In school districts around the country, special educators are remaking themselves. Long used to working independently from their general education colleagues, they are now expected to join interdisciplinary teams and create new professional alliances. As they collaborate in inclusive classrooms, they must take into account new curriculum frameworks and goals, and become masters of modification and accommodation. And their work is facing unprecedented scrutiny as students with disabilities are included in district- and statewide assessments.
“The walls that separated the special and general education curriculum are coming down and the old bureaucracies are being dismantled—which means big changes in professional roles and expectations,” explains EDC’s David Riley, director of the Urban Special Education Leadership Collaborative. “We are really talking about institutional reform.”
The Collaborative was founded in 1994 to support the district administrators leading this reform effort. A professional network of special education leaders, the Collaborative facilitates sharing resources and best practices through bi-annual conferences, professional development workshops, print and electronic newsletters, and an active website. It also opens direct lines of communication between districts with a “faxback” program that allows members to ask specific questions of their colleagues in other parts of the country and get a quick response by fax or e-mail.
“In the past, the special education director was on a separate track from his colleagues in the district. It came to be a pretty isolating position,” says Riley. “Through these networking opportunities, district leaders are learning from one another and getting help with the important changes underway. They are developing a new vision of what special education can be.”
For instance, when the New York City special education program was interested in modernizing its complex data management system, Riley put administrators in touch with Collaborative members from Chicago, where an updated, integrated system is in place. Leaders in Broward County, Florida, invited the director of special education from Ann Arbor, Michigan, to speak with local principals about the successful reform initiatives in his district. And when the Los Angeles school system faced a court order to restructure its entire professional development program for special educators, district leaders turned to the Collaborative for help.
“Los Angeles is the second-largest district in the country,” explains Riley. “The question was, how were they going to construct a contemporary and effective professional development system?” The Collaborative convened a meeting of its members from other large districts to share strategies and brainstorm solutions. From that initial meeting, Los Angeles district leaders developed a coordinated plan for professional development, which the Collaborative will help them implement.
As with all reform movements, changing perceptions is as important as changing policies, and Riley believes the Collaborative has a role to play in that work as well. “Inclusion is still the minority opinion,” he concedes. “You’ll often hear people say, ‘I can see it for kids in wheelchairs, the physically disabled, but not for kids with cognitive disabilities.’ Or, ‘I can see it for kids with mild cognitive disabilities, but not for those with serious cognitive disabilities.’ Yet, schools that are inclusive, where the principal says, Kids with disabilities will be challenged in their learning as much as their nondisabled peers, are the ones that are showing gains.” He cites recent results from the Massachusetts statewide assessments showing that students with disabilities in inclusive schools are beginning to close the performance gap with their nondisabled peers. And he stresses the importance of showcasing schools that successfully put inclusive practices to work, like those profiled in the Beacons of Excellence project.
“The general public has an image of schooling that is very grounded in their own experience,” says Riley. “Imagining a classroom that is naturally diverse—students with disabilities, English language learners, and others—is very hard for them. Educators—all educators—have to work hard to provide those images of how it can work. That is our biggest challenge as we enter this new phase of education.”
Originally published on May 31, 2000