Special Report
Special Education

Teaching in Tandem

By Lisa Goldstein — January 08, 2004 8 min read
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While 6th grade teacher Sharon Hall calls out questions from the multiplication tables, Roberta Fugett walks through the room, stopping at some students’ desks.

Neither an aide nor a student-teacher, Fugett is a full-fledged, certified special education teacher. Yet many children in the class don’t have a clue because Fugett tries to help any student who has trouble, not just those in special education. That way, she says, there’s less of a stigma.

One day this past fall, while the class works on multiples of 11 and 12, Fugett is peppered with questions from both sets of students, who have gotten used to having her around and view her as a resource.

But she and other special education teachers like her, called “collaborative teachers,” at a middle school here are present in regular classrooms chiefly to help those children with disabilities truly have access to the general curriculum. Collaborative teaching, a resourceful approach to main streaming, is a keystone of the school’s plan to raise the achievement of special education students and move them into the era of state standards-based education.

Such an approach may become increasingly widespread. New federal requirements that special educators be “highly qualified” in each subject they teach could encourage more special educators, particularly at the secondary level, to teach academic content alongside their general education colleagues, rather than in resource rooms or self-contained classrooms.

At Kentucky’s Clark Middle School, students from each grade level—6th, 7th, and 8th—are divided into two academic teams. The students on each team have the same set of teachers, and the same special education teacher to follow them through their classes. The regular teachers have common planning time each week with the collaborative teacher, an essential part of making the system work, the teachers say.

Teachers also work together to align the students’ individualized education plans, or educational road maps, with state content standards.

It’s one thing to let students be “included” by permitting them to sit in regular classes; it’s another altogether to make the content and materials accessible to them, Fugett says. That’s her job. She modifies assignments for “her” students, stops and 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 says. “Sometimes, even I forget which students are in special education.”

A Model for True Inclusion

Such seamlessness between the special and regular education systems was not always the case at Clark Middle School in the small, rural community of Winchester, Ky., which is being transformed into a bedroom suburb of Lexington.

About five years ago, Principal Don Burkhead says, staff members felt Clark was behind on the inclusion of special education students in regular classrooms. Many of those students were still in self-contained classrooms for part of the day.

“Our mission statement said to educate all students,” Burkhead says from his office, which displays a cartoon of the principal making the morning announcements and a memo detailing what to do if cows wander on to school property, among the paraphernalia. “But our test scores showed a tremendous achievement gap between regular students and students in special education. We just started thinking about what can we do to help. We just thought the more we could include them in regular classes, the better.”

This year, 59 of the 92 students with disabilities are full participants in the general education curriculum. Of the remaining students with disabilities, half are included at least half the time. The other students with disabilities are included at least a quarter of the time.

But what started as a drive to catch up with progress in the field of special education has turned in the past couple of years into a forward-looking, schoolwide approach to providing students with disabilities access to the general curriculum. The effort has involved retraining both special and regular educators for the collaborative effort, incorporating the use of technology, and overcoming self-limiting thinking, Burkhead says.

“You can’t just drop these students in the classroom,” he says. “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.”

Lately, the school has been winning attention for its work. The 750-student school earned a $10,000 grant from the University of Kentucky this year, which the school may use for, among other improvements, teacher training and more computers to help students with special needs, says Angela Jackson, a special education teacher in charge of the grant. Last year, the school became a pilot site for administering state tests online to students with disabilities.

Jackson says the school needs to work on improving access to the general curriculum for students with the most severe cognitive disabilities. She works with teachers to help them feel more comfortable about working with those students, but hopes to use the grant to provide more training for them.

The Clark County school system’s special education director says the school is poised to become a model for teaching students with disabilities in Kentucky.

“When you start with inclusion, it’s a natural jumping-off point to want to start really providing special education students with the ability have access to Kentucky state content standards,” says Don Stump, the director of special education for the 5,000-student district. “I think other schools will look at Clark and use the same approach.”

Still, replicating the program may prove difficult. Kentucky, like many other states, has trouble finding certified special education teachers. At Clark Middle School, the collaborative teachers are fully licensed in special education, according to Stump.

Though it’s too soon to give a full picture of the school’s progress, Burkhead says administrators and teachers have already seen some improvement on test scores. The gap has closed slightly between students with disabilities and students in regular education on a national test of basic skills in reading, language arts, and mathematics. The results from the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills, administered each spring, are measured in percentiles; the 50th is the national average.

In 2002, students without disabilities scored at the 62nd percentile on the overall battery of tests, while students with disabilities were at the 16th. The following year, students without disabilities scored at the 59th percentile on the battery of tests, and students with disabilities scored at the 27th.

Clark Middle School got a glimpse of what the future of testing may hold for students with disabilities in Kentucky when it administered the state assessment, the Commonwealth Accountability Testing System, or CATS, online for such students last year.

Teachers could build in accommodations on the computerized tests based on the individual needs of the students. For example, the teachers could allow children who needed the test read aloud to them by the computer to wear headphones. They could make the print larger for students with visual impairments.

Teachers and administrators note that students with disabilities raved about the tests and felt better about themselves and their ability to take assessments.

“When a student would otherwise be embarrassed to ask a reader to repeat a section of the test,” Stump says, “the student could just replay it for himself.”

Scores had not yet been released by the state for the online CATS as of early November. But anecdotally, Stump says, teachers and administrators know more youngsters with disabilities completed the tests, the writing samples were far more detailed, and students proceeded further through the tests than on the paper version.

Bringing Teachers Around

It may seem these days like second nature for many regular teachers at the school to involve special education students in their classes. But as with any system-wide change, resistance came first. Initially, many classroom teachers didn’t believe they could instruct students with disabilities to the state standards.

“Some regular teachers feared they could not teach those students,” Principal Burkhead says. “But they were willing to try. We had special education teachers talk to them about strategies. We try and use the resources within the building.”

One such teacher is Susan Nally, a 7th grade language arts teacher.

“At first, you feel like, as a teacher, you are supposed to get the special education students to do exactly the same thing as the other students,” she says. “But then I learned if the class is working on learning a list of vocabulary words, and that’s not possible for a special education student in the class, you might pick out a few words for that student to focus on learning.”

Now, 7th grade science teacher Anna Bruce Kostelnik remarks, it’s often hard to tell who is the regular educator and who is the special educator 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.”

One afternoon in September, Kostelnik circulates around the room helping individual students, while Horn leads a group in reading aloud their answers from a workbook on bacteria. When a teacher’s aide enters the classroom with a student who has Down syndrome, Kostelnik rushes over, leans in, and whispers to the aide to have the student trace words from the workbook during the class. The science teacher also encourages collaboration between students. She tells one 7th grader to alert the student next to him when his turn comes to read his answer out loud.

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

See also: Visions of the Possible

No Separate Room

Special Intervention
A version of this article appeared in the January 08, 2004 edition of Education Week


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