people find it easy to criticize special education. No matter what special education departments or their staff do, there will always be someone ready to tell them that what they're doing is all wrong. While not all students who have received special education services have done well, certainly other students have been beneficial. However, given the importance of teaching children who have significant educational problems, it is crucial that special educators look at what they do, why they do it, and where those actions could be improved.
The issue of how best to teach students with special needs is an important one: in the United States, although student population has only increased by 2% in the last 25 years, the number of students receiving some sort of special education services has increased by 47%.
Examining the research can be of great help when looking at how to improve special education, because a large number of studies exist looking at what constitutes effective teaching through the entire spectrum of special education services from preschool to young adulthood (Cook & Schirmer, 2003). Unfortunately, the research does not tell us how well or consistently the good research demonstrating the concept of "best practices," or things known to improve learning, are applied in special education.
When school districts first started providing special education, psychologists and other specialists had only theoretical approaches regarding how to teach students with learning disabilities. When the term "learning disabilities" was first coined, emphasis was on " the concept of intraindividual differences" (Vaughn & Linan-Thompson, 2003) -- strengths and weaknesses within the child. While that approach has gained validity over the years, the process of providing individualized education has changed. In the sixties and much of the seventies, emphasis was on attempts to retrain the child's brain -- to teach improved visual perception, for instance (Vaughn & Linan-Thompson, 2003). Over time research could not show measurable improvements in student learning using this approach (Vaughn & Linan-Thompson, 2003), and it gradually fell out of favor.
Another approach to providing individualized instruction has been to use psychometric information to guide instructional approaches. In this approach, the child's evaluation provides information regarding which modality seems the strongest learning channel for him or her. So some children might receive a visual emphasis, while for others the emphasis might be on auditory or kinesthetic input. However, in some programs, a multisensory approach is used, applying teaching techniques that address multiple modalities at once (Vaughn & Linan-Thompson, 2003). This is also sometimes called a "multi-sensory" approach. Pedogically it reflects the fact that while a child may show certain strengths in testing, psychometric testing isn't precise enough to define how a child learns most effectively with great precision, and that using several psychological processes at once may be superior to an approach that tries to isolote, say, visual or auditory channels for instructional purposes. Research done combining specialized techniques for academic tasks have produced positive results when the tasks are clear, planned for effective learning, and directly related to the child's academic needs (Vaughn & Linan-Thompson, 2003).
In an examination of the literature, Vaughn and Linan-Thompson (2003) found specific characteristics of instruction that led to academic gains for students with learning disabilities. These characteristics included instruction that controlled the difficulty of the work assigned; work matched to the student's true instructional level; making sure core skills, such as phonemic awareness in reading, were solidly mastered; teaching in small groups using an approach that included interaction among the students; using modeling and thinking strategies, including when they should be used; an emphasis on direct instruction, instruction on how to integrate information for use in more advanced work; consistent monitoring of student progress; and providing students with consistent feedback regarding the tasks they were performing.
An important intervention is placement, and the issue of where to place students who will receive special education is an issue with social, ethical and pedagogical implications.
However, as Zigmond points out, the setting may not be as important as the quality of the program (Zigmond, 2003). Researchers looked at how well students learned in large group, small group and one-on-one instruction, with interesting results. They found that teachers individualized more in smaller groups, but that larger group instruction dominated the special education programs included in the study (Bongers, 2001). In many cases, the amount of time students attended to the assigned task and/or seemed engaged in the lesson decreased as group size increased (Bongers, 2001), although some research shows exceptions to this: In students with a diagnosis of mild retardation, the pupils tended to pay more attention in larger classrooms. However, they responded less frequently, and their behavior was generally better in smaller settings (Bongers, 2001). Special educators recognize the fact that smaller groups get better educational outcomes than large ones, and also recognize the need for one-on-one work. However, 87% of the teachers interviewed for Bongers' research stated that they did not have enough time to work individually with their students.
When a school uses an inclusion model, the issue of individualization becomes even more important, since the regular classroom is not designed to provide intensive educational, social or behavioral remediation. The success of inclusion hinges on its being a well-designed program with effective support for the staff (Bongers, 2001).
However, although the research exists to help guide special educators when designing and implementing programs, little is known about how often this knowledge is used (Heward, 2003). Instead, teachers -- including special education teachers -- tend to rely on long-held beliefs that may or may not be supported by research on best practices (Heward, 2003). Often the community at large holds these opinions as well, proving support for the status quo. Some of these beliefs are incompatible with good special education instruction.
Heward (2003) lists what he regards as educational rights of students receiving special education: the right to an effective education, teaching that is individualized, intensive and goal-directed; and instruction based on best practices. This framework requires special education to provide instruction that helps students "s acquire, generalize, and maintain knowledge and skills to improve the quality of their lives in school, home, community, and workplace settings" (Heward, 2003). If the student's education does not result in new knowledge and skills, it is not real education.
Both Atkinson (2002) and Heward (2003) note the strong influence of prevailing legal and sociopolitical views on special education. However, they argue that special education must stay focused on its primary objectives: to prevent educational problems through early intervention; overcome those problems through remediation; or teach the students to overcome those difficulties via compensatory strategies, with the final goal of making sure the person's disabilities do not keep him or her from fully experiencing school as well as the rest of his or her life (Heward, 2003).
Heward also notes that a substantial body of knowledge exists demonstrating best practices for special education, which include mediated scaffolding, or making sure the student has the knowledge base to learn the material offered; functional behavior analyses, which provide useful insight into what really triggers disruptive behaviors; "think alouds," which provide strategies the student can verbalize and use; and a host of other methods that can be systematically taught by teachers and used by students.
However, popular beliefs among teacher that might even be characterized as "folk beliefs" can strongly influence how a teacher teaches. Some teachers have come to believe that teaching discrete skills diminishes the child as a whole. Heward provides a way to judge the appropriateness of teaching a discrete skill: whether or not that skill is a "splinter skill" not related to his or her overall education vs. whether it will facilitate further learning. One example given is an approach called teaching "pivotal behaviors" for students with autism. While taught as individual skills, such thing as learning to respond to multiple cues and initiating communication had "widespread positive effects" (Heward, 2003) for the students.
Drill and practice has come under marked criticism in recent years, but research suggests that being able to perform a skill quickly and accurately makes the skill more usable for the student. Legitimate debate exists over what should and should not be memorized, but automatic recall for some skills increases learning.
Another popular educational belief is that the students must possess intrinsic motivation to learn and exhibit acceptable behavior. However, a large body of research demonstrates that used well, contingent rewards (rewards dependent on what the student does) such as praise and other positive reinforcements can improve both learning and behavior (Heward, 2003).
Another example of how political and social pressures can affect special education is reflected in discussions and debates about what the schools should do for students with AD/HD. Just as has happened in special education, government guidelines put an emphasis on legal issues while diminishing the influence of special educators and other experts. Laws are not easily responsive to changing views within society. In fact most parents, and especially the parents of children with special…