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III. Educator Preparation & Professional Learning

Removing barriers to facilitate collaboration between general and special education teachers.





  1. Early Learning
  2. Evidence-Based School and Classroom Practices
  3. Educator Preparation and Professional Learning (current page)
  4. Assessment
  5. Accountability
  6. Family and Student Engagement
  7. Special Education Financing




Educator Preparation and Professional Learning


To create a coherent, results-oriented system of education that provides for the learning needs of students both with and without disabilities, California must break down the long-standing divisions that exist between teachers within general education and special education. The state’s implementation of the Common Core State Standards for all students creates some urgency in this effort. If the new standards are to be successful, all educators must be prepared in both educational content and instructional strategies; and they must all be able to collaborate and learn from each other if they are to serve students well. In addition, their administrators and school leaders must believe in the underlying importance of a unified system, be committed to collaborative efforts, and know how to organize schools to support them. Throughout this report, when the term “educator” is used, it is referencing teachers; administrators; school psychologists; language, speech and hearing specialists; paraeducators; instructional assistants; and all staff who support the educational process.

This push towards a coherent and unified system is far from new and hardly a California-only idea. The President’s Commission on Excellence in Special Education in 2002 recommended that “teachers in general education learn about special education.” In that same year the National Association of State Directors of Special Education stressed the importance of a single system of education, because “the success of all children is dependent on the quality of both special education and general education… and [the understanding] that special education is not a place apart, but an integral part of education.”

Another layer of this unified system takes into account the realities of individual human beings. The workings of the brain, the emotions, and the body are not discrete aspects but rather parts of an integrated whole that work in concert. To be most effective, schools must educate the whole child within a structure that supports academic, social-emotional, physical, and behavioral growth and development.

The Challenges

Teacher preparation reflects the lack of unity that exists across California’s system of education. A 2013–2014 survey of teachers who had just earned their credential within the California State University system, which prepares many of the state’s teachers, reports that general education teachers emerge from many preparation programs knowing little about disabilities, instructional interventions, or ways of presenting the same content in different ways to different students. On the other hand, special education teacher preparation programs too often provide minimal instruction in pedagogy, standards, data analysis, and the general education curriculum and do not authorize special educators to teach students who do not have disabilities. School leaders suffer similar deficits in their formal training and often assume administrative positions knowing little or nothing about special education, even though they need a deep knowledge of both general and special education practices if they are to serve effectively as advocates for good instruction and strong support for all students.

The academic performance of students receiving special education services in California is poor compared to that of other states.45 Furthermore, there is a lack of coordination and integration between California’s special education and general education teacher preparation requirements. As a result, students in California across all “categories of disability” spend less time learning in general education classrooms than their peers in all but three other states46; this statistic has not improved significantly over the past decade. Too often, neither general education nor special education teachers are well prepared to meet the needs of students with disabilities in a general education classroom—a major barrier to increasing the amount of time that students with disabilities spend within the general setting. This is a function of licensing requirements that do not encourage or insist upon robust, well-coordinated preparation programs.

Need for Collaboration

The most successful educational models call for an integrated system that makes the most of fully prepared special educators working side-by-side with highly knowledgeable general educators, together meeting the needs of all students, regardless of their formal designations as having disabilities or not. Sometimes these models involve “push-in” collaborative efforts, where generalists and specialists work together in the same classroom, planning for special or targeted accommodations and instruction and meeting the needs of all students as they arise. Other times, specialists may work with small groups of students who need extra help (regardless of whether they have an individualized education program [IEP] or not) in or outside of the general education classroom to ensure that every student is getting appropriate support. These collaborative general and special education practices support the creation of one coherent system; they include a thorough understanding of and ability to apply instruction and intervention that adhere to universal design for learning (UDL) strategies; and they align with a multi-tiered system of supports (MTSS) that addresses both academics and behavior in the use of response to intervention (RtI) strategies.

In some states (currently 13 states require this and at one time in California), teachers secure a general education credential and then go on to add a special education credential on top of that. A growing number of states have encouraged blended or dual-credentialing programs that purposefully ensure that teachers acquire both general and special education expertise within a program that is integrated. California currently does neither of these, although a few forward-looking blended or dual programs have emerged under the leadership of pioneering teacher educators and are preparing specialists who also have a general education background.

