One of the ironies—and challenges—of effective education is that in order to engage individual learners you have to look at the whole environment. The evolution of special education is a case in point. For several decades, the American educational system has taken a narrow view of special education, treating it as a mini-school within the school where teachers, largely cut off from the rest of the staff, faced a group of students with an incredibly wide range of abilities and disabilities and made the best of it.
Today, that view of special education is giving way to a broader, more philosophical approach—an approach designed to weave inclusive practices into the fabric of the whole-school environment. Much of that evolution has been driven by the 1997 amendments to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA ‘97), which was explicitly designed to merge special education with whole-school reform. Among other things, the amendments mandate that all students have access to the general curriculum and that schools be accountable for the educational outcomes of every student.
On a macro level, the merging of this new approach to special education with whole-school reform makes good sense. The philosophy of inclusive practices is perfectly compatible with current models of whole-school reform. Both sets of ideas embrace staff collaboration, shared decision making, a focus on student outcomes, and community outreach as central tenets.
On a micro level, however, the challenge can seem overwhelming to schools. Changing a school’s environment is a huge undertaking; remaking special education in the process can seem to some administrators like one task too many.
EDC researchers and our partners are optimistic about meeting the challenge because we’ve seen it work in schools across the country. We’ve identified and developed a collection of inclusive practices that serve the cause of whole-school reform and serve the needs of all students, with and without disabilities—such as flexible curricula, adaptive technologies, early childhood interventions, and prevention strategies. Many of these practices build from the idea of universal design, as defined by the Center for Applied Special Technologies (CAST):
The basic premise of universal design for learning is that a curriculum should include alternatives to make it accessible and applicable to students, teachers, and parents with different backgrounds, learning styles, abilities, and disabilities in widely varied learning contexts. The “universal” in universal design does not imply one optimal solution for everyone, but rather it underscores the need for inherently flexible, customizable content, assignments, and activities.
Creating “inherently flexible, customizable content” demands extensive thought and hard work. In the stories that follow, we explore the philosophy and policies that help create the environment for inclusive practices to take hold. We begin with an interview with Thomas Hehir and Judith Zorfass. (Hehir, the former director of the Office of Special Education Programs in the U.S. Department of Education, is currently a consultant to EDC. Zorfass is the associate director of EDC’s Center for Family, School, and Community.) From there we take a micro-level look at schools and programs where inclusive practices are helping all students succeed.
Originally published on May 31, 2000