Tomorrow Is Too Long to Wait for Inclusion

What do the new Special Education Accountability measures mean?

What do the new Special Education Accountability measures mean? via @think_inclusive

JudgesTools Icon” Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

By James Aycock

Millions of students with disabilities (SWD) are receiving substandard educations. So says the Obama administration, which recently announced a major overhaul in special education accountability. Officials in Tennessee applaud the change.

To understand the shift, a little history is helpful.

Special education law originated in the Civil Rights era—1975 to be exact. It should be no surprise, then, that it’s a rights-based program. At that time, over a million children with disabilities were not being served in public schools, so the emphasis was on access to a free and appropriate public education (FAPE). This led to an accountability system based on compliance and paperwork.

This creates tension because more recent education law is focused on outcomes.

Over the past 25 years, there has been increased attention on test scores, but special education has not kept up with this trend. The result is a considerable achievement gap between SWD and their nondisabled peers, and it’s a gap that is not closing.

I’m not going to argue against the rights-based approach. It’s certainly a good and necessary piece to special education. But I do think that it’s time to expand our definitions of “rights” and “appropriate education.”  Simply put, SWD have a right to a quality education that challenges them and pushes them to achieve a high level of success.

And this is why the shift in special education accountability is so important.

No longer will it be acceptable for SWD to progress through school without learning how to read. No longer will it be okay for SWD to be put on a less rigorous course of study that does not prepare them for college. Schools and districts will be held accountable, not just for compliance and paperwork, but also for educational outcomes.

This seems uncontroversial, so why is there so much controversy surrounding this development?

First and foremost, the new accountability system has teeth. States stand to lose some of the $11 billion of federal funding they receive for special education if they can’t improve outcomes for SWD. And that loss of funding will surely trickle down to districts and schools.

Beyond the dollars involved, there is a widespread misunderstanding around special education and disabilities.

When most people, even in the education world, hear “special education,” they think of what kids can’t do. In reality, though, the vast majority of students receiving special education services (around 40% nationally and within Tennessee, although that number is closer to 50% within Shelby County) are diagnosed with specific learning disabilities (SLD). These are kids with average IQs who are performing in a subject significantly below what would be expected of someone with the same IQ. As I have written elsewhere, most of these kids (about 80%) were diagnosed with a disability because they never learned to read.

Another large group of SWD (just over 20% nationally, but closer to 15% locally) have speech or language impairments (SI/LI). Still another group (about 10% of SWD) are classified as other health impairments (OHI), which includes ADHD, sickle cell, etc. Again, these kids have average intelligence.

A smaller group (around 9% of SWD nationally, 6% locally) consists of physical, visual, and hearing impairments, as well as emotional disturbances. And, again, these kids have average intelligence.

In short, around 80% of SWD (over five million nationally, over 100,000 statewide, and over 15,000 locally) have average intelligence. These kids should be exposed to rigorous instruction and be able to perform at high levels. As such, it should not be controversial to hold schools and districts accountable for outcomes for these students.

(There is legitimate debate about the other 20% – and this is a debate we need to have. But it’s important in our discussions about special education to make the distinction between the 20% and the 80%, for there should be no debate about the latter.)

Granted, the new accountability measures are more difficult to meet – only 18 states meet the new benchmarks, compared to 41 that met the old benchmarks. But, with such a high dropout rate among SWD and such low proficiency rates in this population, it is essential that we raise the bar.

We know that these 80% of SWD with average intelligence should be able to achieve grade-level proficiency. Contrary to popular opinion, these kids’ disabilities aren’t preventing them from success in school; with the proper accommodations and rigorous instruction, they can meet the same high standards as their nondisabled peers. It’s time to expect as much. It’s time to demand as much.

Fortunately, Tennessee is already ahead of the game. For several years now, the state has included the four major achievement gaps (income, race, language, and disability) in its accountability measures. The state has also seen more SWD served in the general education classroom and more SWD taking the standard assessment (e.g., TCAP-ACH rather than TCAP-MAAS, the modified version). As a result, graduation rates are up, and dropout rates are down, for SWD.

We still have a way to go, however. Proficiency in SWD is not improving, and so these students are not catching up to their nondisabled peers. This can be attributed to some degree to the switch for many SWD from the modified assessment to the more rigorous standard test. But the problem goes beyond that and into classrooms.

