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Differentiated Learning


Among the most well-attended sessions at last year's huge Council for Exceptional Children convention were talks on co-teaching: bringing general education and special education teachers together in one classroom to focus on the instruction of children with special learning needs.

Educators in co-teaching arrangements stressed that in order to work well, such partnerships require focus, planning, even a little chemistry. I saw this in person when I visited co-taught classrooms in San Antonio; one pair of teachers I met worked so well together they were practically able to finish one another's sentences. They were up front in saying they were concerned that neither of them had the experience they needed to make co-teaching work, but the school and district were committed to the process, and so were they. Now, their classroom runs so smoothly that I doubt the children know that one is a general educator, and the other is trained in special education.

This month, Michelle Rhee, the chancellor of the District of Columbia schools, said she would like to turn an entire school into a "differentiated learning lab," where children in special education, children who are gifted, and children with "regular" learning needs would all be served in the same classroom.

D.C. has had enduring problems with its special education program. The district bleeds money to private providers either because it doesn't have the appropriate programs for students, or is unable to meet the demands of due-process procedures. So, part of the rationale driving this proposal is a need to increase capacity for special-needs students.

But, while many students in special education are best served in a inclusive environment, that's not the best place for all of them. (The Washington Post article states that federal law "requires" inclusion in schools and that's not quite right; the law mandates only that student be educated in the least restrictive environment that is most appropriate for that learner.)

And I'm also curious about the proposal that a private company come in to provide the special education services. Would that system foster the partnership among teachers that seems to be necessary for success?

On the other hand, individualized instruction for all students is a powerful idea. I'm interested in hearing from educators who are familiar with co-teaching. What do you think of Rhee's proposal?


Its always difficult to determine if a large, troubled urban is the best place to pioneer a concept. On the one hand the have the needs (and it might be argued that even a failed experiment might be no worse than the status quo), but on the other hand, there has to be some good reason to believe that there will be systemic support for, and resources and ability to, implement the proposed solution. So, I will wait and see on the results in DC.

But I wanted to respond to your many, not all, statement regarding students with special needs who benefit from inclusion. I think that there is a widely accepted belief that "inclusion" is only for certain kids that "are ready" to do well with "regular" kids. When getting deeply into the legal requirements, it is really the level of services that must be provided that determine the "least restricted environment." In far too many instances this requirement is upended--and frequently the environment is misunderstood TO BE the service. I think the state had to break some fingers in my local district to keep IEP writers from writing "smaller classroom" in the blank for services. They still don't really get it. Now they write "direct instruction in a smaller classroom," as if what is going on down the hall is "indirect instruction."

In the end, what this does, is to soak up all of the available special education teachers (who have now been run through some PD to make them "highly qualified" in a content area) in the district teaching content classes to small groups of students with assorted disabilities--sometimes cross grades or content area. So, "inclusion" becomes a sink or swim proposition in the "regular" classroom, with no services.

There really have been some true believers who have put in the time and effort to effectively "include" a broad spectrum of students. But the work really begins with a commitment to the right of all students to be included, and the belief that all students benefit from the inclusive experience (not just the outsiders who are brought in).

My outsider's observation of the barriers to co-teaching for inclusion (and I have seen it working well in an instance or two), is that the first hurdle to get over the attitudinal one--the one that says kids with disabilities should be isolated because they are too much trouble, or take away from the other kids (the ones who really want to learn)--and the flip side, the ones who want to keep students with disabilities "safe" from the bullies and the other teachers who don't understand their needs. We don't do co-teaching well anywhere. But especially for the students with disabilities, we need to learn.

Margo/Mom, thanks as always for your comments. You bring up the point that I was trying to make -- that "inclusion," in itself, does not solve the problems that D.C. (or any school district ) may have with creating appropriate IEPs. Inclusion is often misunderstood.

When I read that part of the Post article, it made me think the author inadvertently is suggesting that inclusion is a goal; student learning, of course, is the goal. Just throwing all the kids together in a big classroom salad bowl isn't going to be enough. I'm sure that D.C. wants to go about this in a thoughtful way, but it seems to be my experience (and yours too, from your comments) that this is a deep, transformative process. It's not something a school just decides one day to do.

As co-editor (with Margaret P. Weiss) of TeachingLD (which is sponsored by the Division for Learning Disabilities [DLD] of the Council of Exceptional Children [CEC]) I want to call attention to documentation that we've published regarding the benefits of co-teaching. We are concerned that many educators look to co-teaching to provide the individualized instruction that so many students with learning disabilities need. To date, there is little research evidence that co-teaching provides the intensive instruction needed for some students.

