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3.3: Co-teaching to the Rescue!

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    Aside from applying a UDL framework, one of the most oft used practices for including students with disabilities in the general education classroom is co-teaching (Murawski & Swanson; 2001). The term co-teaching is a shortened version of the term cooperative teaching coined by Bauwen, Houcade, and Friend (1989) which is intended to be a seamless practical fusion of general and special-education. This system would provide educational programming to all students within the general education setting.

    According to Cook and Friend (1995) co-teaching is tantamount to a marriage, or at least a modern day marriage, where both the general and special education teacher have equal authority and work in tandem to support all students. True co-teaching, within their definition, assumes that both teachers are equally responsible for the learning of students in planning and delivering instruction, and also assessing student progress. The general education teacher is thought to be the content area specialist, while the special education teacher is the instructor who is a specialist in facilitating access of the content to the students.

    According to Murawski and Swanson (2001), co-teaching has enjoyed extensive attention in the educational literature through anecdotal experiences and suggestions for implementation. However, they also note that empirical research on the efficacy of co-teaching on the achievement of students with disabilities is sparse at best. Within their review, they noted that co-teaching had not been systematically investigated through any well-designed experiments, though the variable effects of the small body of research were in a positive direction. Again, this does not provide evidence that co-teaching does not work. Rather, like many other educational initiatives that make their way into classrooms (e.g., Accelerated Reader), it’s impact on student performance has not been thoroughly investigated.

    A review of the qualitative research conducted by Scruggs, Mastropieri, and McDuffie (2007) showed the teachers involved in co-teaching generally supported the practice. However, concerns noted were difficulties with coordinating planning time, addressing the skill level of students, and professional training in co-teaching. Once again, many of the issues were attributed to variability in meaningful support from administrators. They also describe at the dominant form of co-teaching investigated has been of the “one teach, one assist” variety, even though this model may not be as impactful as others. Additionally, the special education teachers were often relegated to a supportive role, rather than a teammate with equal power. Finally, it was observed that many special-education techniques recommended in the research (e.g., self-monitoring) were not often utilized by the special education teacher in the inclusive environment.

    This information begs the question, is co-teaching a poor model, or could it be the golden ticket that postmodern researchers and advocates have been looking for? Theoretically, a co-teaching model that utilized the recommended strategies has the great deal of face validity which is why administrators are so keen on the development of this framework.

    Recommended Co-teaching Strategies

    Friend and Bursuck (2009) describe six models of co-teaching that teaching teams may utilize to support the inclusion of all students. Of course each of these models presupposes administrative support and commitment to teachers working on an equal level with respect to planning lessons, providing instruction, and assessing student progress. Co-teaching is doomed to fail without the commitment of both teachers, and administrative support.

    One teach, one observe

    In this model, one of the teachers leads students in large group instruction, while the second teacher collects data. This model of co-teaching is obviously the weakest in utilizing both teachers to the benefit of students. It is likely that this is also the most often used model of co-teaching as it describes the dynamic of one teacher (content area specialist) “teaching” while the other teacher is viewed as more of a teacher’s aide. Aside from being not very effective in utilizing both teachers to their potential, this method also would seem to be a waste of money.

    One teach, one assist

    Similar to one teach, one observe this model defers instruction to one teacher while the other teachers circulate around the classroom offering assistance to the students in need. Once again, this appears to be the type of model that Scruggs, Mastropieri, and McDuffie (2007) describe as often used and limited in effectiveness. Again, the assist role could be easily filled by a teacher’s aide, and is not likely to result in the delivery of special education related services as required by the child’s IEP. This is likely the most common model of co-teaching because it works into the paradigm of the content area specialist being the teacher of the class, in their classroom, and the special education teacher is there just to help.


    A more effective approach to the two previous approaches is teaming. In this model, both teachers work to deliver the lesson at the same time. This could be done through providing opposing opinions in a debate, illustrating different ways of solving problems, or pausing throughout. For example, the content area teacher can describe how to work out a problem in math, and immediately afterwards the special education teacher could just describe different strategies to remember how to perform the operation (e.g., mnemonics). Of course, both teachers would have to describe their roles ahead of time, and have a strong enough relationship to allow each to have their say.

    Parallel teaching

    Parallel teaching describes a situation where the room is separated into two sections. Students are paired with one of the two teachers thus allowing for smaller group instruction and hopefully increase student participation. Obviously, this technique would require planning due to the logistics of room rearrangement, noise levels, and content mastery.

    Alternative teaching

    Alternative teaching suggests that one teacher (the content specialist) teaches to the majority of students, while the other teacher (special educator) takes a small group of students to help with access to the curriculum. They could also perform curriculum-based measures in this framework, teach strategies for remembering concepts, and help students understand concepts that they may have missed. Essentially, alternative teaching is a method forproviding resource room supports within the general education classroom.

    Station teaching

    The final co-teaching method involves dividing instruction into three non-sequential components, or stations. The class is then divided into three small groups, with teachers at two of them and the final used for independent practice. Students would then rotate from station to station gaining pieces of knowledge from each station that is combined at the end of the lesson. As with parallel teaching, station teaching would involve a great deal of planning beforehand, and would be subject to logistical constraints of the classroom.

    Obviously with the requisite amount of planning and buy-in from the teachers, it is easy to see how co-teaching could be an effective method for delivering instruction. For example, one teach one observe would be handy with respect to delivering curriculum-based measures to students. Station teaching could be very effective at certain times and in certain subjects (e.g., science) where hands-on components are involved.

    This page titled 3.3: Co-teaching to the Rescue! is shared under a CC BY-ND license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Mickey Losinski (New Prairie Press/Kansas State University Libraries) .

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