Lisa Nelson earned a master's degree in middle school education and taught for five years. But she never learned much about dyslexia until her own daughter began struggling in school.
Nelson, who researched the condition and ultimately referred her daughter for testing, was frustrated that her daughter's teachers didn't identify the signs first. And when she thinks back on the children she used to teach in the late 1990s and early 2000s, she wonders how many had learning disabilities that went unrecognized or unaddressed because she never learned about the signs in her preservice program.
"Dyslexia is the most common learning disability. ... If teachers are not getting training for the most common reading failure, then what percentage are getting trained in anything else?" asked Nelson, who has since co-founded the Massachusetts chapter of the advocacy group Decoding Dyslexia.
Students with disabilities make up about 13 percent of the public school student population, according to 2015-16 federal data. Because of the inclusion movement, which says that students with disabilities should be educated alongside their nondisabled peers, 63 percent of those millions of students with disabilities spend the majority of their day in general education classrooms.
Yet historically, many colleges of education have offered just one or two courses on special education for their general education teacher-candidates. Advocates say that's not enough to know how to teach students with such learning disabilities as dyslexia or other conditions like autism or attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder.
"This is the first time in history where so many kids with disabilities are being taught in general education classrooms," said Michael Gottfried, an associate professor in the Gevirtz Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Santa Barbara. "I do think a lot of it is happening without so much preparation on the teacher side."
But there's hope the tide is turning, educators say: More colleges of education and state education departments are beginning to put a priority on teaching their general classroom teachers how to work with students with disabilities. After all, those students' success in mainstream classes hinges in large part on their teachers, experts say.
"Even if you have a great special education teacher [in the building], general education teachers need that knowledge," Nelson said.
Beyond 'Special Education 101'
A 2009 federal report found that most traditional teacher-preparation programs-and about half of alternative programs-require at least one course on teaching students with disabilities for prospective general classroom teachers.
Still, about half the programs reported that they needed more information or assistance on how to revise their curriculum to better prepare teachers.
About 60 percent of elementary programs required field experiences with students with disabilities, as did just 28 percent of alternative routes. In fact, the type of field experience most often required was to observe teachers working with students with disabilities. Fewer than one-third of programs required their preservice teachers to work with students with disabilities during their student-teaching experience.
Those numbers are dated, but experts aren't sure if they've changed all that much.
As the number of students with disabilities who enroll in general education classes continues to grow, however, programs are realizing that "this is important, and the techniques you have taught your general education candidates may not be as maximally effective as they need to be for students who are really struggling to learn," said Mary Brownell, the director of the Collaboration for Effective Educator Development, Accountability, and Reform (or the CEEDAR Center).
The Florida-based CEEDAR Center has worked with more than 20 states to help them enhance their teacher education programs, among other reforms. A major portion of that work focuses on ensuring that general education teacher-preparation programs are training teachers to serve all learners, especially those with disabilities, she said.
"The ideal would be that a lot of this information is so well-integrated into your coursework, and you have multiple opportunities to practice what you're learning," said Brownell, who is also a professor of special education at the University of Florida in Gainesville. "But more than that, to me, the ideal is that you would then leave your preparation program and then enter into a school system built on [these principles]. ... These are very sophisticated skills we're asking teachers to have, and they can't easily learn them in two years."
California recently took a step in that direction by revamping its teacher-training standards to better prepare general classroom teachers to work effectively with students with disabilities. All prospective teachers must learn instructional techniques to work with diverse learners.
Other states, like Connecticut, Ohio, and Tennessee, are making strides toward better preparing their general classroom teachers, Brownell said.
Inclusive Teacher prep
At Syracuse University, any undergraduate student who wants to earn a degree in elementary education has to enroll in an "inclusive elementary and special education" dual program. Coursework on teaching students with disabilities and related clinical experiences are woven throughout the program, and when students graduate, they're recommended for certification in both elementary special education and general elementary education.
"All students are going to leave here with strategies and tools to teach all [learners]," said Christine Ashby, an associate professor in the teaching and leadership department at the university's school of education.
Co-teaching is also modeled throughout the program: To prepare teacher-candidates to work alongside a special education teacher, some classes are co-taught by faculty members from different backgrounds, or even a professor and a self-advocate with a disability.
"We wanted the faculty to be seen as really collaborative. We don't have a separate special education program," said Ashby, noting that even the faculty's offices are mixed together. "We're constantly modeling that this is in the water of the place, in addition to being something we expect students to do."
The university's programs for prospective secondary teachers also incorporate coursework on students with disabilities-but not to the same extent, and Ashby said there could be more work done to prepare those teachers for inclusive classrooms.
"If we started with the assumption that our classrooms are diverse, ... we wouldn't have so much work to do later to help teachers adjust to that diversity in the classroom," she said.
After all, serving diverse learners is a key component of equitable education, Brownell said.
"Far too often in colleges of education, equity has been about race, language, culture, and poverty, but what's left out of that conversation is disability," she said. "We'll know we've arrived when our conversations about equity ... [include] disability."