Until 1996, those seeking a credential as a special educator in California had to first obtain a general education credential. The California Commission on Teacher Credentialing (CTC) eliminated that requirement in an attempt to make it easier to become a special educator and, it was hoped, reduce the shortage of licensed special education teachers. Unfortunately, that decision has had little, if any, effect on teacher shortages, which continue unabated. However, the credentialing change did mean that Education Specialists no longer had to learn about general pedagogy, standards, or content in depth and thus were no longer deemed by the CTC to be authorized to teach students who do not have disabilities. As a result, many of the most productive service models, as outlined in the previous section, cannot be easily implemented in many California districts because the very professionals who can help make these models work—special educators—are not authorized to work with general education students, unless they have separately acquired a general education credential.

This restriction creates a significant barrier to developing coherent systems of instruction. Those very teachers—special educators, who are trained to provide supports to struggling students and to differentiate instruction—cannot work with general education students who, with a little special and targeted help, may never need to be referred to the special education system. The current credentialing and funding system does not champion or invest in these collaborative, tiered approaches, despite the extensive and proven research base of their efficacy. The current divide within general education and special education teacher credentialing undermines any type of coherent system. Many students remain inadequately served as a result.

The preparation of Education Specialists is further fragmented because preparation programs are currently designed around specific categories of disabilities. An Education Specialist may earn an authorization to work with students who have a specific disability, but this educator cannot serve a wider range of student learners—even though there is no research to support the assumption that a label or disability category always predetermines a student’s instructional need or a teacher’s effectiveness.

It stands to reason that there will always be a need for certain specialties. We cannot expect every teacher to be able to successfully instruct a child who has a low-incidence disability, such as deafness or blindness. But the most interesting part of education, and the challenge here, is that teachers work with actual children who typically have multiple areas of overlapping needs that do not fall neatly under specific disability labels. Furthermore, narrow authorizations tend to reduce the amount of time students with disabilities spend in general education classrooms, again because most Education Specialists are not prepared to support students in the general education settings. These rules present significant roadblocks to collaboration between general education and special education teachers and to the creation of collaborative systems. Even worse: because there is a short supply of special educators, students with disabilities are sometimes taught by substitute teachers or paraprofessionals who may not be adequately prepared to give students the services and the supports they need.

Teacher Shortages

California needs highly qualified special educators to strengthen instructional efforts for all students. But demographic and fiscal trends threaten the very availability of special educators. Douglas E. Mitchell, the interim dean and a professor at the Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Riverside, described the significant challenges the state faces with looming teacher shortages. He writes about the harsh school budget cuts between 2007 and 2011, which have forced the elimination of more than 30,000 teaching positions—approximately 11 percent of the workforce—resulting in massive layoffs of young teachers. He further writes that college students, recognizing the loss of teaching jobs, have dramatically reduced their enrollment in California's university-based teacher training programs.47

Data from the Annual Report Card on California Teacher Preparation Programs for the Academic Year 2012–2013, prepared by the Professional Services Division of the CTC, reported the decline from 2008–2009 to 2012–2013 of teacher preparation program enrollments to be about 53 percent; this means that 23,000 fewer candidates are being enrolled in both traditional and alternative teacher preparation programs. The trend line for the decline was even steeper in the most recent year of data, dropping nearly 24 percent from 2011–2012 to 2012–2013. This decline represents a loss of approximately 6,300 teacher preparation candidates in one year. (See table 2 below.)

Table 2: Statewide Enrollment in Teacher Education
Year Statewide Enrollment
5-yr Change #
5-yr Change %


As universities responded by offsetting the enrollment declines with advanced and specialized programs, the data partially mask the declines in teacher candidate enrollments. By 2010–2011, only 21 percent (slightly more than 3,000) of the 15,459 credentials issued that year went to teachers earning their first credentials: the great majority of new credentials went to teachers who were adding second or third credential authorizations to help in securing and advancing jobs.

Although teacher education enrollments are beginning to increase slightly this year, there is a long way to go to reach the levels of teacher production that would comfortably fill all positions. The districts that will feel this pinch the most are low-income districts that offer lower salaries and poorer working conditions.

The demographics of the post World War II “baby boom” exacerbate the problem. Aging baby boomers are retiring and contributing to the dramatic rise in the number of teacher retirements. In 2009–2010, the California State Teacher Retirement System reported 15,493 new retirees, a 42 percent increase from 2005–2006. In effect, more teachers retired in 2010–2011 than had been trained in all of California’s colleges and universities.

