Defragmenting our System: Thoughts on Special Education and Cross-Curricular Collaboration

Below is my reflection from the first weekend of my Drake University graduate class, entitled “Current Issues in Special Education Administration.” 



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From my perspective, our first weekend of class garnered much discussion and new learning.

Among the items that really connected with me was the concept of how special education fits within the larger scope of the educational system as a whole. Specifically, how well is special education programming aligned with the philosophy that all students are first and foremost general education students?

Historically, special education programming, classes, and services have been separated from general education. Consequently, many schools created and operated separate systems of learning for general education and special education students.

Often in education, philosophies evolve much more rapidly than practices. Innovation is challenging because our system of education is so complex, often burdened with many fragmented constraints placed upon the system by those not working within the system. Therefore, it becomes crucial for school leaders to critically examine and manage the system to ensure that its practices closely align with its philosophies.

When I think about alignment, I think about the minimization of redundancy and the maximization of efficiency. For example, why create separate courses for special education students to learn science, math, English, and social studies? Is there empirical evidence that the separate courses support better learning outcomes for special education students? Furthermore, why create separate courses for students to learn the same material? Why not leverage the unique talents and expertise of both the special education and content teacher in order to maximize learning outcomes for all students?


By creating a co-taught classes, students can learn from both a content-area expert and a teacher specialized in individualization, personalization, and differentiation strategies. In such an environment, learning becomes much more engaging, meaningful, and authentic for all students. Students would also benefit from inclusion with their general education peers by building social and other non-cognitive skills. It would also be very easy to measure achievement data of all students in such courses and compare these to achievement data of the same students learning in the previously separated courses.

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Another area that resonated with me is the idea of of all educators taking ownership for the learning of all of the students in our buildings, not just the ones in our classes, content area, or grade level.

Too often in schools, educators are quick to play the blame game. At the secondary level, if scores in reading, math, or science decline, the blame often falls on the corresponding content-area teachers. At the elementary level, if kids can’t read in 3rd grade, the 2nd grade teachers are blamed. If special education students score low, the blame falls on the special education teachers.

Where is the collective ownership for the learning of all of our students? Don’t we have a moral imperative to ensure all of the students in our building are maximizing their learning along all dimensions and to do everything we can to support their learning? Additionally, the isolated accountability view places too much focus on teaching in isolation. To what extent does isolated teaching lead to deep and meaningful learning for our students?


Consider for a moment what it must be like for our students to learn in such a fragmented system. Over the course of their day, a student may have to acclimate to 8 or more different teacher personalities, expectations, performance criterion, grading scales, etc. Is it any wonder that they often struggle to apply and connect learning from one course to another?

If the purpose of education to create a well-informed, skilled, and collaborative citizenry, capable of creating collective solutions to diverse, multifaceted problems and functioning appropriately in a rapidly evolving global society, how well are we hitting that mark? 

Do we even know how to measure if we are hitting that mark? Are we just hoping that it will just magically happen? And if this is our goal, or if we have other goals like this for our students beyond merely learning content, how explicitly have we communicated these to each other as educators? More importantly, how well have we communicated these to our students? Have we provided them with targeted learning opportunities to grow in their capacities to meet these goals?

As educators, we must no longer enable our systems to perpetuate the perception that we do not care about what our students learn outside of our individual classrooms. We care deeply. 

Therefore, our actions must reflect our words. We must take more ownership in teaching the whole child. We must seek to learn from colleagues outside our departments and grade levels. So many great ideas are being implemented in our buildings and we must all seek to discover them to build the collective capacity as educators in our system. We must visit each other’s classrooms and open our doors to welcome others to visit and learn from us.


The students cannot be the only learners in our buildings. To maximize learning outcomes, we must model the mindset we hope for our students to capture.


By doing so, we would learn more about what our students are learning, enabling us to implement new and better strategies in our own classrooms more closely aligned to those of our colleagues. We would also discover connections between our content areas and grade levels that we could communicate to our students in order to deepen their understanding of what they are learning about.

Ultimately, if we could design a system where teachers were invited and encouraged to visit classrooms outside their content area or grade level, I believe a dramatic cultural shift would occur in our schools. We’d feel more connected to our colleagues and more ownership over our entire learning system. I predict students would achieve at much higher levels and this performance could easily be measured before and after such a system was implemented.




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