Designing and Delivering Quality Special Education

Nancy Reder and George Theoharis talked about the challenges associated with developing, implementing, and managing special education programs at the local, state and federal levels.

November 24, 2008

Designing and Delivering Quality Special Education

  • Nancy Reder is director of Government Affairs for the National Association of State Directors of Special Education, an organization working with states to improve outcomes for students with disabilities.
  • George Theoharis, a former teacher and principal, is a professor in the Department of Teaching and Leadership at Syracuse University, where he studies classroom inclusion practices and other special education issues.

Christina A. Samuels (Moderator):

Hello everyone, and welcome to our last in our monthlong series of chats devoted to special education and high school reform. My name is Christina Samuels, and I cover special education for Education Week. Today’s discussion will center on the broad topic of designing and delivering quality instruction. We already have a number of good questions waiting, so let’s get started!

Question from Maureen Barr, Special Education Teacher, York Middle School:

I am a 6th grade special education teacher. Most of my students are mainstreamed for all classes. It is essential to the success of my students that regular education teachers participate in the designing of curriculum that is appropriate for all learners. What is your thoughts on the responsibilities of regular education teachers?

Nancy Reder:

Again, I believe that it is important for all teachers to be trained to work with all students. NASDSE has worked over the past few years with two projects funding through the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) to help implement this approach to teacher prep at the state and IHE level. One of these projects, the Personnel Center is based here at NASDSE and works with individual states on the recruitment and retension of all special education personnel. The second project was based at the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). It is not currently funded, but the goal of that project was to specifically work with special ed, higher ed and certification requirements to address this issue. Co-teaching is another approach that works really well. But teachers -- both general and special ed -- may need coaching to understand the real collaborative teaching that a co-teaching model requires. For general ed teachers, that may mean sharing control in the classroom -- this is a new concept for many teachers who have not been trained this way. And for special ed teachers, it means sharing in the teaching of the core content.

Question from T. Steger, Special Ed. Teacher, CBMS:

As districts shy away from self-contained classes, in lieu of a co-teaching or collaborative model, how do we meet the needs of so many diverse students in classes of 30-35 students?

Nancy Reder:

Well, part of the answer has to come from better preparation of all teachers to work with diverse learners so that they have the expectation that they will be teaching diverse learners in their classrooms. Second, a real co-teaching model has two teachers in the classroom -- not a teacher and a special ed teacher functioning as a teacher’s assistant. With a genuine co-teaching model, there will be two teachers who can interact with the entire class. For example, one teacher may be working with a small group of students in one part of the room, the second teacher with a different group and a third group of students may be working independently.

Question from Elizabeth Bell-Perkins, Health Teacher 9th & 10th, Pittsfield, MA Public Schools:

“Actors along this entire continuum—" did not include parents/guardians. I find these ‘actors’ to be crucial in planning and implementing effective accommodations. As a parent of a special needs child, w/o our input and advocacy, our child would not be receiving an appropriate education. How can we improve the school/parent interaction so that 504s and IEPs can be implemented in the best possible way (timely, evidence-based with continuity through the grades) for the student?

George Theoharis:

Parent/care givers/families are key and central players in the educational process for all kids and in particular for students with disabilities (w/ 504 plans or IEPs). There are “legal” requirements in terms of involving these key parts of the team, but too often I have found that there are ways to “invite” families or arrange for meetings to have a parent representative there, that meets the letter of the law but not the spirit of home-school collaborating around the needs of a specific child. Meaningful collaboration is not meeting the letter of the law but in practical terms ignoring families. Families have a legal right to be a meaningful part of the team and to understand what is really happening at school. Parents need to be an on-going part of conversations and decisions of the team, not seen as a burden or an afterthought. On-going communication is the only way for this to work.

Question from Sonia Cassatt, Marketing Director, TeleParent Educational Systems, LLC:

As a communication company, we frequently run across districts/schools who need tools for communicating to their Special Ed parents in a multi-lingual setting. Are there laws requiring schools to acquire specific tools for communications with these parents?

