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Nature and use of curriculum in special education.


This study reports the results of a district-wide survey about the nature and use of special education curriculum. Findings indicate that (a) special education teachers believe that the IEP constitutes the curriculum for students with disabilities; (b) there is no statistical significance based on gender when it comes to which method of curriculum is preferred; and (c) and although future training is desired, there is no statistical significance as to what the focus should be on as it relates to the special education curriculum.


The field of special education has made tremendous progress within the past 30 years. It is an ever-changing field with the ultimate goal of helping all students, but specifically students with disabilities, achieve independence. The question of which direction special education takes is an important one and this study is based on the philosophy that teachers should lead the way. Beliefs and best practices, especially regarding special education curriculum, is an area that will continue to change and grow. Special education curriculum has historically been drawn from the Individualized Education Program (IEP) (Pugach & Warger, 2001). Many special educators feel that it is a documentation of the curriculum for students with disabilities, and use the goals and objectives from the plan as the primary source when programming for these students. Thus each student's curriculum is developed based on his or her needs as recorded on the document.

Other educators see the IEP as more of a reference point in the context of a standard curriculum. They feel the primary function of the plan is to document recommendations for curricular accommodations and modifications (Adelman & Taylor, 1993). This view, however, assumes that the mission of schooling is the same for all students, those with and without disabilities. Further compounding the disagreement about the nature and content of special education curriculum are the concerns of teachers and administrators alike, that the training of special educators is inadequate in the broad areas of curriculum development (McKenzie, 1991), as well as in content subject areas (Cline & Billingsley, 1991). Sands, Adams, & Stout (1995) found that teacher training in curriculum development and modification was most likely to take place through "on-the-job" experiences and that teachers wanted more training in the areas of curriculum for teaching compensatory skills and life skills.

Teachers' beliefs and practices can influence both curriculum practices in the classrooms and reform issues about curricular implementation (Conley, 1991). Also, due to the shift towards more inclusive schools, special education educators need to have more input into what is required in general education curriculum (U.S. Department of Education, 2003). Inclusive programs continue to transform the role of the special education teacher and collaboration between the regular educator and the special education educator is and will become increasingly more important (Agran, et al., 2002). Pugach and Warger (2001) indicate that by targeting the curriculum rather than the student deficits, educators will have a better chance of eliminating barriers to student success. This exploratory study was designed to collect data from special education teachers regarding variables such as curricular training, philosophy, and practices.

Purpose of the Study

The findings are primarily descriptive in nature, and investigated whether special educations teachers preferred Individualized Education Program-based teaching versus a more standard curriculum-based approach. In addition, special educators were asked if they felt the need for further curriculum training and if so, in what specific area(s). The first research hypothesis was that the majority of the participating teachers use the Individualized Education Program as their primary source of special education curriculum. The null hypothesis was that there will be no statistical significance in favor of the Individualized Education Program or the curriculum. The second hypothesis was that there will be a difference based on gender when it came to which method of curriculum they prefer. The null hypothesis was that there will be no statistical significance between genders. The third hypothesis was that teachers will prefer to receive future training in the areas of basic skills. The null hypothesis was that there will not be a statistical significance for future training. Although the emphases in this study were the three hypotheses, because of the nature of the background of the participants, it was decided that other questions would be asked as well, for personal and professional study. From those data, questions and concerns were generated that would guide further inquiry into special education curricular practices at the local, state, and national levels.

Description of the Survey

A Special Education Use of Curriculum Survey was developed based on a study by Sands, Adams, & Stout (1995). A subsection from another survey designed by Ysseldyke, Thurlow, Wotruba, and Nania (1990) was also used as a template. The three hypotheses were addressed by asking participants to respond to three specific questions on the survey and the rest of the questions were primarily exploratory in nature; it was felt that the teachers' responses would be important in determining future questions and practices. The survey was a compilation of different assessment types. Participants were asked to choose a singe item, rank primary choice, and fill in the blank. The survey also contained one open-ended question. There were three major sections of the survey: demographics, special education curriculum, and future training needs.