Small Schools, Districts, and LEAs

Shortages of special education teachers, combined with the restrictions placed on current narrow authorizations, pose particular problems for small schools and districts. California’s school districts echo the diversity of its population. The state is replete with districts and LEAs large and small that have widely varying educational needs and personnel. Some very small high schools, alternative education settings, small non-public schools, and many smaller charter schools have great difficulty procuring highly qualified staff who can serve the range of students with disabilities whom the entities are charged with serving.

In addition, the federal No Child Left Behind Act’s requirement for “highly qualified teachers” added content-area requirements equivalent to those of a content specialist for each area in which a special education teacher works with students. Given these requirements, plus the narrow authorizations in California’s credentialing system, very small schools, districts, and LEAs also have a difficult time finding Education Specialists in each authorization area who also possess the content-area mastery needed to educate all students in English language arts, math, science, social science, and other areas, particularly at the high school level. Because of their small size, these entities usually don’t have the luxury of hiring rigidly defined specialists. Yet the state lacks any approach to teacher authorizations that would make it manageable for special education teachers who are teaching multiple subjects to demonstrate content knowledge in a way that is more aligned with the multiple subjects framework, as well as to support specially designed instructional needs of students with disabilities.

Furthermore, many districts and charter schools lack the school structures—resource rooms, tutors, collaborative teaching models, and other instructional supports—that would make inclusive classrooms possible and effective. And research continues to show that most students with disabilities learn less when they spend most of their instructional time apart from their general education peers.48, 49

Teacher Preparation Programs and the Least Restrictive Environment

This Task Force does not believe that the least restrictive environment (LRE) is the same for everyone. Most students with disabilities benefit from being with their general education peers, as long as they are receiving the supports they need in order to be equal and participating members of the classroom and to succeed academically. However, the needs of students who are deaf, blind, or hard of hearing are often unique, as will be their LRE; and these students are sometimes best and most appropriately educated in separate classrooms, schools, or other environments. As well, these students require specialized academic instruction from teachers whose professional preparation and credential authorization are specific to the low-incidence disability.

The adults in the classroom are key to securing the benefit of instructing all students; this applies to students in specialized settings, students with disabilities whose LRE is the general education classroom, and students who will realize optimal benefit from a combination of settings. Suiting the educational plan to fit the need of the student, not the label, should be the goal of every instructional decision and effort.

The LRE for most students can be created when both the classroom teacher and the special education teacher have the requisite knowledge and skills to effectively instruct both students with and without disabilities as well as the strategies to collaborate effectively with one another and with the students’ family members. Because generalist teachers typically do not have enough training in special education, and specialist teachers often do not have enough training in general education, most prospective educators in California are left without a clear, common credentialing pathway to learn these kinds of skills.

Professional Learning Opportunities

Even if preparation for aspiring teachers were more collaborative in nature and comprehensive in scope, it would not be enough to effect the profound changes in educational systems and cultures that the state needs to effectively serve its students. Current teachers need to develop the knowledge and skills that they did not obtain when they earned their credentials: such things as UDL, MTSS, including positive behavioral interventions and supports (PBIS), response to instruction and intervention (RtI2), instructional technology including assistive technology, and principles of coherent instructional systems; assessment and differentiation between second language acquisition and disabilities, as well as the provision of linguistically and culturally responsive pedagogy in order to reduce the disproportionality of English learners and students of color who are inappropriately designated to receive special education services. The list is long, but most teachers are committed to their students and eager to learn whatever it takes to be successful in the classroom.

Research into adult learning theory has contributed significantly in recent years to the understanding of what constitutes effective professional learning. The common “spray and pray” types of workshops and trainings—a day or two of providing information—have shown dismal results for implementing new practices and sustaining long-term change, even when those new practices are stellar. Research substantiating the poor results of this kind of professional learning has been in evidence since 198750 and more recently in 2002. We now know that only job-embedded coaching, mentoring, and ongoing support creates conditions for lasting change and improvement in educational practice.51 In fact, Joyce and Showers report that 90 percent of learners will succeed in transferring a new skill into their practice if a combination of theory, demonstration, practice, and corrective feedback is provided in a training—but only when it is also followed up with job-embedded coaching. California currently lacks any effective mechanism and support for teachers and administrators to learn about quality instruction and how to deliver it. The demands on our teachers are great. Concerted and carefully planned and coordinated professional learning efforts are lacking.


