Thoughts on Special Education and Systems Level Leadership


How does 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 special education programming, classes, and services have been separated from general education programming. Consequently, many schools 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 the system 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 our school leaders to critically examine and manage the system to ensure that its practices more 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 special education students from general education students to learn science, math, English, or social studies? Is there evidence that supports better learning outcomes for special education students in such settings? Even if there is, is it really and apple to apples comparison? Furthermore, why create separate systems for students to learn the same material? Why not leverage the unique expertise of both the special education and content teacher to maximize learning outcomes for all students?

By creating a co-taught class, 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. 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 learning system.

Another area that resonated with me is the idea of taking ownership for the learning of all of the students in our building. Too often in schools, teachers 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.

In such a system, too much focus is placed on teaching. Apparently, the assumption has become that isolated teaching leads to deep and meaningful learning for students. However, is that the perception of our students? If our students were given even a little more choice and voice over the system they learn in, how would the learning system change?

Consider for a moment what it must be like for our students to learn in such a fragmented system. Over the course of the day, a student may have to acclimate to 8 or more different teachers, 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 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 our classroom. 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 our 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. We must visit each other’s classrooms and we must open our doors for 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 strategies in our own classrooms more closely aligned to those of our colleagues. We would also discover connections between 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 once a week or a month, 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.


As an aspiring administrator, it will be vitally important for me to develop a process for managing the system I will be leading. Too often, leaders of educational systems rush to implement the shiny new initiative or next great thing, believing it will lead to dramatic improvements to their system. However, the actual results are frequently underwhelming

Why do so many of our well-intentioned ideas go awry? Why have too many of our veteran teachers adopted a “wait and see” approach in regard to anything new? Surely, they didn’t always hold this opinion. I would like to believe that when they began their careers, they were eager and willing to invest a great deal in new and innovative ideas. However, something must have happened to them along the way, perhaps several times, to disappoint them and create this more pessimistic mindset. What have they learned that the rest of us haven’t?

As administrators, it would be very easy, and completely unproductive, to blame our teachers when initiatives A, B, or C fail to produce the results we intended. A more constructive approach would require us to look first look inward at ourselves and critically examine our own leadership may have caused the idea to underperform or even fail in its implementation.

When the problems emerge, leaders must seek to understand and identify the weaknesses and flaws embedded within the system. In regard to implementing innovative ideas and approaches, this often begins with careful reflection about how the original idea was communicated our stakeholders. Did the change happen to them or with them? This is a clear line of distinction. How much time, effort, and resources did we invest in education and in taking the time to build understanding and consensus among our stakeholders?

As a future administrator, I will need to be mindful of being both efficient and timely, but also inclusive of the voices of my stakeholders. Ideas that are steamrolled over people rarely generate anything more than mild compliance. No initiative can thrive under such conditions. Therefore, true success is only possible when a critical majority of the stakeholders in a system are genuinely committed and determined to ensure that a particular idea becomes successful. This will only happen when people have to believe in and trust their leader. Trust comes from inclusion and mutual respect between the leader and their followers.

Even after doing the hard work to engage stakeholders and enable them to take ownership over an idea and make it their own, it still becomes incumbent upon the leader to carefully manage the system to ensure that good ideas can take hold and prosper. It also requires that a system that is built with the right infrastructure in place. In a school system, this means creating a learner-focused curriculum, instruction, and assessment experience for our students that is aligned, data-informed, built on best practices, and inclusive of all learners. As administrators, building this requires us to wisely invest our resources and time to best support the needs of the teachers and staff in our buildings.  

It is only after taking adequate time to build consensus and create the infrastructure to enable success, that we can than begin lead our systems and have committed followers. In doing so, we also ensure that the good ideas of those we lead, as well as our own, are implemented with greater fidelity. In closing, if we can commit to do the hard work in the beginning, innovative ideas can truly take hold and be sustained, creating the necessary momentum for the innovation needed to best meet the needs of our learners in the 21st century.

~Brad Hurst

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