Are educators spending less time on teaching if they have students with disabilities in their classrooms?
The answer, based on a survey of teachers from 38 countries, including the United States, is yes—but digging into the data reveals a complex picture that goes beyond inclusion.
Across the world, for example, classes with a high percentage of students with disabilities also have teachers with less experience and less training, according to an international survey of teachers. Those classrooms also have higher percentages of students who have behavior problems reported by their teachers that may be separate from the presence of a disability.
The presence of behavior problems appears to have the most close connection to time spent teaching, said North Cooc, who presented an preliminary take on his findings during a recent webinar sponsored by the American Institutes for Research. He is working on refining the findings into a paper.
Take away issues with behavior, and even teachers who have a high percentage of students with disabilities report that they spend about the same amount of time teaching as educators who have no students with special education needs in their classrooms, Cooc said.
“If a parent is concerned that their child will lose teaching time because there are kids with disabilities in that classroom, it isn’t because those kids with disabilities require more instructional time,” said Cooc, an assistant professor of special education at the University of Texas at Austin, in an interview with Education Week. “There is something about behavior that is driving teachers to spend less time teaching, and and it appears separate from these other disabilities, such as learning disabilities or language impairments, which are the most common.”
The Push for ‘Mainstreaming’
In the United States, special education students are included in general education classrooms in greater numbers than ever before, driven by federal policy that requires teaching students in the “least restrictive environment” that is appropriate for them, and just a basic sense of fairness. Between 2005 and 2014, the percentage of U.S. students in special education who spent 80 percent of the day in general education classrooms rose from 54 percent to 63 percent.
That same trend holds true in other nations. Many countries are as far, or further, along as the United State in moving toward fully inclusive classrooms: Those countries include Canada, England, and Sweden. Other countries still have separate classrooms or limited educational opportunities for students with disabilities. They include countries such as Georgia, Malaysia, and Romania, where 40 to 50 percent of schools had no students with identified disabilities enrolled.
But the overall trend is to educate students with disabilities and their typically developing peers together.
That trend has brought concerns, Cooc noted: The pace of inclusion has outpaced the number of teachers trained to teach students with special education needs. And then there are worries from parents, Cooc said during the webinar: “What I hear most about are parents concerned that the pace of learning is slowed down in more-inclusive schools. That was the motivation factor in this study: Is that true?”
An International Look at Special Education
To answer that question from an international perspective, Cooc turned to the 2013 Teaching and Learning International Survey, which gathered responses from about 121,000 teachers in 38 countries and economies.
Teachers who said they had no students with disabilities in their classroom said they spent 81 percent of their time on actual teaching. In contrast, that dropped to about 69 percent of the time for teachers who reported having 31 percent or more students with disabilities in their classrooms.
The difference between the two was likely due to the amount of time spent maintaining classroom order. Teachers who said they had no special education students in their classroom reported spending about 10 percent of their time on keeping order, compared to about 23 percent of their time spent keeping order for teachers whose classroom makeup included 31 percent or more students with special educational needs.
The survey also revealed an interesting and counterintuitive result: Teachers who had a high special-needs population were also less likely to report that their classrooms were disruptive. About 79 percent of teachers in classrooms with no students with disabilities said they agreed that they lost teaching time to interruptions. In contrast, only 49 percent of teachers in classrooms with more than 31 percent of special needs students agreed that they lost teaching time to interruptions.
Classrooms with a high percentage of students with special education needs also tended to have high percentages of language minorities, low-income students and students with low academic achievement. Those factors did not appear to affect time spent teaching, but the presence of behavior problems did.
And internationally, students with disabilities tend to be sorted into classrooms with children who have behavior problems in addition to, or separate from, a disability. In addition, the teachers there may not have the experience or training to handle those challenges.
“That was kind of a sad finding in this large study, that there seems to be this sorting mechanism that was happening,” Cooc said during the webinar.
Cooc’s Oct. 26 webinar on his findings is embedded below.
Education Week File Photo: In 2015, paraprofessional Ivana Jakovljevic helps 8th grader Cristina Amaya, who is visually impaired, navigate the halls at STRIVE Prep-Federal, a Denver charter school.—Nathan W. Armes for Education Week.
A version of this news article first appeared in the On Special Education blog.