A publication of the Association of California School Administrators
A publication of the Association of California School Administrators
Equity in action: A culture of co-teaching
Driven to create equity in achievement, Downey USD implements a co-teaching model of instruction
By Rebekah Ruswick and Rani Bertsch | March | April 2024
What began as a desire to serve more students with Individualized Education Programs in Downey Unified School District within the same setting as their general education peers has developed into a robust co-teaching culture worthy of recognition in this year’s California School Boards Association’s Golden Bell Awards for “Effective Co-Teaching Practices in Secondary Classrooms.”
In 2017, a group of Downey USD administrators pitched an idea to Superintendent John Garcia and cabinet members to develop a co-teaching program at the district’s two comprehensive high schools. They knew that students with disabilities are at least twice as likely to pursue two-year or four-year postsecondary degrees if they receive instruction in core subjects within the general education setting (Lombardi, Doren, Gau, & Lindstrom, 2013). Additionally, the district was looking for ways to expand its capacity to serve students with IEPs in the least restrictive environment and to improve social and emotional development among all students. These facts coupled with the district’s graduation policy, adopted by the Board of Education in the same year and requiring all students to complete the 15 UC/CSU A-G subject requirements with a C or better by 2027, led the group to know the timing was right to encourage district leadership to stand behind the development of a bold co-teaching initiative.
Fast forward to 2023-24, hundreds of co-teaching sections are embedded within the master schedules of each of the four middle schools and two comprehensive high schools in Downey Unified School District, evidencing the district’s commitment to co-teaching as a mechanism of equity. The constructs of co-teaching are even encapsulated within the district’s comprehensive equity plan, developed inclusively by multiple district staff and students, which calls for “equity in achievement,” and provides for all district staff to plan, deliver and refine a rigorous education for all students.
The journey
In support of the newly adopted graduation requirements projected to be in effect by 2027, the district began to prepare its teachers 10 full years prior to full-scale implementation of this graduation policy. In 2017, the district’s two comprehensive high schools were first to implement an inclusive co-teaching model, starting with course offerings in English and math. Site administrators worked diligently to ensure that co-teaching pairs, inclusive of both the general education teacher and the special education teacher, had common planning periods. Counselors worked strategically to ensure that the rosters of all co-taught course sections included a composition of no more than 30 percent of students with IEPs, while also being mindful of other specialized populations such as multi-lingual learners, students with 504 plans, students in foster care or students who are unhoused. The district contracted with a highly skilled WestEd consultant, who utilized their expertise in inclusive practices and the Universal Design for Learning framework to provide job-embedded professional development and coaching for all co-teachers. Professional development was also provided to instructional assistants, who are often overlooked for training and coaching, but who also play a pivotal role in supporting students with special needs.
Our district is currently in its seventh year of implementation, and each year since 2017, we have expanded and replicated the co-teaching model to include more course sections that are A-G approved, including the sciences. Now, in addition to the expansion at the high school level, the district has co-taught course offerings at all middle schools, for sixth through eighth graders, in English and math. Over 100 teachers in the district, both general education and special education, are now considered “co-teachers.” The co-teaching model of instruction has been woven into the fabric of secondary instruction in Downey Unified and there are plans to continue its expansion as the outcomes have been demonstrative of the very core of equitable instruction.
Shared, underlying beliefs
Co-teaching in Downey Unified embodies the definition developed by Marilyn Friend, Ph.D. (2016), a Fulbright scholar and author of many seminal texts related to inclusion, which states, “Co-teaching enables students with disabilities to access the general curriculum [and grade level expectations] in meaningful ways, without leaving behind the specially designed instruction to which they are entitled —instruction that will enable them to reach their full potential.”
To ensure this definition comes to fruition, leaders in both the educational services department and the special education department in Downey Unified model a uniquely collaborative relationship and a shared understanding that all students, regardless of academic need, benefit from access to rigorous instruction. This collaboration between the “general education side of the house” and the “special education side of the house” has served as a lasting influence of togetherness for site administrators, teachers and staff throughout the district. The fact that the emphasis on co-teaching is not entirely a special education initiative, but a universal, shared goal, has made all the difference in the effectiveness of its implementation.
The culture of co-teaching in Downey Unified is built on a few basic tenets. First, co-teaching requires co-planning and co-assessing. If teachers are not provided common planning time, and if they cannot use this common planning time to co-plan, they cannot co-instruct. This, by default, involves strategic master scheduling, the right general education and special education teacher “marriage,” and forethought and intention by site administrators in collaboration with co-teachers to pick and choose specific subject areas and schedules. Our co-teachers receive ongoing coaching in their work and “strive for true parity,” as Friend (2016) states is imperative for a lasting co-teaching relationship. Additionally, the district has worked diligently to create clearly defined roles for co-teachers in which the general education teacher is predominantly responsible for teaching the content standards and conveying the knowledge of the specific subject, whereas the special education teacher is predominantly working to support students in accessing the grade-level content.