We base this statement on a brief, teacher-friendly syntheses available in a publication we call a Current Practice Alert. In collaboration with the Division for Research of CEC, DLD has asked experts in the discipline to synthesize the existing evidence on instructional interventions, including co-teaching, for students with learning disabilities and write an Alert on the topic. At the time of their Alert on co-teaching (2001), Naomi Zigmond and Kathleen Magiera reported that "only 4 studies could be found that provided rigorous evaluations of co-teaching. These studies provide modest support for co-teaching as a means of allowing students with LD to access the general curriculum, but they provide no evidence that co-teaching is an improvement relative to traditional special education models." Although the evidence basis surely has grown since then, we are not aware of data that permit a clearer endorsement of co-teaching at this time. People may, indeed, have observed situations in which co-teaching seems "to work," but basing policy decisions on personal observations in the face of more rigorous evidence seems to be, at best, premature.

The Current Practice Alerts (which cover social skills training, high-stakes testing, phonological awareness, Direct Instruction, and many other topics in addition to co-teaching) are available for free at http://TeachingLD.org/ld_resources/alerts/. Not only can one download them for free, but we permit duplication of the product for further distribution, too. We encourage all teachers and administrators who are considering interventions such as co-teaching to examine the evidence base before making decisions.

Mr. Lloyd--don't you agree that co-teaching is somewhat the equivalent of the resource room, in that it does not, in and of itself, guarantee, or offer, any particular set of services, or intervention? To my mind, it simply offers a way over the hurdle of educating one set of teachers in content and another set of teachers in making the content accessible.

There is (I believe NELS is the most recent) some evidence that students with disabilities do better in inclusive situations. Whether the services were delivered by one teacher or two was not a factor that I am aware of in that particular study. But I would think that some attention would have to be paid to the quality and quantity of collaboration between the co-teachers. I have seen both what I would consider to be co-teaching, as well as what I would consider to be special ed teacher as aid and special ed teacher as invisible within the regular teacher's classroom.

Margo/Mom, thanks for your questions. If I'm interpreting your question correctly, I agree that co-teaching and resource rooms are both service-delivery systems. I also agree that what matters is what happens between students and teachers in those settings. M. Weiss and I reported a study that examined what teachers did in those two settings: In special education settings, teachers employed more direct and explicit instructional procedures with their students, but when those same teachers were in the co-teaching situation, they did far different things, but only a very little instruction or "making content accessible." Some of those co-teaching situations might be characterized, as you did: "special ed teacher as aid and special ed teacher as invisible within the regular teacher's classroom." That study appeared in Journal of Special Education in 2002.

You refered to data from the National Educational Longitudinal (NELS) study showing students with disabilities doing better in inclusive settings. I am familiar with lots of studies using the NELS data (e.g., http://nces.ed.gov/surveys/nels88/pdf/annotate.pdf), but I must have overlooked the study reporting those results; I'd appreciate it if you could help me locate it. I'd like to examine the methods used. (My suspicion is that a comparison of instructional setting using the NELS data would have non-equivalent groups and, thus, be relatively unconvincing.)

As you suggest, I suspect that there are examples of marvelous-looking co-teaching. Where they exist, in my view, it would be important to examine whether the students have better outcomes than were they not assigned to those situations. To me, the first and foremost measuring stick for any educational practice should be students' outcomes.

The Alert to which I referred in my previous comment give examples of other studies about co-teaching. It's worth a read.

Mr. Lloyd--sorry, I was wrong, it was SEELS, not NELS (available at seels.net). It was specifically looking at students with disabilities' setting for language arts instruction (k-8). While it is not equivalent groups in the sense of randomized trials, it is very comprehensive longitudinal data and it looks at a number of engagement factors, as well as category of disability and the kinds of supports provided. One of the things that I found striking was the disparity in achievement between students with disabilities OTHER THAN cognitive when they received education in one setting vs the other.

My district has been implementing co-teaching classes for the past three years. Having the special education students in the general education classroom more often has definitely shown improvements in our assessment scores. However, I'm afraid that our teachers were thrown into the co-teaching model without any training, and our implementation isn't nearly as effective as it could be. Our special education teachers are too often viewed as simply a para in the room to help the students, and there is very little "co-teaching" occurring. We are planning lots of professional development activities for general and special educators alike for next year in the hope of moving our co-teaching classes into a more effective realm. Any suggestions for training activities or things to do with our teachers to increase their understanding of co-teaching?

Our district uses class within a class model as well (co-teaching). I have seen it used very effectively, but agree that additional training is needed. One middle school I work with has made fantastic progress with the CWC model. We have students we never dreamed would make those types of improvements, but they have. we always consider each student and their individual needs, but we put a CWC class on the table for discussion with every student. Special educators are not content specific teachers. They are wonderful and very knowedgable, however, they do not have the same training as a regular secondary content teacher.

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