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California Department of Education, Special Education Division’s special project, California Services for Technical Assistance and Training (CalSTAT) is funded through a contract with the Napa County Office of Education. CalSTAT is partially funded from federal funds, State Grants #H027A080116A. Additional federal funds are provided from a federal competitively awarded State Personnel Development Grant to California (#H323A070011) provided from the U.S. Department of Education Part D of the Individuals with Disabilities Education act (IDEA). Opinions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position of the U. S. Department of Education.
Sue Swenson, Deputy Assistant Secretary, Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, U.S. Department of Education
Generally, I hear two comments from people when the topic of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) comes up. Either people want more regulation and better "implementation," or they want less of these. Some want more funding; others want more clarity that IDEA is a civil rights law and not a program mandate. In all of my more than 30 years of working with this law, whether as a mom, a local and state committee member, a congressional staffer, or a federal administration leader, I cannot recall one person ever saying that IDEA was "just right." Even Goldilocks finally found something "just right" in what she tried, but maybe "just right" is only true in fairy tales. Or maybe we are looking for the perfect balance in all the wrong places.
Sometime in the years ahead, we will have to come together to agree on what's next. Should IDEA be less prescriptive, or more? Should it have more money, or not? Should it be simpler, or should we add some new layers? Should what we now call "504 plans" be regulated or tracked? Should technologies be more available to all students? I hope you will think about what you know for sure and what you wish could be. Here is some of what I think I know for sure.
Too much regulation is confusing. Human beings are not meant to function like machines under tight controls. We don't think clearly when our heads are full of rules, or when our day is planned out in five-minute intervals. We need to leave room for invention and spontaneous response. My son Charlie's best Individualized Education Program, or IEP, was as follows: "Charlie will participate in the regular class 95 percent of the time with 98 percent accuracy." Obviously, it was a joke. Why was it best? Because the fact that we were all able to go with a joke meant that we all had deep trust in each other: teacher, parents, principal, special educator, related service professionals, paraprofessional. We trusted the children in the classroom, too, and they rose to the challenge. Even though Charlie never walked or talked, his classmates went to great lengths to think of his needs and interests, to help him be calm so he could learn, to read to him and show him math, and—best of all—to support each other, too. Kids supported other students whose learning was advanced, and they supported those who were learning English for the first time. It turns out, the kids whose learning was truly advanced were much more at ease in a classroom they could see was fair. I believe giftedness and a strong sense of social justice are linked, and segregation of even a few kids is an insult to all kids and hurts gifted kids the most. Even though we didn't expect it, the whole class's scores were better that year.
Too little regulation is chaotic. Sometimes we hear that regulations squelch liberty. Jefferson supposedly said "That government is best which governs least." There are two problems with this: First, Jefferson is nowhere on record as saying or writing this phrase. And second, we have come to confuse the true meaning of liberty. To have liberty, people do not need simply to be free of constraint or regulation. They must also be free of greed, avarice, malice, and error; and they must have the knowledge and resources they need to do what is right. We may fervently hope that our schools will be staffed by such people, and that families, too, will be free to make the best choices. But this real liberty has never been achieved in any human community, even though it is what is required in order to live without regulation. So our work that aims to increase knowledge and measure the real outcomes of our actions is the best bulwark against too much regulation. By becoming wise, we may avoid too much regulation. There is no shortcut here.
Not every year will be great for each kid. I have three sons, only one of whom had disabilities. I learned early on that some years they just 'clicked' with a teacher and other years, not so much. I always thought the great years made up for the not-so-great ones. Sometimes I think the promises of the IEP do not help families see this ebb and flow. Progress in school is not always a straight line. Likewise, a student with a disability often seems to bear the brunt of a teacher not being able to connect. When teachers are in defensive postures, it is more likely they will blame or label the child rather than simply say, "I don't know. We didn't click." All of my sons were liable to be problems if they were bored, but the two without disabilities had more ability to regulate their responses and to meet teachers halfway. Over the years, Charlie had a lot of good and wonderful teachers, and a few great teachers who could see that a profoundly disabled boy might also be bored, that he might be "vocalizing" just to try to say, "Can somebody get me out of here?" The best teacher, I am pretty sure, was the one who realized that if Charlie was bored, all of the students in his class were bored. He took his teaching up a notch and used Charlie as the canary in the coal mine for the rest of the year. This veteran teacher told me it was his best year teaching. His job satisfaction was off the charts. Isn't this what we want for all teachers?
Science tells us what is probable, not what is true. When educating children with disabilities, we sometimes get lost in the weeds of evidence. Federal policymakers love evidence, as we should. Evidence is a critical piece of ensuring taxpayer dollars are spent well. But evidence is most useful when looking at problems on a population basis. It is unlikely that peer-reviewed studies will be found to support particular interventions for individual children, especially children who have more complex disabilities. These children are, in the words of the statistician, "an 'n' of one." Their characteristics cannot be simplified or abstracted, and they should not be ignored, even if their characteristics don't fit into any randomized control trial design. A developmental pediatrician once told me Charlie's disabilities were about a one-in-five-million occurrence. So when a school said "We have a program for children like Charlie," I always said, "No. No, you don't." But I didn't have to work under the requirement for evidence that many families face today, when schools might ask for evidence for an individualized accommodation. There is no evidence for what you should do for a kid whose complex combination of disabilities is a one-in-five-million occurrence or even a one-in-a-thousand occurrence. I have gotten calls from families, such as this: "My 11-year-old daughter has Down syndrome. What is a good IEP for her?" Or, "My 6-year-old has [insert rare medical terminology here]. What is a good IEP for him?" Don't start with the diagnosis; not for program development, and not for placement. Start with what interests the child and what she is good at. You cannot build on a weakness. You cannot teach to a diagnosis. When in doubt, put the student with all of the other students who are his age. Let the children show you. We do have good evidence and more science about this; see our investments in inclusion for all students and positive behavior support, among others. And certainly don't bring a lawyer and a long face: present your challenge as a happy opportunity.
Just because we don't have evidence doesn't mean we do nothing. The hierarchy of evidence is built on a firm base of professional observation and opinion, something teachers and related service personnel should have in abundance. Sometimes the best evidence is observation of the same child over time. What works? What seems to work? How often? The nurses of the National Health Service in the United Kingdom have constructed whole systems around what to do when there is no protocol or no evidence to support a particular treatment for their patient. I think the best principals I have met do this in their schools. They help staff figure out what is right, even if no one knows what is correct. They help people get over the paralysis of analysis. They protect people who are trying hard to do the right thing. They help people try. They protect children, no matter what.
We must work with families. Most of the good we can do is only ever accomplished in partnerships with families. It is not just a question of getting them to sign the paperwork. Too many families still feel they are getting a runaround from their child's school. Too many families are dispirited and feel disrespected. Remember, this is their child we are talking about. Too many families still feel bewildered or leave the planning meeting in tears. As educators, we must come together to ensure families are treated with dignity, courtesy, and respect. In any solid community, we all treat each other that way. Building respect and trust is the only way to effectively engage families. Compliance is the very least that the law requires, so we as educators must do more than simply comply. We must let the children show us what they need, and help each other build our own capacity to respond. Privacy regulations make it a bit harder for us to connect families to each other as we used to do. In my experience, helping families engage with each other—not just with the official system—helps them come to a better understanding of what an IEP might do for their child.
There are some ideas for how to build a bridge to the future that seem outlandish, but that's the exact reason we should consider them. The future is sometimes outlandish. Can we imagine a way to make 504 accommodations work for students who need learning supports without needing individualized plans and without placement risk? Can we find better ways to reduce placement risk for all children?
Is there a way to teach all children about human rights so that they will recognize the rights of their disabled peers, or peers who have other differences? Can we finally begin to teach the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as we promised to do after World War II, everywhere and always? Can we teach children with disabilities and their families what the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities means for them? Perhaps this better understanding of human rights is needed to bring peace into our schools. Peace built on a common understanding of human rights would be the finest possible learning environment we could provide. Human rights are rights that are "just right" for each of us.
"Let us embrace the belief that every student belongs and that every student has talents that are waiting to be engaged and unlocked."
