Thomas Hehir, former director of the Office of Special Education Programs in the U.S. Department of Education and currently an EDC consultant, and Judith Zorfass, associate director of EDC’s Center for Family, School, and Community, discuss how changes in special education law and practice are transforming American schools.
Tom, you played a key role at the Department of Education, shepherding the 1997 IDEA amendments through the system. How did your experience in the Boston and Chicago school districts inform your work in the federal government?
Tom Hehir: My experience in schools before and after the original IDEA law passed in 1977 was of two totally different worlds as far as students with disabilities are concerned. Before the law, there were hundreds of thousands of children with disabilities who were not in schools at all because schools had chosen to exclude them. The original law was very clear on that fundamental point: All students with disabilities have the right to public education. That was revolutionary at the time.
But we went much further with IDEA ‘97. We said schools would be held accountable for educating these students. Many school districts had not been measuring whether all disabled students were learning to read, learning mathematics, learning a foreign language. Or, whether they were graduating, going on to post-secondary education and work.
At the Department, our broad goal was to improve education for all children through standards-based reform. We wanted to coordinate all federal education programs—including IDEA—to support that goal. For example, both Title I and special education were created to improve educational results for students who had poor education results—poor students and disabled students, of which there is a huge overlap. From my experience, schools often had one room for Title I and a separate room for special ed. In the worst case scenario, you might have a kid actually working with two or three service providers who are not coordinating their programs. And to some extent that was driven by federal rules.
So that was an unintended consequence of the original legislation?
TH: Absolutely. No one intended to have fragmentation. But there is a natural tendency to protect resources for specific populations of students. That’s understandable. We wouldn’t want money for students with disabilities going to football. But in the reality of running schools, what does that fragmentation mean for poor kids and disabled kids? Let me give you an example: Several years ago in Chicago, I proposed to a state monitor that special education teachers should work more in regular classes. The monitor said “That is fine, Dr. Hehir, but that teacher can only work with children with disabilities whom [that teacher is] certified to teach.” That was the state’s interpretation of the federal rule.
One of the things we know about the inclusive approaches we’ve researched here at EDC is that the special education staff and the general education staff have to work as colleagues. That’s the real work behind bringing challenging curricula to all students. It is not just a matter of putting students with disabilities in classrooms.
DT: The fragmentation you describe seems to be the inevitable outcome of federal regulation. People interpret rules narrowly, and so the regulations are only as good as the administrators in the school. Can federal policy really compel collaboration?
TH: There is a lot public policy can do. Policy can give very clear messages about what the government of the United States believes is good for its citizens. The bully pulpit is an important role. If federal policy is neutral about including disabled students in the accountability system, then the tendency will be to pull those students out of the system. Now, when the federal policy says that in order to get federal money, you must include all students in your accountability system, that brings people’s attention to the issue.
Judy, I want to pull you into this. Can you talk about what drew you to the field of special education and the changes you’ve seen over the years?
Judith Zorfass: I became involved in special education through the back door. I was a resource room teacher and my office was literally in the closet, a converted supply closet. Next door, in a beautiful classroom, was the reading specialist. After we became friends, I asked “What if we joined our efforts?” Together in her classroom, we developed an inclusive literacy program that allowed everyone in the school to improve their reading and writing. So, my early entry was because of the need I saw from the closet. We created an innovative, collaborative approach before the IDEA legislation.
From that classroom experience through the present, you’ve had the chance to see a lot of legislation. What changes have you observed?
JZ: There’s now a sense of shared responsibility in many classrooms and throughout many schools. The first issue is that all children should be learning the core curriculum, not just certain kids. The second issue is that everyone in the school is responsible for including all children—the curriculum supervisors, staff developers, special education staff. The third issue relates to assessments and accountability: Whose responsibility is it, what are the goals, what measures are we using, what evidence are we collecting? There has been a breakthrough in realizing that a full and accurate assessment requires that you include all students.
I’ve seen the legislation result in a lot more clarity—about standards, instruction, assessment. Part of that can be traced to IDEA and part of it to other initiatives emerging at the same time—the standards movement, a new professional development emphasis on learning communities, changes in Title I. You had a lot of different factors coming together, with the power of federal legislation creating a context for reform. Now the districts that are having the most powerful impact are those that are saying, “How can we combine our efforts so that we really align all of these different initiatives in an organized approach?”
