Establish a Culture of Equity and Inclusion
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Andrew rolls down the hallway of his middle school with two other students walking alongside him. Suddenly Andrew's wheelchair stops, and he looks at his lap tray. Sean and Jesse notice and back up to flank Andrew again. He is pointing to a word on his tray.
"Wait, what did you say?" asks Sean.
Andrew looks at his lap tray again and touches the word you.
Jesse repeats it aloud: "You."
Then Andrew moves to the letter area, touching f, o, r, and g.
"Forgot?" Jesse offers.
Andrew nods, smiling, and then looks back to his tray, touching you and r.
Jesse says, "Your."
Andrew starts spelling again: b, o, o, k.
Jesse gets it. "Oh man, you're right! I gotta have the book for English. Thanks for reminding me. I'll catch up. Maybe you guys can distract Ms. VanArk so she doesn't notice I'm late!"
Andrew and Sean head off to class while Jesse runs back to his locker. When they get to Ms. VanArk's classroom, Sean opens the door and Andrew rolls in. Sean moves a chair that is blocking Andrew's path, probably mistakenly left there by the last group of students. It's all very ordinary, and no one seems to notice the give-and-take between the boys.
In another part of the building, a group of teachers is meeting during planning time and working through a series of learning progressions for a unit of study on the American Revolution. They are discussing the flow of the daily lessons and which materials they want to use to build student mastery of the content. Teacher Brad Henderson says, "In our last unit, I'm not sure we had students reading enough from primary sources. I'd like to see our students do more of that. There are so many great sources from this time period. We could select some and then have them ready in large print, audio, and adapted versions. I would like to use them in small groups this time so that I can see how students are responding to the texts."
There is general agreement. Then teacher Amal Ali says, "Before we go any further, can we revisit the assessments we'll use? I've been thinking about it, and we need to give students more choices for how they can demonstrate mastery. And I think they all should have practice with a formal assessment and options for how to demonstrate understanding in creative ways. Thoughts?"
The team continues discussing their plans and building an inclusive set of experiences for students. They do not talk about "what to do about SPED students" or how to adjust developed lessons to accommodate specific learning needs—the sort of conversation that is prevalent in many schools. It's not even clear which of the teachers are "special educators" and which are "general educators." What is clear is that all of the teachers present value the learning of all students in much the same way that Andrew, Sean, and Jesse value each other—casually, as an ordinary matter of course. This way of regarding all students as "our students" is far from common. But that could change, and it needs to.
Beliefs Drive Inclusive Education and Equity
We start with the culture of inclusion because it's foundational to the creation of schools that work for all students. The philosophy of the staff within a school directly and significantly affects the systems of support that are available for students. We have learned the hard way that meaningful improvements in what a school does only stick and have purpose when the adults in the school reevaluate what they know and come to a new understanding of the labels and language they use, how instruction and intervention should be delivered, where students are served, the roles of everyone in the school, and what their expectations are—for both their students and themselves.
Shanice's family moved to a new city the summer before she started high school. The first 10 years of her school experience were spent in self-contained special education classrooms with no participation at all in the general education classroom. During elementary school, she and the other students with disabilities even ate lunch at a different time than the rest of the student body. They were different, a group apart.
At Shanice's new school, all of her classes were general education courses: Earth Science, English 9, Algebra I, Art, and Biology. When Shanice's mother called at the end of the second week and asked to meet with the principal and special education teacher, they worried that something was wrong. In fact, when they sat down to meet with Shanice's mom, the first question they asked her was, "Is everything OK?"
Shanice's mom started to cry. It took her several minutes to compose herself, and when she did, this is what she said:
It's like you gave me a different kid. She has grown so much in academics and social skills. I can't believe that I agreed to keeping her out of regular classes all those years. I'm glad I trusted you this summer when we met and you said that your philosophy was that students belonged together and that you could organize supports. I let you try, but really, I was expecting you to call and tell me that it wasn't working. But you didn't, because it is. Thank you for all that you're doing for my daughter.
Did Shanice's needs suddenly change over the summer? Or did Shanice change in response to her new experiences in a school committed to the belief that all students had the capacity to meet high expectations and committed to maintaining systems of support to align with that belief? We, and the actual parties involved, know it was the latter. Shanice became different because the new school she went to was different. It was more sophisticated, and the members of the staff valued the membership of all students and had figured out how to support students' various needs. We have never encountered an inclusive school in which the faculty did not believe in what they were doing. As you will see over and over again in this book, it's the philosophy that drives an effective system.
With the rapid growth in programs to support students who are struggling, it can be tempting to latch onto one of those as a starting point. School leaders may, for example, attempt to nudge the needle of inclusion by launching a full-tilt multi-tiered system of supports (MTSS) effort, implementing a reading intervention program, or digging into a complete overhaul of their individualized education program (IEP) process. While these are essential components of successfully inclusive schools, starting with procedures rather than with the vision dooms a school to a series of never-ending "tweaks" and a seemingly infinite number of "initiatives." Achieving the outcome students deserve requires a complete reimagining. Equity and inclusion must become the ethos of the school. Excellent education for all should be the objective and the impetus—what drives every initiative, program, or strategy.
Shifting the culture of a school to embrace inclusion is much more complicated than simply sharing the research that says inclusion works (e.g., Fisher, Roach, & Frey, 2002). It involves dismantling the status quo, disrupting long-held beliefs about learners and about teaching. Fundamental to this work is replacing a climate of sorting and ranking students with one of mastery—believing and expecting that all students can achieve at high levels.
