More than 30 years after passage of the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, schools are still working on including students with disabilities in all facets of public school. And in many places, they remain segregated for at least part of the day, says Wayne Sailor.
"This has been a major uphill battle," Mr. Sailor, a professor of special education at the University of Kansas, told a group gathered in Arlington, Va., this week during a conference hosted by the U.S. Department of Education's office of special education programs.
He is still fighting those battles because of his firm belief, based in research, that students with disabilities almost surely cannot be successfully educated "if these kids are not engaged with kids who don't have their needs."
For many years now, Mr. Sailor has been working with public schools in the District of Columbia and East Palo Alto, Calif., as well as Kansas City and New Orleans, on changing the fundamental culture of how students with disabilities, and really all students, are taught.
By combining response to intervention and positive behavioral interventions and supports and destroying any opportunity for a student with disabilities to be segregated from other students, along with a host of other measures, the professor told a crowd Tuesday, all students can benefit, and achieve.
He rejects what happens in many schools now, when working with students with disabilities. They are diagnosed, then treated, often in separate classrooms for at least part of the day.
"It's not what a kid is; it's what a kid needs," he said. "If there's one term I could leave you with today, it's 'instructional match.' "
He's so forceful on this point that he said when his strategies are employed at a school, the work begins with a map of the school that is used to determine every available space. No classroom or office or any other space is allowed to be set aside for special education students exclusively.
He has the results to prove his approach works: At White Church Elementary in Kansas City, for example, the percentage of all students who were proficient on a state reading test in 2000 was 40 percent. Ten years later, it's 90 percent, and at one point, this school with many low-income students and where about 9 percent of students have disabilities outperformed schools in which students came from wealthy backgrounds.
"The real power going on at this school was, it had a powerful culture," Sailor maintained. But the change took time. Parent involvement and engagement is a critical piece of his approach, called "SAM," or Schoolwide Applications Model. He said districts looking for a magic bullet to improving outcomes for students with disabilities often hear his approach and say, "Don't call us; we'll call you."
SAM entails even providing services like speech or physical therapy in a group setting, where general education and special education students are mixed together. At some of the schools in D.C., he said speech therapists teach lessons that are part of the curriculum, helping students with and without a specified need for therapy. It may be preventive for students who are on the cusp of needing help, and the students who need therapy are reached as well.
It means that some of the therapists are volunteering their time to make this happen, working beyond the hours they are paid. That's a logistical issue that is due in part to the way most of special education works: based on hours or the amount of services a specific child must receive, he said. Some students' individualized education programs may even specify that they must receive their therapy in a separate setting, something he'd like to see changed.
"We really need to have more flexibility," he said.
At SAM schools, all students take part in the same physical education classes, with students who don't need adaptive equipment using it anyway.
"General education kids like all those gadgets, along with the child that really needs it," he said.
Fully changing a school culture and integrating instruction for all students, as well as getting parents involved and engaged, may take years, he said. But it works.
"We're for serving all the kids, no exceptions."