The new Response to Instruction & Intervention (RTI²) initiative, which I’ve described previously , is a good start in closing the achievement gap between SWD and their peers. The widely popular Common Core trainings are helping as well.

Still, we must do more. Our SWD can’t wait.

Have something to say about the new accountability measures? Tell us about it in the comments section below!


 James Aycock is currently the Director of Scholar Support at Grizzlies Prep, an all-boys public charter middle school located in downtown Memphis. He previously served as the founding Special Education Coordinator with Tennessee’s Achievement School District, after several years as a special educator and baseball coach for Memphis City Schools. Contact him at

10 Steps To Include Students With Autism In General Education Classrooms

Ask Cheryl
Cheryl Jorgensen is one of the premier experts on inclusive education. She has a feature on her website called “Ask Cheryl”, where she answers questions that have been emailed to her. She has given me permission to re-post these Q & A’s on our site as a series. You can find the original “Ask Cheryl” page on her website. The best way to contact her is by email:

Dear Cheryl,

Our school is just now beginning to think about including our students with autism in general education classrooms. We have ten students with an autism label in Kindergarten through 5th grade. Where do we start?

Sincerely, An Elementary School Principal,


Dear Principal,

I am so glad to hear from you and to know that you are committed to including students with autism in general education classrooms. This is actually the perfect time of year to begin taking steps toward having all students with autism as welcomed members of age-appropriate general education classes next fall.

Step 1

Bring together a team of folks representing your key stakeholders and designate them as your Inclusive Education Leadership Team. I would suggest including a general education teacher from each grade level, all special education case managers, your speech-language pathologist and occupational therapist who provide services to children with autism, a couple of paraprofessionals, your reading specialist (or a Title I teacher), your building or district special education administrator, and a couple of parents.

Step 2

Develop a plan for keeping all parents of children with and without disabilities informed of your plans as they evolve. This might include giving a monthly update at a PTA meeting, holding special information sessions for parents, and certainly, talking with the parents of the children with autism about the “whys” and “hows” of inclusive education.

Step 3

Identify a few key books, research articles, and videos that everyone on the Leadership Team will read/watch together. I would suggest “You’re Going to Love This Kid!”: Teaching Students with Autism in the Inclusive Classroom, Second Edition by Paula Kluth for the book, Including Samuel and We Thought You’d Never Ask for the videos, and a soon-to-be-published booklet I wrote for the National Education Association called Including Students with Autism.

Step 4

Visit an inclusive school. There is no substitute for seeing inclusion in action. Since I know that you live in Wisconsin I would suggest contacting the Fox Prairie Elementary School in Stoughton. They have been designated as a “knowledge development school” by the SWIFT project which is funded by the U.S. Department of Education as a school where all students are included in general education and all “siloed” resources from general and special education and from Title I are deployed to support all students’ academic and behavioral success. The SWIFT project has lots of great resources on their website as well.

Step 5

Identify which general education classroom each student will join in September 2014. Provide monthly professional development workshops for those general education teachers and other members of your students’ educational teams. I would focus these workshops on 7 key topics:

1) the rationale for inclusive education
2) inclusive education best practices
3) collaborative teaming and new roles for special educators as supporters of students’ participation in general education instruction
4) peer supports and cooperative learning
5) universal design for learning and assuring access to all instructional materials
6) planning curricular and instructional adaptations for students with intensive support needs to encourage their full participation, and
7) positive behavior interventions and supports.

If you have students who use augmentative and alternative communication (AAC), workshops for those students’ teams would be important as well. You might look for online webinars, conferences (one sponsored by the Colorado PEAK Parent Center is super –, workshops offered by the Wisconsin Department of Education, or contact the Wisconsin TASH chapter to get recommendations for great workshop presenters (

Step 6

Plan next year’s school calendar so that each student’s educational team has one hour of common planning time weekly. During these meetings each team will talk about upcoming lessons and units and discuss the supports that the students will need in order to fully participate and learn. You might use the instructional planning forms that I developed that are discussed in this article:

Jorgensen, C.M., & Lambert, L. (2012). Inclusion means more than just being “in:” Planning full participation of students with intellectual and other developmental disabilities in the general education classroom. International Journal of Whole Schooling, 8(2), 21-35. (PDF Link Here)

Step 7

Give each student’s team a day’s worth of planning time during the summer to get a head start on instructional planning. It will help all the students start the year off positively if the team feels as if they can “hit the ground running” on Day 1 with a couple of week’s work of materials and other supports already planned.

