How to Create Responsible Inclusion: The Tale of Two Schools

In Part 1 of my special education mini-series, I discussed what a special education program typically looks like and presented an alternative model using the theory of Universal Design for Learning (UDL).

UDL is often implemented in an inclusion classroom, where a general education teacher and a special education teacher work together to support all students.

The purpose of Part 2 is to use the case studies of two schools to answer the question: What does it actually take to create an inclusion classroom using the principles of UDL?

Before I dive in, I want to draw attention to an important paradox in special education policy that help to explain the variation in programs across schools.

The paradox: The special education teacher develops the goals that go on the Individualized Education Plans (IEP) for special education students. He or she is also the one responsible for making sure students meet these goals. This incentive system results in schools that look great on paper because they’ve met the benchmarks that they set for themselves, but don’t always do right by kids.

Responsible inclusion begins with the fundamental belief that education is not about what teachers teach, but what students learn. The onus is on the school to provide educational structures that work for every student and this begins with a strong vision and culture that puts the needs of individual students first.

Both of these schools passed special education inspections. They, however, created very different inclusion programs, resulting in drastically different student outcomes. We can’t rely on legal compliance to understand why, so let’s dive into the classrooms.

Bumblebee Academy

Bumblebee Academy (no, that’s not the real name…) is an elementary school that serves low-incomes students in a large city. There are about 500 students and 50 instructional staff members. A typical classroom has about 30 students.

At this school, there is a team of five teachers responsible for both intervention and special education. They work with a particular grade level to provide inclusion services in both reading and math.

Each grade level has four homerooms, two of which are designated inclusion classrooms and have special education students. Intervention students are dispersed throughout the homerooms so that there is a heterogenous mix based on academic performance.

Here’s what a typical second grade reading inclusion classroom looks like.

Teacher A is a teaching resident (usually a first or second year teacher). She almost always begins the lesson with a chant, jingle, or dance that introduces the skill. She then models the lesson and gives students the opportunity to read and answer questions on their own. Students who answer correctly are prompted with a longer writing assignment or sent to the computer stations to work on blended learning software that adapts to student performance.

Teacher B is the lead general education teacher. She works with a group of students who, on the previous week’s assessment, showed that they are not quite comfortable with the material. This teacher provides more guidance by reading important parts of the text out loud, connecting the lesson to a previous skill, or providing prompts for group discussion.

Teacher C is the special education teacher and interventionist. She has a chunked version of the text and a set of additional materials. The teacher models with more examples and students are given specific highlighted paragraphs to read. Some are given worksheets with bigger font, fewer questions, or a visual bank to choose from. The group is a mix of special education and intervention students.

Teacher D is a paraprofessional who works with one or two students who need more modifications. He keeps track of a behavior plan, reads materials out loud, or helps students use assistive tools (slant table, pencil grips, reading windows).

UDL is present in the way that kids are accessing the lesson and expressing their learning. Some of the groups work more collaboratively, kinesthetically, or visually than others. Technology provides another way for students to learn and express learning. Although students read at different levels, they are all using the same text and mastering the same objective.

Lemmings Middle School

Lemmings Middle School (also not a real name) serves students from a low-income background in a different, but comparably-sized city. There are about 160 students and 15 teachers. A typical classroom also has about 30 students.

At this school, there are three special education teachers who specialize by subject. One teacher is responsible for math services and another for literacy. The third special education teacher is a teaching resident. The math special education teacher is also an Assistant Dean who is responsible for student behavior in the school.

Each grade level has three homerooms grouped based on academic performance: high, medium, and low. The majority of special education students are placed in the “low” class.

The classroom looks different depending on the day. Here is a diagram of what the fifth grade math inclusion classroom may look like.

On any given day, there’s an 80% chance that Teacher A, the general education teacher, will be teaching the class alone (Option 1). She models the skill for students and then uses questioning techniques to help students practice. To show learning, students complete a packet of questions that scaffold up in rigor. For each student, the teacher identifies which questions they should do based on their proficiency level.

