How teacher coaching boosts special ed achievement

Instructional coaches work to take districts beyond compliance—and help reduce teacher turnover
By: | October 21, 2019
Special education professional development in Fulton County Schools in Atlanta is now guided by a team of 22 instructional coaches tasked with helping teachers boost student achieveament.Special education professional development in Fulton County Schools in Atlanta is now guided by a team of 22 instructional coaches tasked with helping teachers boost student achieveament.

The special education department in Atlanta’s Fulton County Schools had focused heavily on compliance and legal requirements, perhaps to the detriment of instruction and special education professional development, leaders there say.

In a shift to improve special needs students’ academic performance, the district recently hired 22 instructional coaches to provide special ed PD, says Blake McGaha, executive director of Services for Exceptional Children.

“If we can tackle instruction with the same veracity as we tackle compliance, parents are going to see that and not look at compliance as the only component of special education,” McGaha says.

Though Fulton County has the highest graduation rate in Georgia for students with special needs, academic growth has been stagnant, so administrators reallocated department resources to ramp up special education professional development.


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Fifteen of the instructional coaches will work on special education professional development at the elementary, middle and high school levels. Others are specialists: two will work with students on the autism spectrum, two will focus on early childhood, and one will work with the deaf and blind populations.

“A majority of our special ed teachers come from outside of the field; they don’t have formal training in the pedagogy,” McGaha says. “It’s a morale booster to have support in the classroom.”

McGaha and his team mapped out the 10 key behaviors of special educators, based on guidelines from the Council for Exceptional Children. These special ed PD behaviors start with collaborating on lesson plans, personalizing instruction, and developing a classroom management system that accommodates the needs of specific students.

Reversing the mindset of special education professional development

Another misstep on the instruction side is not allowing special education teachers to adjust curriculum with general education teachers, says Mary Schillinger, an education consultant and former K-12 administrator who trains special education teachers at California State University, Northridge.

This is especially important as an increasing number of administrators are considering all children as general education students, with some needing to be pulled out of class for special services.

“We have to reverse our mindset, and think that all kids are general education students first, and only if they can’t access the education program, even with supports, that’s when we pull them out for certain periods of time,” Schillinger says. “That’s a huge shift for many places.”

Collaboration leads to co-teaching, which creates mentoring relationships.

At Elmhurst Community Unit School District 205 near Chicago, several educators work together to develop instruction that supports students with special needs succeed in mainstream classes.

In math, for instance, Common Core standards call for students to discuss their thinking when solving problems.


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In this case, a general education teacher and a special education teacher will work with a speech pathologist and a social worker to figure out how to overcome a student’s language difficulties, says Heather Noncek, a special education instructional coach in the district.

Tackling teacher turnover in special education

At St. Vrain Valley Schools in Colorado, administrators increased the district’s special ed PD capacity to tackle a nationwide problem: high turnover among special education teachers.

Fulton County Schools special education leaders mapped out 10 key behaviors of special educators, including collaborating on lesson plans, personalizing instruction and developing a classroom management system that accommodates the needs of specific students.

Fulton County Schools special education leaders mapped out 10 key behaviors of special educators, including collaborating on lesson plans, personalizing instruction and developing a classroom management system that accommodates the needs of specific students.

Incoming special education teachers are coached by specialists in specific areas, including early and secondary literacy, math, behavior, and the autism spectrum. New teachers also receive about 24 hours of mentoring from more experienced educators at similar levels, such as elementary school.

This relationship includes frequent communication and checkups, says Laura Hess, executive director of special education.

Mentors will provide model lesson plans or take over a class so a new teacher can observe instruction in another classroom.

The district’s goal is to increase the time students spend in general education classrooms, Hess says.

“We’re seeing an increase in scores on the state assessment,” she says. “And we have less turnover, and I’m sure the increase in scores is related to that, too.”


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