Tandem Teaching

March 01, 2004 3 min read

While 6th grade teacher Sharon Hall calls out questions from the multiplication tables, Roberta Fugett walks through the room, stopping at some students’ desks. Many of the children in this class at Clark Middle School, in Winchester, Kentucky, have no clue that Fugett is a full-fledged certified special education teacher because she helps any student who has trouble. That way, she says, there’s less of a stigma.

What Teachers Think

56 % say their schools’ expectations for special ed students are the same as the academic expectations for other students.

58 % “strongly” or “somewhat” agree that including students with IEPs in state testing will force school administrators to focus more on the needs of those students.

45 % of general education teachers feel “very prepared” to teach students with IEPs who are assigned to them, compared with 95 percent of their special ed colleagues.

89% “strongly” or “somewhat” agree that it is unfair to evaluate teachers on how well their students with disabilities score on state tests; 86 percent agree that it is unfair to evaluate special ed students on how well they master state content standards based on their state test scores.

As the class works on multiples of 11 and 12, Fugett is peppered with questions from both sets of students. Collaborative teaching, a resourceful approach to mainstreaming, is a keystone of the school’s plan to raise the achievement levels of special ed students and provide access to the general curriculum.

Such seamlessness was not always the norm in this small rural community that is being transformed into a bedroom suburb of Lexington. About five years ago, principal Don Burkhead says, many special ed students in the 750-student school were still in self-contained classrooms for part of the day. “Our test scores showed a tremendous achievement gap between regular students and students in special education,” he explains. “We just thought, the more we could include them in regular classes, the better.”

This year, 59 of Clark’s 92 students with disabilities are full participants in the general curriculum. Of the remaining special ed students, 50 percent are included at least half the time, and the rest at least a quarter of the time. The effort has involved retraining both special ed and regular educators while incorporating the use of technology and overcoming doubts about students’ ability to adjust. “You can’t just drop these students in the classroom,” says Burkhead. “You have to do what you can to create a level playing field so they can get as much as they can from the regular curriculum.”

That’s Fugett’s job. It’s one thing to let special ed students sit in on regular classes; it’s another altogether to make the content and materials accessible to them, she says. While in the classroom, she modifies assignments for “her” students, whispers guidance, and crafts alternative tests. “I always try and make the tests look exactly like the regular tests, so students can’t look at someone’s paper and know they are in special education,” Fugett explains. “Sometimes, even I forget which students are in special education.”

The regular teachers share planning time each week with the collaborative teacher, an essential part of making the system work. They also work together to align the students’ IEPs with state content standards. Now, according to 7th grade science teacher Anna Bruce Kostelnik, it’s often hard to tell the regular and special educators apart. In her classroom, she and colleague Dan Horn work interchangeably. Such pairings put an onus on the collaborative teachers to be jacks-of-all- trades. “We are not glorified aides,” Horn says. “We have to master... all of the subjects our students learn.”

This afternoon, Kostelnik circulates in the room and helps individual students. When a teacher’s aide enters with a child who has Down syndrome, Kostelnik rushes over, leans in, and whispers to the aide to have the student trace words from a workbook during class. Kostelnik also encourages collaboration between students. She tells one 7th grader to alert the student next to him when his turn comes to read an answer out loud.

“Everybody,” Kostelnik explains, “takes responsibility for everyone in here.”

—Lisa Goldstein