Step 8

Write each student’s IEP so that his or her goals and objectives are aligned with the Common Core State Standards and so that special education services are delivered within the context of general education instruction in the general education classroom. Go to this website to view a description of a webinar I did on this topic and then contact Cat Jones at the Univ. of New Hampshire’s Institute on Disability ( to find out how to access the recorded version.

Step 9

Create your staffing schedule to maximize the time that special education teachers and related service providers are IN the general education classroom co-teaching whole group lessons, working with small groups, or providing side-by-side support to individual students.

Step 10

Encourage each student’s parents to host at least one summer get-together for a few children who will be in their child’s classroom. A low key play date in the backyard with one structured group activity goes a long way to help children feel as if they are “part of the group” even before the new school year begins.

The first few weeks and months will be filled with challenges and daily questions from staff so be sure that you are a daily presence in those classrooms providing leadership, encouragement, and tangible supports so that everyone can have a successful year.

Best of luck!



Dr. Jorgensen is an inclusive education consultant in private practice, after being a Project Director with the Institute on Disability (IOD) at the University of New Hampshire (UNH), and assistant research professor in UNH’s Education Department from 1985 until 2011.

Photo Credit: woodleywonderworks

Hell-Bent On Helping

Hell-Bent On Helping.png

By Emma Van der Klift & Norman Kunc

A full version of this article can be found at the Broadreach Training website. This article was published with permission from the authors.

Editor’s Note: It was my pleasure to speak with Emma and Norman recently about our vision for inclusion and inclusive education. They have a wonderful resource website (Broadreach Training) as well as a subscription site where you can learn from the very best in the field of inclusive communities via video interviews. After you read this excerpt I highly recommend that you check it out! Visit Conversations That Matter for more information. 

The move toward cooperative and inclusive education is part of a larger move out of social oppression for individuals with disabilities. It is part of a groundswell movement of social reform that holds as a central tenet the belief that all children, including those with disabilities, are capable of learning and contributing to their classrooms and communities.

Students formerly educated in separate schools or segregated classrooms are appearing in increasing numbers in neighbourhood schools and regular classrooms. Across North America, we are coming to recognize that full participation in communities and schools should be the right of all individuals and that segregation on the basis of physical, mental, or cultural differences is fundamentally wrong.

This is the first generation of children with and without disabilities to grow up and be educated together. Consequently, within inclusive education we have come to entertain a cheerful optimism that the generation growing up now will be different than those of the past. We are hopeful that greater contact between children will begin to break down the barriers of misunderstanding and dispel the myths that have created society’s response to disability.

At first glance, this change might seem to be taking place. Individuals with disabilities are more visible and increasingly involved in community life. If we believed that greater proximity led to greater acceptance, it could be argued that we are successfully participating in the creation of a new social order. Unfortunately, this is only partly true. Instead, we are finding that increased visibility and “presence” alone do not necessarily ensure that those with disabilities are fully included.

True inclusion is dependent on the development of meaningful and reciprocal relationships between children. As classrooms become increasingly diverse, new strategies are being developed to ensure that the new students are more than simply present. Friendship circles, school clubs and special buddy systems have been implemented as formalized attempts to foster interaction and develop relationships.

While increased interaction may result from such efforts, friendship often remains elusive. Children may have successful buddy systems during school hours and still be isolated and friendless after three o’clock. Children without disabilities may be helpful and involved, but a reciprocal relationship upon which genuine friendship is based does not always develop. The difficult and often frustrating question is then, “What are the barriers impeding the development of friendship, and how can we move past them?”


At the end of the twentieth century, the most significant barriers preventing individuals with labels of disability from fully participating in schools and communities are still attitudinal. Specifically, our society still perceives those with disabilities as perpetual receivers of help. Descriptors like “less fortunate” and “needy,” telethons, and tear-jerker journalism all continue to perpetuate this view.

Unfortunately, there is still a distressing tendency in some schools to base interactions with students on these broader societal misperceptions, despite a sincere desire to end the isolation experienced by so many children with disabilities. Friendship clubs and buddy systems based on stereotypical beliefs risk perpetuating prejudices and myths and even exacerbating the problem.

