Special needs students still struggle to access quality education. Here’s how teachers can help.

By Aakriti Kalra
Teaching and Learning International Survey, Directorate for Education and Skills

Photo credit: Thelmadatter/Wikimedia Commons
It is a shared international understanding that access to education is a human right that must be guaranteed for all children. Yet barriers to access and quality have made education elusive for the world’s 93 million students with special needs.

Teacher preparedness remains a particularly significant barrier to quality learning for special needs students. According to a new study based on data from the 2013 Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS), about 70% of teachers who participated in TALIS teach in classrooms with at least some special needs students. These teachers tend to be less experienced and trained than those who do not teach in classrooms with special needs students. The majority of teachers who participated in the survey also expressed a need for training in special needs education.

Only a limited percentage of teachers said they had previously participated in professional development in special needs education, according to the survey, and more than 70% of those who participated in such activities do not find them highly impactful on their teaching. This underscores a pressing need to improve the quality of professional development opportunities in special needs education.
"The challenge of providing a quality education for children with disabilities around the world will ultimately depend on the training and preparation of teachers."
Teachers face systemic challenges, as well. Those in classrooms with higher proportions of special needs students are more likely to work in low-resourced school environments, and their teaching assignments tend to be more intermittent.  This results in a lack of instructional consistency for special needs students, putting them at an even greater disadvantage.

Teachers across the world are teaching in classrooms with diverse learners, so it is promising to see them express interest in professional development opportunities that can help them respond to the needs of integrated classrooms. Support with classroom management, differentiated instruction and specific pedagogical approaches for students with special needs can make professional development activities more impactful for teachers – especially if they are designed to allow teachers to collaborate at the school level and share classroom experiences. Notably, in schools where principals actively support teachers in improving their teaching practice, teachers feel better prepared to teach special needs students. System-level support is equally important for ensuring quality-learning opportunities for students with special needs – through, for example, the allocation of school resources and more experienced, better-trained teachers for more consistent periods.

“The challenge of providing a quality education for children with disabilities around the world will ultimately depend on the training and preparation of teachers,” writes North Cooc, Assistant Professor, Department of Special Education at the University of Texas Austin College of Education, and an OECD Thomas J. Alexander Fellow, who authored the new study. “This study provides new insight into the scope of this global challenge at the school level and for teachers. The hope is that these findings will continue to spark an urgency across countries to improve recruitment and training of teachers who work with special need students and, ultimately, ensure the right to a quality education for this population.”


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