Nancy Reder:

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires that to the extent possible, schools communicate with parents in their native language when discussing a student’s IEP, parental rights, services to be provided, etc. This may mean that certain materials, including a statement of parent due process rights, must be translated and many school districts do this for the most common languages found in their communities. Some school districts provide translators at IEP meetings or simply translate the materials into the parents’ native language. However, there is no federal law requiring specific tools for communicating with parents.

Question from Kim Weaster, Teacher, The Oaks:

I have read about the underidentification of students with emotional disorders in study after study. Given the current prevalence of RtI models, how do we ensure that students with hidden disabilities, such as emotional disorders and/or learning disabilities, receive special education services, and are not delayed or denied access to such services given the episodic nature of these disabilities?

George Theoharis:

I am more familiar with over-identification than under-identification. Given that many districts have more and more students identified with emotional or learning disabilities and there is a over=representation of students of color and students from low-income families within those ranks, I see over-representation as a serious concern.

One related issue, is that within the deficit model often brought to identification of students with special education needs, many places remove learners from the classroom and thus dilute/separate general education and special education resources. One promising practice in schools and districts that commit to inclusive systems is that some are seeing a decrease in special education referrals as a result of multiple adults working with all children - children with special education labels and without.

When we move to the perspective that these are the resources we have and we need to use them to meet the needs of all the students we have we see that there is potential benefit to those students that do not have special education labels. This is a shift from the old paradigm of feeling the need to qualify students for “services” in order to access more resources. This often takes kids out of the general curriculum and away from peers. But, when we view our resources wholistically and realize that these are the resources we have to meet the needs of all our students we can meet the needs better of those who might not qualify for special education. This is a paradigm shift that could have an impact on school structure, policy and funding. Question from Dr. Casey Lewis, Principal, Reid Elementary School:

Will there be any changes to NCLB and the accountability of Special Education students in an inclusive classrooms?

Nancy Reder:

There will definitely be changes made to the No Child Left Behind Act when the Elementary and Secondary Education Act is reauthorized. For one thing, the name NCLB will go away. NASDSE believes that changes are necessary; however, we do believe that the inclusion of students with disabilities in the accountability system is of critical importance. NASDSE has been calling for the inclusion of students with disabilities in accountability systems since the early 1990s. I would expect to see changes that would allow more widespread usage of growth models that could more accurately reflect the progress of students with disbilities.

Question from Kathleen Carpenter, Editor, Teachers.Net Gazette

Thank you for this chat.

In your opinion, should all teachers be trained and certified to teach Special Education; if so, would that result in fewer students being placed outside the classroom of their normally developing peers for services?

Nancy Reder:

I don’t think all teachers need all of the specialized training that special ed teachers receive. For example, some special ed teachers are specifically trained to work with students with autism, or with children who have visual or hearing disabilities. Gen ed classroom teachers may need help in differentiating instruction for a specific child that is more in depth than generic knowledge. However, all classroom teachers can be trained to utilize universally designed materials in the classroom so that all students can access the materials. This may mean providing materials on tape, in large print, on-line or with inbedded support (e.g., word definitions). If more classroom materials were universally designed, a broader array of students with disabilities could access them and a general ed teacher’s work would be easier!! I personally believe that in the long run, tiered instruction that is targeted to all students (called response to intervention) and universally designed instructional materials will make it easier for students with disabilties to particpate more fully in the general education curriculum. But it will not make a child’s disability go away. It will provide the support thata students need to be successful in the general ed curriculum.

Question from Kathy DeLeon, teacher:

Although I see the benefits of the Response to Intervention, I had begun to worry that, because of current laws, some students may not be getting the needed services to avoid identifying as Special Education. What are your thoughts on this?

Nancy Reder:

Your question reflects a major concern of many parents. However, I think it is important to understand that with a tiered intervention approach to teaching all students, students WILL be getting intervention services if they are struggling learners but they will not necessarily be labeled special education. We think the important thing is that the students receive the instructional supports that they need.

Question from L. Stowe, Adjunct, Columbus State Community College:

Are there plans to change teacher education programs to allow for more time within the required course sequence to offer more classes to future teachers to help them learn more about special education programs?