Obviously, it is essential that students be provided with opportunities to interact. Formalized friendship and support circles may be effective ways to building relationships. However, an over-emphasis on the “helper/helpee” relationship can easily skew the delicate balance of giving and receiving that is the precursor of true friendship. It is critical, then, to regularly and carefully examine the nature of the interaction we facilitate and the attitudes that inform it.

Consider the following scenario:

Four third grade children from a local elementary school have come to speak to a room full of adults. They’ve been invited, with their teacher, to talk about friendship. Actually, three of them are there to talk about their friendship with the fourth child. Children in third grade make friends all the time. We ask ourselves, “What could possibly be unusual enough about this situation to bring these children here today?”

What’s unusual is soon apparent. Three of the four children in the room can speak, one of them can’t. Three of the four children in the room can walk, one of them can’t. The three walking, talking children are here to tell us about their relationship with the young man in the wheelchair.

Adults in the room begin to smile as the first classmate talks. Approving nods accompany the child’s words, “He’s different on the outside, but inside he’s just like me.”

The conversation whirls around the boy in the wheelchair as he scans the room, looks at his communication board and sometimes watches his classmates.

“We take turns being his buddy,” offers one young girl. “Everyone has a turn.”

As the children talk and answer questions, it is interesting to watch the interplay between the subject of the discussion and the girl to his left. She has one arm around his shoulders, and in the other hand holds a washcloth. She wipes his mouth repeatedly. At one point, he appears to lose patience and struggles a bit. One hand jerks forward. His friend seizes his and holds it still. He makes a noise of clear irritation, and attempts to pull his hand free.

His classmate smiles fondly at him, continuing to restrain his hand, and wipes his mouth again.”

Is there anything wrong here? Not much, we might say. A nine-year old who in other times or other places might have been attending segregated classes and a group of nice third-graders together are learning a few lessons about difference and similarity.

We might even agree with comments made by audience members. We heard the boy’s three classmates being called “the hope for tomorrow” and “exceptional kids”. All over the room, adults were beaming. After all, this relatively new phenomenon seems to hold out some hope for an end to discrimination and distance between those who have disabilities and those who do not.

However, as the presentation continued, it became increasingly apparent that while both adults and children thought they were talking about friendship, much of the discussion taking place was really about help. While there was undeniable warmth between the children, most of the comments and non-verbal interactions reflected a “helper/helpee” relationship, not a reciprocal friendship.

When initially attempting to foster relationships between children with disabilities and their non-disabled classmates, it is common practice to have children “help” the new student. Such help may take the form of physical care, “keeping company” during breaks, or schoolwork assistance. Help giving contact can reduce an initial sense of strangeness or fear, and can, if carefully done, lay the groundwork for friendship.

Clearly, there is nothing wrong with help; friends often help each other. However, it is essential to acknowledge that help is not and can never be the basis of friendship. We must be careful not to over-emphasize the “helper/helpee” aspect of a relationship. Unless help is reciprocal, the inherent inequity between ‘helper’ and ‘helpee’ will contaminate the authenticity of a relationship.

Friendship is not the same as help. Attempts to include children with disabilities have sometimes blurred this distinction. Friendship clubs are often really assistance clubs. For example, how much time is spent on the logistics of help? “Who can take Jane to the library on Monday?” “Who can help George eat lunch on Friday?” Still more insidious, how much time is spent bringing George’s classmates into a “mufti-disciplinary team system” to analyze the effectiveness of his current behaviour management plan?

Professional caretakers are made, not born. How does it happen? Put a third-grade “helper” next to a third grade “helpee”. Add a sizable amount of adult approval, and there you have it.

It is not entirely thrilling that kids who take part in friendship circles during school go on to careers in human service. Don’t misunderstand. Lots of wonderful people choose this profession. However, an unfortunate result is that lots of children and adults with mental and physical handicaps have legions of professional caregivers, but no friends in their lives. We must guard against merely creating another generation of “professionals” and “clients”, with the former group seen as perpetually competent, and the latter, perpetually needy.

But what’s a teacher to do? To create a helper is relatively easy; to facilitate a friendship is tough. After all, friendship cannot simply be mandated. At best, it seems to be made up of one third proximity and two thirds alchemy!

