Is Your School District Taking the Right Approach to Special Education?
Lily* started kindergarten at her neighborhood school in 2009, as part of the school district’s inaugural inclusion program. She was officially diagnosed as having a severe language disorder with some autistic spectrum features. Had she entered kindergarten in 2008, she most likely would have been placed in a self-contained special education class, with some limited opportunities to interact with typically developing peers. She would have been assigned to whichever school in the district had room for the class that year, and possibly moved to a different school down the road if her original school became too crowded.
But Lily was lucky. She was part of a program that included her in a regular education class with the support she needed to succeed. Her class of 22 children had a general education teacher, a special education teacher, and a highly qualified classroom aide working as a team. There were four children with special needs and Individualized Education Plans (IEP) in the class. Lily’s parents were astonished and delighted that a public school could provide such a nuanced educational experience for their daughter. It seemed all but impossible.
Sadly, what seemed impossible turned out to be just that. Thanks to a tanking economy and housing prices in free fall, the money that supported local schools began to dry up. Curriculum expectations began to ratchet up thanks to Race to the Top and the Common Core State Standards, and there was no plan in place for children whose needs were too complicated to be served without “pull out” opportunities. Having every school in the district provide full inclusion in every classroom diluted the supply of appropriately trained staff, and the hits, as they say, just kept on coming.
Increasingly, Lily’s family become aware that the inclusion program that had once inspired so much hope was failing to meet their child’s needs. In first grade, there was no longer a team-teaching approach. The special education teacher had to split her time between kindergarten and first-grade classes, as did the excellent aide. So Lily was now receiving half the support she had the previous year.
Second and third grade were even worse. The general education teachers were not trained to work with kids who had special needs. The IEP group sat together at a table in the back of the classroom, with a far less qualified special education teacher and aide (both shared between several classes) teaching all of them the same curriculum, despite the fact that each had very different needs.
It was difficult for Lily to work in the noisy general education classroom and the work was now far more challenging. By fourth grade, she could no longer function in the inclusion classroom for more than half the day, and there was no resource room for her to go to for “pull out” services. Lily went from loving school to crying, screaming, and acting out to get out of a classroom that did not meet her needs. It was a devastating change to witness, for her family and for her former educators, of which I was one.
Is Inclusion Enough? The Case for a Continuum of Services
The most recent statistics about the growing number of children with special needs are staggering. According to the recent report by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in 68 children is diagnosed with autistic spectrum disorder, an increase of 30 percent from two years ago. In 2011, the CDC reported that 11 percent of children ages 3-17 are diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Overall, about one in six children in the U.S. had a developmental disability in 2011, ranging from mild disabilities such as speech and language impairments to serious developmental disabilities, such as intellectual disabilities, cerebral palsy, and autism. That's a lot of kids who need some form of special education.
Lily was one of many children with special needs who once attended Cherry Preschool, where I was the founding director. Cherry Preschool is deeply committed to including children with special needs in its classrooms, as well as including these children in regular education programs. As Rhonda Cohen, a special educator and Cherry Preschool’s inclusion director for over 20 years, put it, inclusion at the preschool level almost always works well:
The only exceptions to including a child with special needs at our preschool are children who are a danger to themselves or others or those who have such profound cognitive and/or receptive language delays that they are unable (even with support) to benefit from or participate in any aspect of the classroom experience.
Even in preschool, we see many children who need additional services. Classes for 2-year-olds generally work out fine, as the differences in ability of the child with special needs and the typically developing child are not as great. But by the time a child is 3 or 4, Cherry Preschool generally asks parents to supplement the preschool inclusion experience with private outside therapy, or a dual placement that includes their school district’s special education program.
As children mature, however, it can become more complex to meet their needs without adaptations (like having visual or written directions in addition to oral ones, permission to use a computer or iPad for writing, or the ability to take frequent breaks). Learning issues often emerge that are difficult to address in general education inclusion settings. An inclusion approach needs to fit the specific child, not the other way around. And resources may have to be increased to allow for this, rather than cut back.
Though the recent trend toward inclusion of children with special needs in general education classrooms seems to be the just and fair way to go, I increasingly find myself wondering, remembering experiences like Lily’s, whether inclusion is always the right way to go. Good intentions in these cases are not enough; inclusion plans only work if they are well thought out, on a kid-by-kid basis, and sustainable.
School districts that want to support inclusion models need to be more farsighted, honest about what is needed, willing and able to foot the bill every year, and careful in planning beyond the current year. Administrators, school boards, teachers, parents, and taxpayers must first ask themselves:
- Do we have the resources to support these children all the way through their educations in an inclusion setting?
- Are we being honest about the costs involved and whether the funds will be there?
- Do we have enough well trained personnel to educate the children in the least restrictive environment (LRE)?
Cohen points out that the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires a continuum of services be offered in the least restrictive environment for children with special needs. And for a child with complicated, significant needs, the LRE may indeed be a self-contained program. The path for each child is highly individual; what is required is not slavish devotion to one approach over the other, but deeper thinking about how best to educate a given child from preschool through high school.