TH: Prior to IDEA ‘97, inclusion was too much oriented toward the place: It was good if students were in regular classrooms, and bad if they were not. The point of Goals 2000 was to make explicit that schools should be oriented toward student achievement and some cohesive standards. But the legislation did not say what those standards should be. That was left up to states and local school districts. Ultimately, federal legislation can only go so far; it’s the practices of schools that make all the difference.
JZ: Special education used to be seen as a magic bullet. The assumption was that you’d pull students with mild and moderate disabilities out of the general education classroom for a short while each day, do your magic remediation, and then, when you sent them back into the classroom, they’d be fine. Of course that didn’t work, because you had two different programs working with separate curricula.
Now, with inclusion, you need to ask, How do you design curricula and professional development opportunities that begin with the commitment of meeting the needs of every student? That has been the focus of a stream of work at EDC. The basic premise has been to bring together everyone who is going to be involved: the classroom teacher, the special educator, the technology coordinator, library staff, the media specialist, and content specialists. From the outset, those people sit down together and say, “What are the goals for every child? What are the instructional strategies? What evidence should we collect to determine whether students are meeting these goals?”
A lot of what I read seems to set up a dichotomy between inclusion and pullouts. Doesn’t a good, inclusive school sometimes pull students with disabilities out of the classroom?
TH: I think so. There are people who would say no, but I disagree. When I was teaching special ed at a high school in the ’70s, I had kids who could not read. For those kids, the most important thing was learning how to read, and they would not get that in the typical high school English class. So they spent their English block with me and I had a sustained period of time in which to teach them to read.
JZ: You have to be very flexible, and you have to think about the students’ needs. Reading Recovery is often taught as a pullout program, and yet it is one of the most powerful early intervention programs for bringing students up to reading level. On the other hand, you hear a lot of stories about students picking up and leaving the classroom every day for 45 minutes and always missing social studies or science. And the pullout program they go to is never connected to the rest of the curriculum. The key is that the policies allow for enough flexibility for teachers to develop and implement the programs they think will work.
TH: The question is, what are you pulling out of, and for what purpose? I remember talking to the father of a boy with cerebral palsy and above-average intelligence. The district was pulling him out of class for physical therapy. I asked, physical therapy for what? Often, people see a kid with a physical disability and they automatically assume he or she needs physical therapy. Was the therapy related to school and his academic performance? If not, then the district should not provide it. If he does have important PT needs, could it be done after school? Because if your son is not learning math so that he can get PT, what’s that going to do for his life prospects?
JZ: These are not easy decisions. We believe that every person has the right to an education, that everyone is valued. But that doesn’t mean that it is easy to meet the needs of diverse learners within the classroom, when you have all these expectations placed on you. It is a tremendous challenge.
I would also think that there is a kind of isolation that comes from being one of the few students with disabilities in an inclusive classroom.
TH: Every kid needs to have opportunities to succeed. The notion of putting a kid with mental retardation in a classroom that constantly reinforces that he is mentally retarded is not ultimately good for that child.
I have a friend who has a daughter with Down syndrome. She is in high school and her class is reading a novel about the Holocaust. The school wanted her to read an easier novel—some sort of parallel assignment that had no connection to the class discussions. Her parents said, “No way. We’ll get the book on tape and we’ll listen together at home.” She has a profound understanding of injustice and she was able to express that in her final paper. It was extremely important for her to read that book and participate in the discussion.
On the other hand, for some students in an inclusive program, special education is a time when they can be with “their own people.” Is there anything wrong with that? You want disabled students to feel positive about disability, not negative. There just isn’t one simple solution or model here.
JZ: I worked in a school for the deaf for several years and there was a strong sense of community. Sign language was the primary, shared language. Many deaf students who went to a public school felt isolated there. They were always accompanied by an interpreter and felt cut off from other students. You have to balance cognitive development with a student’s emotional and social development.
TH: Successful inclusion for students with a disability means the environment has to change. You can’t just put a kid with mental retardation into a regular class to sink or swim. You have to ensure that the environment changes so that it works for that child. And when you change the environment for a child with a disability, you often change the environment in ways that are positive for other children as well.
