Oct 31 2006

Meeting of the Minds

Science teachers and special education teachers band together to help students with special needs.

An article of faith among U.S. educators who labor to include all elementary school children in mainstream math and science curricula is this: Students with disabilities have the ability to someday contribute to the fields of mathematics and science.

“Albert Einstein had dyslexia, Pythagoras had epilepsy and Louis Pasteur had paralysis,” says Harriet Schweitzer, associate director of the Center for Mathematics, Science and Computer Education at Rutgers University in Piscataway, N.J. “We need these [future] scientists.”

How can educators ensure that every child has the opportunity to realize his or her potential and possibly make a significant contribution to math and science? The answer begins with the teachers.

Increasing numbers of children with special needs are entering mainstream classrooms, creating a twofold challenge: Mainstream teachers lack the skills of special education teachers in managing those children’s special needs, while special education teachers often lack the thorough knowledge of science that mainstream teachers possess.

Programs at Rutgers University and elsewhere are tackling the problem by bringing together teachers from both groups and encouraging them to share skills and experience with each other. Children in both special and mainstream classrooms benefit from that sharing.

Collaboration between mainstream teachers and their counterparts in special education is the key to success, says Karen Mutch-Jones, a researcher at TERC, a nonprofit education research and development organization based in Cambridge, Mass.

“Structuring collaborative work is critical,” Mutch-Jones says. “In the past, this often did not happen, and teachers were simply thrown together in an inclusive classroom.” When mainstream and special education teachers are appropriately supported, she explains, “they have an easier time sharing their expertise with each other, and they become more reflective about their work.”

Team Teaching

That’s part of the goal at Rutgers. The university’s Special Science Teams (SST) program brings together teams of teachers from individual schools and school districts throughout New Jersey. Ideally, each team includes 10 general education teachers and two special education teachers. For a week in the summer and two follow-up days during the academic year, the teachers spend time working as a team.

Teachers in the SST program—all of whose schools submit applications to the program on their behalf—start their studies at Rutgers with a day of team-building and learning about cooperative strategies. In an exercise called jigsaw, for example, each teacher in a group reads one section of a large body of material on a particular subject.

After becoming expert on that section of the material, each shares what he or she has learned with the others, resulting in group expertise. The teachers reflect on what they have learned about collaboration and how they can apply the strategy to their classrooms.

The following days focus on a specific area of environmental science, such as oil spills—typically with the help of an outside expert. The groups perform a hands-on activity involving the subject matter. Each teacher plays a role, such as materials-gatherer.

Finally, the teachers reflect on the activity and how it could be adapted for children with disabilities. At that point, Rutgers’ Schweitzer says, the special education teachers bring their skills forward for the benefit of the group.

Teachers who have taken part in SST programs give the teams high marks for helping them design strategies for relaying information to children with learning disabilities. Toby Karten, a special education resource center teacher at Lafayette Mills School in Manalapan, N.J., was asked by her principal to take part in the program in the summer of 2003.

Karten, along with other support and classroom teachers, brainstormed to generate ideas on how they would modify math and science lessons for children with learning disabilities. Karten adopted those ideas and fine-tuned them in the classroom.

“Sometimes, it’s not just about what you teach, but how you do it,” says Karten, author of the recently published Inclusion Strategies That Work! “That’s what I like about SST: You take concepts and principles and present them to students in a way that they can absorb.”

One of Karten’s colleagues at Lafayette Mills, Heather Palmer, concurs with her assessment of the program’s strengths. A mainstream classroom teacher, Palmer entered SST expecting a purely science-focused program. But the techniques she learned about getting students to work more cooperatively with one another have proved useful for all the subjects she teaches, including science.

“I went there thinking it was a science workshop, but I came back with really good ideas relevant to everything I teach,” Palmer recalls. “There wasn’t a day I was there that I didn’t pick up something valuable.”

Teachers in SST programs also learn about “adaptive technologies,” such as handheld devices, pocket PCs and software that can be used to assist students with disabilities. For example, word-completion programs can help children who have handwriting challenges by shortening the time it takes them to write stories.

“After all,” Rutgers’ Schweitzer says, “it’s not the handwriting we’re judging. It’s their ability to express themselves.”

Through the SST exercise, special education teachers gain a more thorough understanding of mainstream teachers’ methods and the scientific subject matter itself, while mainstream teachers gain an appreciation for the different learning styles of children with disabilities, Schweitzer explains.

