When Marquita Grenot-Scheyer, Ph.D. was being trained as a special education teacher 30 years ago, things were a lot different.

"The attitudes about students with special needs have changed dramatically. In 1975, federal law guaranteed that students with special needs must receive  an appropriate public education," explains Dr. Grenot-Scheyer, Vice Chancellor for Teacher Education and Public School Programs at the California State University (CSU) Office of the Chancellor, in Long Beach.

"California was already doing that, but the law changed the field across our nation. As attitudes about students with special needs changed, so did our understanding as educators."

The Rise of Inclusive Teacher Preparation

One of the biggest shifts was including special needs students in the general student population—a new idea at the time. 

The concept has only grown since then.

"As we have come to understand the learning and emotional needs of special learners, we see that each child must first have their own needs met and secondly they need to be part of the general education curriculum," explains Grenot-Scheyer.

Now, she adds, "the trend is moving towards inclusive teacher preparation as well. At the CSU, we have a strong belief that all teachers need the information, skill and expertise to work with all students."

The CSU system has always been on the leading edge of educator training. Starting in the 19th century, "Normal Schools" were established in the state to train elementary school teachers; these were the precursors of the current CSU.

Since then, the system has earned a reputation for being a step ahead in the field of teacher education. Many thousands of educators—in both general education and special education—throughout the country learned at CSU campuses.

"Half of  teachers in California and 8 to 10 percent of teachers nationwide have been schooled at a CSU," Grenot-Scheyer says. "And the CSU, as a system, is continuing to work on developing more inclusive teacher preparation."

So Who Are 'Exceptional Learners'?

"The term 'exceptional learners' encompasses many students … gifted learners; gifted learners with a disability … students with learning difficulties, mental health problems, and identity problems; homeless students; foster care students; and students with autism," explains Wendy Murawski, Ph.D., professor in the department of special education and the executive director and Eisner Endowed Chair of the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) at California State University, Northridge.

Grenot-Scheyer likes to use the metaphor of a tree when talking about preparing educators to spend their career working with special needs students: "The 'tree trunk' is all of the competencies and standards that all teachers need to know and be able to do, to teach all students," she says. "Then the 'branches' include competencies for specific additional needs, such as those required to work successfully with special educational needs and English language learners."

Ultimately, all PK-12 students are children first and foremost, of course, and that—not their different abilities or needs—is what primarily defines who they are and how they learn.

"Let's take, for example, 'Carla'," says Grenot-Scheyer. "Carla is a young woman with developmental difficulties who loves art. At the heart of who she is, she's a wonderful young woman and a student, and that's how I meet her needs: She is a girl, a member of the community, and an artist who happens to have a development delay."

Collaboration: The Key to Creating an Inclusive Learning Environment

As the push to better integrate students like Carla into the general student population grows, so too does the need to instruct not just future special education teachers but also general education teachers.

"California is leading the way for setting the standards on what all teachers need to know and be able to do," says Grenot-Scheyer, as well as "what [special education] teachers need to know. We are teaching both groups of teachers to collaborate with one another, to better meet the needs of all students."

So while a general education teacher may not need the in-depth skills of a special education teacher to help, say  a struggling student awith a learning disability in her class, she does need to understand that child's needs and also something about how her colleague in special education is teaching his or her student.

Or, as Murawski says, "We want all of our teachers, school administrators and psychologists to understand all of these students and have a concrete strategy for teaching them."

Helping Teachers Work Together

Andrea Zetlin, Ed.D., professor emerita in the division of special education and counseling at California State University, Los Angeles, spends a lot of time thinking about how teachers can be taught to better join forces to ensure exceptional learners thrive at school.

"The main thrust is that we want to make sure that kids with disabilities can be successful in the general population" of students, says Dr. Zetlin, noting some of the ways educators are taught at the CSU and beyond:  

  • Co-teaching, in which special needs and general education teachers work and learn together
  • Assessment, or figuring out which practices are most effective in the classroom for exceptional learners. "We teach the teachers to teach and then test, so that they know how the kids are doing," Zetlin explains.
  • Instruction about how to make accommodations and modifications for students with particular needs
  • Learning about relevant laws. All educators need to be aware of legal requirements related to special education of K-12 students.
  • Learning techniques for supporting positive behavior. Teachers with these skills can help kids before they need additional services.
  • Universal design for learning. Teachers-in-training can learn new ways for their special needs students to produce different kinds of work that go beyond written assignments, such as art work.

'One Education for All'

As inclusive teaching drives more teacher education programs, the CSU system is leading the way, constantly striving to find, test and implement innovative and effective ways of teaching all types of educators. Or, as Zetlin puts it, "one education for all, not 'mine' and 'yours.'"

That means rigorously assessing what's working, as well as what doesn't. "We evaluate ourselves constantly," stresses Grenot-Scheyer. "There is probably no other profession as accountable to our students and our profession. We have to be and choose to be."

Finding new and better ways to prepare teachers will also give the students of the CSU more options in their career and, it's hoped, do even more to help end the significant teacher shortage now faced by the state.

Cal State LA's Zetlin, for example, currently has a grant for a new program that allows undergraduate education majors to get a general education and a special education degree while earning their B.A. "Traditionally, we have done this at the graduate level," she explains. "But with this program teachers will be able to have their credentials when they complete their undergraduate degree."