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Co-teaching is a special education service delivery model in which two certified teachers, one general educator and one special educator, share responsibility for planning, delivering, and evaluating instruction for a diverse group of students, some of whom are students with disabilities. Co-teaching has emerged as a very popular alternative to the more traditional Resource Room or pull-out special education service delivery models and as a way to support inclusion of students with disabilities in general education settings. Coteaching draws on the strengths of both the general educator, who understands the structure, content, and pacing of the general education curriculum, and the special educator, who can identify unique learning needs of individual students and enhance curriculum and instruction to match these needs.
According to its advocates, co-teaching is supposed to accomplish three goals: First, co-teaching is expected to make available to all students, including those with disabilities, a wider range of instructional alternatives than would be possible with just one teacher. Second, co-teaching is expected to enhance the participation of students with disabilities as full classroom members. Third, co-teaching is expected to improve performance outcomes for students with disabilities. In theory, when co-teaching is implemented, both educators are delivering substantive instruction, and the instruction from both teachers occurs within the confines of a single classroom. In practice, when co-teaching is implemented, the roles and responsibilities of the general and special education teacher vary widely.
A search was conducted for research articles published within the last 20 years in refereed journals that compared teachers’ instructional practices, student engagement rates, and/or student academic progress in co-taught classrooms with those in alternative special education service delivery models. Only four articles were found in which the effectiveness of co-teaching was measured empirically and compared statistically with a control condition. Three of these reported on studies conducted in elementary schools, one on a study conducted in a high school.
• Bear and Proctor (1990) studied the achievement gains of 47 third graders with high-incidence disabilities taught in Team Approach to Mastery (TAM) classrooms, compared to the gains shown by 31 students with high-incidence disabilities served in resource rooms. In TAM classrooms, students with high-incidence disabilities are taught together with non-disabled peers for 100% of the school day, at the ratio of approximately one student with disabilities to every three without disabilities. Two teachers, one certified in general education, the other in special education, jointly provide instruction to all students in the same classroom. The researchers used scores from the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills, available in students’ permanent records, to show that achievement gains of students with disabilities in TAM classes were consistently greater than (in math) or equal to (in reading) the gains made by students in the resource room. They concluded that TAM classrooms are “at least as effective” as resource rooms.
• Schulte, Osborne, and McKinney (1990) randomly assigned students with learning disabilities in grades 1 to 4 to one of three service delivery models: one period of resource room services per day (n=19), consultative services to the general education teacher who had students with disabilities in his/her class (n=14), and consultative services with co-teaching (n=19). They measured students’ academic progress using both standardized achievement tests in reading, writing, and mathematics, and a criterion-referenced reading measure. Like Bear and Proctor, Schulte and her colleagues found that consultation plus co-teaching was “as effective as” the other service delivery models in producing academic gains.
• Marston (1996) compared reading progress of elementary students with high-incidence disabilities served in inclusion-only (n=33), pull-out only (n=171), and combined (n=36) service delivery models. In inclusion-only models, students with disabilities were provided all their IEP services in the general education classroom through co-teaching. In pull-out only, all special education services were delivered in a resource room. The combined model included pullout resource room services and co-teaching provided jointly by the general and special education teacher in the general education classroom. By comparing curriculum-based measures taken in fall and spring, Marston demonstrated that reading progress of students served in the combined model was significantly greater than that of students served in either the inclusion-only (co-teaching) or pull-out only models. Once again, co-teaching was ‘as effective as” resource in producing reading growth, but this study also showed the value-added of combining both coteaching and pull-out service delivery systems.
High School Level
• Boudah and colleagues (1997) studied the effects of co-teaching (referred to as collaborative instruction) on the performance of high school students with disabilities on content subject quizzes and test scores. They found that the performance of students with high-incidence disabilities (n=16) actually worsened during the experimental, co-teaching treatment. Furthermore, even with two teachers in the room, students in co-taught settings were only minimally engaged in instructional tasks. Despite the current and growing popularity of co-teaching, research on student outcomes in this service delivery model is very limited. Only four studies could be found. In the three elementary studies co-teaching was just as effective in producing academic gains as resource room instruction or consultation with the general education teacher; in the high school study, students’ quiz and exam grades actually worsened during the co-teaching experiment. If the goal of coteaching is to allow students with high-incidence disabilities to access the general education curriculum and to “do no harm” to them in terms of academic achievement, then the three elementary studies provide modest support for a co-teaching model in elementary schools. If the goal, however, is to achieve greater academic gains than have been traditionally achieved in a resource program, then co-teaching has not yet proved itself useful. Furthermore, the research suggests that the prevailing assumptions about the effectiveness and usefulness of co-teaching for students with disabilities in inclusive classrooms need to be reexamined.