McKay School teacher candidates work through special education laws and philosophies in the classroom.
Inclusive education is a complex practice, which is challenging to teach. CPSE professor Heidi Abraham helps McKay School students make sense of the laws concerning inclusion and test their own philosophies concerning it.
Inclusive education is a policy by which students with disabilities are educated in the same classroom as their typically developing peers. This is in contrast to other models of special education, such as pull-out models by which students with disabilities are educated in a separate environment— either a separate classroom or school.
Abraham said there is no cut and dried answer to whether inclusive education is the better method for teaching students with disabilities. “Inclusion is seen as a way for all students to access education or access knowledge,” she said. “One thing we know from the Brown vs Board of Education case was that they determined that ‘separate but equal’ is not equal.” Separate environments for special education students tend to be unequal to general education classrooms because it is difficult to provide the same kind of access in a separate classroom. Since this ruling, special education laws and regulations have continued to evolve as new assumptions and structures have been explored.
Abraham cites educators’ experience with the curriculum as part of the reason for the dichotomy between inclusive general education and separate classrooms. “General education teachers become experts in the general curriculum; in a secondary classroom it means they’ve learned everything [necessary to teach] science or chemistry or technology,” she said. “A special education teacher doesn’t necessarily have that same [content teaching] expertise, although [he or she has] has expertise in working with students with disabilities.”
Abraham feels collaboration between the general education teacher and the special education teacher to combine their separate skills is the best way to educate students with disabilities.
But inclusion isn’t controlled by educators; Abraham teaches her McKay School students about the legal requirements teachers must follow. Legally the student with a disability has the right to be in the general education classroom to the extent that is determined to be appropriate for the child. The current federal law regarding special education requires that schools find an inclusive placement for students with disabilities, not necessarily total inclusion. Abraham said the national trend is moving towards increasing the time during which students with disabilities are in the general education classroom during the day. School districts in the BYU-Public School Partnership commonly rely on the pull-out model, with students pulled out into a special education classroom. McKay School teacher candidates must reconcile these differences with their own feelings before they enter their own classrooms.
Abraham acknowledges her bias as a special education teacher. “I think your bias creeps in,” she said. “I try as much as I can to stay neutral and to interact with the information rather than just say this is the right way for kids— because what is the right way?”
On the first day of class Abraham has her special education candidates write down their philosophy on inclusive education. Throughout the semester she presents the historical facts of inclusion and discusses class members’ personal experiences with students with disabilities. “I’ve learned more that my job is not to fill an empty vessel, but to sort of help teacher candidates understand their philosophies.”
Abraham said most students’ philosophies don’t change during the course. “We assumed they came to us as these open books and we were giving them all this information,” she said. “But people are much more complicated than that.”
While personal experiences can make understanding inclusion more confusing, Abraham said those experiences are influential and important to students preparing to teach, whether their own experiences or those of others’.
February 4, 2013