Like other parents who are compelled toward a career in public education, I am driven by my own personal experiences and challenges raising three children who are each incredibly diverse, physically and neurologically. With keen 20-20 hindsight, I am haunted by what I might have done differently to ensure that their special gifts were honored and their challenges better mitigated. One of the ways that I make peace with my less-than-perfect performance as a parent is by working toward creating and enforcing policies that ensure other children receive those supports, services, and educational opportunities that mine may have missed.
I recently attended a convening of policy makers and educational leaders where special education and personalized learning were on the agenda. The group was given a school-like lesson on Todd Rose's book, The End of Average (see on page 4 the link to Rose's TED Talk on the subject). Delivered by two talented teachers from Summit Public Schools, the lesson gave and allowed us to absorb information through various learning media and to interact with our peers over the material. We were given Rose's book, an iPad with a pre-loaded video of the TED Talk, headphones, an annotated synopsis of the content, and instructions about our options for absorbing the information—we could learn by reading the book, watching the TED Talk, or discussing the synopsis in a Socratic circle with others. As I looked around the room, I noticed that nearly one-third of the participants were reading, another third were watching the talk, and the rest of the participants were in a circle with a facilitator discussing the content. To me, this was an eye-opening experience of how school lessons can honor learning preferences. And it demonstrated that, when it comes to learning, "one size" probably never "fits all."
If we are to improve the education of students with disabilities, we must change a myriad of social, cultural, educational, and technological paradigms and habits that can collectively impact and inhibit not just these students but all of our students. Lessons designed like the one I describe give far more of our students the opportunity to learn and demonstrate what they know in a way that honors their individuality and diversity of mind, capacity, and approach. When we engage students in learning by giving them choices, when we deliver information through a variety of modes, and when we allow them to express what they know in a way that gives them the best shot at success, we help to eliminate many of the barriers that they face when learning our rigorous state standards. And in doing this, we are more likely to realize that illusive postsecondary school outcome: securing living-wage jobs.
As we launch into 2017, and as schools begin planning for the next school year, I hope we can plan for all students, including those students who may fall along the edges of the learning continuum. I hope we can put aside any mistaken belief in a theoretical "average" and engage the continuum of all learners in our state. When we do this, when we allow our special educators to co-plan and build on universally designed lessons, we not only build the opportunity for greater success for students with disabilities (along with students without identified disabilities), but we also reduce the degree to which educators must modify curriculum and instruction for our students with more significant cognitive disabilities.
Let us choose to believe that every student belongs, every student can learn, and every student has talents that are waiting to be engaged and unlocked. And then let us plan and teach accordingly.
— Kristin Wright
Disability is an unexpected gift." This conviction reflects the spirit and direction of the work of Catherine Kudlick, professor of history at San Francisco State University and director of the Paul Longmore Institute on Disability.
Legally blind, Kudlick comes to her work with "knowledge and experience of the world of disability. I was fully formed and nurtured in California public schools and universities," she said in an interview, describing herself as "the product of special education . . . from the late 60s and early 70s. Since then, things have changed and things haven't changed. My teachers were a mixed bag. Some were great, and others were terrible because of the low expectations they had for me. They didn't see me for who I was. They saw the label and the thick glasses."
But Kudlick doesn't seem interested in dwelling on any less-than-perfect part of her K–12 education. And she's certainly not complaining about living with a vision impairment, despite the fact that her life has been a routine round of surgeries to restore and maintain the 20-percent of typical vision that she currently has. In fact she has taken the opposite tack and through the institute has become an advocate for Disability Culture.
The answer to the question of "what exactly disability culture is" can vary with every person who's asked. One useful definition comes from Steven Brown, the co-founder of the Institute on Disability Culture:
People with disabilities have forged a group identity. We share a common history of oppression and a common bond of resilience. We generate art, music, literature, and other expressions of our lives and our culture, infused from our experience of disability. Most importantly, we are proud of ourselves as people with disabilities. We claim our disabilities with pride as part of our identity. We are who we are: we are people with disabilities.1
Another comes from Carol Gill, associate professor of disability and human development at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who describes disability culture as
. . . an acceptance of human differences, an acceptance of human vulnerability and interdependence, a tolerance for lack of resolution of the unpredictable in life and a humor to laugh at the oppressor or situation, however dire.
The elements of [disability] culture include, certainly, our longstanding social oppression, but also our emerging art and humor, our piecing together of our history, our evolving language and symbols, our remarkably unified world view, beliefs and values, and our strategies for surviving and thriving." 2
In Kudlick's words, "Our main goal is to get people to think differently about disability—to turn it into this source of ingenuity, excitement, and engagement, to walk away from all those stories about overcoming adversity or pity or any of them and just say, 'Look. We're here, and let's enjoy the parts we can, and let's learn from everything.'"
In a blogpost, Kudlick writes about the "damage that's done when pathetic and tragic images of disabled people are used to raise money." While she readily acknowledges the benefits of the money that telethons and similar events have raised—to purchase essential equipment for people with disabilities and to pay for medical procedures and research—she sees these efforts as having "eclipsed other stories, other images, other possibilities for living as a person with a disability."3
She wants to "put disability in the foreground—and not just as a 'feel good' thing. We want to put it out in the culture" to help the world see "disability as a source of creativity, not creativity despite it. The best way to think about disability is that it leads to creative thinking and creative change."
Emily Beitiks, Kudlick's colleague at the institute, shares this belief that disability is central to creative change for the broader culture. She talks about the benefits for all of society when it "considers disability first"—when buildings and streets, for example, are designed for optimal physical access. There is no question that ramps and curb cuts benefit countless individuals without disabilities—those pushing strollers or shopping carts, those on bicycles, those pulling luggage. And the massive and ever-growing world of "electronic curb cuts" were designed with disability at the center and, again, ended up benefiting countless individuals without disabilities: "Caption decoders for the deaf wound up benefiting tens of millions more consumers than originally intended. . . . televisions with decoders are simply better than those without," enabling people to watch their favorite program while someone in the same room is sleeping, for example, or to watch (and read) programs in noisy sports bars; and they help children learn to read at an earlier age by showing the words while they're being spoken (e.g., Sesame Street).4
The progress of accommodations and access for individuals with disabilities was not easily realized. People with disabilities have suffered centuries of persecutions and have worked hard in this country and elsewhere to secure their civil and social rights—a story that few people know about. Kudlick and Beitiks are committed to addressing this gap and have devoted the past four years at the Longmore Institute to creating Patient No More: People with Disabilities Securing Civil Rights, an exhibit that highlights a key moment in history—April 5, 1977, when American people with and without disabilities showed the world the power of grassroots activism—that contributed to establishing a national disability rights movement in the United States and paved the way for passing the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).5
Certainly the past half century has seen progress in increased access for people with disabilities. Along with the physical and technological, this access includes educational access, both through law (e.g., the various iterations of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act [IDEA]) and theory, as articulated in the principles of Universal Design for Learning6 (UDL), which contributes to making education accessible and engaging for all children, whether or not they have been identified as having a disability.
However, those who embrace Disability Culture want more than just access. Disability justice advocate Mia Mingus, who will be giving the Longmore Lecture at San Francisco State in February 2017, writes, "We cannot allow the liberation of disabled people to be boiled down to logistics. . . This work is about shifting how we understand access, moving away from the individualized and independence-framed notions of access . . . and, instead, working to view access as collective and interdependent."7
"Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much."—Helen Keller
At the heart of Disability Culture is this idea of interdependence, which Beitiks believes is one more gift that individuals with disabilities bring to everyone else. It turns out that this idea has been gaining worldwide traction for some time. In his keynote address in 2004 to the Physical Disability Council of Australia, Erik Leipoldt said, "I want to emphasize interdependence over independence; people over consumers; and connectedness over separateness. Such a different vision may reinvigorate the disability movement as a contributor to and advocate for genuine community where diversity is the breath of a good life for all citizens."8 Kudlick describes this interdependence as "at root, appreciating what every side brings to a relationship, thinking about the other as having value so that the relationship is not just uni-directional. Having the ability to acknowledge that the other person made me say, 'I never thought of that before.'"
Disability Culture ultimately promotes a world "that blurs the lines between ability and disability," says Beitiks. In this world, Kudlick adds, "Disability is not a negative. It's not condescended to. Disability Culture puts a positive spin for everyone. It flips the thinking. It's not just acceptance; it's an openness to new ways of doing things."
