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How Can We Make Learning 'Differently' Normal?

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Editor's Note: California is taking steps to bring its nearly 700,000 special education students closer to the mainstream.  Long operated as an educational island, special education faces criticism for unnecessarily segregating students and maintaining rigid boundaries around treatments, such as individualizing educational plans.  Responding to the recommendations of a Special Education Task Force, the State Board of Education is working to connect special ed and the state's new Local Control Funding Formula and associated accountability plans. They put the spotlight on special education, in part, because 70 percent of students who have been classified as having learning disabilities are members of high-needs groups that receive additional funding under the state plan. Today, in the first of two articles about special education, Jonathan Raymond, President of the Stuart Foundation urges us to consider special ed students as normal and to stop isolating them.  (The Stuart Foundation also supports 'On California' but does not control its content.) Tomorrow, Arun Ramanathan, advocates changing how we think about special education students, how we test them, and how we use school personnel./ctk

By Jonathan P. Raymond

I have long grappled with this fundamental question: do we really know our children? Every child is unique, and learns differently. Even if my own children were the exact same age and sitting in the same classroom, they wouldn't thrive if they were taught the exact same way. How they learn and what interests them are different. With few exceptions, our public education system doesn't do a good job normalizing learning differently.  We have words like "differentiated instruction," and now "personalized learning."  But how can we really make learning differently normal?

Let's examine our approach to special education, which serves children with learning disabilities. For most children, special education is a destination.  Once they receive their "Individual Education Plan," (IEP) they are entitled to receive services and supports, largely funded with federal dollars.  It's likely they will keep the "learning disabled" designation throughout their K-12 education life.  Here's the problem: special education was never intended as a destination, but rather as a series of supports and services aimed at reintegrating them into the classroom flow. 

Pull-Out; Keep Out

Yet today, most special education services are delivered via the so-called "pullout model," i.e., outside of the classroom.  What does it do to a child's sense of self to be removed from their classroom and made to feel different?  With few exceptions, IEP's do not have to be delivered outside of a classroom.  Worse still are the isolated classrooms filled with children on IEP's.  In California, these are called "special day classes."  The majority of children in these classrooms, stigmatized and separated from their peers, are boys of color.

On my first day of school as superintendent in Sacramento, I took a bus to an elementary school.  As I walked through the campus greeting parents and staff, one parent approached and asked me to go visit Classroom 11.  Finding a special day class for children with autism, I asked the teacher if these kids ever had a chance to engage with other children in the school.  "Oh no," she replied, "my children couldn't handle that."  But when and how would her children ever learn to engage, get along, and build relationships with their peers?   And what of the children outside Classroom 11? How will we teach them empathy and compassion?

While I've never been trained as a special education teacher, there's one thing I've learned visiting hundreds of classrooms and schools: children learn from adults.  And when we model and have mindsets that reinforce difference, we create environments for children where being different isn't normal. This was recently validated for me by a former public school principal I spoke with: "Segregating children with disabilities from the general population borders on the immoral," she told me. "Their academic experience often is characterized by years of inferior curriculum and a lack of access to effective strategies. They don't benefit from interactions with peers to elevate their skills and develop essential social and emotional competencies."

Stop Isolating Special Ed Students

To make the differences among students more normal and accepted, we could stop pulling children out of classrooms and isolating them in special day classes, instead moving to inclusive classroom models co-taught by regular and special education-trained teachers.  We could start requiring teacher preparation programs to better train all teachers in language and speech.  We could emphasize the importance of building teacher knowledge, skills, and practices without blind allegiance to curriculum and assessments.  We could develop learning profiles for all our children, allowing us to really know who they are, and teach them accordingly.   

Finally, we should emulate those schools that bring great intention and focus to climate and culture, applying social and emotional learning to behavioral issues and thus educating both mind and heart. The former principal I spoke with witnessed the impact of inclusive classrooms first hand: "During our first year of full-inclusion we saw the number of special ed students performing at grade-level in English language arts double. Behavior and anecdotal data, including parent feedback, indicated that students felt more connected to their peers and to the school."

Recently, California announced a sweeping initiative to unite special education services with general class instruction under a new system that unifies performance and accountability requirements.  Yet this move raises more questions than it answers.  While inclusive classrooms result in better test scores for all, the costs and challenges are real.  In addition to changing hearts and minds, and reassuring parents on both sides of the equation, inclusion requires taking the time to build effective co-teaching models, and incentivize teachers to adopt new practices.  How can California envision a single system of education when special education services are primarily funded through the federal government, and are greatly underfunded at that?

Instead of waiting for the dollars to arrive, all educators could begin the process of bringing special education students into the mainstream today.  By getting to know our children—how they like to learn, what they like to learn, when and where they like to learn—we would activate and engage our children in their learning journey.  More importantly, we would send them the very important signal that being unique and learning differently is normal.  That's what educating and developing the whole child requires— and that's education's North Star.  

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Jonathan P. Raymond is the President of the Stuart Foundation.  The Stuart Foundation is committed to improving life outcomes for young people through education.

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