Second, to support co-taught classrooms in Downey Unified, no more than 30 percent of students with IEPs, 504s, or other specialized populations are scheduled into any given co-taught section. Wendy Murawski and Lisa Dieker (2013) wrote in their book, “Leading the Co-Teaching Dance,” that “ … the more students with special needs there are in the class, the more their needs begin to dominate classroom instruction and the less ‘inclusive’ [the class] truly becomes.” This “30 percent” threshold, however, is easier said than done. Having fewer students with IEPs in each section, however, creates the need for more special education teachers to support these students across sections. As Deputy Superintendent Roger Brossmer states, “We had to make the tough, but right decision in recruiting and hiring more special education teachers, even amidst a teacher shortage, to ensure we are adequately staffing our co-taught sections.”
Co-teaching requires co-planning and co-assessing. If teachers are not provided common planning time, and if they cannot use this common planning time to co-plan, they cannot co-instruct.
Finally, the financial commitment to the culture of co-teaching is undoubtedly a part of the infrastructure in Downey Unified. More co-teachers hired equals more ongoing cost associated with the implementation of co-teaching. These ongoing costs are integrated into the LCAP and accounted for in many fiscal decisions. This cost of co-teaching, however, is superseded by the impact on students in Downey Unified, both with and without IEPs, and is a testament to an inclusive, fiscal mindset. Student outcomes The long-term investment of time, expertise and financial commitment toward developing a robust co-teaching program has reaped notable returns on student achievement. Since 2017, the A-G completion rate for students with IEPs increased by almost 12 percent, despite the pandemic and its associated school closures, thus providing more students with IEPs the capacity to attend four-year universities upon completion of high school. CAASPP data in reading for 11th grade students increased by nearly 9 percent since implementation. Presently, in courses where co-teaching is implemented, students both with and without IEPs are far less likely to receive D’s or F’s overall. Special education data related to “least restrictive environment” continues to improve as well. Other, less quantitative outcomes involve a deeper sense of camaraderie among teachers from diverse backgrounds and disciplines, a more comprehensive and empathetic idea of equity on their behalf, and improved social-emotional development for students. The outcomes of co-teaching in Downey Unified even evidenced themselves in a recent WASC accreditation review in which Warren High School in Downey received six-year accreditation status. The WASC Committee wrote, “The co-teaching model ensures a challenging curriculum for all students in the classroom, including students with IEPs. Prior to co-teaching, which was the model effective in 2015, classes only included one teacher, which left students with IEPs limited to specialized academic instruction in non-college prep courses. Students with IEPs can [now] receive specialized academic instruction while still experiencing the rigors of a general education college-prep classroom.” Sustainability for the future The journey toward creating a culture in which co-teaching is normalized has not always been easy but has always been worthwhile. As equity, in the form of co-teaching, has been put into action, district leadership has had to tackle mindset shifts and underlying implicit belief systems, which are often the most complicated form of change. Nonetheless, what started with a call to action for cabinet members in 2017, has developed into a comprehensive and robust instructional mechanism that supports many students with and without IEPs. The district’s Board of Education fully supports the maintenance and growth of our co-teaching endeavors. Most recently, they demonstrated this commitment by supporting the in-house development and training of certain co-teachers to become “inclusion experts” and have approved the hiring of an administrative position designed to promote inclusive practices throughout the district. Our district-wide equity plan also continually evolves and is considered a “living” document. As iterations of this plan develop, we will continue to generate innovative ways to support all students. In summary, Downey Unified’s culture of co-teaching is best captured by Board President Giovanna Perez-Saab, who states, “Our co-teaching program has become the pinnacle of equitable instructional practices in our secondary schools and has shown exemplary results for all of our students in closing the achievement gap.” References Friend M. (2016). Welcome to co-teaching 2.0. Educational Leadership, 73(4), 16-22. Lombardi, A., Doren, B., Gau, J., & Lindstrom, L. (2013). The influence of instructional settings in reading and math on postsecondary participation. Journal of Disability Policy Studies, 24, 169-179. Murawski W., Dieker L. (2013). Leading the co-teaching dance: Leadership strategies to enhance team outcomes. Alexandria, VA: Council for Exceptional Children. Rebekah Ruswick, Ed.D., is director of Special Education at Downey Unified School District. Rani Bertsch, Ed.D., is director of Secondary Education at Downey Unified School District.