Perhaps we must begin by acknowledging what should be, but is not always obvious. That is, no one has the power to conjur up friendship at will. Maybe that’s just as well. Friendship is about choice and chemistry, and cannot even be readily defined, much less forced. This is precisely its magic. Realizing this, we can acknowledge without any sense of inadequacy that we are not, nor need to be, friendship sorcerers.

However, teachers and others do have some influence over the nature of proximity. Thus, to create and foster an environment in which it is possible for friendship to emerge might be a more reasonable goal. In order to achieve this goal, it is essential that we examine the nature of the interactions we facilitate. In particular, we must look closely at the role of help in our classrooms, and look not so much at whether children should help each other, but how that help takes place.


Let’s “begin at the beginning”, and examine what help means to all of us. In most societies today, helping others is viewed as a socially admirable course of action. Those of us who are in a so-called “privileged position” are asked to give to others. We know we should give to our families, our communities, and most of all, to those “less fortunate” than ourselves. Yet, why is it that most of us, while perfectly comfortable offering help, are decidedly uncomfortable receiving it?

To Read The Full Article –>> CLICK HERE

Photo Credit: fingle

Originally published in: Thousand, J., Villa, R., Nevin, A. Creativity and Collaborative Learning: A Practical Guide to Empowering Students and Teachers. Baltimore: Paul Brookes, 1994.
© Copyright 1994 Paul H. Brookes Publishers.

5 Strategies For Structuring An Inclusive Classroom Environment


Much has been written about the value of inclusive education and the ways in which inclusive education benefits ALL learners, not just those identified with need or classified by a school district. Yet, even when the most committed educator agrees with the value of inclusion, it does not automatically translate to practice. Successful school inclusion requires guidance, support and consistent intention. Everyone from administrators to all teachers (not just “special ed” teachers) to parents and students, support staff, etc. must be brought into the planning process. It is not always easy, and flexibility is critical, because as soon as you think you have it right, the needs of your students may change and you will have to adapt and plan again. Nevertheless, with thoughtful planning and intentional design, inclusive classrooms will be beneficial for all learners.

Here are my top five strategies for structuring an inclusive classroom environment:

1) All students benefit from a multi-sensory approach to learning.

This is exactly what it sounds like; an approach to education that engages all of the senses. Some of us learn best by listening, some through reading. Some of us need to write something down to commit it to memory, others won’t remember well unless they repeat it back out loud. Still others need to touch, taste or even smell to fully grasp a new concept. Combining a variety of different approaches increases the likelihood that learning can be meaningful, relevant and lasting.

2) Individualized expectations are fair.

Individualizing expectations are as fair for gifted students as they are for those with learning challenges; and everyone in between. It is a misnomer that having different expectations for different students in the same classroom is unfair. Fair isn’t equal; fair is when everyone gets what they need. Teachers should not compare students to one another, rather students should each be working toward progress from their own current level of functioning. Individualizing doesn’t “dumb down” the curriculum or hold any students back; it enables each student to progress at his/her own pace.

3) Station activities, or centers, benefit all learners.

Centers provide students with the opportunity to learn at their own pace as they explore a concept or practice a skill.  All students benefit as centers enable the delivery of instruction to be differentiated according to individual students’ needs. There are many different ways to structure centers within a classroom, and choices will need to be made based on skill level, students’ ability to work independently and the number of staff available in the classroom.

4) Develop a clear set of rules and expectations for your classroom.

Behavior management is critical to a successful learning environment. When students act out or are unable to focus, no significant learning can take place. Rules for the classroom and student behavior need to be kindly but firmly established. A successful classroom will be one that reinforces positive behavior, stimulates attention and imagination and makes expectations clear.

5) Be flexible!

Maybe this should have been number one. A teacher’s ability to adapt and change when necessary is critical to the success of an inclusive classroom. Seasoned teachers know how to “read the room”. This means that they are in tune with their students’ needs and abilities well enough to recognize when something isn’t working. Students benefit from a teach who possesses the flexibility to scrap a lesson altogether when it isn’t clicking, or to capture an amazing moment and run with it instead of the planned lesson.

Photo Credit: Daniel Kulinski

Do you have any strategies to add to this list? Tell us about them in the comments sections below!

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