By Greg Taranto and Betsy Somerville
As schools strive to find ways to provide learning environments that are least restrictive in nature, the coteaching model has received the most attention. With more and more literature and research supporting the benefits of coteaching (Conderman, 2011) and the legal support for such efforts (Rhen, 2005), schools who have not adopted coteaching strategies are limiting their least restrict environment (LRE) opportunities.
At Canonsburg (PA) Middle School, inclusionary practices were adopted long ago, but because of a lack of attention and training on the strategies of coteaching, the school continued to have large numbers of students in resource classes. One obvious problem with the middle school’s approach to special education was the much greater proportion of discipline issues originating in the resource classes. (See figure 1.) At the onset of the 2010–11 school year, principal Greg Taranto, assistant principal Ken Schrag, and special education coordinator Betsy Somerville set a goal to adopt a true coteaching model in the school. The short-term objective was to lower the number of discipline referrals within one year; the long term objective was to see gains in student achievement within three years.
Coteaching: The Basics
To meet LRE requirements, schools have had to restructure how they serve their students with disabilities by moving the special education teachers into the general education setting with their students to work collaboratively with the general education teacher.
According to Lloyd and Weiss (2003), the two models of collaboration are collaborative consultation and coteaching. In the collaborative consultation approach, the special education teacher acts as an indirect resource to the general education teacher and to students outside of the general education classroom. In contrast, the coteaching strategy enables the special education teacher to provide direct instructional support to the general education teacher by planning and teaching lessons within the regular education setting. Although both models were in place in Canonsburg, a stronger focus was placed on coteaching because collaborative consultation was not producing the expected results.
Coteaching allows teachers to share their strengths and expertise in their specific areas. The general education teachers share their knowledge of curriculum as the special educators share their instructional strategies. Villa, Thousand, and Nevin (2008) believe that coteaching is able to provide academic and behavioral support for all students. Students with disabilities improve in the areas of academic performance, self-esteem, and peer relationships, and students who are at risk of failing receive more instructional time and individualized attention (Sileo & Van Garderen, 2010). Coteaching can also be very beneficial for the teachers because it gives them an opportunity to work collaboratively with one another, plan and organize lessons, have four hands and eyes in the classroom, and teach one another their own instructional methods and strategies (Kohler-Evans, 2006).
There are six approaches of coteaching, according to Friend and Cook (2010).
- One person teaches while the other teacher supports the students by circulating the classroom and offering assistance when needed.
- Teachers use station teaching and divide the students and content into groups; the teachers meet with each group for half of the lesson time.
- In parallel teaching the class is divided into two groups and each teacher teaches the same content to one group.
- Alternative teaching organizes the students into one large and one small group in a way that best suits the needs of the students and each teacher instructs one of the groups..
- Both teachers share complete ownership of the lessons and students and take turns with delivering instruction in team teaching. 6.
- With the one teach, one observe approach, detailed observations of student behaviors, participation, and engagement are observed and analyzed by both teachers.
Coteaching requires thoughtful planning. Cook and Friend (1995) listed specific conditions that must be in place before coteaching can be successful. Professional development in the areas of communication skills, collaborative planning, and instructional strategies is necessary before implementation. The other required condition is administrative support to assist the teachers in scheduling, planning, and implementing their programs: allocating time for teachers to plan is the biggest challenge for coteaching.
Prior to the implementation of the coteaching model at Canonsburg, the administrative team reviewed the needs and levels of support for all of the special education students who would be attending the middle school in 2010–11. For each student, special education teachers completed a form listing the current level of support needed, accommodations and modifications listed in the student’s individualized education plan (IEP), and any other additional concerns. Upon reviewing this data, the administrative team worked diligently to schedule the students and teachers into several sections of the regular education classrooms for English, math, social studies, and science.
The goal was to limit the number of different classes and teams for each special education teacher, but the administrators also took into consideration any contractual issues with the teachers and number of sections taught per day. The administrators also had to consider the maximum number of special education students in each section to ensure that they still maintained a heterogeneous mix of students. The school’s organization into teams also complicated the scheduling process.
Once the administrative team decided on which teachers would participate in the coteaching model, teachers were invited to a voluntary two-day training in the summer. Teachers who were not able to attend the summer training participated in a session during the beginning of the school year.
