Chanté genuinely loves teaching seventh grade math. But she feels overwhelmed by the wide range of students in her class—a third of whom have disabilities. And she worries that by making accommodations for them she may be watering down the mathematics.
Kamilla, a special educator, spends much of her week in different math classrooms, supporting students with special needs. She has a large repertoire of strategies, but no scheduled time to plan with the math teachers. She struggles to keep on top of every math class and help the many students in her caseload.
Thousands of teachers across the nation face similar challenges. They teach a wide range of learners, and with No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and IDEA legislation, they are increasingly accountable for the performance of all their students, including ones with disabilities.
In response, EDC offers teachers the opportunity to work together and craft solutions to their classroom challenges through a professional development program, Addressing Accessibility in Middle School Mathematics. EDC, with funding from the National Science Foundation, created the program to promote collaboration between mathematics teachers and special educators, and help them make mathematics instruction more accessible to students with learning disabilities and other special needs.
“This project brings together two groups of teachers not accustomed to working with each other,” says Fred Gross, Principal Investigator at EDC’s Center for Online Professional Education (COPE). “It examines students’ strengths and weaknesses, focusing on what they are capable of doing, and on finding strategies that can build on their strengths and help them address areas of difficulty.”
The project is made up of three interwoven components: workshops, study groups, and classroom implementation. Teachers attend hands-on workshops twice a year to learn about the difficulties that students with disabilities have in learning math and about different instructional approaches for helping them. They identify potential barriers in lessons and brainstorm strategies that meet students’ needs and maintain the integrity of the math. Finally, they plan how to implement the strategies in ways that benefit both students with disabilities and the entire classroom.
Study groups have four to eight members—mathematics teachers, special educators, and a facilitator from the school—who meet regularly to collaborate and examine samples of their students’ work. “Having concrete examples of student work on the table focuses the discussion on what the students do and do not understand about the mathematics. This helps teachers to choose strategies that closely align with students’ needs” says Amy Brodesky, Project Director at COPE. Teachers then try out their strategies with students, and then report back to their groups on what went well and what needs further work.
The project offers planning tools and strategies that can be customized to the lessons the teachers currently use. “The program does not introduce new curricula, but uses what is already in place and helps educators make it more accessible to all students,” says Gross. It also expands teachers’ repertoires of teaching strategies and encourages them to try new things in the classroom. Implemented and evaluated in five diverse school districts in Massachusetts, the program engaged 102 teachers over two years. “With increasing accountability issuing from NCLB, many districts have a need for this type of program because many kids with disabilities are years off-target,” says Anna McTigue, a special educator at EDC’s Center for Family, School, and Community (FSC). “Our program has been successful in districts with a variety of structures. Teachers who’ve used our program report that they are more likely to collaborate and ask each other for help.”
The program is designed to last two years, because building collaborative practices takes time. “It took time for trust to develop in the groups because people were afraid to ask questions and felt that the student work reflected poorly on their teaching,” says McTigue. “But in the process of looking at student work, these teachers realized they need each other. The groups became a safe place where they can discuss important issues.”
Administrators in the participating schools saw an impact in how teachers teach and their willingness to try new things. One principal said there was a change in how teachers felt about being observed, “They wanted to show me how they were able to differentiate instruction, something most of them only paid lip service to before.” Another said, “Now I would like to see all the teachers in study groups. Why? Because it changes their preconceived notions about each other and about special education students.”
Originally published on November 1, 2006