Kudlick expands on how "disability allows us to be creative—in art, in literature and autobiography, in music. Disability art,9 for example, is not just rehabilitation. Not a condescending 'therapy' so people can feel good. It's an expression, a reflection, a unique take on things that helps everyone see differently." She talks about artist and painter Katherine Sherwood, who recently retired from the art department at UC Berkeley. Kudlick calls Sherwood's work "beautiful, innovative. She takes what most people could only see as a negative and changes it to a positive." Sherwood, who experienced permanent physical and perceptual changes following a stroke, writes about her disability as "a challenge and an opportunity rather than a loss."10
"People often conflate knowledge with information," says Kudlick. "While knowing information, about facts, is important, knowledge is something deeper, a more profound understanding of your relationship with the world." Knowing people with disabilities and having them as friends from the earliest possible age provides the most effective kind of instruction in "your relationship with the world."
Kudlick is convinced of the practical value that children with disabilities bring to the classroom when school systems facilitate true inclusive practices. "One problem in schools," Kudlick says when talking about attitudes toward disability, is "the old assumptions that people with disabilities have zero resources and zero knowledge. In fact, no one ever believed the kind of things people with disabilities can do. Difference keeps the edges sharp. Growing up around people who are different," she says, "when difference is the norm, will make a person better able to respond to new and unexpected situations." Creative response becomes second nature to children who are practiced in adjusting to the unfamiliar and to the different.
As well, "people with disabilities are tremendously resourceful—they're used to figuring out the system and figuring out how to make things work." They are "models of flexibility, ingenuity, and resilience." They can share their "pride, engagement, sense of possibility, and vision for the future"—and show the rest of us "how to make this world more just and more beautiful."
The Paul K. Longmore Institute on Disability at San Francisco State University works to challenge stereotypes of disability by showcasing disabled people's strength, ingenuity, and originality. The institute sponsors educational and cultural events to fight disability stigma with disability culture; co-hosts the Superfest International Disability Film Festival; and sponsors an annual Longmore Lecture, which features speakers who blend scholarship and activism. Learn more at http://longmoreinstitute.sfsu.edu
Notes and Resources
Orange County Department of Education (OCDE) is developing a Request for Application (RFA) for Local Educational Agencies (LEAs: school districts, charter schools, and county offices of education) to apply for Scale-Up MTSS Subgrant awards. More than $21 million dollars in total will be awarded to successful applicants. As many as 300 LEAs may be selected in each of three stages of awards: the first in April 2017, the second in December 2017, and the last in May 2018. An extension of OCDE's $30 million grant to build "a scalable and sustainable" multitiered system of supports (MTSS), these awards are designed to "help schools and districts throughout California address students' academic, behavioral, and social needs."
This initiative—California Scale-Up MTSS Statewide (SUMS)—is a partnership of OCDE, Butte County Office of Education, and the SWIFT Center (see http://www.swiftschools.org) to provide training and resources to make MTSS the primary state-of-the-art organizing principle for California schools. Its goal is to ensure "whole-system engagement" and address "academic, behavioral, and social-emotional learning in a fully integrated system of support" through a trainer-of-trainers model, with four tiers of teams: a state leadership team, 11 regional teams, county office of education teams, and LEA teams. The subgrants will be used to instruct local staff in the principles and practices of MTSS: how they are applied to best support all children and address unique needs, to augment the talents and resources of each specific LEA, and to support and strengthen district Local Control and Accountability Plans (LCAPs).
The RFA form for the Scale-Up MTSS Subgrant awards will be available in February through the California Department of Education's Web site and county offices of education. The application process includes two stages. In the first, applicants prepare a concept paper that describes their current MTSS efforts, the resources they are using in this pursuit, and other resources (i.e., training, technical assistance, and funding) they need to realize their vision. In the second, applicants complete a self-assessment as a preliminary indication of their stage of MTSS implementation. They describe how their plans to "scale up MTSS" are aligned with their LCAP goals and supported by matching LCAP funds. The SUMS State Leadership Team will score each application using a rubric that reflects how possible it is for each applicant to complete the work within the allowed time frame and with the requested funding. For more information about SUMS and the opportunities it presents, go to http://camtss.org
For nearly 100 years, educators have understood the importance of a safe and supportive school climate for "learning and positive youth development"; during the past thirty years, research has made this importance indisputable.1 School climate influences not just how much and how well students learn, but it also "impacts how students feel, their willingness to get involved, their excitement to contribute, and their sense of self and others."2
"It's an easy lift to see the connection between MTSS [multitiered system of supports] and positive school climate," says Marquita Grenot-Scheyer, assistant vice chancellor for teacher education and public school programs for the California State University Office of the Chancellor and former dean of the College of Education at California State University, Long Beach. This connection is very good news for California. The state is making a significant investment in developing and establishing MTSS as the conceptual framework of choice for its K–12 schools through its Scale-Up MTSS Statewide (SUMS) initiative (see sidebar page 7)—as are other states across the country.3 For good reason.
MTSS is an organizing principle for all aspects of an educational system, one that allows a school district to marshal efficiently and effectively its resources to promote the success of every student. "It's the glue to making what you're doing more impactful,4 says George Batsche, co-director of the Institute for School Reform at the University of South Florida.
When MTSS first evolved out of "response to intervention" theory, it was tempting to view it as the next "shiny new thing," a trend that would come and go in a season. This has not happened—despite the fact that MTSS is not a simple construct, and many educators are still learning about its exact nature.
Essentially, MTSS is a fully integrated framework of supports that aligns academic, behavioral, and social-emotional learning in a "continuum of research-based, system-wide practices." 5 This framework uses data-based decision making to ensure "intentional, ongoing design and redesign of services and supports to quickly identify and match to the needs of all students." 6 These supports are provided regardless of the reason for a child's need or why he might be struggling—coming to school speaking a language other than English, for example, or having a recognized disability, or having missed a lot of school.
MTSS is grounded in the practice of gathering accurate data about each student and classroom and then correctly interpreting that data, both to identify and address exactly what a child needs and to make meaningful instructional decisions to address those needs. Also key to the framework is a commitment to continuous improvement—applying regularly a critical lens to all efforts and adjusting them to ensure that the system continues to work for, and adapt to best serve, each student.7
The degree to which all students (and teachers and staff) see their school as a welcoming and responsive community, are engaged in their classes, and realize success in their work determines the quality of a school's climate. MTSS is designed to create the conditions for this sense of welcome, engagement, responsiveness, and experience of success for all. As the California SUMS initiative (see page 7) creates comprehensive supports for the state's current educators and school leaders to reshape instructional delivery towards MTSS, the critical question of sustainability emerges. How can the state ensure that MTSS will last? California is embracing that challenge, too.
Through its teacher training programs, the state is in the process of closing the circle on its commitment to securely establishing MTSS. Many of the new teachers coming into California schools will know how to work within a multitiered system of supports and how to contribute to it. And they will expect it.
Programs in six universities in the state are working with the Collaboration for Effective Educator Development Accountability and Reform (CEEDAR), a national technical assistance center designed to improve instruction for students with disabilities in inclusive settings. According to Paul Sindelar, professor of special education at the University of Florida and CEEDAR Center co-director, CEEDAR is also working with "19 other states, simultaneously reforming teacher prep and doing it under the service delivery rubric of MTSS." This reform in the way teachers are being prepared is "happening simultaneously in general ed and in special ed," says Sindelar, with the primary goal of redesigning schools so that "more kids are successful in the core instruction and core curriculum."
California State University Long Beach (CSULB) is among these schools, and this is where Grenot-Scheyer was instrumental in laying the groundwork for a dual-credential program that is "explicitly organized around MTSS as a guiding principle and a critical component of what we do," she says. Candidates in this Urban Dual Credential Program (UDCP) "exit with both general education and special education experience that provides them with a clear understanding of the instructional and environmental needs of all students."