Professional Development

Other organizations also provide training for both mainstream and special education teachers. Educational Equity Concepts (EEC) in New York and the Academy for Educational Development (AED) in Washington, D.C., plan to provide professional development seminars for special education and mainstream teachers through the Web and at national conferences. One EEC/AED program, “Reaching Science and Special Education Teachers: On Line and In Person,” will use Web broadcasts to take participating teachers through science-related activities for students with disabilities and will follow up with a moderated interactive discussion.

“An expert talks about these issues online with teachers and shares something very practical that shows how to do an activity with children with disabilities and make whatever adaptations are necessary,” explains Barbara Sprung, co-director of the program. “Usually, those adaptations are much simpler than people expect them to be.”

The Accessible Mathematics Project at TERC plans to develop and distribute professional development materials for mainstream teachers, special education teachers and preservice teaching candidates. The materials will focus on teaching math to children with disabilities, based on research with pairs of mainstream teachers and special education teachers working together.

Special education teachers may not fully understand the curricula and pedagogy taught in mainstream classrooms, says Judy Storeygard, principal investigator of TERC’s Accessible Mathematics program. Often, she says, special education teachers have not been afforded the professional development opportunities that might prepare them to support students with disabilities in inclusive classrooms.

Candace Chick, an elementary school teacher who is dual-certified in both mainstream and special education, took part in one of TERC’s study groups and in its Accessible Mathematics program a few years ago. The collaborative work in the program was very valuable to her.

“It was just as powerful for my [mainstream] students,” Chick says, as it was for students with special needs. “We developed ideas about how kids learn that can be used with any learner.”

Teacher Somchay Xayarath Edwards of Heath School in Chestnut Hill, Mass., says collaboration was a key benefit of her time with the TERC project. “There is always great value when teachers have an opportunity to discuss their practice with other teachers,” she says.

“Most teachers involved in the project were videotaped at least once by TERC. We would watch parts of a teacher’s lesson and be able to see how different strategies could be implemented in our own classrooms.”

The results of such programs can be inspiring. Rutgers’ Schweitzer visited a Bayonne, N.J., school where many students had been taught by SST alumni. The students were divided into groups, and each one included students with disabilities and those without disabilities. Each group presented a collaborative science project. “They worked together and cooperated beautifully, and they were so excited about the science they were doing,” Schweitzer recalls.

Ted Kemp is a freelance business and technology writer based in Brooklyn, N. Y.

Five Tips to Math Success

TERC, an education research and development organization in Cambridge, Mass., identifies five critical requirements for success in teaching math in inclusive settings to students with disabilities:

1. Build an inclusive mathematics community based on standards-based mathematics.

2. Make mathematics explicit.

3. Support students in their efforts to work independently and take responsibility in the classroom.

4. Link assessments and teaching.

5. Promote collaboration between special education and mainstream teachers.

The Ideas Behind IDEA

Evolving legal mandates have shaped how children with special needs are taught. Now they’re also shaping how those children’s teachers learn.

Practices underlying the teaching of students with disabilities have evolved throughout U.S. history, especially over the last few decades. But it’s only recently that ideas about the education of children with disabilities have shifted to let special education and mainstream teachers learn new ways to teach each other.

The law that has largely guided special education efforts, the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA), was originally passed as the Education of All Handicapped Children Act in 1975. The law was designed to correct a fundamental flaw: Children with disabilities in the 1960s and earlier often lacked any access to public schools. The law mandates that all children receive access to a free public education, regardless of the extent of their disabilities.

More recently, IDEA has evolved even further. Children taught in separate special education classrooms sometimes did not receive the same level of instruction as their peers in mainstream classrooms. IDEA was modified in 1997 to mandate that individual programs designed for children with disabilities must relate more clearly to the general education curriculum. Though IDEA does not mandate inclusion—the teaching of children with disabilities in mainstream classrooms—most schools have chosen that strategy to fulfill the mandate.

Special education teachers and science and math teachers who have developed expertise in their fields over the years have been thrust into the confluence of federal law and school strategy. Today, they often are working with students with disabilities in mainstream classrooms and—by collaborating to generate the best practices and strategies that can help children with disabilities succeed—are gaining a new education of their own.

“Special educators have learned about disabilities and about creating individualized special education programs,” says Karen Mutch-Jones, a researcher at TERC, an education research and development organization in Cambridge, Mass. “Before, those [programs] were considered the kids’ curriculum. Now, they’re considered a vehicle for helping children achieve in the mainstream classroom and in the mainstream curriculum.”