George Theoharis:

This varies state by state. There are more and more states that are encouraging/requiring teacher preparation programs to include more information in the general education preparation about special education. For example, 20 years ago Syracuse University (where I now work) was one of only a few places that offered of forced elementary ed majors to be dually certified in special education. This is much more common now, in that many places have a dual certification program/option, and many more and a required class or two. So in some way there is progress. Right now all of our undergraduates at Syracuse who are interested in elementary education receive a inclusive program in general education and special education. This is one way to approach this issues. But there still needs to be a philosophical commitment regardless of training to seeing all students are our responsibility.

I am an advocate for multiplied certified teachers and using those teachers flexibly - i.e. reducing classsize. When we have more teachers with more knoweledge and when we get people out of the traditional roles that the old system of general education and special education produced we are more capable of nimbly meetings more students needs inclusively.

Question from Jay P. Goldman, editor, The School Administrator magazine:

What makes it so difficult for larger school systems to educate the majority of students with severe or multiple developmental disabilities within the school district rather than sending so many of these youngsters to costly, out-of-district placements? Is it lack of expertise locally, lack of program options, refusal of parents to appreciate quality options, legal pressure? Whatever, it seems such huge outlays of money could be funding quality programs for students with disabilities inside the school district’s boundaries, don’t you think?

George Theoharis:

Sometimes complex issues require relatively simple soultions. If we build it they will come... if we continue to maintain programs in large and small districts that are designed to take kids away from the general system we will always find a way to fill those programs - and they are costly.

The simple solution is not to have those programs. Period. This is a matter of communication and will. Does is happen overnight? No. Is it easily achieved? No. But the answer is not that hard.Do we lack expertise? In general, no. We just keep it separate and we like to pretend that there is such specialized expertise that this allows us to say I do not have that expertise so that child is not my responsibility. This also allows us to say, I have this special expertise, so I am needed by these kids. We need to role release and work together.

But many times parents are sold a bill of goods that a “special” separate program is what their kids needs, year after year, but in reality that kids needs could be met inclusively. So the parent advocate community needs to help by not advocating for more separate kinds of programs,etc.

The school community needs to help by examining the resources being committed to run and maintain these separate programs that could be added to the general running of the schools if there was a commitment to not sending kids to these separate programs. This requires leadership committed to this thinking and leadership that does not defer decisions about special education to others, but leaders that embrace special education as necessarily connected to general education.

I think this requires a purposeful examination of how and where we educate all of our students. This requires community dialogue, leadership, role release, uncomfortable conversations, and a willingness to accept all of this is on-going and messy. Question from Kathi Wagner, Program Improvement Coordinator, Centralia School District:

The funding that school districts receive from the federal government is inadequate to implement all the required legislation and to accelerate learning for these children in order to close learning gaps. What can school districts do to prevent the large financial encroachment on general fund budgets and still provide quality instructional programs?

Nancy Reder:

Your question is particularly timely in light of our current economic climate. You might be surprised to learn that with all of the talk of a new stimulus package on Capitol Hill, one of the issues raised for inclusion is ‘full funding’ of IDEA by the federal government. Of course, full funding doesn’t mean full funding -- but if we got closer to the amount Congress said it would pay for when IDEA was enacted, it certainly would ease some of the financial burden on states and loca school districts. Unfortunately, there is no easy answer to your question. However,the more school districts focus on improving student outcomes, it may help shape what services the district can provide. Also, meaningful involvement with parents may help eliminate costly disputes. Finally, NASDSE has pioneered an approach of addressing improvements through Communities of Practice -- a means of involving all stakeholders in improving outcomes. For more information on communities of practice, please go to Finally, The National Working Group on Funding Student Learning just issued a report, “Funding Student Learning -- How to Align Education Resources with Student Learning Goals.” I have not read this paper and I am not endorsing it here, but it does provide some insightful thoughts on this issue. It’s from the Center on Reiventing Public Education.