The California Commission on Teacher Credentialing is supporting this new direction in teacher preparation for all educators through it new "Teaching Performance Expectations," which guide the training that prospective teachers receive. These new expectations helped to create coherence between what is required in the training programs and efforts to apply MTSS, particularly as MTSS contributes to positive school climate. In this context, the three most relevant of the new expectations are (1) engaging and supporting all students; (2) creating and maintaining effective environments for student learning; and (3) planning instruction and designing learning experiences for all students.8
Cara Richards-Tutor, professor of Advanced Studies in Education and Counseling at CSULB, worked with her colleagues in Teacher Education and Special Education to develop UDCP. Candidates in the program graduate with "a multiple subject credential [general education] and an education specialist credential [special education]," she says. "Inclusion and MTSS are core components and provide a framework of instruction for all students." As a result, there are no arbitrary divisions of who is supporting which child. All teachers are responsible for all students. Culturally responsive pedagogy is another strong element of the program; and UDCP courses focus on diversity—in culture, race, and ability. These principles (inclusion, MTSS, and culturally responsive pedagogy) permeate all instructional content.
A unique hallmark of the program is its two-year clinical model, where candidates are in a classroom with a mentor teacher in their first year. They are placed in diverse, urban schools, so diversity is not an abstraction. "We teach about diversity and how to meet the learning needs of all students, and our candidates get to experience this in practice from day one," says Richards-Tutor.
The program is "one of many pathways" to becoming a teacher at CSULB, says Grenot-Scheyer. "My vision is that over time all students will choose this pathway. We do not yet have evaluation data," on the success of the program. "We are just in the second year. But I did a site visit last week, and these beginning teachers are qualitatively different in the way they're engaging all learners. They are in classrooms with many English language learners and students with disabilities, and the practicing teachers were extraordinary. In a very short time they have become able to teach across all learners. It made me very proud and happy to have been able to provide the resources and the vision to get this program off the ground."
"What we're seeing over time," says Richards-Tutor, "is that our teacher candidates and the program start influencing the school site. The learning is reciprocal. While the schools provide mentoring and support for our candidates, we've found that we're all learning together to make schools a better place for all kids. We're changing school climates together. Even in schools that already have that philosophy [of inclusion] in place, they become even more inclusive" because of the presence of these new teachers.
Before joining the faculty at CSULB, Grenot-Scheyer was a special education teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District. "I always had the ethos of the importance of inclusion and inclusive education," she says. "When I became dean [at CSULB], I brought together general education faculty and special education faculty and asked them to think differently about how we could prepare students and what they could learn from each other that would help them craft the vision of an inclusive program. But I only provided support and pressure; I give all the credit to the faculty. They were the ones who had the deep discussions. What began as an effort to 'tinker around the edges' ended up with them throwing everything out" and starting from scratch. "They read and learned about each other's disciplines and came away with a new respect for each other; they saw that their colleagues had important contributions to make. Once they understood that, then it was easy, and this understanding provided them with a new foundation for the dual-credential program. And they saw why MTSS is such an important framework for school reform."
Reshaping how teachers are prepared is an enormous task in any state, but especially in California, which has the largest population and the largest minority population of any other state in the country. "Reform is a slow process," admits Sindelar. "There are a million issues to deal with: state standards, rules and regulations, faculty who don't want to change. Nothing happens very fast. But we're in the process of making things happen. Many institutions are taking a great deal of pride in what they've accomplished."
But these innovative programs are not resting on their laurels and continue to look for ways to refine what they're doing. "We're continuously working to improve our program," says Richards-Tutor. One way we're doing this is by working with the local schools and districts that are participating in the SUMS initiative. We want to learn how they are implementing MTSS so we can share these models with our [teacher] candidates. Additionally, we hope to make social-emotional learning more explicit in our program. We provide our candidates a strong foundation in PBIS [positive behavioral interventions and supports], but we are not providing instruction and experiences in social-emotional learning in the ways we would like to. We have more thinking to do."
According to Sindelar, "Social emotional learning may not be part of CEEDAR's agenda, but we address it when colleagues consider it important. We take people and programs from where they are." Using the principles of MTSS, Universal Design for Learning (UDL), and differentiated instruction, "we help teachers learn how to work in the manner that kids best learn . . . instead of requiring kids to conform to our expectations."
All institutions of higher education "are going in the direction of dual prep and preparing the next generation of teachers who'll expect to collaborate and work together," says Sindelar. He has been closely watching California during the past five years as the state released its A Blueprint for Great Schools: Version 2.0, rolled out the Local Control Funding Formula, struggled to get right the rubrics of its Local Control Accountability Plans, took seriously the recommendations of the Statewide Task Force on Special Education, and worked to revise its Teaching Performance Expectations. With all of these efforts operating in consort, Sindelar believes that California "has a great opportunity to get it all together and align educational efforts in one common vision."
Jamie Schnablegger knows she wants to be a resource teacher at a low-income school, but when she finishes her five-year program at California State University Long Beach, she won't be limited to teaching students with disabilities. She will graduate with a bachelor's degree and a dual credential in general education and special education.
As California moves toward a single, unified system of education for all students, one that includes students with disabilities, Schnablegger and her cohort at Long Beach are in the vanguard of a major shift in the way prospective teachers are trained and licensed. The shift is occurring on two fronts: on college and university campuses throughout the state and in Sacramento at the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing (CTC).
The goal: All teachers—whether general educators or special educators—will share a "common trunk" of knowledge and skills that will enable them to serve all students in a general education setting to the greatest extent possible.
The driver of this change, says CTC Chair Linda Darling-Hammond, was the release of One System: Reforming Education to Serve All Students, the 2015 report of California's Statewide Task Force on Special Education, which addressed the poor academic outcomes of students with disabilities. "The task force showed that by all indicators—graduation rates, the achievement gap—California was doing poorly in educating students" who receive special education services, Darling-Hammond says.
According to the task force, the state "must break down the long-standing divisions that exist between teachers within general education and special education" if it is to create that one system of education. A significant barrier: "short-sighted teacher preparation and licensing practices" that restrict the ability of special educators to serve students in general education settings and that offer limited special education training for general educators.
In December 2015 the CTC issued new standards for general education teacher preparation and has approved six Teaching Performance Expectations (TPEs; see sidebar content below) that require beginning teachers to "create inclusive learning environments . . . and use their understanding of all students' developmental levels to provide effective instruction and assessment for all students, including students with disabilities, in the general education classroom," according to the preliminary standards document issued by CTC.
The TPEs comprise the knowledge, skills, and abilities that prospective teachers should acquire in teacher preparation programs in California. These include the ability to incorporate universal design for learning (UDL) principles into their instruction, to work within a Multitiered System of Supports, and to collaborate with other instructors and co-teach. The CTC tasked those programs with producing a transition plan for incorporating the new general education standards by March 2017 and implementing them over a two-year period beginning the following September.
In June the commission approved the TPEs for special education teacher preparation programs as well. All programs, and therefore all beginning special and general education teachers, will share this "common trunk" of knowledge and skills. The general education "branch" of the trunk will continue to be mastery of the single subject or multiple subject content that they will teach. The CTC is forming a working group of stakeholders to identify what additional knowledge, skills, and abilities should be required for a special education credential. The group is expected to report to the commission in April 2017.
Victoria Graf was a co-author of the TPEs. A professor of Special Education at Loyola Marymount University (LMU) in Los Angeles, she says there was "no push back from general educators. People get it." Graf says, "In conversations over a couple of years" at LMU, "we determined that we as a school of education should be promoting inclusive education." All departments in the School of Education "have been focused on redesign," says Candace Poindexter, chair of the department of elementary and secondary education at LMU. "What do we need to do to educate our students to be the best teachers of all students?" In response, all faculty and staff received training in UDL, a framework that offers multiple paths for students to access information and display knowledge. This fall, Graf says, all course syllabi incorporate UDL. "And," she says, "we're starting [to incorporate] MTSS" (see article page 9).
LMU is one of six California teacher preparation programs1 that have received a four-year grant from the Collaborative for Effective Educator Development Accountability and Reform (CEEDAR), a national technical assistance center, to improve instruction for students with disabilities in inclusive settings. This work aligns with the recommendations of the special education task force.
Graf describes the effort as a "coherent and coordinated initiative." CEEDAR brings staff from the six schools together several times a year to share resources, ideas, and syllabi and recently presented a forum on sustainability. "The schools are very collaborative," she says. "Years ago we used to be in competition. Now we want to stay together, even when the money runs out."