Data Analysis

The three null hypotheses were tested using chi-square analyses (Witte, 1989). The first and third hypotheses were analyzed with one-variable chi-square tests. The second hypothesis was analyzed using a two-variable chi-square test. The data analyses involved both qualitative and inferential statistics. However, as previously stated, the majority of the data were primarily descriptive in nature, which was expressed as frequencies and percentages. Using both descriptive data and inferences allowed a means by which participants were able to express personal views.

Hypotheses Results

The results of the three computed chi-square statistics are given below.

The first hypothesis states that the same number of teachers feel that the IEP should be the primary source of the special education curriculum as feel that the district's curriculum should be the primary source. The chi-square is sum of the squared differences of the observed and expected frequencies over the total number expected. The correction for continuity was used since there were only two options to which the participants could respond. Therefore, chi-square was found to be equal to 7.225 which is significant at the alpha coefficient less than the 0.05 level.

The second hypothesis states that there will be no difference based on the gender of the participants in their selection of the primary source of the special education curriculum. The chi-square yielded a value of 1.793. To be statistically significant with 1 degree of freedom, the chi-square must exceed 3.841 so the null hypothesis was not rejected.

The third hypothesis states that there will be no difference among participants with respect to their future training in the area of curriculum development. The chi-square is the sum of the squared differences of the observed and expected frequencies over the total number expected. Since there were five options to which the participants responded, the computation of the chi-square did not involve the correction for continuity. Chi-square yielded a value equal to 8.75. To be statistically significant with 4 degrees of freedom, the chi-square must exceed 9.49 so the null hypothesis was not rejected.


The purpose of this study was twofold: (a) to explore special educators' beliefs about curriculum and their training in the area of curriculum and development and modification, and (b) to generate further discussion and concerns about curricular practices to guide further inquiry into special education curricular practices at the local, state, and national levels. There were three major findings of this study. First, special education teachers believe that the Individualized Education Program constitutes the curriculum for students with disabilities. Second, there was not a significance between gender and preference between Individualized Education Program and curriculum. Finally, teachers want training in the areas of developing curriculum to meet students' compensatory, life skills, basic skills and area curriculum but there was not a statistical significance as to which training they prefer. Also, as previously stated, due to the nature of the survey and the background of the participants, more data was collected for personal and professional use. Trends and preferences were noted and questions and concerns about the nature of special education curriculum and practices were generated from the data collected.

Section I: Beliefs About Curriculum

There was a statistical significance in favor of the Individualized Education Program rather than the district's curriculum as the primary source of student instruction. Seventy-two percent of the educators surveyed believed that the IEP should constitute a student's curriculum instead of the general education curriculum. This is despite the fact that many researchers have criticized the use of annual goals and benchmarks as a tool for defining the scope and sequence of a student's instructional program (Smith, 1990). It is interesting to note that gender had no statistical significant impact on this result. It is imperative that the field of special education resolve the issue regarding the function and validity of the process used to support students with disabilities. If teachers consider the Individualized Education Program to be the curriculum for students with disabilities, is this enough to constitute a comprehensive educational curriculum for their students? Perhaps the stated goals and objectives are not enough and instead decrease a student's educational experience. Also, in the United States, standards for educational performance are a driving force behind curriculum development. Historically, individuals with disabilities were excluded from state assessments due to a variety of reasons (Elliott, Erickson, Thurlow, & Shriner, 2000; Elliott, Thurlow, Ysseldyke, & Erickson, 1997; Huebert & Hauser, 1999). The 2001 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, No Child Left Behind, reconfirmed the federal government's commitment to including students with disabilities in state accountability systems (Thurlow,2002). With No Child Left Behind, states are required to establish their own unique set of standards for reading, mathematics and science. States are also required to develop alternate means of assessment for those students who are unable to participate in standard assessments and to report the performance of these students (U.S. Department of Education, 2004). Likewise, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA, 2004) requires students' individual plans of study complement general curricular frameworks so that each student with a disability has the opportunity to access the general curriculum and participate in state-wide assessments in order to meet state standards. Therefore, the efficacy of national and state standards for students with disabilities will influence a teacher's willingness to formally use those standards for tracking students' progress. It will he vital to close the gap between special education and general education curriculum practices if indeed the standards will be guiding special education programming as well as the state assessment.

