Differentiated Learning

By Christina A. Samuels — February 25, 2008 2 min read
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Among the most well-attended sessions at last year’s huge Council for Exceptional Children convention were talks on co-teaching: bringing general education and special education teachers together in one classroom to focus on the instruction of children with special learning needs.

Educators in co-teaching arrangements stressed that in order to work well, such partnerships require focus, planning, even a little chemistry. I saw this in person when I visited co-taught classrooms in San Antonio; one pair of teachers I met worked so well together they were practically able to finish one another’s sentences. They were up front in saying they were concerned that neither of them had the experience they needed to make co-teaching work, but the school and district were committed to the process, and so were they. Now, their classroom runs so smoothly that I doubt the children know that one is a general educator, and the other is trained in special education.

This month, Michelle Rhee, the chancellor of the District of Columbia schools, said she would like to turn an entire school into a “differentiated learning lab,” where children in special education, children who are gifted, and children with “regular” learning needs would all be served in the same classroom.

D.C. has had enduring problems with its special education program. The district bleeds money to private providers either because it doesn’t have the appropriate programs for students, or is unable to meet the demands of due-process procedures. So, part of the rationale driving this proposal is a need to increase capacity for special-needs students.

But, while many students in special education are best served in a inclusive environment, that’s not the best place for all of them. (The Washington Post article states that federal law “requires” inclusion in schools and that’s not quite right; the law mandates only that student be educated in the least restrictive environment that is most appropriate for that learner.)

And I’m also curious about the proposal that a private company come in to provide the special education services. Would that system foster the partnership among teachers that seems to be necessary for success?

On the other hand, individualized instruction for all students is a powerful idea. I’m interested in hearing from educators who are familiar with co-teaching. What do you think of Rhee’s proposal?

A version of this news article first appeared in the On Special Education blog.