Having a culture of mastery means every single person in the school embraces every student, without exception, as worthy and deserving of their best. It means never turning our back on a student because "she's yours, not mine." It means never giving up on any student, because there's an expectation that every student can achieve at a higher level than ever before. In a culture of mastery, everyone on staff believes that in order to meet the needs of all students, it's necessary to meet the needs of each student.
Language and Labels Matter
If excellent educational outcomes for all is the goal (it is), the sobering truth is that there is a long way to go. Regardless of whether the measure is achievement scores, graduation rates, post-school employment, or college acceptance rates, the conclusion is the same: students with disabilities are not faring well in the current education system.
These poor outcomes are fueled in part by the damage done when disability labeling lowers expectations. Students identified as having disabilities encounter bias from their teachers, especially in the form of lower expectations, more negative evaluation of behavior, and negative predictions about whether they are likely to earn an undergraduate degree (Shifrer, 2013). And this culture affects all marginalized students, not only those with disabilities. Because of the evolution of essentially separate systems, special education has long been used as a way to label and segregate instead of support. The dichotomous sorting of our education system has led to inappropriately labeling a disproportionate number of African American students, particularly boys, as having behavioral disorders (Cooc & Kiru, 2018). The majority of U.S. school systems are staffed by adults who are largely white, female, and middle class, and they can struggle to understand behavior expression unlike their own (Delpit, 2006). Most often, the problem isn't even students' behavior per se; it's the mismatch in cultural expectations and a misunderstanding of high- and low-context behaviors.
When Hattie (2012) used meta-analyses from 50,000 studies to calculate the magnitude of 250 different influences on student achievement, he determined that the overall effect size (the magnitude of an influence) equivalent to a year's worth of academic growth in school is .40. The practice of not labeling students (e.g., as "struggling," "gifted," "high achieving," "special ed") has an effect size of .61, meaning that it accelerates learning. Although it is necessary to identify whether a student qualifies for an IEP in order to receive special education services and safeguards, in the daily classroom, labeling has a negative effect. The label often becomes "the reason" why the student is not progressing. Students develop low expectations for themselves, because that's what everyone else does, and the self-fulfilling prophecy is realized when students meet these low expectations. Kirby (2017) notes that the combination of poor self-concept and negative views of teachers has a lasting effect on students, which is counter to the mission of educators. As he puts it, "The education system should be decreasing the impact of disability on a student's academic performance, not exacerbating it" (p. 183). In short, labeling can too easily marginalize and hurt rather than help.
The practice of "tracking" students, common in the 1970s and 1980s, illustrates exactly the harm that results from leaving student needs unmet. As early as kindergarten, students were sorted into ability groups based on their academic performance and perceived potential (low, medium, and high). The idea was to provide greater academic challenges for students who were ready to move forward and greater support to those who struggled. In actuality, though, students in the lower groups received slower-paced instruction as a replacement for core instruction—which effectively trapped them within their track throughout their elementary and secondary years. They sank further and further behind, and by high school, many of these students were grade levels behind in crucial literacy, problem-solving, and mathematics skills. This service delivery model failed students who could have been college- and career-bound by not providing them with simple interventions in early childhood. For students with disabilities, the situation was even worse: they were tracked into segregated special education classrooms with an even weaker curriculum.
Unfortunately, tracking lives on. There are still permanent ability groups of low-, middle-, and high-achieving students in some elementary classrooms. Students remain homogenously grouped with similarly achieving students throughout the day. The low-achieving groups are especially vulnerable, as they lack the language, social, and academic models that are present in heterogeneous groups. Although needs-based small-group instruction is an effective practice, permanent ability grouping and tracking have a detrimental effect on students' self-efficacy and on their level of school engagement (Dumont, Protsch, Jansen, & Becker, 2017).
Changing the culture of a school to be receptive to real inclusion starts with changing the language educators use. First, labels belong in the conversation only when discussing services and rights; they have no place in a conversation about the systems of support for a student. Second, in times when it's necessary to speak of disability categories or supports, all faculty should feel the importance of, and embrace the use of, people-first language. Rather than "autistic child," say "a child with autism" (when talking about services and supports)—or just call the kid by his name: Timothy. Rather than say Angela is "wheelchair-bound," you might mention that Angela "rolls to class." Changes in language serve as the foundation for the widespread change in mindset that must occur if schools are ever to deliver on the promise of equity for all students, including those with disabilities.
Not only is there a history of the overuse of disability labels, but too many schools have also acquired the habit of labeling students based on the supports they need: "Let's have a meeting about our Tier 2s and 3s this afternoon." There are no "special education students" or "Tier 2" or "Tier 3 students," and students are never exclusively "yours" or "mine." Every student in the building is our student first and foremost. Special education and Tier 2 and 3 interventions are supports that are provided. They are nouns, not adjectives, and they should never be used to describe a student's permanent or long-term status. They are not any student's identity.
What's more, all students in the building are on the specialist's or special educator's caseload. Any child who can benefit from a specialized strategy, accommodation, or modification is their responsibility. And do you know of any student who has never needed support with anything academically, socially, or otherwise during their formative years? To deny expert assistance to a student in need because there is no IEP in place is to deny that student an equitable education.
Everyone Deserves to Belong
The 1970s also introduced the practice of mainstreaming—an early attempt to create less restrictive placements for students with mild disabilities. In this model, students who demonstrated competence could receive their education in the general education classroom. But this approach placed the burden on students: they had ...