California State University Long Beach is another CEEDAR school. Marquita Grenot-Schyer, dean of the College of Education, used the grant to bring general and special education faculty together two years ago to develop a curriculum that would combine the standards for both credentials in a single program.
"There was complete collaboration between general ed and special ed," says Cara Richards-Tutor, professor and director of the resultant five-year Urban Dual-Credential Program. "They all had the belief that teachers should be prepared to teach all students."
The first cohort of 10 undergraduate students enrolled in the fall of 2015. The four-semester teacher preparation part of the program is also designed with MTSS and UDL as a framework. "MTSS is drilled into us," says Jamie Schnablegger. Adds classmate Brittany Roberts, "The program has made me look at students individually. It's not just one lesson and I hope everybody gets it."
Structured, supervised clinical practice begins in the very first semester, and field experiences are integral to the curriculum throughout the program. Simultaneous coursework covers such subjects as equity, inclusion, positive behavior supports, and transition services, along with the academic subjects that are part of the general education curriculum. The program is team-taught by general and special education faculty. Upon graduation, students will receive a general education credential and either a mild-moderate or moderate-severe special education credential.
"The question we are asking ourselves is 'Can we in one [dual credential] program prepare teachers as well as a single credential program does?' We will do research—interviews and interactions with students, observation of student teaching. Everyone is giving us feedback—the students, the teachers and principals at the school sites," says Richards-Tutor. "We will follow students as they get jobs. Do they stay in the job? We have a rare opportunity to answer these kinds of question."
The shift in teacher preparation standards raises questions beyond the efficacy of a dual credential program (which not all schools will adopt), and some special educators are concerned about their changing role. "Nobody in our program thinks there isn't a need for special education instruction," Richards-Tutor says. "The full continuum of services will still be there. We're trying to prepare all teachers to work with all students so they understand the role of special education supports and can work with students who need help but don't have special education labels."
And yet, Graf says, it's natural that "there's a little bit of anxiety. This is a change in mindset; we weren't prepared in a collaborative way."
Some of that anxiety was evident at the CTC meeting in June when the TPEs were approved. A number of speakers expressed concern that additional requirements would only exacerbate a serious shortage of teachers, especially in special education where some districts have had to hire provisional teachers. Darling-Hammond acknowledges the severity of the shortage but says that teachers with "deeper knowledge and better skills" are more likely to remain in their jobs. "In the best years only 50 percent of special education teachers come in fully prepared, and those are the ones most likely to leave," she says. "Underprepared teachers leave at rates two to three times higher than those who are fully prepared, and the situation is more acute in special education." Graf agrees that retention is the key. "If we could retain the teachers we train, we wouldn't have a significant shortage," she says.
Other speakers worried about the continuing role for teachers of students with low-incidence disabilities—such as blindness, deafness, or physical disability—who are less likely to be integrated into a general education classroom. "There has been no discussion about eliminating low incidence credentials," Darling-Hammond says, but now those teachers also "will get general education training."
With the implementation of the new approach to general education training a year away and special education standards still being developed, Graf notes that "change is a process, not an event." But, she says, with California moving toward one system of education for all students, "I'm more optimistic than I've been in a number of years."
The six schools receiving CEEDAR funds are Brandman University, California State University (CSU) Fresno, CSU Long Beach, CSU Los Angeles, Loyola Marymount University, and San Francisco State University. For more about CEEDAR, go to http://ceedar.education.ufl.edu
Engaging and supporting all students in learning. Teachers apply their knowledge of students' learning needs and backgrounds to engage them in learning. They use a variety of instructional strategies, resources, and assistive technology, including MTSS and UDL, to support access to the curriculum for a wide range of learners in the general education classroom.
Creating and maintaining effective environments for student learning. Teachers promote students' social-emotional growth, maintain high expectations for learning with appropriate support, and establish clear expectations for classroom behavior.
Understanding and organizing subject matter for student learning. Teachers make accommodations and/or modifications to promote student access to the curriculum.
Planning instruction and designing learning experiences for all students. Teachers remove barriers and provide access through such strategies as assistive technology, UDL, and MTSS.
Assessing student learning. Teachers collect and analyze data from multiple types of assessments (diagnostic, progress-monitoring, formative, summative, etc.). They use assessment data to establish learning goals for students and to plan and differentiate instruction.
Developing as a professional educator. Teachers establish professional learning goals; they recognize their own values and biases and work to mitigate any negative impact these may have on teaching.
Did you know that people with disabilities constitute our nation's largest minority group (one in five Americans has a disability)? It is also the most inclusive and most diverse group: all ages, genders, religions, ethnicities, sexual orientations, and socioeconomic levels are represented.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, individuals with disabilities are not:
They are people: moms and dads; sons and daughters; employees and employers; friends and neighbors; students and teachers; scientists, reporters, doctors, actors, presidents, and more. People with disabilities are people, first.
They do not constitute the stereotypical perception: a homogeneous subspecies called "the handicapped" or "the disabled." They are unique individuals.
The only thing they may have in common with one another is being on the receiving end of societal misunderstanding, prejudice, and discrimination. Furthermore, this largest minority group is the only one that any person can join at any time: at birth or later—through an accident, illness, or the aging process. When it happens to you, will you have more in common with others who have disability diagnoses or with family, friends, and co-workers? How will you want to be described and how will you want to be treated?
Is there a universally accepted definition of disability? No! First and foremost, a disability descriptor is simply a medical diagnosis, which may become a sociopolitical passport to services or legal status. Beyond that, the definition is up for grabs, depending on which service system is accessed. The "disability criteria" for early intervention is different from early childhood, which is different from vocational rehabilitation, which is different from special education, which is different from worker's compensation, and so on. Thus, "disability" is a social construct, created to identify those who may be entitled to services or legal protections due to characteristics related to a medical condition.
Words are powerful. Old, inaccurate descriptors and the inappropriate use of medical diagnoses perpetuate negative stereotypes and reinforce a significant and an incredibly powerful attitudinal barrier. And this invisible, but potent, force—not the diagnosis itself—is the greatest obstacle facing individuals who have conditions we call disabilities.
When we see the diagnosis as the most important characteristic of a person, we devalue her as an individual. Do you want to be known for your psoriasis, gynecological history, the warts on your behind, or any other condition?
Unfortunately, disability diagnoses are often used to define a person's value and potential, and low expectations, and a dismal future may be the predicted norm. A person's diagnosis is often used to decide how/where the person will be educated, what type of job he will/ won't have, where/how he'll live, and more, including what services he is thought to need.
With the best of intentions, we work on people's bodies and brains, while paying scant attention to their hearts and minds. And far too often, the "help" provided can actually cause harm—and can ruin people's lives. For "special" services frequently result in the social isolation and physical segregation of children and adults: in special ed classrooms, congregate living quarters, day programs, sheltered work environments, segregated recreational activities, and more. Are other people isolated, segregated, and devalued because of their medical conditions?
"Handicapped" is an archaic term (no longer used in federal legislation) that evokes negative images of pity, fear, and more. The origin of the word is from an Old English bartering game, in which the loser was left with his "hand in his cap" and was said to be at a disadvantage. Based on this meaning, it was applied to people with certain conditions. A legendary origin of the word refers to a person with a disability begging with his "cap in his hand." This antiquated, derogatory term perpetuates the negative image that people with disabilities are a homogeneous group of pitiful, needy people! Others who share a certain characteristic are not all alike, and individuals who happen to have disabilities are not alike. In fact, people with disabilities are more like people without disabilities than different!
"Handicapped" is often used to describe modified parking spaces, hotel rooms, restrooms, etc. But these usually provide access for people with physical or mobility needs—and they may provide no benefit for people with visual, hearing, or other conditions. This is one example of the misuse of the H-word as a generic descriptor. (The accurate term for modified parking spaces, hotel rooms, etc. is "accessible.")
"Disabled" is also not appropriate. Traffic reporters often say, "disabled vehicle." They once said, "stalled car." Sports reporters say an athlete is on "the disabled list." They once said, "injured reserve." Other uses of this word today mean "broken/non-functioning." People with disabilities are not broken!
If a new toaster doesn't work, we say it's "defective" or "damaged" and return it. Shall we return babies with "birth defects" or adults with "brain damage"? The accurate and respectful descriptors are "congenital disability" or "brain injury."