California needs, and its students deserve, a coherent approach to educator preparation and learning, a common foundation for all instruction—a “common trunk”—and multiple pathways for teachers to earn a credential. California’s system of teacher credentialing needs to ensure that all teachers—both general education and special education—enter the profession able to effectively use needs-based interventions and collaborate with other educators in a unified system. The system also needs to allow appropriate flexibility in teacher assignments to serve the staffing needs of all schools and districts, large and small. Finally, California and all of its students would be well served by an ongoing, research-informed system of professional learning that supports established teachers in implementing new initiatives and proven practices and that encourages and models purposeful integration of professional learning opportunities for special education and general education. Changes to this system of educator preparation carry with them a particular urgency, given the data cited in this report about the recent dramatic reduction in candidates entering education preparation programs in the state and the number of teachers on track to retire in the next five years.

This task force recommends a teacher preparation program and learning system that would ensure the following:

  • General and special education preparation programs require all aspiring teachers to master content standards, evidence-based strategies, pedagogy, intervention strategies, and collaboration among teachers and across assignments—essentially in a “common trunk.” All teachers are thoroughly prepared in the following:
    • UDL
    • MTSS that include social-emotional learning and positive behavioral strategies and supports, and RtI2
    • The use of data to monitor progress, inform instruction, and guide interventions
    • Evidence-based reading instruction for struggling readers, including those with dyslexia; knowledge of and strategies for distinguishing between the typical struggles of an English language learner and the problems that reflect a potential disability
    • Digital Literacy and instructional technology
    • Cultural and linguistic responsiveness
  • Most special education credentials are designed and funded to prepare teachers to address the instructional needs of all students, not specific disability types. At the same time specific authorizations for educating students with low-incidence disabilities—students who have lost hearing or vision, for example—remain a critically valuable component of special education.
  • All special education credentials prepare and authorize special education teachers to instruct and to provide any needed support to general education students.
  • Preparation for a special education credential provides in-depth understanding of and strategies for supporting students who struggle with learning, students who struggle with behavioral disorders, students who struggle because of physical disabilities and health care needs.
  • Special educators are trained specifically in the following:
    • Assistive technology and augmentative and alternative communication systems
    • The importance of critical transitions in the life of a student with disabilities and strategies for planning transitions, providing supports for student success, and supporting students and families through those transitions
  • Paraeducators/Instructional Assistants receive professional learning opportunities and appropriate supervision as well as career pathway opportunities to become credentialed teachers.
  • Professional learning opportunities for educators in both special and general education are purposefully integrated.
  • The professional learning for all educators is extensive, coordinated across grades and disciplines, and aligned with the implementation of new standards and the site and district Local Control and Accountability Plan (LCAP) goals.
  • Incentive grants are available to colleges and universities, local education agencies and county offices of education to develop innovative programs that combine preparation to become general and special education teachers.
  • Service scholarships are available along with forgivable loans to candidates who will complete these programs and commit to at least three years of teaching in California schools.


  1. See appendix A on California student data.
  2. Parrish, T. (2012). Special education expenditures, revenues, and provision in California. American Institutes for Research/California Comprehensive Center/WestEd.
  3. Mitchell, D. (July 12, 2013). California facing a severe teacher shortage. External link opens in new window or tab. San Jose Mercury News.
  4. Artiles, A., Dozleski, E., Dorn, S., & Christenson, C. Learning in inclusive Education research: Re-mediating theory and methods with a transformative agenda. Review of Research in Education, 30, pp. 65–108.
  5. Waldron, N., & McLeskey, J. (April 1998). The effects of an inclusive school program on students with mild and severe learning disabilities. Exceptional Children, 64(3), pp. 395-405.
  6. Showers, B., Joyce, B., and Bennett, B. (1987). Synthesis of research on staff development: A framework for future study and a state-of-the-art analysis. Educational Leadership, 45(3), 77–87.
  7. Joyce, B. R., & Showers, B. (2002). Student achievement through staff development, third edition. ASCD.
Questions:   Special Education Division | | 916-445-4613
Last Reviewed: Monday, May 8, 2023
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