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October 1, 1992
Vol. 50
No. 2

The Special Education Rescue: A Case for Systems Thinking

With costs skyrocketing and needs escalating, special education can no longer serve all children with special needs. But if we refocus our efforts, we can improve the quality of classroom instruction for all students.

Instructional Strategies
As many as 2 out of every 10 children in public schools receive some kind of special education because they cannot succeed in regular classrooms. And even while costs for these services have skyrocketed, these children, as well as those who remain full-time in the classroom, are not being educated well enough. They are victims of a system well intentioned but gone awry. In the 17 years since P.L. 94-142, we have unwittingly allowed increasing dependence on special education to interfere with improved classroom instruction for all our students.
Having worked for 20 years as a specialist and administrator in special education, and having recently stepped out of central office administration to work as a consultant to superintendents and principals on systemic change, I now conclude that we must refocus special education. Although during this time I have witnessed children with special needs access a quality of education never before available, I've also seen responsibility shift too far onto special educators. To choose the wisest actions that will benefit all children, we need to understand several trends that have affected schools.
First, since P.L. 94-142 was enacted in 1975, legal mandates have spurred researchers and practitioners to invest enormous energy in expanding our knowledge about disabilities and effective interventions. Professional training in special education, speech/language pathology, school psychology, and other disciplines grew in response to the need for special education personnel. It was inevitable that these professions would come of age and play a significant role in our schools.
Second, when P.L. 94-142 was passed, excellent teaching was seen as more intuitive than research-based. Now, however, research increasingly shapes our understanding of effective instruction, and yet few systems have the resources to train their veteran staffs, and few are hiring newly trained teachers.
Third, two decades ago we were tentative in confirming what we since have come to understand: changes in family and community structures have meant less support for children to be successful in school. We have tried, but found it difficult, to adapt classroom instruction to these changing needs.
Fourth, as if it weren't enough for children's needs to be increasing and for teachers to be limited by insufficient opportunities to learn more about instruction, what children need to learn in school is also changing. Teaching children basic skills in order to acquire a relatively finite body of knowledge is now seen as an inadequate agenda for our schools. In order to live and work productively in a changing society, children must learn how to learn, manipulate information, solve problems, think critically, and work collaboratively.

Special Education to the Rescue

How have schools responded to the challenges brought on by these converging trends? Special education has come to the rescue! Our focus on helping individual children with special needs has been so intense that we have failed to respond to systemic problems. Special education has effectively rescued many individual children, but its cost has drained resources required to improve classroom instruction for all children. Funding for one-to-one and small-group interventions has competed for the same resources as regular education, often forcing reductions in programs that serve the majority of students and even obscuring the very need to improve them. Because children's needs are increasing, it is unrealistic to believe that costs for special education can be reduced. A reasonable hope is to contain them.
In many ways children have thrived under special education services. Many children with significant needs have been successfully taught in separate programs. And for those with mild to moderate needs, special educators have successfully employed a repertoire of instructional strategies, usually with small groups of students in part-time pull-out programs. The profession has grown, and much has been learned through research and experience about how the “differently challenged” learn.
The problem lies in our closely following the medical model of diagnosing the patient and prescribing a remedy to relieve the condition. For example, traditional medical practice treats high blood pressure through medication alone. Progressive medical practice, however, treats not only the illness but also employs preventive measures. Patients learn through diet and exercise to reduce or eliminate dependence on medication. In fact, changes in patients' environments often have been more health-producing and cost-effective than have treatments of the illness alone.
In special education, we have followed the traditional medical model. We have diagnosed and prescribed interventions for each child, as mandated by law, often for services out of the classroom. Problems with the instructional setting have not been analyzed; changes needed in classroom instruction have not been specified; and special education intervention has rarely been targeted to improve learning in the classroom. Children's learning has been jeopardized because the basic system that is ineffective for them is left untouched. Because the child, not the system, is defined as the problem, children remain dependent on special education. We are caught in a self-perpetuating system of dependence on special education and are hard-pressed to break the cycle.

