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Forum Discussion # 5: Students with special educational needs: How well does inclusion occur in high schools?
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act applies to all levels of schooling, from kindergarten through twelfth grade, and one of its revisions (Public Law 101-336, 104 Stat. 327, 1990) further addressed the needs of secondary schools by including provisions for school-to-work transitions for students with disabilities. Yet progress at including such students has generally been more rapid and complete in elementary schools—especially at the youngest grade levels—than in secondary schools. The reasons for the difference do not necessarily have to do high school teachers’ attitudes about disabilities as compared to elementary teachers’ attitudes. Much of it stems from differences in how the two levels of schooling are structured, with secondary schools being much larger and organized by a complex timetable of classes that tends to sort students—and even teachers themselves!—by academic background (Kelly, 2004; Oakes, 2005). One effect of this organization is to make it harder for special education and general education teachers to collaborate, and therefore to integrate learning experiences for students with disabilities into high school as a whole.
Yet some teachers and schools manage to collaborate anyway. A research study by Joseph Stowitschek and his colleagues explored the factors that account for comparative success at including students with disabilities in secondary school (Stowitschek, Lovitt, & Rodriguez, 2001). The researchers were interested, first, in how much teachers actually do collaborate to design and carry out programs for youth with disabilities, and second, in what specific circumstances or practices were associated with collaborating successfully. They chose three contrasting high schools to study in detail: a large urban public high school, a rural public high school in a small town, and a private urban high school. For each school they collected information from a wide range of staff—special education teachers, general education teachers, administrators, parents, and students with disabilities themselves. The information came from surveys, interviews, reviews of official school documents, and observations of classrooms.
What did they find? Among other things, they found that special education teachers at all of the schools strongly supported inclusion of students with disabilities to the fullest possible extent; they did not, that is, seek to strengthen or increase the schools’ reliance on segregated special education classes. They also found significant interest and support from parents of the students with disabilities in the educational programs of their children. These factors suggested that change toward fuller inclusion may continue in the years ahead.
But they also found limitations on how much the teachers could collaborate at any of the schools. A major problem was the teachers’ dependency on informal communication with general education teachers. Instead of regularly announced meetings to discuss inclusion initiatives, teachers had to “catch” each other in the hallway or during lunch hours, for example, in order to have conversations about students and ways of including them in class or school activities. At these moments the teachers tended already to be busy. A partial result was that the general education teachers ended up with limited knowledge both about the special education program at their school, and about why particular students might be placed successfully in their particular classrooms. All of the students with disabilities had IEPs, but the general teachers had little or no knowledge of their contents—or even of their existence. Not surprisingly, under these conditions there were few major collaborative activities, such as the co-teaching of a course by a special education teacher and a general teacher or jointly operated activities or programs.
Yet for each school there were also individual teachers and activities that boosted collaboration in the school, and that could in principle be tried elsewhere as well. The private high school, for example, had an especially effective, vital program for involving parents: there were regular advisory group meetings to assess the current needs of the special education program and to develop and sustain support for it among the parents. Another especially effective collaboration involved peer tutoring—using high school students to tutor the students with disabilities on a regular basis, often with course credit given as “payment” to the tutors. Peer tutoring proved a good way to communicate the nature and extent of the special education program to the student population as a whole. A third effective form of collaboration involved using a teacher as a “community coordinator”, someone who developed linkages to agencies and potential employers in the community. The linkages proved especially helpful in students’ transitions to work and life after high school.
All in all, there were limitations on inclusion in the secondary schools, but also grounds for optimism because of the collaborative successes and the dedication of the teachers. Although Stowitschek and his colleagues focused on only three schools, their findings suggested three key points: (1) that the motivation for inclusion and collaboration definitely exists among secondary teachers, (2) that it is possible to work around the organizational constraints of high schools, and
(3) that changes in those constraints in the future should further increase levels of inclusion and collaboration.
➢ If you were a teacher in a high school (as many readers of this book plan to become), how
would you prepare your students to receive a student with a disability into one of your classes? Consider actions that you would take both before and after the student actually arrives.
➢ Sometimes teachers at every grade level express concern about receiving students with
disabilities into their classes, even if it can be arranged easily. Why do you think that the teachers feel this way? Think of three possible objections to inclusion, and then think of how an advocate for inclusion might respond to each of them.
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