Beyond a Buzzword: How This Co-Teaching Model is Driving Meaningful Inclusion
by Genevieve Thomas, Vice President, Integrated Special Education
“Rocketship serves all students.” It’s a fundamental principle that drives Rocketship’s approach to meaningful inclusion of students with diverse learning needs in our schools. Ask any visitor to a Rocketship classroom and they will tell you that they see this philosophy play out in the diversity of learners in each and every school. It means that every cohort of Rocketeers consists of students of all abilities and disabilities, learning alongside each other in the general education setting supported by a team of Rocketship educators.
It is the focus on meaningful inclusion of all students that drives many individuals to join the Rocketship team. They are drawn to this philosophy of serving all students. However, doing this work well takes more than good intentions – it takes a framework of best practices for effectively supporting diverse learners within a rigorous general education environment. Collaborative practice, including co-teaching, between special and general education teachers is one of the foundations of Rocketship’s approach to and success in meaningful inclusion.
Co-teaching has certainly become a buzzword in special education, but what exactly does it mean? At its core, co-teaching is when two or more educators co-plan, co-instruct, and co-assess a group of students with diverse needs in the same general education classroom (Murawski, 2013). Furthermore, co-teaching is successful when the co-taught instruction is substantively better than what each educator could accomplish alone (Cook & Friend, 1995). A review of co-teaching research finds that “co-teaching has great potential for promoting the inclusion of students with disabilities” (McDuffie, 2012). Co-teachers meet during collaborative planning time each week to align on upcoming lessons, review data, adjust groups and instruction as necessary, and problem-solve. At Rocketship, the implementation of co-teaching practices has maximized the instruction of students with disabilities in the least restrictive environment, increasing the amount of specialized services that are delivered within the general education setting and ensuring that students have full access to Rocketship’s rigorous instructional model.
Currently, all Rocketship Integrated Special Education (ISE) Specialists establish co-teaching relationships with their general education counterparts, and deliver a portion of academic and/or behavioral services in a co-taught setting. ISE Specialists choose high-leverage co-teaching models, such as station teaching, parallel teaching, or alternative teaching, based on student needs and the structure of the general education instructional block. Walk by a co-taught Rocketship classroom on any given day and you might see a special education teacher working with one small group of students on a phonics lesson, while the general education teacher works with another small group of students in a guided reading lesson, and yet another group of students extends their learning on adaptive online learning programs. A peek into another co-taught class might reveal two teachers “parallel teaching” a writing lesson, with the general education teacher instructing a larger group of students on embedding figurative language into their writing, while the special education teacher delivers the same content with the added supports of sentence frames and more frequent feedback to a mixed group of students identified as requiring additional supports. Co-teaching at Rocketship, like all instructional practice, is driven by data.
Phuong Duong, an ISE Specialist at Rocketship Si Se Puede, co-teaches in a 4th grade math classroom where she utilizes a parallel teaching approach to support a diverse group of learners, including students with and without IEPs, in accessing grade level content. Phuong’s general education counterpart is the “content expert,” designing rigorous Common Core Standards-aligned whole group lessons. Phuong is the “differentiation expert”, modifying the general education plans with a Universal Design for Learning (UDL) lens to provide additional scaffolds for a smaller group of students identified through data analysis as needing additional support to access the grade level content. Supports vary from the use of manipulatives to pre-teaching or re-teaching missed or upcoming content. Every day, students in this co-taught classroom are all tackling the same rigorous, grade level content, but with a lower teacher-to-student ratio and a more precise match of supports to individual student needs.
Similar to our personalized curriculum for students, our co-teaching model allows our teachers to specialize in what they need to teach, as well as specialize in their personal and professional development. As a result, effective co-teaching benefits both students and staff. At Rocketship Si Se Puede, Phuong is able to support the students on her caseload in the least restrictive environment, and can ensure that they aren’t missing out on any essential content instruction in order to be “pulled out” for their special education services. She is able to more effectively identify and diagnose student misconceptions in the small group setting within the classroom, and thus is able to more effectively target her instruction to student need. Phuong also sees some of her otherwise timid students blossom in a small group setting, noting that some of her students have a boost of confidence in this setting where they are more easily able to “show what they know.” She also appreciates the support she gets from her co-teacher, who is a consistent thought partner in determining how to best deliver instruction to maximize the benefit for all Rocketeers.
Rocketship ISE Specialists and classroom teachers are supported in developing their co-teaching practice in a variety of ways. First, special and general education staff engage in shared professional development during the summer and fall. Subsequently, teams are supported throughout the school year through targeted coaching from school leaders and network support team members, as well as access to resources and exemplars in co-teaching practices from across the network. Phuong cites the direct support she has gotten from her ISE Program Specialist on the Network Support Team, specifically focused on developing consistent co-planning routines with her co-teacher, as an essential factor in the success the partnership.
Serving all students isn’t easy, but the team at Rocketship maintains our steadfast commitment to this principle, and we are seeing incredible results. Our special education students achieved an average of 1.2 years of growth in both math and reading last school year. Strategic, thoughtful co-teaching between special and general education teachers is just one of the evidence-based practices Rocketship implements in our pursuit of eliminating the achievement gap for all Rocketeers within our lifetimes.
Murawski, W. W. (2003). Co-teaching in the inclusive classroom: Working together to help all your students find success (grades 6-12). Medina, WA: Institute for Educational Development.
Cook, L. & Friend, M. (1995). Co-Teaching: Guidelines for creating effective practices. Focus on Exceptional Children, 28(3).
Genevieve Thomas has had various roles within special education over almost a decade before becoming Rocketship’s Vice President of Integrated Special Education. Genevieve has many passions, but when forced to choose, she is caught between finding new ways to be active in the outdoors, and finding ways to improve educational opportunities for students with disabilities.
Published on June 14, 2017