Special Education

New Data Detail Effect of Inclusion on Teaching Time

By Christina A. Samuels — November 13, 2017 5 min read
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A new analysis that looks at how much time educators spend teaching in classrooms with students with disabilities adds a new twist to the debate over inclusion.

Data from a survey of educators in more than three dozen countries and regions, including the United States, shows that time spent teaching goes down as the number of students with disabilities in a classroom goes up.

But inclusion of special education students by itself doesn’t appear to be the main driver. Instead, the survey offers a complex picture of how countries all over the world handle classes with high numbers of students with disabilities.

Among the other contributing factors putting a damper on teaching time, the analysis says classrooms with high numbers of students with disabilities also tend to have teachers who have less training and less experience.

Such classrooms also tend to have high percentages of students with other needs, such as language minorities, low academic achievement, and low socioeconomic status.

And while having a high percentage of students with behavior problems also cuts into teaching time, it’s not only students with disabilities who are causing the misbehavior. In fact, when teachers reported having few or no misbehaving students in their classrooms, the time spent teaching evened out—no matter how many students with disabilities they had.

“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 North Cooc, an assistant professor of special education at the University of Texas in Austin. “There is something about behavior that is driving teachers to spend less time teaching, and it appears separate from these other disabilities, such as learning disabilities or language impairments, which are the most common.”

International Findings

Cooc presented his findings, derived from the 2013 Teaching and Learning International Survey, during a recent webinar sponsored by the American Institutes for Research. He is working on expanding the findings for publication in a research journal.

The survey, conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, gathered responses from about 121,000 teachers in 38 countries and regions. The respondents were teaching at levels that correspond to junior high school in the United States, and schools solely for students with disabilities were not sampled.

Special education students in the United States are included in general education classrooms in greater numbers than ever before—between 2005 and 2014, the percentage who spent 80 percent of the day in general education classrooms rose from 54 percent to 63 percent.

The inclusion percentage is higher for the most common disabilities: About 87 percent of students with speech and language impairments, and 69 percent of students with specific learning disabilities spent 80 percent of their day in general education classrooms.

The movement toward inclusion has prompted concerns, Cooc noted. For example, 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?”

Louis Danielson, a managing director at AIR and a former special education official at the U.S. Department of Education, said the findings reminded him of his days as a novice teacher at a junior high school: Though he had little experience and was not yet fully certified, he was assigned the “lowest classes of the lowest-achieving kids,” he said. Only after a few years was he assigned to honors classrooms.

“The least well-prepared teachers got the toughest kids,” said Danielson, who participated in the AIR webinar with Cooc. “This is the reverse of the way it should be.”

According to Cooc’s analysis of the international data, 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.

Mary Brownell, a professor of special education at the University of Florida, said that the international findings are relevant for the United States.

Brownell leads the federally funded CEEDAR Center, which stands for Collaboration for Effective Educator Development, Accountability and Reform. She noted that teachers in the United States are often not given enough support to create differentiated and engaging instruction, and sometimes lack knowledge of positive classroom management techniques. And educators also have to be prepared to teach students how to self-motivate and self-regulate.

“We often limit the bulk of teacher development to preparation, and do not support them sufficiently when they enter the classroom,” Brownell said.

Allan Mendler, the author or co-author of 17 books including When Teaching Gets Tough and Discipline with Dignity, says one important move for teachers is to get to know the most challenging students, even if they make themselves hard to like.

And he also advises teachers to avoid letting students derail a lesson.

“One of the best ways to stay on task is to let your kids know that some days there will be some misbehavior. But in this class, because instruction is so important, your policy is more often than not to not stop class,” said Mendler.

Clare Russell, a middle-school inclusion teacher in Kingman, Ariz., said part of her classroom management technique is to know the subject well, to make expectations crystal clear, and to have multiple plans if a lesson starts to go off the rails for any reason.

“The struggling teacher needs to decide that they are in charge, because a lack of confidence can be smelled by students—sounds odd, but I swear it is true,” she said. “Kids who are a behavior problem are extremely socially canny.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 15, 2017 edition of Education Week as New Survey Details Effect of Inclusion on Teaching Time

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