Ms. B, a special educator with 17 years of teaching experience in a variety of special education settings, agrees that the continuum of services is key to success. She states,
I absolutely believe in self contained classrooms, but I also whole-heartedly believe in inclusion. [We need separate special education programs to offer] things that the general education buildings and classrooms can’t begin to offer: Toilet training, instructional lunch, home living, mobility training, and community resource days. That said, there has to be a continuum of services because one model isn’t going to work for every child…I feel like often we are trying to fit children into existing programs, instead of programming for the child.
Alissa Chung, a developmental child psychologist and a lecturer on child development at Northwestern University, has seen a variety of approaches to educating children with special needs in her practice. She agrees the current push for the inclusion-only model underestimates the importance of staff training.
Even teachers who are dedicated, well-meaning general education teachers cannot do an adequate job if they are not properly prepared. There is nothing in general education training that would give the teacher the knowledge base or resources to know what to do with special education students.
Chung believes that, to be effective, a teacher has to have a solid mastery of each child’s particular disability. Without, for example, understanding the visual processing component involved in dyslexia, a teacher may just be offering the same reading curriculum in a smaller group or at a slower pace, and the child will not learn to read. The long-term consequences will be that eventually the child will be behind in every area of school.
In addition, there is a misconception that inclusion will “fix” the child with special needs, though according to Chung, the opposite can also be true. “Some children manage well when academic and social demands are lower, and then need more specialized services later [on]," Chung points out. "Some disabilities, like ADHD or dyslexia, become more apparent as classroom demands increase.”
Issues of Fairness and Equity
Underlying the question of how best to provide a continuum of services for children with special needs are the issues of fairness and equity. In my conversation with Rhonda Cohen, she pointed out the huge range between children with special needs who receive more services, and those who receive fewer. In general, everyone is competing over meager, dwindling resources.
Ms. B. agrees, noting,
I find it very frustrating that a child doesn’t get the same minutes, placement, materials, equipment, and supports from one school district to another…It can't be about money and what the district can afford. That isn't the child's problem…parents who may not know what to say or how to properly advocate get less for their child.
Cohen also points out that when an IEP is written, parents who have more knowledge and resources tend to get the most services. Some parents push hard for general education with support in their local school, seeing inclusion as a civil rights issue, while others want to protect their child from the anxiety and stress that may come from being included in a general education environment.
At most of the IEP meetings Cohen has attended, the assumption by the team of specialists is that parents know and understand the lingo being used as well as what they are being told. Parents with resources may bring people like Cohen or paid advocates and private therapists to these meetings. Parents with fewer resources and less knowledge about the process usually end up accepting whatever services are offered.
Depending on the school system, its resources, and its openness to the opinions of the child’s parents, the outcomes of these IEP meetings for children entering a school system in kindergarten are hugely variable. Ideally, the school system creates an individual program for an individual child. But more often, the child has to fit into the program the school district offers. In larger and more urban districts, children have a myriad of needs. These districts may have more choices for parents because they are large, but they also tend to choose what they believe is the “right path” for a child. “Take it or leave it,” parents are often told.
The Solutions We Need Now
Given the sheer magnitude of the number of special education students now entering schools, we have no choice but to begin designing workable solutions for how they will be treated within our schoolhouse doors. We need to have ways for people with disabilities to go to college or learn employable skills. It is imperative.
In our conversation, Cohen and I talked about the dream scenario for educating children with special needs in public schools. We agreed the following six points were critical to success:
- Excellent staff training so educators are knowledgeable about child development and understand the special needs of children
- Time for staff collaboration so every person working with a child with special needs, from teachers to therapists to aides to playground and lunch supervisors, understands the child’s needs and the plan for the child
- A continuum of services with a range of options—This does not have to be available in every school, but should be offered within a reasonable geographical area. There should also be the ability to accommodate other siblings so families who want to can have their children attend the same school, when possible.
- Transparency about all of the available choices, so parents can make informed decisions.
- Collaboration between school districts and other agencies to maximize available resources.
- Sustainable programs that are individualized, well thought out, and well resourced from start to finish.
Inclusion models for special education are not always the best option for children with special needs. Without sufficient resources, appropriate adaptations, well-trained staff, and a school culture devoted to inclusion, children may actually lose educational opportunities in these kinds of environments. Sometimes separate but better education serves special needs children best, depending on the complexity of the learning issues at hand. That’s why a well-planned continuum of individualized services is critical.
Over all my years in the education field, I have seen many different approaches to educating children with special needs—and not one of them turned out to be sustainable over the long haul. Programs are often adopted without knowing what the cost will be, and when they become too expensive, services are cut. Regardless of the approach, the children end up being the losers.
We often tell our children, don’t start what you can’t finish. And yet we begin programs for children with special needs without looking beyond the first year. We also tell our children to treat others as you would like others to treat you. And yet, we resent the cost of providing the legally required services for children with special needs.
Marian Wright Edelman once said, “When I fight about what is going on in the neighborhood, or when I fight about what is happening to other people's children, I'm doing that because I want to leave a community and a world that is better than the one I found.”
It’s not just the law that requires our school districts to provide a “free and appropriate education” for every child. It’s a moral imperative to look after each other’s children. When other people’s children have special needs, we all must work to find solutions to educate them so they reach their potential.
*Not her real name.