Professional Learning Needed to Improve Special Education and Related Services

  • Posted on: 10 September 2013
  • By: Tina McCoy

A recently released (June 2013) review by the National Council on Teacher Quality underscores the inconsistencies in traditional teacher preparation programs across the country. In short, the report indicates that teachers are not entering the field with common skills or understanding of the expectations of their positions. In the field of special education, it is not uncommon for teachers to earn their certifications through alternative methods with even less consistency and oversight than traditional programs. Furthermore, therapists licensed through their states are often not thoroughly trained to work in school settings. Factoring in periodic changes in special education requirements and differences in state special education laws, the result is a work force entering the field with widely disparate knowledge, skills and philosophies.  Therefore, the greatest challenge school districts face in relation to special education may be to promote effective professional learning for teachers and related services providers across their organizations.

Special education teachers and related services providers are the professionals who are instructing students with the most unique educational needs, and actualizing the special education process. Highly specialized instruction, the facilitation of complex team decisions, and the accurate completion of complicated documentation are in their hands. New special education teachers and related services providers often ‘hit the ground running’ with very little direction or training. and school system administrators may have faulty assumptions about the foundation of knowledge and skills that these professionals possess. Without explicitly stated expectations, clear priorities and ongoing support at the local level, professional inconsistencies will exist and persist throughout any school system. As every special education administrator knows, the result can be problematic: omissions or errors that inadvertently put the school system in reactive mode and divert scarce resources away from the primary mission of educating students at the local level.

While a myriad of factors contribute to this challenge, there are steps you can take to ensure that your special education teachers and related service providers are consistently prepared to meet the demands of their positions. First, let go of traditional approaches (one-stop presentations) that don’t prompt real changes in practice.  Then, stop conceptualizing professional development solely as an individual endeavor.  Begin instead to think of professional learning as a systemic issue – one where the learners are provided with high quality instruction, progress monitoring, and the follow-up that that you expect them to give to their students.

School systems can proactively work to improve the quality of special education and related services by implementing carefully devised professional learning activities that reinforce shared understanding and consistent, quality practices. Research-based practices for professional learning can leverage change by providing ample opportunity for educators to develop the skills, knowledge, practices and dispositions they need to accelerate the achievement of all students. (Learning Forward Website, 2013). Are you providing this opportunity for your special education teachers and related services providers?

In order to meet this challenge, and make the most of your limited resources, make sure you incorporate research-based practices into professional learning programs. According to Garet, Porter, Desimone, Birman and Yoon (2001), professional learning must be intensive, coherent, and sustained over time. Participants must be actively engaged together on tasks that are applicable and relevant to their jobs. Professional learning should emphasize outcomes and be aligned with the goals of the organization.  School leaders must attend to and support professional learning programs within their school systems in a variety of ways including contracting with outside experts when needed.  Cordingly, Bell, Rundell and Evans (2003) cited the use of an outside consultant not simply as a source of technical expertise, but as an agent of change. In their 2005 summary of the impact of collaborative Continuing Professional Development (CPD) on classroom teaching and learning they asserted that, based on a review of research, groups of teachers who had access to an external expert in combination with collaborative, internal peer supports made more changes in practice and larger increases in attainment than those which only used internal peer supports.

Special Education

Effective professional learning for your organization requires prioritization, the allocation of sufficient resources, and the establishment of ongoing, supportive communities of practice.  However, if you commit to providing high quality professional learning to your teachers and related services providers, you’ll be on your way to building a stronger workforce that will better serve your students and well prepared to adapt to the changes and challenges that are inherent in the field of special education. Don’t make the mistake of assuming common knowledge and skills across your organization. Lead your school system to a brighter future by investing in the learning of the dedicated professionals who serve your students with disabilities.




Cordingly, P., Bell, M., Rundell, B., & Evans, D.  (2003). The impact of collaborative Continuing Professional Development (CPD) on classroom teaching and learning (London, EPPE-Centre, Social Science Research Unit).

Cordingly, P., Bell, M., Rundell, B., & Evans, D. (2005). Summary of the impact of collaborative Continuing Professional Development (CPD) on classroom teaching and learning.  (

Garet, M.S., Porter, A.C., Desimone, L., Dirman, B.F., & Yoon, K.S. (2001). What makes professional development effective? Results from a national sample of teachers. American Educational Research Journal, 38, 915-945.

Learning Forward: ( 


For more information on best practices and research-based approaches to professional learning go to www.learning