The 20th Annual Report to Congress on Implementation of IDEA heralds progress in educating students with disabilities. According to this report, a record 45.4% of students with disabilities were included in general education classes. The number of students spending 80% or more of their school day in inclusive settings has doubled in the last ten years.
As we translate these statistics into program planning for students, one complex issue becomes how to balance the needs and rights to inclusion of students with disabilities with their critical need for highly individualized, skills-based instruction, particularly in reading. Although initial implementation of the federal legislation seemed to foster a degree of individualization that resulted in segregation, more research into outcomes of special education has contributed to a shift in emphasis toward more integration into general education classrooms. Given that shift, the balance that we establish between "special" and "general" education is critical for student success.
Several questions arise related to balance in service delivery:
Who are the students for whom "balanced education" becomes an issue?
Many students with identified disabilities experience reading difficulties so severe that they require highly individualized instruction. Because the nature of those reading disabilities, the way they affect learning and behavior, and their impact on students' lives vary significantly, it is likely that instructional approaches will also vary.
Pat Parrott, a special education administrator with extensive experience in collaborative models, warns, "You cannot lump all students requiring reading intervention together." According to Ms. Parrott, grouping students with high ability and good comprehension with students displaying mild cognitive deficits and language impairments is "a lose-lose situation" because neither group's discrepant instructional needs tend to be met as teachers try to find some common ground between them.
If balance between individualization and inclusion is our goal, how can we achieve it?
Remain focused on individual students and their long-term needs. Ms. Parrott reminds us, "We must remember our ethical responsibilities...to make decisions based on what is in the best interest of the child...and not be preoccupied with needs of the teacher or the school."
Take advantage of the changing classroom of today. Michelle Guy, a general education teacher and reading specialist, describes modern classrooms where teachers use a range of texts and text types, a variety of instructional and assessment techniques, and a menu of motivational and behavior management strategies that tap strengths and accommodate many different kinds of learners. Judy Connell, speaking from experience in general and special education teaching and administration at elementary, middle, and high school levels, concurs, "As the culture and organization of classrooms change, there is less and less benefit to pulling students out of general education programs. Differentiation can and does take place in general education classrooms every day."
Use interactive, constructive approaches to reading instruction for all students. Self-selection of reading materials and assignments, computer-assisted instruction, book clubs, guided response logs, strategy instruction, and individual reflective conferencing are all effective methods for improving reading performance.
Group and regroup flexibly and deliberately based on student characteristics, instructional needs, and desired outcomes.
Work collaboratively with school staff to establish alternative schedules. A schedule with blocks for specialty services is one option. Students not requiring those services can work on various independent or small-group activities. Ms. Parrot reports that teachers she has worked with are pleased with this strategy. However, with increased emphasis on the Standards of Learning, she is finding that general education teachers express concern about any student's absence from classroom instruction. Another option might be extended school day or extended school year services.
Commit to continuous study of research and effective practice literature. As Ms. Connell encourages, "Appropriate program planning for students with serious reading deficits is neither soothsaying nor experimentation. It is critically important that we base classroom practice on cutting-edge information."
Ensure that if pull-out, specialized instruction is necessary, it is effective, relevant, and designed to promote successful reintegration into the classroom. Disjointed instruction has been a serious complaint about pull-out services.
Consider students' changing needs, particularly as they near adulthood and begin to explore various post-secondary options One sure measure of addressing changing needs is a longitudinal review of IEPs. If students' high school IEPs remain similar to those of their elementary school years, IEP committees need to determine why.
These questions reflect our attempts to grapple with the need to be included versus the need for individualized special education. Perhaps it is not an either/or dilemma but an issue of balance. We know that there is no more critical acquired academic skill than reading. Combined with writing and calculating, it provides the foundation necessary for the lifetime of security and success we wish for all of our children. And we know that inclusion into general education settings provides powerful academic and social benefits. Professionals and families working together thoughtfully can blend the two, enabling students with disabilities to benefit from both.