Many parents say, "My child has special needs." This term generates pity, as demonstrated by the usual response: "Oh, I'm so sorry," accompanied by a sad look or a sympathetic pat on the arm. (Gag!) A person's needs aren't "special" to him—they're ordinary! Many adults have said they detested this descriptor as children. Let's learn from them, and stop using this pity-laden term!
"Suffers from," "afflicted with," "victim of," "low/high functioning," and similar descriptors are inaccurate, inappropriate, and archaic. A person simply "has" a disability/medical condition.
We seem to spend more time talking about the "problems" of a person with a disability than anything else. People without disabilities, however, don't constantly talk about their problems. This would result in an inaccurate perception, and would also be counter-productive to creating a positive image. A person who wears glasses, for example, doesn't say, "I have a problem seeing." She says, "I wear [or need] glasses."
What is routinely called a "problem" actually reflects a need. Thus, Susan doesn't "have a problem walking," she "needs/uses a wheelchair." Ryan doesn't "have behavior problems," he "needs behavior supports." Do you want to be known by your "problems" or by the many positive characteristics which make you the unique individual you are? When will people without disabilities begin speaking about people with disabilities in the respectful way they speak about themselves?
Then there's the use of "wrong" as in, "We knew there was something wrong when . . . " What must it feel like when a child hears his parents repeat this over and over and over again? How would you feel if those who are supposed to love and support you constantly talked about what's "wrong" with you? Isn't it time to stop using the many words that cause harm?
The real problem is never a person's disability, but the attitudes of others! And a change in attitudes and beliefs can change everything.
If educators believed in the potential of all children, and if they recognized that boys and girls with disabilities need a quality education so they can become successful in the adult world of work, millions of children would no longer be segregated and undereducated in special ed classrooms. If employers believed adults with disabilities have (or could learn) valuable job skills, we wouldn't have an estimated (and shameful) 75 percent unemployment rate of people with disabilities. If merchants saw people with disabilities as customers with money to spend, we wouldn't have so many inaccessible stores, theaters, restrooms, and more. If the service system identified people with disabilities as "customers," instead of "clients/consumers/recipients," perhaps it would begin to meet a person's real needs (like inclusion, friendships, etc.) instead of trying to remediate his "problems."
If individuals with disabilities and family members saw themselves as first-class citizens who can and should be fully included in all areas of society, we might focus on what's really important: living a Real Life in the Real World, enjoying ordinary opportunities and experiences and dreaming big dreams (like people without disabilities), instead of living a Special Life in Disability World, where low expectations, segregation, poverty, and hopelessness are the norm.
—U.S. Developmental Disabilities/Bill of Rights Act
Like gender, ethnicity, and other traits, a disability is simply one of many natural characteristics of being human. Are you defined by your gender, ethnicity, religion, age, sexual orientation, or other trait? No! So how can we define others by a characteristic which is called a "disability"?
Yes, disability is natural, and it can be redefined as "a body part that works differently." A person with spina bifida has legs that work differently, a person with Down syndrome learns differently, and so forth. And the body parts of people without disabilities are also different—it's the way these differences affect a person that creates the eligibility for services, entitlements, or legal protections.
In addition, a disability is often a consequence of the environment. For example, most children with ADD and similar conditions are not diagnosed until they enter public school. Why is this? Could it be that as young children, their learning styles were supported by parents, preschool teachers, etc.? But once in public school, if the child's learning style doesn't mesh with an educator's teaching style, the child is said to have a "disability." Why do we blame the child, label him, and segregate him in a special ed classroom? Shouldn't we modify the regular curriculum (per special ed law) and/or provide supports to meet his needs so he can learn in ways that are best for him?
When a person is in a welcoming, accessible environment, with the appropriate supports, accommodations, and tools, does he still have a disability? No! Disability is not a constant state. The diagnosis may be constant, but whether it's a disability is more a consequence of the environment than what a person's body or mind can/cannot do. We don't need to change people with disabilities through therapies or interventions. We need to change the environment, by providing assistive technology devices, supports, and accommodations to ensure a person's success!
People First Language puts the person before the disability, and describes what a person has, not who a person is.
Are you "myopic" or do you wear glasses? Are you "cancerous" or do you have cancer? Is a person "handicapped/disabled" or does she have a disability?
If people with disabilities are to be included in all aspects of society, and if they're to be respected and valued as our fellow citizens, we must stop using language that devalues and sets them apart.
The use of disability descriptors is appropriate only in the service system (at those ubiquitous "I" team meetings) and in medical or legal settings. Medical diagnoses have no place—and they should be irrelevant—within families, among friends, and in the community.
Many erroneously share a diagnosis in order to convey information, as when a parent says, "My child has Down syndrome," hoping others will realize her child needs certain accommodations or supports. But the outcome of this action can be less than desirable! A diagnosis can scare people, generate pity, and/or set up exclusion ("We can't handle people like that . . . "). In these circumstances, and when it's appropriate, we can simply describe the person's needs in a respectful, dignified manner, and omit the diagnosis.
Besides, the diagnosis is nobody's business! Have individuals with disabilities given us permission to share their personal information with others? If not, how dare we violate their trust! Do you routinely tell every Tom, Dick, and Harry about the boil on your spouse's behind? (I hope not!) And we often talk about people with disabilities in front of them, as if they're not there. We must stop this demeaning practice!
My son, Benjamin, is 22 years old. His interests, strengths, and dreams are more important than his diagnosis! He loves politics, classic rock, and movies, and has earned two karate belts, performed in plays, and won a national award for his Thumbs Down to Pity film. Benj is attending college, where he's a member of Phi Theta Kappa national honor society, and he wants to become a writer. He has blonde hair, blue eyes, and cerebral palsy. His diagnosis is just one of many characteristics of his whole persona. He is not his disability, and his potential cannot be predicted by his diagnosis.
When I meet new people, I don't whine that I'll never be a prima ballerina. I focus on my strengths, not on limitations. Don't you do the same? So when speaking about my son, I don't say, "Benj can't write with a pencil." I say, "Benj writes on a computer." I don't say, "He can't walk." I say, "He uses a power chair." It's a simple, but vitally important, matter of perspective. If I want others to know what a great young man he is—more importantly, if I want him to know what a great young man he is—I must use positive and accurate descriptors that portray him as a valuable, respected, and wonderful person.
The words used to describe a person have a powerful impact on the person's self-image. For generations, the hearts and minds of people with disabilities have been crushed by negative, stereotypical words that created harmful, mythical perceptions and caused other detrimental consequences. We must stop believing and perpetuating the myths—the lies—of labels. Children and adults who have conditions called "disabilities" are unique individuals with unlimited potential, like everyone else!
The Civil Rights and Women's Movements prompted changes in language and attitudes. The Disability Rights Movement is following in those important footsteps. People First Language was created by individuals who said, "We are not our disabilities." It's not "political correctness," but good manners and respect.
We can create a new paradigm of disability. In the process, we'll change ourselves and our world—as well as the lives of millions of children and adults. It's time to care about the feelings of the people we're talking about and to carefully consider what perceptions we create about people with disabilities with our words.
For permission to share or reprint this article, contact Kathie Snow at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To access resources attached to this article, go to http://www.sccoe.org/depts/students/inclusion-collaborative/Documents/Person-First_Language_Article.pdf
For more articles by Kathie Snow, go to https://www.disabilityisnatural.com/pfl-articles.html
The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug. —Mark Twain
If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. —George Orwell
The greatest discovery of my generation is that human beings can alter their lives by altering their attitudes of mind. —William James
Each human brain is unique and works in a way that is different from that of any other brain. The differences are sometimes slight and sometimes vast, but this variation is what neurodiversity means. Not unlike fingerprints. While most brains function within a range of difference that is considered "normal," some neurodiverse conditions are considered disabilities—autism, for example, and dyslexia.
The neurodiversity paradigm, relatively new in its articulation, reflects the belief that significant difference does not always mean abnormal—even in instances of those conditions that are currently labeled as disabilities. Those who embrace this paradigm promote an acceptance and appreciation of individuals who are significantly neurodivergent. They believe that marked differences in the ways that brains function are often natural and valuable reflections of human variation. Just as there is no one "right" gender or culture or race, there is no one right kind of brain function. Within this paradigm, people believe that accepting, valuing, and celebrating difference contributes to a society's richness and strength.
