Teacher learning communities
Research has shown that PD should be strictly site-based and should build on the combined expertise of in-house staff members (Guskey, 2002). This is premised on the belief that the most effective way of improving teacher quality is to have educators in each school meet regularly to explore common problems and seek solutions based on shared experiences and collective wisdom. Bryk and Schneider (2002), as well as Desimone (2009), established the view that PD that centres on teacher learning communities rather than the once-off traditional ‘workshop’ is more likely to be accepted and implemented by teachers in the classroom, possibly due to this approach allowing for a tighter coupling of theory with practice.
The challenge was how these learning communities could be structured and sustained. Desimone (2009) and Leko and Brownell (2009) in separate reviews of literature distilled the following common features for effective PD of teachers: (a) content focus, (b) active teaming, (c) coherence, (d) duration, and (e) collective participation. Additional features were identified by Leko, Brownell, Sindelar, and Kiely (2015) who said that it should be collaborative in nature and should focus on student data. Desimone went further to link the effects of the PD of teachers on student outcomes via the theory of change (Clark & Taplin, 2012). The theory of change suggests that these features of PD would result in an increase in teacher competencies and a change in their attitudes and beliefs. These changes would bring about a change in instructional practice for improved student learning.
Collective teacher efficacy
Musti-Rao, Hawkins, and Tan (2011) employed a survey to study the self- and collective efficacies of 106 teachers from four different special education schools and 202 teachers from three mainstream schools. There was no difference in self-efficacy among the two groups of teachers, but there was a significant difference in collective efficacy, with SPED teachers having a lower sense of collective efficacy. Goddard, Hoy, & Hoy, (2000, p. 501) defined collective teacher efficacy as ‘the perceptions of teachers in a school that the efforts of the faculty as a whole will have a positive effect on students’. They advocated that this situation can be remedied if school administrators provide efficacy-building mastery experiences through thoughtfully designed staff development activities and action research projects. Similarly, Supovitz and Christman (2003) found that schools that achieved better collective efficacy and student results had leaders who provided opportunities for frequent, structured opportunities for teachers to focus on instructional practices which translated into more effective teaching.
Advancing SPED teacher competencies
Traditionally, SPED teachers entered classrooms on completion of typical SPED teacher preparation programs that do not focus heavily on content (Brownell, Leko, Kamman, & King, 2008). In a special feature on the personnel preparation for SPED, Leko et ah (2015) outlined essential knowledge that special education demands of SPED personnel. These competencies include:
i. The ability to develop and support rigorous content instruction for students with disabilities, especially with the push for all students (with or without disabilities) to graduate ‘college and career ready’.
ii. SPED teachers need well-developed collaboration skills to work effectively with various service providers (including medical practitioners, a range of therapists, potential employers, community partners and families).
iii. The collaboration is necessary in planning precise classroom intervention, instruction that is carefully coordinated and targets key content and skills, measuring students’ response to classroom or intervention instruction, and making changes to instructional plans based on the assessment data.
iv. They also need more extensive curricular knowledge, particularly in general education curriculum (with high emphasis on literacy and numeracy).
v. Closely linked with curricular knowledge is the knowledge of assistive technology which SPED students rely on to access learning.
vi. Many special education teachers may not be well-prepared to implement basic research-validated routines and strategies.
In summary, effective PD for SPED teachers should demonstrate the following features: it should focus on content areas with content pedagogical knowledge and assessment that develops appropriate classroom intervention, and teacher learning should be active, coherent, and of adequate duration, with the collective participation of communities of teachers.