During the school year, the special education and regular education teachers were offered time during the day or after school to continue their collaboration and plan for their cotaught courses. The special education director held regular meetings with the special education teachers, and the entire administrative team performed walk-throughs and formal observations of the cotaught classrooms.
It is too soon to ascertain whether or not students made academic gains as a result of coteaching; however, the short-term benefit of reducing the number of incident events could be determined from the 2010–11 discipline data across five different discipline subcategories.
Data from the whole school population and the special education subgroup was collected and analyzed to compare the number of discipline events before and after the school began following the coteaching model. In four of the five categories, the number of discipline events decreased after the implementation of coteaching. The most obvious drop was in the category of classroom disruptions. During the 2009–10 school year, 66 of the 67 classroom disruptions in the school were associated with special education students. During the 2010–11 school year, 24 of the 57 classroom disruptions were associated with special education students.
From a qualitative standpoint, the biggest obstacles that occurred throughout the school year with the coteaching model were mostly teacher issues, such as not enough training, not enough collaborative planning time, and personality conflicts. Other issues relating to roles and responsibilities are classroom management, discipline, grading policies, and space within the classrooms.
Ultimately, both teachers in a cotaught classroom must be responsible for student achievement. In this collaborative effort, the teachers are supposed to be equals, but this does not always happen—especially at the secondary level. According to Dowdy, Nichols, and Nichols (2010), the regular education teachers become the curriculum experts and the special educators manage the activities.
The dramatic drop in classroom disruptions among special education students is extremely noteworthy. One could suggest that students who are off task are also not learning; therefore, on-task behavior helps better facilitate learning. Data on discipline as well as academic data are being collected for an analysis of the program. At the end of the 2011-12 school year, one complete cohort of students will have completed two years of coteaching, thus providing a sound sample to analyze academic achievement levels.
To continue to improve Canonsburg’s efforts in the implementation of coteaching and to counter some of the identified obstacles, the administration plans to adopt more intense mandatory training at the beginning of fall 2012. In addition, the school is partnering with a local university to provide consultative services in the area of special education to observe and meet with the coteaching teams throughout the school year. The partnership will enhance the program currently in place while tapping into the benefits schools receive from school-university partnerships (Epanchin & Colucci, 2002). The principals also plan to work with the teams to find more common planning time throughout the school day, which was determined to be the primary response for the most important feature in coteaching according to a study conducted by Kohler-Evans (2006).
- Conderman, G. (2011). Middle school coteaching: Effective practices and student reflections. Middle School Journal, 42(4), 24-31.
- Cook, L., & Friend, M. (1995). Coteaching: Guidelines for creating effective practices. Focus on Exceptional Children, 28(3), 1-16.
- Dowdy, A., Nichols, C., & Nichols, J. (2010) Coteaching: An educational promise for children with disabilities or a quick fix to meet the mandates of No Child Left Behind? Education, 130(4), 647-672.
- Epanchin, B., & Colucci, K. (2002). The professional development school without walls: A partnership between a university and two school districts. Remedial and Special Education, 23(6), 349-358.
- Friend, M., & Cook, L. (2010). Interactions: Collaboration skills for school professionals (6th ed.). Boson, MA: Allyn and Bacon.
- Kohler-Evans, P. (2006). Coteaching: How to make this marriage work in front of the kids. Education, 127(2), 260.
- Lloyd, J., & Weiss, M. (2003). Conditions for coteaching: Lessons from a case study. Teacher Education and Special Education, 26(1), 27-41.
- Rhen, L. (2005). Gaskin v. PA: Implications for school leaders. The Pennsylvania Administrator, 8(3), 12-17.
- Sileo, M., & Van Garderen, D. (2010). Creating optimal opportunities to learn mathematics: Blending coteaching structures with research-based practices. Teaching Exceptional Children, 42(3), 14.
- Villa, R. A., Thousand, J. S., & Nevin, A. I. (2008). A guide to coteaching: Practial tips for facilitating student learning. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
Greg Taranto (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the principal of Canonsburg (PA) Middle School, which was named a 2011 Pennsylvania and National Schools to Watch middle school, and a part-time faculty member for Robert Morris University in Moon Township, PA.
Betsy Somerville (email@example.com) has been a director of special education and a special education teacher, and is currently a doctoral student at Robert Morris University.