'It’s time to step up our game'
Compared to 50 year ago, the United States has made huge strides in the delivery of special education. Inclusion has become more than the norm in the classroom. Educators have more evidence-based tools at their fingertips than any time before.
Yet the achievement gap between students with disabilities and those without remains high.
Don’t tell Dr. Frances Stetson that is to be expected since, after all, they have disabilities. Stetson, the keynote speaker at the Iowa Council of Administrators of Special Education fall conference in Des Moines, said most students with Individualized Education Programs do not have significant cognitive disabilities.
“Any student can astound us with what they can learn when we expect higher achievement,” Stetson said.
Stetson, who heads the internationally known Stetson and Associates, challenges mindsets and methods, paradigms and practices. She often asks more questions than gives answers – pushing listeners to dig down deep into themselves.
“For a long time, we were happy that students with disabilities were finally in the general education classroom,” she said. “We gave ourselves a big gold star. That’s very important, of course, since the more inclusive we are the more opportunities students with disabilities have to learn grade-level content.”
But research and evidence show that isn’t enough. Examining what is being done in the classroom – what is really happening, not one’s perception of what’s happening – takes a lot of honest, self reflection. Often, simply changing the style of teaching will earn huge dividends.
“Many of our classrooms, particularly high schools, are still focused on lecture-based instruction – the teacher in front,” she said. “We also see a lot of solitary learning rather than highly effective and engaging collaborative learning. It is a powerful strategy. It doesn’t mean we always use small groups, but we vary the methods of instruction so that it doesn’t advantage one child over the other.
“One of the things that benefits every child is differentiated instruction, such as activity-based learning, project-based learning. If we improve the academic level of our work, it benefits all students.”
There also has to be a sea change in philosophy.
“Do you think of all students as your kids, or are some kids ‘the special education’ kids?” Stetson said. “Everyone should embrace all students because it really makes a difference. I believe one day soon we will have a more seamless system of supports.”
While there are plenty of great evidence- and research-based strategies available, how do you know your strategies are the best for the individual students?
“We have put a lot of structures in place, but we need to improve upon them,” she said. “An example would be collaborative or co-teaching: Only use it when it’s appropriate. Individualize it for all students. But when we do use co-teaching, we need to sharpen the roles of the two adults in the classroom, and then reflect on what we are doing and why we are doing it.”
Though there are plenty of effective strategies, Stetson suggests the heavy lifting has yet to be completed.
“We have made a lot of progress, but perhaps some of the most difficult work is yet to be done,” Stetson said. “It’s not just a matter of learning the strategies and using them, it’s also a matter of personal work toward equity and access, and personal reflection. Then we reach more children and engage every child in the classroom. We have to examine our strategies, and look inward and say, ‘what old paradigms do I still hold and need to get rid of so that I can reach all children?’”
Stetson remains optimistic about closing the education gap.
“I believe that we are coming closer and closer to it,” she said “The law says we should start with the general education classroom in mind. I believe we are realizing a lot of the strategies work with all learners. In other words, we have made good progress for all students.
“If we look at what we’re doing and seek continuous improvement, then we can do a great deal more with the research in place. I honestly think educators are working harder – it is harder work in education than ever before. Celebrate what you have done.”
Stetson cautions to not take on too much at once.
“Don’t take on the world, take on two or three strategies that will make a difference in the children’s education. Then add two more. We must nurture our teachers as well as our students.”
Things to consider:
- Shared ownership of all students is not negotiable.
- Curriculum aligned materials
- Pre-assess before instruction
- Accelerated vs. remedial strategies
- Scaffolding and use of instructional accommodations for all
- Differentiated instruction
- Student engagement
- Flexible grouping
- Positive behavioral supports and effective classroom management
- Continuum of supports
- Inclusive education practices
- High expectations
- Cultural proficiency and authentic relationships
- Student self-efficacy
- Effective in-class supports
- Specialized supports meet highest standards
- Effective and appropriate paraeducator support
- Collaborative planning time
- Smooth transitions from level to level