Making Learning Accessible.
For children with disabilities receiving a public education today, gaining full access to the general education curriculum is a critical issue. The 1997 reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) mandates that students with disabilities learn and be evaluated with their peers. It also calls upon schools to provide students the greatest possible access to the general curriculum.
According to Patty Guard, acting director of the U.S. Department of Education and its Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP), "The new educational priorities help students with disabilities to achieve high standards under the general curriculum. This is far better than having kids with disabilities participating in a parallel system of instruction with a different curriculum.
In a major national effort, CAST (Center for Applied Special Technology), of Peabody, Massachusetts, and three prominent partner organizations are assuming leadership in addressing the challenge of malting the general curriculum accessible to all learners. CAST, the not-for-profit organization which has pioneered the concept of "universal design for learning," has been selected by OSEP as the lead organization in forming the National Center on Accessing the General Curriculum.
CAST's partners in establishing the National Center are Boston College and its School of Education; the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC), and the Harvard Children's Initiative and Harvard Law School. The Children's Initiative is a program that involves all of the schools and faculties of Harvard University.
With the support of a five-year cooperative agreement from OSEP, CAST is establishing the National Center to provide the leadership, vision, and expertise necessary to solve the problems inherent in general curriculum access. The National Center will synthesize fragmented research in policy, teacher practice, and curriculum design; create a new vision and practical approaches for making general curriculum fully accessible; and disseminate its research, perspectives, and solutions to educators, parents, publishers, and policy makers.
PUTTING THEORY TO THE TEST
Guard points out that, with more and more students with disabilities spending time in general classrooms, general curriculum access has become imperative. Two new IDEA requirements best illustrate the shift in focus towards general curriculum access, Guard says. The first requirement "illustrates that, while IEPs (Individual Education Plans) used to delineate the services a child would receive in special ed., they now focus on the child's success in the general curriculum. The second requirement focuses on what teachers and schools have to do and the supports they need to help the child be involved in and progress in the general curriculum."
But helping students gain access to the general curriculum is a complex issue, involving several interconnected problems.
First, the content, format, and structure of existing curriculum materials, such as printed textbooks, are inflexible.
Second, teachers typically have little training in or guidance on how to develop instructional strategies for learners with diverse needs.
Third, those concerned with public education, often have opposing views. As such, consensus-building is difficult, especially around access issues, which are often seen as the exclusive domain of special education.
Last, while many public policies are established to benefit children with disabilities, they often create obstacles. For example, the individualized goals of special education are often in direct conflict with large-scale, standardized testing. In addition, integration among special education programs is often fragmented, so there is little continuity between a child's participation in special needs activities and in the general curriculum.
PARTNERSHIP FOR SUCCESS
The four National Center partners will capitalize on their complementary capabilities and interests. Each partner, an established leader in its field, will focus primarily on one aspect of the accessibility issue, as well as work collaboratively with the other partners.
At the forefront of adaptation curriculum and universal design for learning, CAST will examine curriculum design questions. Most materials and methods that are part of the general curriculum do not allow for customization to meet all students' needs and learning styles, according to the National Center's principal investigator, David Rose, Ed.D., co-executive director of CAST. "That is why universally designed learning materials, with their built-in flexibility, offer promise for creating a transformable general curriculum truly accessible to all learners," Rose notes. "But making universal design for learning a viable solution requires both extensive research and a shared vision of how new curricula, teaching practices, and policies can be woven together to create a powerful model that bridges theory and practice. This is the job of the National Center," Rose says. He states that universal design for learning can serve as a framework for the partners.
A leader in integrating best practices in regular and special education, partner Boston College's Department of Teacher Education, Special Education, Curriculum, and Instruction will focus on what general curriculum access means for teachers. Richard Jackson, Ed.D., associate professor and director of Projects in Low Incidence Disabilities at BC, and a senior research scientist at CAST, will supervise a team of BC researchers from both the general and special education faculty. Jackson says, "We will be thinking about the curriculum from the teachers' perspective, drawing information from case studies, and bringing that knowledge base back to the partners. In this way, the four partners can formulate a shared vision of what it means to access the general curriculum, and create collaboration among administrators, teachers, disability advocates, and curriculum publishers."
Known and respected for consensus-building among professionals, educational organization, parents, and children with disabilities, the CEC will be responsible for communicating with those in the field to conceptualize ideas that work. For example, CEC will identify the concerns and issues of schools, advocacy groups, and parents. As the Center develops curriculum practices, CEC will bring these ideas to teachers and administrators, who can speak from experience about whether these strategies are feasible out in the "real world."
A key aspect of this consensus-building involves bridging the gap between general and special education. Christine Mason, Ph.D., associate for Research and Program Development at CEC, contends that publishers and administrators must be made aware of the needs of all students, including those with physical, cognitive, and learning disabilities, when planning and adopting curricula. She says, "It's no longer just about special education. What we need to do now is get the buy-in and support from general education."
Bridging the gap between general and special education also falls on policymakers, which will be the focus of the Harvard Children's Initiative and Harvard Law School. They will assess factors in current law that both enable and hinder full opportunities for students of all abilities. They will also collaborate with the other partners in developing case studies and identifying programs that work.
Martha Minow, J.D., Harvard professor of law and co-director of the Children's Initiative, says, "Our job is to examine the laws and policies that determine the environment in which schools, families, and principals operate. We need to ask: What kind of accommodations are permitted in mandated assessments? If the curriculum is made accessible, can the assessments be as well? Can the laws help in restructuring our classrooms, rather than fitting students into existing classrooms?"
Given the means, students with disabilities can interact with and benefit from the curriculum and succeed in school. Through their collaborative efforts, the National Center intends to provide those means.
Leslie B. G. Goldberg is a freelance writer and corporate communications consultant based in Boston.
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|Title Annotation:||National Center on Accessing the General Curriculum works toward implementation of inclusive education|
|Author:||Goldberg, Leslie B. G.|
|Publication:||The Exceptional Parent|
|Date:||Nov 1, 1999|
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