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LOOMFIELD, N.J. — When Mary Fair became a teacher in 2012, her classes often contained a mix of special education students and general education students. Placing children with and without disabilities in the same classroom, instead of segregating them, was a growing national trend, spurred on by lawsuits by special education advocates. But in those early days, Fair had no idea how to handle her students with disabilities, whose educational challenges ranged from learning deficits to behavioral disturbance disorders. Calling out a child with a behavioral disability in front of the class usually backfired, and made the situation worse. They saw it as “an attack and a disrespect issue,” Fair said. Over time, Fair figured out how to navigate these situations and talk students “down from the ledge.” She also learned how to keep students with disabilities on task and break down lessons into smaller, easier bits of information for students who were struggling.

No one taught her these strategies. Although she earned a bachelor’s degree and teaching certificate in math instruction for both elementary and middle school, she never had to take a class about students with disabilities. She was left to figure it out on the job. The need for teachers who have both the knowledge and the ability to teach special education students is more critical today than ever before. A national push to take students with disabilities out of isolation means most now spend the majority of their days in general education classrooms, rather than in separate, special education classes. That means general education teachers are teaching more students with disabilities. But training programs are doing little to prepare teachers; Fair’s experience is typical.

Many teacher education programs offer just one class about students with disabilities to their general education teachers, “Special Ed 101,” as it’s called at one New Jersey college. It’s not enough to equip teachers for a roomful of children who can range from the gifted to students who read far below grade level due to a learning disability. A study in 2007 found that general education teachers in a teacher preparation program reported taking an average of 1.5 courses focusing on inclusion or special education, compared to about 11 courses for special education teachers. Educators say little has changed since then. A 2009 study concluded that no one explicitly shows teachers how to teach to “different needs.” Because of time constraints, the many academic standards that must be taught, and a lack of support, “teachers are not only hesitant to implement individualized instruction, but they do not even know how to do so,” the report stated.

Fair says teacher preparation programs should be doing more. At the very least, “You should have a special education class, and an English language learner class,” she said. “You’re going to have those students.” Between 1989 and 2013, the percentage of students with disabilities who were in a general education class for 80 percent or more of the school day increased from about 32 percent to nearly 62 percent. Special education advocates have been pushing for the change — especially for students who have mild to moderate disabilities like learning disabilities or a speech impairment — in some cases by suing school districts. Some research shows as many as 85 percent of students with disabilities can master general education content if they receive educational supports. Supports can include services, such as access to a special education teacher, or accommodations and modifications, such as having test questions read aloud, or being allowed to sit in a certain part of the classroom.

Students with disabilities who are placed in general education classrooms get more instructional time, have fewer absences and have better post-secondary outcomes, research shows. Studies also show there is no negative impact on the academic achievement of non-disabled students in an inclusion classroom; those students benefit socially, by forming positive relationships and friendships and learning how to be more at ease with a variety of people. Alla Vayda-Manzo, principal of Bloomfield Middle School about 30 miles outside of New York City, said she’s seen the benefit of inclusion for students. The school serves about 930 students, nearly 20 percent of whom have a disability, according to state data. When students with disabilities are included in classrooms with their peers, Vayda-Manzo said the high expectations and instructional strategies “lend themselves to those students being more successful than they would be had they been in a separate, self-contained environment.”

But as more districts move to make classrooms inclusive, they’ve been caught flat footed when it comes to finding teachers prepared to make the shift. Academic outcomes for students with disabilities have remained stagnant for years, even as more students with special needs are integrated into general education classrooms. Students with disabilities are less likely to graduate and more likely to earn an alternate diploma that is not equivalent to a general diploma in the eyes of many colleges and employers. And year after year they score far lower than their peers on standardized exams. Experts say the problem is that it takes much more than just placing students with disabilities next to their general education peers: Teachers must have the time, support, and training to provide a high-quality education based on a student’s needs. Educators say they’re unprepared to teach wide range of students.

We must urge our legislation to better train general education teachers in strategies and teaching tools when educating children with disabilities.

Susie Bean Gives Team: Article from Special Education Today, March 2017