Think Differently, Think Systematically

Along with our myopic focus on the “special education rescue,” our thinking about interventions has also been flawed. If we can think differently, some promising actions will become more apparent.
Systems thinking allows us to focus on all the key variables and the dynamic complexity of the relationships among them. And in this whole system, we consider the effects of interventions over time. We are able to see patterns more clearly and to understand how to change them. For example, systems thinking enables us to see the problems with the medical model and points to interventions that can break the cycle of dependence as well as strengthen classroom instruction.
Co-teaching is an increasingly popular practice that offers another glimpse of how systems thinking can make a difference. To reduce special education costs and improve the quality of education for children with special needs, some schools are integrating these children into regular classes co-taught by special educators and classroom teachers. Typically, the focus of co-teaching is helping the child with special needs. The medical model of intervention is being moved into the classroom!
Co-teaching that only “fixes the child,” however, is a short-term solution with prohibitive costs. But we can change our focus so that the primary purpose is to develop a varied repertoire of instructional strategies for the classroom. Special educators can share their instructional methods with teachers, and teachers can convey their experience about managing whole classes.
If co-teaching is to fulfill its promise of improving classroom instruction, we need clear objectives for what classroom teachers and special educators will learn. Further, the process needs time. A two-year commitment, one period per day, with some common planning time, is recommended. From my work with staff who have tried co-teaching, I learned that (1) we must be clear about the strategies each partner is trying to learn, and (2) peer teachers must give each other feedback that is accurate, specific, and nonevaluative. Ideally, teachers will then transfer these learnings to other classes so that special educators can move on to co-teach with other teachers. Finally, to make co-teaching cost-effective, I suggest reducing pull-out time for students who are in “co-taught” classes and assigning a higher than usual proportion of special needs children to these classes.
Through co-teaching, we can continue to help the child with special needs in the short-term, while shifting our focus to make modifications that strengthen our long-term capability. When co-teaching is refocused to make enduring improvements, it builds collaborative problem solving and a school culture of learning— both of which help break the cycle of dependence.

Other Ideas from Systems Thinking

In addition to co-teaching, there are other ways that small but well-focused actions can help create the future we want. Here are three.
First, superintendents and principals can make effective classroom instruction the focus of their supervision. They need to develop a knowledge base and a common language about effective instruction in order to develop specific expectations for improvement with their teaching staffs. Then they must coach and support one another in their supervision.
Second, administrators can demonstrate their commitment to improving classroom instruction by modeling effective strategies in regular administrative meetings. As a meeting progresses and in summarizing at the end, administrators can use the language of instruction with participants to analyze the effectiveness of the meeting. For example, was momentum maintained? Were expectations communicated clearly? Were there checks for understanding of problems and decisions? Were the time and pace appropriate for the task? Were objectives straightforward and embedded throughout the meeting? By modeling and analyzing teaching strategies in the meetings they chair, administrators can improve classroom instruction in two ways. First, other participating administrators will increase their commitment and confidence as instructional leaders and supervisors in their departments and schools. Second, participating teachers will master a common language about instruction that they can use among themselves and with their supervisors to analyze the effectiveness of their own teaching.
Third, understanding that parents play a key role in our system of complex interrelationships, the school can structure parent participation to directly support classroom learning and to build confidence in the effectiveness of classroom instruction. For example, families who support completion of homework help prepare their children to learn in class and also empower them to understand the relationship of effort to achievement. Homework assignments that include a section for home-school communication establish expectations for children that surely surpass those fostered by parents' attendance at traditional PTO meetings.

The Future We Want

Well-meaning school reform initiatives that retain dependence on special education will continue to jeopardize needed changes in classroom instruction. The special education rescue will remain unchecked, and costs will be too great. But, most important, we cannot afford a generation of inadequately educated children.
By taking a broader systems perspective, we can design interventions that create the changes we want. The examples presented here are modifications of existing practices that refocus our efforts on improving classroom instruction. Thinking about the complex, dynamic relationships in a whole system helps us see where to make changes that can lead to significant, enduring improvements.
End Notes

1 For more on systems thinking, see P. Senge, (1990), The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, (New York: Doubleday/Currency).

2 Adapted from J. Saphier and R. Gower, (1987), The Skillful Teacher (Carlisle, Mass.: Research for Better Teaching, Inc.).

3 J. Epstein, (undated), Teachers Involve Parents in Schoolwork (TIPS), Center for Research on Elementary and Middle Schools, Johns Hopkins University, 3505 N. Charles St., Baltimore, MD 21218.

Ann Dinsmoor Case has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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