Those who accept the neurodiversity paradigm also fully recognize that some forms of neurodiversity—the results of traumatic brain injury, for example, or schizophrenia—absolutely need to be medically and therapeutically addressed by any effective means available. But while certain kinds of neurodiversity can compromise an individual's ability to learn, to form relationships, or to realize quality of life, the acceptance of the paradigm prompts educators to consider the degree to which an artificial sense of "normal" contributes to this compromise as much as the neurological difference itself.
The paradigm also creates just one more strong argument for universal design for learning (UDL). When used to shape instruction and classroom activities, UDL gives all children every opportunity to develop their talents and abilities by not limiting them to someone else's preference for the way information should be received, shared, or expressed—and certainly not by a label of disability.
Parents want their children to love going to school, to feel safe, welcomed, respected, and included—and to be engaged in and excited about learning. There are many reasons for someone to look forward to a school day: engaging in a favorite activity, spending time with special people, or anticipating something new.
All of these qualities and opportunities are a reflection of a school's climate, which, it turns out, is critically important to every aspect of a child's development. Research shows that a positive school climate greatly influences "risk prevention and health promotion efforts, student learning and academic achievement, increased student graduation rates, and teacher retention."1 The U.S. Department of Education, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the Institute for Educational Sciences, and a growing number of State Departments of Education "support and/or endorse school climate renewal as a strategy to . . . enhance school connectedness, [and] reduce high school dropout rates."2
Most people don't need research to know that the more students are connected in a school—to teachers and to friends—and the more wide-reaching their friendships are, the better the school climate and the more likely students are to stay in school.3 Particularly pertinent to students with disabilities is the fact that a positive school climate also significantly reduces instances of bullying. While any student can be in danger of bullying, students with disabilities are statistically prime targets,4 are more worried about school safety and being injured or harassed by their peers,5and experience bullying that is more chronic in nature. A positive school climate helps to reduce "bully-victim-bystander behavior."6
Given all the benefits of a positive school climate, how does a school go about creating one? Research shows a number of contributing influences. One is the use of positive behavioral interventions and supports, including such practices as restorative justice.7 Another is inclusive practices: ensuring that, to the fullest degree possible, all students are included and educated as general education students first alongside their age-mates. Hand in hand with inclusive practices is a school philosophy that embraces diversity, one that fosters the belief that "each individual has unique experiences, valuable talents and insightful perspectives about the world, which can enrich the quality of the school experience for all stakeholders. This multiplicity of talent and interest generates an inquisitive model of learning and sharing between each member in the community, thus advancing school as 'a home' rather than 'a place.'"8
Some find and develop their talents—and a sense of "home" at school—in physics and math, others because they are involved in music or drama or the debate team, others because a teacher "gets them."
And then there's sports.
Who can deny the galvanizing power of organized sports? Anyone who has witnessed a soccer shoot-out or attended a homecoming football game—let alone a BCS playoff or an Olympic event—can give witness to this fact. Team sports bring people together.
And it turns out that, through team sports, a school can reduce bullying, effectively combat stereotypes, eliminate hurtful language, promote healthy physical activity, and generate positive personal interactions among students—in short, contribute significantly to a positive school climate. This is happening in schools across the country through Unified Schools, a movement that is gaining momentum in California. Thanks to a collaborative effort of key stakeholders—the Superintendent of Public Instruction's office; California's Department of Education (CDE), Special Education Division; Special Olympics Northern California and Special Olympics Southern California; and the California Legislature—Unified Schools (formerly titled "Unified Strategy") has received $1 million in Prop 98 funds for fiscal year 2016–2017 to expand the initiative throughout the state.9
A project of the Special Olympics, Unified Schools is made up of three components: sports activities, youth leadership and advocacy, and whole-school engagement. However, the focal point of the initiative is on what happens on the field (or court) and involves creating sports leagues that include anyone who is interested in having fun and playing ball. The influence of what happens there extends to the classroom and beyond. Unified Schools builds on the premise that lasting positive change starts with young people; and by bringing youth with and without disabilities together, youth acquire the knowledge, attitudes, and skills they need to create and sustain school communities that promote acceptance, respect, and human dignity for all.
In one study from the University of Massachusetts, 93 percent of all students involved in Unified Schools described it as valuable to their school; the more Unified Schools activities students participated in, the more positively they perceived their school climate; and 82 percent of students who participated felt that they were able to change their school for the better.
Roman Gonzalez is a special education teacher at Clovis North High School. And he is a coach for Unified Schools. He and his colleague Mark Tackett were responsible for pitching Unified Schools to their district administrators, who, as Gonzalez tells it, "fell in love" with the idea. From there emerged the multiple-team leagues of Unified soccer and basketball in Clovis.
Gonzalez is candid about how exactly students with disabilities benefit. "These are high school kids. They don't want to sit next to me. They want to sit next to the star athlete. That's who they learn from. I've seen such growth in these kids from how they interact with their peers and establish relationships.
"There are often huge gaps in academics in the classroom. The kids are aware of these, and they shut down. Not so in the more social environment of sports. There, everyone has a shot. And kids with disabilities can have this sense of belonging that is not always as easy for them to get anywhere else." Tackett has seen students with disabilities included across social groups and introduced by their teammates in the hallways. "The games give all of the students a way to connect."
And Gonzalez has seen even more benefit for students without disabilities. "Even the ones who are too cool for school—you put them in that [Unified Sports] environment, and they find they love giving back to their community. At one meeting for Unified Sports, we had both general education and special education parents. One general education parent said, 'We're so excited. We thought our daughter was giving up something [by being a part of Unified Sports]. But she was the one who grew so much more; she learned so much about how to understand something well enough to teach it, how to adapt to the needs of others, how to be patient.'"
Tackett agrees. "Everyone is focused on the benefits [of sports in Unified Schools] for kids with disabilities." But the students without disabilities learn "what it takes to be a teammate, to be a leader; they learn an understanding of the game."
One of Gonzalez's star soccer students is Chris, a student with cognitive disabilities. He played defense on the Clovis North team this fall. "By the end of the year," says Gonzalez, "he was one of my best ball-handlers. He developed the touch—and he lost ten pounds." But Chris's favorite part of the experience was making friends.
"We knew we'd touch hearts and change minds when we started this program," says Gonzalez. "But we could not imagine the power of the end results. It just caught fire."
The timing of this Prop 98 money couldn't be better. California's strategic plan for education, A Blueprint for Great Schools, 2.0, envisions a state system where "together, as a team, we prepare students to live, work, and thrive in a multicultural, multilingual, and highly connected world." The blueprint also writes about the "California Way," an approach to creating schools that educate the whole child—that attend not just to academic learning and grades but to each child's personal growth, social-emotional learning, and physical well-being. The Unified Schools initiative creates literal teams that are the definition of diversity, connection, and healthy behavior. The partnerships and collaboration that are inherent in Unified Schools also reflect the philosophical underpinnings of the report of the Statewide Task Force on Special Education and its call for unity and coherence in schools.
Melissa Erdmann, a director for Special Olympics Southern California and promoter of Unified Schools, says that the extra money from Prop 98 will help immensely and "gives us a great boost, but we have additional, ongoing funders. Our goal is to help build these Unified Schools—to help create and sustain them. Schools don't have to do this on their own." And it turns out that any place—from a small rural school to a large urban district—can get help starting and maintaining a Unified Schools program. The goal is to "have full immersion of Unified Schools statewide. Ideally the program will become self-sustaining," says Matt Traverso, a champion of Unified Schools at CDE.
Special Olympics Southern California and Special Olympics Northern California are working together and with community partners to develop Unified Schools programs in as many places in California as possible. These organizations will help schools coordinate their own Unified Schools program. Those interested should contact one of the following people:
· For Southern California, phone Melissa Erdmann at 562-502-1100; or e-mail her at MErdmann@sosc.org.
· For Northern California, phone Cathy Domanski at 925-944-8801x 220; or e-mail her at Cathyd@sonc.org
The class was winding down. After a lesson on the letters of the alphabet—"Whose name starts with an H?"—and the storing of supplies and art materials, the 20 students, ages three to five, gather in a circle on the floor for a bit of show-and-tell, sharing the things they learned or made that morning. As they sing their daily good-bye song, what is obvious is that the children are attentive and engaged. What is not obvious is that half of them are students with disabilities.