Section II: Training Issues in Curriculum

The need for further training in curriculum development and modification training were identified by 73% of the respondents. Teachers' primary request for training was varied. There were no statistical significances between compensatory needs, life skills, basic skills, and content area curriculum training. Although the participants indicated they did receive both on-the-job and formal training in curriculum development, apparently they felt the skills they received had not been adequate in these areas. Compensatory skill acquisition for students with disabilities will be progressively important as the trend toward more inclusive classrooms grows. These skills might help them overcome a disability or at least work around one. Therefore, compensatory skill development training for educators will be beneficial for the future success of students identified with a learning difficulty. Life skills for students with moderate to severe disabilities is much more necessary than academic skills. Adequate training in this area will ensure the future success of these students. Basic skill development is crucial for mainstream/inclusive students as it is difficult to progress without the building blocks of each subject. Content area curriculum training is also beneficial to teachers as it is always helpful to learn new ways of teaching a subject. In this study, on-the-job-experiences were cited as the largest source of training for special education teachers. While experience by doing is important, it does not always ensure adequate skill development. The results lead one to question whether the district is mentoring or monitoring these on-the-job experiences to ensure that sufficient acquisition, fluency, and mastering are taking place. Studies also indicate that many new teachers are certified through some type of alternative route to certification due to teacher shortages and limited production from higher education institutes (Rosenberg & Sindelar, 2005). With so many new teachers coming from this nontraditional teaching background, districts need to be aware that offering workshops and training in these areas will be more necessary than in previous years. Special education courses in curriculum development served as the primary formal source of teacher training. Although this is good, if these special education courses do not include some general education components, it will be difficult to standardize both curricula. It is increasingly important for special educators to be aware of and have skills in accommodating and modifying curriculum as more students with special needs receive their education in general education classrooms.

Section III: Curriculum Practices

The latest national directive asks special education administrators to play a more important role by promoting collaboration among general and special education teachers and administrators to assure that high quality programs are accessible to all students regardless of ability (Boscardin, 2004; Lashley & Boscardin, 2003). As far as curriculum planning, educators indicated that there is little if any communication between special and general educators. Minimal planning through informal conversations was indicated by 55% of the teachers; 25% cited some specific planning through annual meetings; and 20% indicated no communication or planning. Part of the issue is time; there just isn't enough planning time for the educators to meet and conduct meaningful sessions. When participants were asked if they felt there was adequate coordination between general and special education regarding students with special needs, 68% responded no and 33% responded yes. With the increase of inclusive classrooms, this lack of preparation time could be detrimental to the quality of education received by students in special education programs. For students with disabilities to succeed, support teams that supercede the disciplinary structure are critical to students' success. Boscardin (2005) notes that schools and administrators must be prepared to offer more planning time in order to ensure a more cohesive, successful learning environment for the students. By promoting collaborative environments where the decisionmaking is shared by general and special educators, it is possible for administrators to create a nurturing, caring, and positive environment that contributes to the improvement of educational outcomes for all students and the instructional practices of teachers (Murphy, 2001). Another area of concern was the lack of planning time across grade levels, or vertical coordination. For example, many middle school teachers receive paperwork on an incoming student and do not get to meet with the elementary teachers and help plan the Individual Education Program to ensure success in middle school. This goes for the transition from middle school to high school as well. As participants indicated, part of the problem is that many campuses do things differently, and there are often special education paperwork discrepancies between them. Due to the participants' divergent thoughts on the implementation of vertical meetings , it is clear that districts must continue to seek improvement in planning and implementation of vertical meetings to better ensure the success of students.


