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When teaching students with special needs, special training isn’t everything

For most of my teaching career, I have spent part of each day teaching students in a setting called 12:1, with one special education teacher and 12 students with special needs. Over time, I have lost faith in the effectiveness of this approach.

For most students with special needs, I’ve come to see integrated classes taught by two teachers as the best approach, because it gives them access to teachers with deep content knowledge and sends a clear message that all students, regardless of ability, can strive to meet high standards.

Recent special education reform efforts in New York City are a step in the right direction. Under the reforms, rolled out citywide in 2012, schools are expected to place students with special needs in the least restrictive environment possible, so that they are in classes with typically developing peers when they can be. But even two years into the reforms, too many students are still being placed in 12:1 when they could learn more in integrated classes.

The benefit of separating students with special needs in a 12:1 setting ostensibly lies in greater individualized attention, thanks to a lower teacher-student ratio. Yet this idyllic vision, in my experience, rarely matches the reality.

Here’s the vision of a self-contained classroom I once pictured:

  • The teacher quietly conferences and redirects each individual student throughout the lesson
  • Students work in a safe and supportive atmosphere where they can concentrate and focus
  • Students receive instruction catered to their individual needs

Here’s the reality:

  • The teacher puts out one social-emotional fire after another
  • Students bear the stigma of their “special” status on their shoulders every day
  • Instruction in core content areas tends towards remediation rather than challenge

Why the difference?

In my experience, students are highly aware of their status as being in a “separate” or “special” class, as are their peers. This burden, in addition to the myriad emotional and psychological burdens they may already be experiencing, can make them more volatile or even fatalistic when faced with academic challenges.

When we segregate students based on “abnormal” or “below average” functioning, we send them the message that their differences necessitate failure. When we include all students together, we send them—all of them—the message that failure is a normal function of differences and high standards.

There are, certainly, students who are better served in a smaller, self-contained setting. As the IEP teacher and district representative at my school, I have and will continue to recommend 12:1 for some students when it matches their needs, which are measured in part by school psychologist-administered tests. Cognitively and emotionally, a small percentage of children do need separate classrooms or schools.

But I don’t believe that this is true for the majority of students, even for those who may be “borderline” in cognitive functioning or who might demonstrate fairly challenging behaviors in the classroom. That’s because when students with special needs learn in a self-contained setting, they often miss the chance to work with the teachers they really need: the ones who know their content best, and who can break concepts down to their core components.

Training in how specifically to work with students with special needs—what many people think those who teach those students most need—doesn’t have a significant impact unless paired with deep content knowledge.

In my current job, I almost always teach English, the subject area I know the most about. But imagine that I were given a math class to teach next year filled with “gifted” students. Since I don’t understand math very deeply, I would probably teach them procedural math, as in, here are the steps for how to solve this type of problem.

Because this group of students would have a fairly strong base in math already, they’d be able to follow the steps just fine. Maybe they would even figure out for themselves more or less how to apply the same steps to similar types of problems. A few of them might go further and determine some underlying concepts on their own.

These students would do O.K. They would do even better with an amazing math teacher who could push them to the next level. But it’s unlikely that they would fail, or feel completely inadequate, or end up held back a grade if I were their teacher, even though I don’t thoroughly understand math.

But put me in front of students who struggle to retain information, generalize concepts, and negotiate multi-step procedures, and it’s an entirely different ball game. They don’t need me. They need the best math teacher out there, a math teacher who knows how to approach mathematical concepts from different angles. They need a teacher who can break each concept down for them, and help them to feel the first glimmers of success in gaining a real mathematical understanding.

That’s because a procedure that might seem “easy” to me, such as subtracting nine from 26, can be abstract and daunting for someone lacking a strong foundation in numeracy. A good teacher can break such a problem down by helping his or her students understand place value, then providing consistent opportunities to apply that understanding so that students begin to use the concept more fluently.

I’m not suggesting that students with special needs be tossed into general education classrooms without additional support. Even the best teachers can’t necessarily do it alone, particularly with a class that includes students with significant behavioral or academic challenges.

The idea of integrated co-teaching classes is that we support students with two teachers in the room: the general education teacher with deep subject-specific knowledge, and the special education teacher with experience in delivering individualized attention and supports. (Neither teacher need follow this archetype, of course—sometimes it ends up the other way around!)

A lot depends on those two teachers’ styles, experiences, and knowledge, and how well they work together. But generally speaking (and without any rose-tinted glasses on), two professionals working together have greater potential to meet the needs of students of students who struggle.

As teachers, you have the advantage of two sets of eyes on students throughout a lesson. You have a colleague to bounce ideas and feedback off of, someone to ease the burden of planning and grading. And students have models before them every day of the sort of collaboration that you wish them to emulate.

This approach, like many interventions, costs money. It requires commitments of funding and of leadership, as well as close attention to scheduling, hiring, and collaborative planning. But if we are truly committed to the values and benefits of inclusion, then this is what it takes.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.