This is what inclusive preschool looks like in the Santa Ana Unified School District.
These children are in one of three blended inclusion classes at the Mitchell Child Development Center where Principal Mark Bello says, "You can't tell who is who. These are all our kids; they are all students first."
When students with disabilities and students without disabilities are integrated at an early age, the students with disabilities see role models, establish patterns of social interaction, and, says Doreen Lohnes, assistant superintendent for special education, "they demonstrate better behavior, have better academic outcomes, and avoid the need for more intensive services later on." The students without disabilities serve as role models, "build tolerance, and see that differences are okay," says Keely Orlando, Santa Ana's coordinator of early childhood education.
Inclusion, says Lohnes, "conveys a message of support and acceptance to all students." It is, she says, "an important component of our comprehensive, districtwide, positive school climate initiative" and contributes to the district's goal of creating a safe, supportive learning environment for all students.
Once established in preschool, these positive patterns can persist throughout the students' educational experience. But the success of inclusion requires buy-in, support, coordination, and collaboration from all stakeholders at all levels: administrators, principals, teachers, parents, and community partners. Lohnes says both the district administration and the school board are supportive and that school principals "are believing in inclusion." At Mitchell and other district schools, preschool inclusion is a partnership between the district and the State Preschool Program or Head Start, the programs that place the community children in the classes.
The first inclusive preschool programs in Santa Ana began in the early 2000s in partnership with Head Start. Initially only three students with disabilities were in the classes. Then eight years ago the district and the State Preschool Program jointly offered classes for 20 children: ten with disabilities and ten without. Head Start subsequently changed its guidelines and now has matching numbers in those classes, too. Each class is co-taught by a general education teacher and a special education teacher.
The state program holds an orientation meeting for parents before school starts. The parents are informed that their children will be in an inclusive setting, that there will be students with disabilities in the classroom. "And we tell our parents of the benefit of having role models [of students without disabilities] for their children in class," says Bello.
Not all parents are eager to see their children in blended classes. When the district sought to move two classes for students with autism spectrum disorder to an inclusive setting at Jackson Elementary School, some parents objected to the move. The principal held a breakfast for parents of incoming students. "The parents were concerned that their children were not going to receive the same services" they had been receiving in separate special day classes, says Jackson Principal Marisela Longacre. "They worried that the program would be diluted." After assuring parents that the inclusive classes would be co-taught by special and general education teachers and that any needed supports would be in place, Longacre recalls reminding them that "there aren't banks for people with autism; there aren't malls for people with autism. A child needs to be able to function in the general society, and it's best to start as early as possible."
After the breakfast, "the parents were very impressed," Lohnes says, and the plan went forward.
For staff, the district recently held a workshop on inclusive practices. "Attendance was totally voluntary," says Lohnes, "and 60 teachers, including general education teachers, and several principals came." They had questions and raised concerns: Would there be enough time for planning, for co-teachers to collaborate? "Two principals with experience in inclusion responded that planning time is a foundational need for implementing an inclusive practices model, and they had built it into their existing weekly schedule and compensated teachers for collaboration outside of their workday," Lohnes says. General education teachers worried that they didn't have the needed training to manage significant student behaviors. "The principals responded that district staff had come to their schools and provided individualized coaching and training in behavior management," she says. The fact that it was practitioners in the field rather than district officials who answered the concerns made the information "more credible," Lohnes says. "I'm so encouraged by the response."
Back in the classroom at Mitchell, co-teaching comes naturally to Valerie Penunuri and Howida Hanna. "We plan the curriculum together, making modifications depending on the student," says Penunuri, a general education teacher. There's one lesson for all, with scaffolding based on each student's ability. "It's not my kids or her kids," says Hanna, the special education teacher. "We both believe in teamwork and collaboration. We share goals; we want all the children to succeed." Most of the students with disabilities are designated mild/moderate and "are ready to work in groups," Hanna says. "They see good models, and they've made progress in social-emotional learning."
After Jackson began its inclusive practices in the 2015–16 school year, Longacre says she saw "a shift in the perception of teachers who did not participate in the model. We can see first-hand how [inclusion] has helped our students; and of their own accord, more teachers have now volunteered to accept" students with disabilities in their classrooms.
Of the 192 students in Santa Ana's inclusive preschool classes this year, 92 are students with disabilities who have Individualized Education Programs (IEPs). The goal of the system is to help them develop the skills and abilities they need in order to transition to the least restrictive placement in elementary school. Some actually may exit out of special education altogether. "That is our ultimate goal," says Bello. "Last year we exited 13 children from special education services." Bello says the question to ask of the others is "not are they ready for kindergarten, but do they get individual benefit from the inclusive setting." Each child, he says, "needs to be able to learn in a setting with peers [without disabilities], to develop their social-emotional and play skills and pragmatically interact with their peers. We address pre-academics and pre-vocational skills, but it really is the social interaction that is the focus. When it comes time to transition to kindergarten, some children may need more specialized academic instructional support."
More than 90 percent of five-year-olds will transition into a general education kindergarten with whatever supports they may need. "We check to see if they are able to handle a general ed classroom with resource support," says Program Specialist Tricia Shepherd. "Using a push-in model, we try to give more support rather than change the placement."
As preschool programs grow in Santa Ana and other districts, so do the costs of operating them. In its 2015 report, One System: Reforming Education to Serve All Students, the California Task Force on Special Education called on the state to "require and support availability of facilities that serve infants and toddlers with disabilities in preschool settings." And the Public Policy Institute of California recently urged increased support for preschoolers with disabilities, suggesting that the state provide "the same funding level as for other students with disabilities."
Santa Ana's preschool budget is $10.1 million (out of a total special education budget of $107 million). The program receives $1.1 million in federal and state grants; this pays for instructional assistants and some instructional materials. The program also receives $9 million from the district's unrestricted general fund, which covers teachers' salaries. Lohnes says that 15 percent of the federal monies from the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) funds can be used for "other than special education" in early intervention programs. And IDEA's "incidental benefit" rule allows appropriately credentialed special education teachers to provide services to students without a recognized disability "if the benefit to the students [without IEPs] could be deemed 'incidental,'" as is often the case in an inclusive classroom. In order to address the IEP goals of the students with disabilities, "we have to provide activities that meet those goals," Bello says. Because the general and special education teachers share responsibility for all students, all children are included. For example, all children receive fine motor instruction—like scissor skills—"and all children are benefiting from skill attainment and development."
If the state is to reach the Task Force goal of one system of education to serve all students, Santa Ana appears to be on the right course with its inclusive preschool classes. "Preschool sets the stage for inclusive practices in the district," Lohnes says. To further its goal of providing a safe and supportive learning environment at all schools, the district has adopted such research-based programs as Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS). And it is seeing results. "The biggest surprise," says Longacre, "was the sharp decline in negative behaviors exhibited" when students with disabilities were enrolled in inclusive classrooms. "Discipline [problems are] virtually nonexistent now; the students want to be like their peers. What a difference placement in inclusive practices has made." And as negative behaviors decline, academic achievement increases. At Jackson, for example, nearly all of the K–5 students who moved from special day classes to inclusive classes showed growth in their Measure of Academic Progress (MAP) scores.
Santa Ana continues to grow and refine its inclusive practices, moving toward that goal of one system where every child is a student first. "It's the direction we need to go," says Bello. "It's about doing what we know is right."
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Todd Rose dropped out of high school. He now teaches at Harvard. He attributes the first event to "the myth of the average" that too often operates in our public schools; the second to the customized support he received for his "jagged-sized profile."
But he does not believe that the unusually successful trajectory of his educational career has to remain unusual. "We're wasting so much talent at every single level," he says. "For every one person like me, there are millions who . . . were unable to overcome the drag of an educational environment designed on 'average.' And their talent is forever lost to us. We can't really afford to lose them. . . . we don't have to anymore. We have a once-in-a-lifetime chance, right now, to fundamentally re-imagine the foundations of our institutions of opportunity like education in ways that nurture the potential of every single individual. Expand our talent pool. Make us far more competitive in the world. We can do this. We know the formula." To hear Todd Rose's TED Talk on "The Myth of the Average," go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4eBmyttcfU4
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