It strikes me that the issues that have dominated special education for the last few decades are now at the forefront of whole-school reform—diverse learning styles, individualization, flexible grouping of students, collaborative teaching. Do you think it’s accurate to say that special education can lead the way for more general school reform?
TH: The best special education practices, not all of special education. Certain things about special education are absolutely right on target for the realities of standards based reform. The most critical issue in the standards movement involves bringing the lowest achieving students up to the higher standards. The best practices in special education show how students with very significant disabilities can perform on a much higher level.
And most of those practices can be generalized. For example, the concept of individualization has been a focus of special education for 25 years. There is also a strong tradition of collaboration within special education. The notion that a single teacher is going to meet the needs of 25-30 kids is a little absurd. The only way good inclusive practices happen is if the boundaries between teachers are broken—in much the same way Judy and her colleagues did when she started teaching.
JZ: I always think about the individual child’s strengths and weaknesses. How do we build on strengths at the same time we are addressing weaknesses? And how do we draw on different modes of learning to motivate different students? Should I present the material visually? Should I have students touch it, or bring in an auditory element? Should we have the computer simultaneously reading back the text? And then we think about how students will express their understanding of the material. Should we have them create charts, use drama, draw, write, do a PowerPoint presentation? We have to keep pushing our thinking about what an individual student can and cannot do. That is the heart of universal design for learning.
Does individualizing instruction mean that you’ll eventually arrive at a different curriculum and different content for every child?
JZ: No. Not if it’s approached thoughtfully and creatively. A few years ago in Project ASSIST, we worked with a school that had a standards-based science unit about habitats. The classroom teacher, inclusion specialist, library media specialist, and science specialist all got together to discuss how to make the unit accessible to all kids in the second grade. The teacher said the goal of the unit was to have all the kids understand that there are different plants and different animals in a habitat. They organized a field trip where each student would have a rope to use to mark off a little circle on the ground that would define his or her habitat. The inclusion specialist asked how the trip would work for Devin, who had attention deficit disorder, a language disability, and cognitive delays.
First, they decided to take along a digital camera. They reasoned that if they later scanned a picture of Devin’s habitat into the computer, he could return to the photo again and again to observe and identify details. What they found was that not only did this repeated observation help Devin, it also helped every other student in the class to study their own habitats. The staff also decided to outfit Devin with index cards, pencils, Q-tips, and toothpicks to help him poke around and document what he saw. Just as with the camera, they found that making up plastic bags for all students with these same tools enabled every student to become a better investigator and recorder.
The classroom teacher, with support from the specialists, had made the habitat activity meaningful for Devin. Not only did he participate, but he developed important concepts that he was able to demonstrate through drawing, drama, and explanation, using his new vocabulary words.
That’s a great example, because the additional tools helped the whole class learn the same content. But aren’t there cases when students with disabilities can’t be expected to learn the same content as the rest of the class?
TH: A student with mental retardation is not going to solve quadratic equations. But there are important numeric concepts that that student needs to learn at as high a level as possible. This is where some people get stuck. We view curricula too narrowly. You can’t talk about “the eleventh grade curriculum.” Instead, curriculum needs to be differentiated. It needs to have a focus that is common for all students, but varies in the distance different students will go with it.
For instance, I met a special education teacher at a party recently who said that one of the best things that came out of IDEA was giving all students access to the curriculum. She said, “All kids in my school do a research project before they graduate. So I said to my principal, wait a second, what about my students? They should also do a research project before they graduate.” That’s what access to the curriculum means.
So her students decided to do a class research project where they interviewed the people in their town who fought in the Vietnam War. They used videotapes and took a field trip to Washington and put together a video presentation. So now the students with mental retardation are doing a research project. None of them could have done that on their own, but with help from the teachers and their classmates, they learned a lot—and they proved they could handle the essence of the assignment. Could they understand the notion of war and the emotions of people at war? Sure they could.
JZ: They also learned about the process of gathering information. They understood that there are multiple sources that have to be synthesized, and they understood the point of sharing your research with others. So they got the big ideas on two levels: content and process. The larger point is that given an opportunity—accompanied by strong curriculum, good teaching, and relevant supports—students with disabilities will often exceed expectations.
Originally published on June 1, 2000