Around once every other week, Teacher B, the special education teacher, will come into the classroom to co-teach (Option 2). Teacher B primarily circulates the room and checks in with the special education students to make sure they are accessing the packet of work.

A few times a month, Teacher B pulls students out of the classroom into a separate setting in order to teach the same lesson to a group of intervention and special education students (Option 3). Students are asked to do the same packet of work for independent practice.

UDL is present in how Teacher A designs her lesson (for instance, in her use of visuals). Because the same lesson is taught and assessed the same way for all students, there are limited opportunity for diverse learners to play to their strengths.

What are the student outcomes?

In fifth grade at Lemmings Middle School, fifteen students were held back for academic reasons. Fourteen out of the fifteen were special education students. The “high” class made the most academic progress, while the “low” class made the least. On every interim assessment, the gap widened.

At Bumblebee Academy, none of the special education students were held back in second grade and the two homerooms that showed the greatest academic gains were the two inclusion classrooms.

What went wrong?

On the surface, Bumblebee Academy and Lemmings Middle School look very similar. They serve similar student populations, have similar teacher-student ratios, and have comparable financial resources.

At Bumblebee, unlike at Lemmings, structures were built that enabled teachers to use UDL. Here are the three things that Lemmings Middle School did not do.

1. Create school structures starting with high-needs students.

Schools that practice great UDL principles know to start with their highest needs students first, both in scheduling and planning.

If you create the school schedule and then ask — “how do the special education students fit in?” — it’s already too late. At Lemmings, the school rewrote all student IEPs so that their services reflect the programs offered at the school. All students were expected to fit the structures the school had already put in place.

Schedules also need to account for the time it takes to plan. You cannot wing inclusion. A special education teacher who walks into a classroom without materials, without a plan, and without clear direction of how and what to instruct is dead weight.

Seamless, coordinated teaching requires intensive co-planning and a fluid familiarity with the content. At Bumblebee, the division of labor is crystal clear. The general education teacher creates the lesson plans and materials. The special education teacher then modifies them for UDL (this takes about 3 hours a week). A school that values UDL intentionally builds time for this teacher magic to happen.

2. Group students intentionally and heterogeneously.

There is a lot of debate about whether leveled grouping helps or hurts kids. Here, I would agree with the research of Robert E. Slavin, who shows that while dividing kids into groups to differentiate learning is great, dividing entire classrooms based on academic performance (high, middle, and low classes) leads to worse academic results.

This is because students learn best when they are exposed to people who learn differently than themselves.

Leveled groups within classrooms need to be intentionally thought out but also flexible. At Bumblebee, some students in Teacher A’s group may be in Teacher B’s group tomorrow. For partner activities, students are paired with someone who reads at a different level than themselves. This allows students to engage with a variety of different learners on different days.

3. Put the right adults in the right room at the right time.

One big difference between the two classrooms is the physical number of teachers in the room. On the surface, this may seem like a resource problem. But if you look at the numbers, Lemmings actually has a higher special education teacher to student ratio.

Schools that practice responsible inclusion recognize that a special education teacher’s job is sacred. At Lemmings, the math special education teacher was also an Assistant Dean, meaning that at any given moment, he could be called away for a behavioral concern. The special education teaching resident never got to do her job because she became a default substitute teacher.

This put an unfair amount of pressure on Teacher A to provide UDL for all thirty students. During our interview, this teacher admitted: “I knew in my heart that I was not meeting the needs of my class. I just couldn’t make it around the classroom fast enough.”

UDL cannot work unless there is consistency for students, and consistency requires a school that deeply understands the value that special education teachers add in the inclusion classroom.

The names of the two schools featured were changed to protect their identifies. It’s also important to note that these schools are only two examples and cannot be representative of what will and won’t work in the context of any other school.

The next essay in the mini-series may focus on over-diagnosis of special education students in low-income schools, the role of technology in UDL, or parental rights in special education. Happy to hear what interests people most.

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