Question from Jackie Smith, Researcher:

General education teachers report feeling ill-prepared to teach students with disabilities in the general education classroom. These reports continue even after years of research/recommendations to improve general education teacher preparation coursework to include evidenced-based instructional strategies for SWDs. What changes are taking place within IHEs to address this need? Have universities gone beyond offering one 3 credit hour course?

George Theoharis:

Some have and some have not. At Syracuse University (and we are not alone) we have dual certification programs. That is a god steps.

But, one issues we need to consider is the attitudinal one. We know that in difficult situation after situation we say that we do not have the training or expertise to teach all kids, and I agree that more teachers need more and different kinds of learning. That said, in some ways that is the easy way out. In some ways that allows us to say “there is someone out there with special knowledge who will take responsibility for ‘these’ students.” We know that many teachers with special training in special ed and ELL do not feel that they have any magic dust or magic wand, but that they are responsive to the specific needs of the kids infront of them. Question from Patricia Maiden, High School History Teacher, Sweet Water High School:

My question centers on inclusion. Who decides whether a special ed student is placed in inclusion? What factors into that decision? I ask because it bothers me as an educator when students who are 3 or more grade levels below average are placed in the classroom with peers who are on level or above with the special ed student struggling. It hurts me to see this done constantly at some schools with little to no help from the special education department.

Nancy Reder:

Placement decisions are made by the IEP team that includes parents, teachers, a representative from the school or district empowered to make placements and other individuals as appropriate. Some parents of children with severe cognitive disabilities want their children in the general ed classroom and some do not. So in part, this is a decision the parent makes. I agree with you that no child, regardless of the nature of his/her disability, should be left to flounder in the classroom. Some schools help support these students in the general ed classroom with one-on-one support; others do not. However, the special ed personnel in the school should be providing appropriate supoprt for the student wherever the placement is. We need to suppport both the students and the teachers!! See my earlier comments about co-teaching as one approach that might help address your concerns. Another approach is to uses universally designed instructional materials that will help the student access the material. I know that when a teacher has a large class of students with a range of learners, it is not easy to individualize instruction. But it can and does happen and we need to support teachers to help them feel more comfortable in their classrooms. Because this is the classroom of today.

Question from Deborah Perkins-Gough, Senior Editor, Educational Leadership:

Is there solid, recent research available about successful practices in special education, especially what inclusion practices are most effective?

George Theoharis:

People will always argue definitions of solid research. There is a growing body of research that continues to show promise of inclusive practices and how to make those more effective. We have learned a lot about how to include students, how to structure services, how to engage/connect students to their peers and schools, and a lot of what does not work. Is there a silver bullet? No. But I would argue yes, we have plenty of solid research based knowledge to guide implementation of inclusive programs for all students. We know how to do that, it is often a matter of will and a commitment to the kinds of professional development and support necessary.

Question from Lyn Misner, social studies tchr, East Valley Middle School:

As I watch my special education teacher colleagues, it seems they have to spend more of their time working on IEP writing and attending various meetings and then don’t have time to do the lesson preparation they would like to do for effective teaching. As a result, we have a huge turnover of special education teachers. What can be done to make a more workable system that meets the needs of special education students but doesn’t burn out teachers?

George Theoharis:

This is a common issue. There is not an easy answer.

Some administrators are more sensitive to this and try to find ways to carve out time for the meetings and paperwork not to impact the everyday teaching and planning: keeping meetings to a minimum, paying after school time for paperwork instead of during school, etc.

One thing to consider is that the current system we spend a lot of resources staffing and running separate programs and separate classrooms and separate schools for students with disabilities. When all those resources are added to the general pool and the general program takes responsibility for all students, those resources allow us to spread out and reduce this type of paperwork, etc. But that is a big picture solution. For example at one school I work with, that school committed to doing away with all the separate programs and classrooms and pooling the human resources to better meet the needs of students. This meant that each special education teacher had a range of students to serve but that many teachers worked with fewer kids than in previous years. It was about using resources differently.

Question from Ricki Sabia, Associate Director of Policy, National Down Syndrome Society:

Please discuss the role of Universal Design for Learning in ensuring that all students including students with disabilities get meaningful access to the curriculum in regular education classes.

