While the concept of “including” students with disabilities has only recently entered the collective consciousness of educational reformers nationwide, it is far from being a new fad or trend. The Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) component of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) has been a cornerstone of special education policy for nearly 40 years now. Mandating that, “to the maximum extent appropriate,” children with disabilities be educated alongside children who are not disabled, while still receiving the supports and services they need to be successful, LRE has not, since it became law in 1975, been amended and is one of the few pieces of education policy that has remained relatively uncontroversial over the years, at least in theory. Despite this consistency, meeting the requirements of LRE, creating a culture of inclusion, and ensuring staff and student success in this model of education continues to be a struggle for many school districts.
Disseminating Effective Practices
One of the most efficient ways for school districts to begin promoting inclusive practices is through professional development. Yet the traditional stand-and-deliver nature of these sessions does not lend itself well to transforming teaching behavior. While didactic lecture can be an effective way to improve staff knowledge of terminology and concepts, it does not typically impact staff performance in the classroom unless it is followed by activities such as performance feedback, goal setting and self-monitoring (www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1986691/). Unfortunately, school districts are often limited in the amount of follow-up they can provide after a professional development session, due to the cost and availability of expert staff.
Ensuring Ongoing Collaboration
Given the personalized nature of inclusion, it would seem necessary to provide teachers with ample time to collaborate on individual student needs. Teachers often cite lack of planning time (www.forbes.com/sites/erikkain/2011/03/08/high-teacher-turnover-rates-are-a-big-problem-for-americas-public-schools/) as a primary challenge in education. Some districts have implemented collaborative team teaching models, which pair general and special education teachers and students in the same classroom. This model offers an exciting opportunity for teachers to modify traditional classroom routines, observe student needs in a shared setting and creatively problem-solve to provide appropriate support across the school day. However, not all districts have implemented this model as there may be challenges around philosophy (www.edutopia.org/blog/collaborative-team-teaching-challenges-rewards-marisa-kaplan) and other logistical variables (e.g., not enough students with special needs in the same school building or grade level), and it is not necessarily appropriate for all students with special needs to spend their entire day in a general education classroom. Many students continue to be served primarily in self-contained settings, or spend portions of their school day in a resource room with specialized support. In these models, it is less likely that teachers will have an opportunity to collaborate on identifying appropriate goals or delivering interventions. In most cases, these duties fall to the special education teacher, who may be operating independent of the general education classroom.
Measuring Progress vs. Process
One of the problems districts face in implementing and evaluating inclusion is the ambiguity of terms like “Least Restrictive Environment” and “maximum extent appropriate,” both of which are intentionally ambiguous in order to accommodate the varied and individual needs of the students to which they refer. The individualized nature of special education and the necessary ambiguity of the terms that describe it, however, have made it difficult for districts to evaluate their own success in educating students with special needs and in implementing a wide-reaching model of inclusion. It is not a one-size-fits-all solution.
The manner in which districts evaluate their inclusive practices (eric.ed.gov/?id=ED185767) is driven by federal IDEA requirements, and is significantly lacking. Metrics focus on the percentage of students served in each “environment,” and the amount of time students with IEP’s are spending in general education classrooms. Specific attention is also paid to how IEP goals are written (e.g., whether they are measurable and standards-driven), without addressing whether or not these goals are actually being met. So while these metrics focus on the “process” of including students, they do not tell us anything about whether students are making meaningful progress in these settings.
The Role of Technology
Technology offers several promising avenues for addressing some of the common challenges associated with developing an inclusive education system. It is important that leaders carefully consider technology options, and develop thoughtful plans for introducing them to staff.
There are a number of cost-effective and multi-modal formats for providing on-the-job training and follow-up coaching after a traditional professional development session. Use of live and recorded webinars, eLearning systems, video-modeling and remote observation via web-cam or recorded video present a variety of ways to “scale” the dissemination of effective practices, and strengthen fidelity of implementation in the classroom.
Incorporating online meetings into district practices, much like other industries have been doing for years now, presents another opportunity for more frequent collaboration. In large districts, this format allows expert staff to meet more frequently with teachers dispersed across large geographic areas, and be more responsive to requests for support. In smaller and rural districts, this format can be used to encourage isolated special educators to interact with their colleagues in neighboring schools or districts, as well as access remote consultants. Districts should also consider online lesson planning and data management tools that allow for student information sharing amongst staff members, thus allowing asynchronous review of goals, intervention strategies, progress notes and data.
Finally, in addition to the required IDEA reports on LRE, districts must begin adopting standardized practices for tracking progress with respect to IEP goals. Ideally, every teacher, principal and district leader should be just as familiar with how the district is tracking against IEP goals as they are with standardized test scores. This metric has the potential to present a clearer picture of progress across students, and to facilitate more critical evaluation of inclusion models. With the proliferation of online and mobile-friendly electronic data management tools, districts should have no problem selecting a tool or set of tools that help them capture and analyze these data at each level of the school system.
Making a true commitment to inclusion will require districts to re-envision how they train staff members, ensure ongoing collaboration, and measure student success. In an educational culture that increasingly relies upon data as the evaluative measure for making decisions about everything from policy to pedagogy, it has never been more crucial that meaningful methods for teaching and quality measures for evaluating the progress of special education students are in place. Technology can play a key role in facilitating reform initiatives, but districts must pay careful attention to how these technologies are rolled out, and should plan for ongoing training and support of staff members and other stakeholders – including parents – to see them successfully adopted and their benefits fully realized.
This article originally appeared in Issue 7 of Education Magazine – https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/education-magazine-educational/id593725339?mt=8.
Jamie Pagliaro is Chief Learning Officer and part of the founding management team of Rethink, a NYC-based educational technology company with a focus on inclusion. Previously, Mr. Pagliaro was Executive Director of the NY Center for Autism Charter School, a program that has received national recognition from both the media and professional publications as a model for children with autism in the public school system.
To learn more about Rethink, please visit www.rethinkfirst.com or email email@example.com.