In order to understand curriculum planning for students with disabilities and to understand the reform efforts of current educational practice, teachers' perspectives on the issues should be validated. The general purpose of this study was to gather the information directly from special education teachers in regards to the nature and use of curriculum in special education. Not surprisingly, the results indicated that the majority felt that the IEP is the primary source of special education programming. Based on the information gathered in this study, further inquiry should be undertaken to understand the relationship between special education programs and the general education curriculum. In terms of training, teachers in this study indicated the need for continued training within special education. Training that includes components of both regular and special education curriculum should be encouraged and given priority, particularly given the shift toward more inclusive classrooms. That is, educators will need the skills necessary for teaching the whole curriculum, especially at the secondary level. This shift also suggests the necessity for better communication between special and regular educators. Better communication and collaboration between both will make it more likely that all students have the opportunity to achieve success.


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Boscardin, M.L.(2005). The administrative role in transforming secondary schools to support inclusive evidence-based practices. American Secondary Education, 21-32.

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Cline, B. V., & Billingsley, B. S. (1991). Teachers' and supervisors' perceptions of secondary learning disabilities programs: A multi-state survey. Learning Disabilities Research and Practice, 6, 158-165.

Conley, S. (1991). Review of research on teacher participation in school decision making. In G. Grant (Ed), Review of Research in Education (225-265). Washington, DC. American Educational Research Association.

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Elliott, J. L., Thurlow, M. L., Ysseldyke, J. E., & Erickson, R. N. (1997). Providing assessment accommodations for students with disabilities in state and district assessments (Policy Directions 7). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, National Center on Educational Outcomes.

Huebert, J., & Hauser, R. (1999). High stakes: Testing for tracking, promotion, and graduation. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

IDEA: Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 20 U.S.C. [section] 1401 et seq. (2004).

Lashtey, C., & Boscardin, M.L. (2003). Special education administration at a crossroads. Journal of Special Education Leadership, 16, 63-75.

Murphy, J. (2001). The changing face of leadership preparation. The School Administrator, 14-17.

McKenzie, R.G. (1991). Content area instruction delivered by secondary learning disabilities teachers: A national survey. Learning Disability Quarterly, 14, 115-122.

Pugach, M. & Warger, C.(2001). Curriculum matters: Raising expectations for students with disabilities. Remedial and Special Education. 22, 194-196.

Rosenberg, M.S. & Sindelar, P.T.(2005). The Proliferation of alternative routes to certification in special education: A critical review of the literature. Journal of Special Education, 39 (2), 117-127.

Sands, D.J., Adams, L., & Stout, D.M.(1995). A statewide exploration of the nature and the use of curriculum in special education. Exceptional Children. 62, 68-83.

Smith, S.W. (1990). Individualized education programs of students with behavioral disorders and learning disabilities. The Journal of Special Education, 24, 85-100.

Thurlow, M. (2002). Positive educational results for all students. Remedialand Special Education, 23(4), 195-202.

U.S. Department of Education (2003). History of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

U.S. Department of Education (2004). No Child Left Behind: A Parents Guide. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Witte, R. (1989). Statistics. New York, NY: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, Inc.

Ysseldyke, J., Thurlow, M,. Wotruba, J., & Nania, P. (1990). Instruction arrangements: Perceptions from general education. TEACHING Exceptional Children, 22, 4-8.

Sara J. Jatala, University of Houston-Clear Lake, TX

Randy L. Seevers, University of Houston-Clear Lake, TX

Jatala, M.S., is a secondary special education teacher, and Seevers, Ph.D., is Program Coordinator and Associate Professor of Special Education.
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Author:Seevers, Randy L.
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2006
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