Nancy Reder:

UDL is a concept for presenting instructional materials to students in different ways to make the materials more accessible. Here’s one example: a student cannot hold a book and therefore cannot turn pages. But that student may be able to use a computer to ‘turn the pages’ in a book. Another student may need the computer to display the material in a larger font size that the textbook does. Or, a student with cognitive disabilities could use an on-line textbook that provides definitions of words that are more accessible to her. These are just a few examples. For more information about UDL, I suggest that you visit the CAST website,, which has a vast amount of information on this issue. I want to emphasize that UDL is NOT something just for students with disabilities -- it represents a means of presenting instruction so that it can be accessed by all students in the general ed classroom.

Question from L. Stowe, Adjunct, Columbus State Community College:

Are there plans to change teacher education programs to allow for more time within the required course sequence to offer more classes to future teachers to help them learn more about special education programs?

George Theoharis:

Yes... this is a discussion in many states. IHE are slow to change but there are god models of combined general ed and special education program already.

More knowledge is only part of the equation. Part of the equation is seeing that all of the students are our collective responsibility - not “I do not have the expertise< so this student belong to someone else.” or “I alone hold the expertise and these students needs me because of it.” Rather we can commit to sharing what we know and deciding that we can figure this out through determination, creativity and collaboration Question from Kathleen Kosobud, Doctoral Candidate, Michigan State University:

With the increased focus on inclusive practice, many parent groups fear that “individualized” education will no longer be realized for children with “high incidence” or “mild” disabilities. What would you say to those who are concerned about “preserving the full continuum”?

George Theoharis:

The fear of decreased individualization is common, but unfounded. As with good inclusive practices we keep students with mild disabilities and their needs as central to planning. We cannot forget that removing students from the learning environment does not equal needs being met.

We have years of experience and research to show us this. The trick is to differentiate and plan for students needs upfront. One real example of this is when I am doing a presentation with teachers, I ask a few of them to go to the back of the room to get some remedial help on differentiating curriculum. The very act of standing up and leaving to learn in an area that is difficult for them causes them to feel anxious, and stigmatized. They feel very unprepared to learn in the new environment. Yet, this is what we ask our struggling learners to do everyday.

Another way to look at the continuum is not about spaces (4 walls) instead it is about intensity of services. And the law demonstrates that if services are portable, they should be brought to the child.

Question from judith Munday, Educational Consultant, HIS Place for Help in School:

With by its increased emphasis on testing, has NCLB resulted in a dilution of special educator’s role in helping students remedy specific skill deficits? The NCLB assessments seem to have lead to students with disabilities spending more time within the inclusive setting --even if the pace, difficulty or setting of instruction is not the most appropriate to benefit the child. It seems the role of special education teachers has morphed into one of keeping the child afloat instead of providers for the kind of individualized education program offered in the 1990’s.

Nancy Reder:

There are many legitimate concerns about how NCLB works for students with disabilities. The key factor to keep in mind is the importance of providing access to the general education curriculum. Unless students with disabilities are taught by teachers who are highly qualified in the content, they will not ‘get it.’ Special ed teachers are not reading teachers or math teachers unless they have been specifically trained in those content areas. So access is important. However, at the same time, there has been too much emphasis placed on getting students ready for post-secondary education, meaning that the time to focus on life skills for some students with disabilities has been diminished. This is one aspect of NCLB that needs to be addressed in the reauthorization. There has been lots of talk about redesigning NCLB to utilize multiple measures for measuring student progress and this approach could possibly help address some of your concerns. It is important to remember that it is IDEA, not NCLB, that calls for a focus on inclusion. At the same time, IDEA recognizes the importance of providing an array of services in different settings -- we need to remember that IDEA is designed to address individual student needs. NCLB is not.

Christina A. Samuels (Moderator):

Unfortunately, that’s all the time we have today. I want to thank our guests for taking the time to be with us today. If you would like more information about the EPE Research Center’s new report on high school reform and special education, or this month’s series of chats, you can find all of that here.

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