’ll adapt if something is not working.”

This summer’s program is capped at 30 participants, but she says the interest list is three times that.

“It’s been so exciting to have the university all the way up to the state Board of Education be so supportive and willing to get on board with the program,” Johnson says. “It’s almost as exciting as getting started.”●

Rebecca Prinster is a staff writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity.