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Specialized instruction within general education: a case study of one elementary school.

* Today the majority of students with mild disabilities and others who are at risk for school failure are served in programs that combine classroom and pullout services where they receive instruction both from classroom teachers and specialists (e.g., resource teachers and Chapter 1 teachers). In these programs, classroom teachers share responsibility with specialists for developing educational plans and instructing eligible children, but specialists appear to hold primary responsibility for designing and delivering whatever individualized or specialized instruction these students receive.

Prompted by concerns about high referral rates for special services, dissatisfaction with pullout programs, and a proposed reconceptualization of special and regular education, educators have been discussing an increased role for classroom teachers in the education of students with mild disabilities and other low-achieving students (Jenkins, Pious, & Jewell, 1990; Will, 1986). One outcome of these discussions is that some states and school systems have introduced requirements for systematic individualized intervention in regular classrooms before students can be referred for a special education assessment. A second outcome has been the development of a range of technical assistance systems to aid classroom teachers. Some of the better known assistance models are the Chalfant, Pysh, and Moultrie (1979) Teacher Assistance Teams, the Pugach and Johnson (1989) Peer Collaboration Procedures, and various consultant models (Fuchs et al., 1989; Idol-Maestas, 1983).

Ideas about an expanded role for classroom teachers have not been limited to prereferral intervention and collaborative consultation. Some of the more radical reform statements suggest that all responsibility for educating students with disabilities and students who are educationally at risk be shifted to classroom teachers (Gartner & Lipsky, 1989; Stainback & Stainback, 1984). These ideas challenge the basic premise underlying remedial and special education programs, that is, that children who perform poorly in school may require treatments that differ from those ordinarily provided in general education classrooms. Proponents of reforms that call for the elimination of special programs question the rationale for these programs and, in effect, argue that classroom teachers can duplicate the results and, by implication, the treatments associated with them. As far as we can tell, even the strongest reform advocates accept the idea that individual differences found in classrooms, particularly those classrooms that include students with cognitive disabilities, cannot be accommodated adequately by instructional models that honor the mode; they acknowledge that extraordinary (i.e., nonmodal) treatments are required. At issue is whether classroom teachers or specialists should be responsible for designing, managing, evaluating, and modifying these special treatments. Tradition has assigned this responsibility to specialists, radical reformers propose to assign it to classroom teachers, and most current innovations divided responsibilities between classroom teachers and specialists.

In light of the debate about roles and responsibilities of classroom teachers and specialists, we believe that it is useful to examine how classroom teachers, on their own, would approach the problem of designing specialized instruction for individual students who are performing at an unsatisfactory level. Research on how classroom teachers plan, design, and implement remedial and specialized treatments may presage the prospects for expanding their role in educating and managing students with learning problems.

In this article, we attempt to characterize how classroom teachers in one elementary school viewed their ability to individualize instruction, analyzed their students' problems in reading, designed interventions to help remedy the reading problems, implemented those interventions, and affected their students' reading proficiency. Where possible, we compared our findings about the classroom teachers' approach to and success with individualizing instruction with those that other researchers have reported in studies with special education resource teachers.



Setting. The school in which this research was conducted was participating in a research and development project to redesign instructional services for students with mild disabilities and other low-achieving students. At the beginning of the year, the school had introduced a peer tutoring program (Jenkins & Jenkins, 1981) and replaced instructional pullouts with in-class assistance from specialists (Jenkins & Heinen, 1989), and concurrently was field testing Stevens, Madden, Slavin, and Farnish's (1987) Cooperative Integrated Reading and Composition program along with Deno's (1985) Curriculum-Based Measurement (CBM).

Teachers and Students. The 12 elementary classroom teachers, Grades 1 through 6, who participated in this study had received approximately 8 hours of orientation and training on CBM during the school year. School staff collected reading performance data on all special education, Chapter 1, English as a second language, and 5 randomly chosen regular education students in each class. From this pool each classroom teacher selected one target student who, according to the CBM data, showed inadequate reading progress, and whose baseline (5 weeks' performance) was relatively stable. Teachers eliminated from the study students with limited English proficiency. Because of teacher attrition, 10 students became intervention targets: 5 Chapter 1 students, 2 special education students, and 3 regular education students. In addition, each teacher selected 2 other students in his or her classroom according to the same criteria as those used in the selection of the target students. From these students, we chose 1 control student so that in each classroom there was 1 target and 1 control student. Measures

Reading Proficiency. CBM procedures (Deno, 1985) were used to measure reading proficiency. At each grade level we selected 60 text segments from Houghton Mifflin Reading (Durr et al., 1989). The passages, each approximately 150 words in length, were arranged randomly within grade level. Each week students read from two segments, both on the same day. They read each segment orally for 1 minute (min), and were awarded a correct words score (the mean of the correctly read words from the two samples). Our reasoning in using two test segments for the weekly measurement was to broaden the sample of reading texts and to reduce the influence of an extraordinarily easy or difficult text on the students' reading scores. Passages used in the assessments were from the text 1 year ahead of a student's grade placement--for example, third-grade students were assessed on passages drawn from fourth-grade texts. We measured performance from the higher grade level to ensure that students had not read any of the measurement passages.

Teachers' Confidence Ratings. Teachers rated their confidence in designing specialized instruction according to the following items: 1. How confident are you that you can

effectively use performance data to individualize

instruction for special education students? 2. How confident are you that you can accurately

predict how specific interventions/teaching

procedures will affect your special education

students' performance? 3. If your weekly proficiency measure indicated

that a student was not making desirable

growth, how confident are you that you could

modify instruction so that the growth rate

would improve?

Teachers rated each item on a 5-point scale ranging from "completely confident" (5) to "not at all confident" (1).

Diagnosis of Problem. Teachers' diagnostic judgments were examined through the following procedures. First, they were asked. "What is this student's [the target student] major problem in reading?" To assist us in interpreting teachers' answers to this question, we next asked them to classify their diagnoses into one of four categories: decoding, fluency, comprehension, and motivation.

Selection of Interventions. Teachers were asked to name three interventions that they might use to attack the reading problem of the target student if there were "no constraints" on what they could do. Next, they were asked the same question, but told to answers within the "current constraints" of their classrooms.

Degree of Intervention Implementation. A researcher met with the teachers weekly to determine their progress in implementing proposed interventions. Procedure

For 5 weeks, classroom teachers, specialists, and aides collected reading proficiency data once per week from selected students in each classroom. After this baseline phase, teachers convened in an after-school meeting to rate their confidence in their ability to design and implement specialized instruction. Each classroom teacher was then asked to select one student, according to the aforementioned criteria, with whom he or she would intervene. Next, each teacher wrote a diagnosis of the target student's reading problem and then classified the reading problem as one of decoding, fluency, comprehension, or motivation. Teachers were then asked to indicate interventions they might choose to implement with their target student, if there were no constraints on the kind of intervention they might employ. Following this, they listed interventions they might attempt given the current constraints of their classrooms.

To prompt their thinking about possible interventions, teachers were given generic strategies for intervention. They were told that they might consider changing what they taught the student, or the way in which they taught or had a student practice. They might also consider changing the amount of time the student was taught or given practice, or possibly changing conditions that might affect attention or motivation. After listing six intervention ideas (three without constraints and three with constraints), teachers selected one they would initiate the following day.

One of the researchers met with teachers weekly to help clarify the teachers' diagnoses of their students' reading problems and to discuss the teachers' progress in implementing interventions. We also conducted individual interviews at the end of the study to discuss problems the teachers had encountered.


Of the 12 teachers who began the study, 2 (17%) asked at the after-school meeting not to participate further, even though they had collected baseline data on reading performance and would continue to collect data for the remainder of the school year. Five of the remaining 10 teachers implemented specialized teaching procedures, and 5 did not. The 5 who did not intervene appeared to encounter problems in starting or maintaining a new procedure for their target students. Confidence in Individualizing Instruction

Changes from pre- to post-mean confidence ratings were not statistically significant on any item, for the teachers who implemented their intervention plan (N = 10) or for those who did not implement. Perhaps the item that best captures teachers' perceptions of confidence in their ability to individualize instruction was "If your weekly reading proficiency measure indicated that a student was not making desirable growth, how confident are you that you could modify instruction so that growth rate would improve?" Before the teachers attempted to intervene, their rated confidence level averaged 3 on this item, with all but 20% giving a rating of at least 3. Confidence ratings given after the intervention period averaged 3.2, with all teachers giving ratings of 3 or above. However, during interviews with one of the researchers, four teachers (none of whom implemented the intervention plan) expressed doubts about their ability to develop effective specialized instruction. Rellation Between Diagnoses and Interventions

We classified the 10 interventions that the teachers decided to implement into four general categories according to their main emphasis: decoding, fluency, comprehension, or attention/motivation. Interrater reliability was 1.0. Next we matched the intervention categories with the same four categories that the teachers had used to describe their students' reading problem. Table 1 shows the problem categories (diagnoses) that teachers identified for their target students, along with the percentage of intervention that matched the diagnostic category. For 7 of 10 teachers, we found matches between our classification of their interventions and their classification of the students' reading problems. For example, we considered the selection of Distar as a match for a problem in decoding. In contrast, we considered an intervention consisting of repeated readings of story as a mismatch for a reading problem diagnosed as a decoding deficit.
Classification of Decoding Problems and Percentage of Intervention That Matched
 % of Diagnostic/
Diagnostic Intervention
Classification Frequency Matches
Decoding 3 100
Fluency 4 50
 attention 1 100
Comprehension 2 50
Overall 19 70

Characterizing the Interventions

We examined the types of interventions proposed by our classroom teachers and by special education resource teachers. For the latter we relied on a study by Deno (1985) in which resource teachers identified interventions they planned to test using CBM procedures. In an attempt to characterize the kinds of interventions that both our classroom teachers and Deno's resource teachers selected, we classified those that they listed into four categories: (a) changing what they taught, (b) changing how or how much time they taught or had students practice, (c) changing motivational factors, or (d) changing the criterion used as a basis for moving students to a new task (see following example). In this analysis, we used all of the interventions (six each) that our classroom teachers listed. Interjudge reliability in classifying the special education resource teachers' interventions into the four categories was .95. Interjudge reliability in classifying all of the interventions specified by the classroom teachers was .87 for no constraints and .93 for constraints. When judges did not agree about the classification of an intervention, they resolved the disagreement through discussion.

Table 2 shows the types of interventions selected by our classroom teachers and by Deno's (1985) special education resource teachers. In contrast to the classroom teachers, the resource teachers sometimes modified the criteria for allowing students to move to a new task (e.g., requiring that students read a text at a specified accuracy level or rate before receiving new material). However, even the resource teachers tended not to use this strategy often; it was used for only 8% of their interventions. Because it was rarely used, we eliminated this category from the remaining analyses. The classroom teachers' preference for the various intervention categories did not differ significantly between the constraints and no constraints conditions, [X.sup.2] (2) = 1.16, ns. A comparison of the type of interventions chosen by the special education versus classroom teachers (combining constraints and no constraints for the latter group) was significant, [X.sup.2] (2) = 7.6, p < .05. [Tabular Data 2 Omitted]

Next, we conducted a series of nonparametric tests to determine if the interventions that teachers named were evenly distributed across the three types of intervention categories. The teachers' preference for intervention type differed both under the constraints conditions, [X.sup.2] (2) = 7.22, p < .05, and the no constraints conditions, [X.sup.2] (2) = 1560, p < .01. They more often considered interventions that involved changing the how of teaching over the what of teaching. They least often considered making changes in attentional/motivational conditions. In contrast, Deno's special education resource teachers did not differ significantly across these three categories of intervention, [X.sup.2] (2) = 0.64, ns, although they also appeared to have a slight preference for changing how they taught or how they had children practice. Thus, these classroom and special education teachers appeared to favor different intervention strategies.

Implementing Specialized Teaching Procedures. Interventions were scheduled to begin on they day after teachers had diagnosed each student's reading problem and settled on an approach to ameliorate it. Two teachers were unable to implement an intervention because their students' attendance was spotty. These teachers selected another student for whom they conducted the same analyses. Ultimately, six teachers began interventions. After 2 weeks, one of the six who had targeted word meaning instruction abandoned her intervention because "the words got easier." Thus only five teachers actually implemented and followed through with a specially designed instructional program. Teachers who did not intervene gave reasons such as: "It was too late in the year to make a change" and "It's a hard time of the year to do anything."

Student Performance. Oral reading measurements continued throughout the 5-week treatment phase. For each student, we calculated weekly gains in reading proficiency during baseline and intervention phases by subtracting the number of words read correctly in the first week of a phase from the number of words read correctly in the last week of a phase, and then dividing this number by the number of weeks in the phase.

Table 3 gives means and standard deviations for mean weekly growth during baseline and treatment phases for target students, broken down by teachers who intervened and those who did not. An analysis of variance indicated that differences among the four student groups (i.e., target and control students of intervening and non-intervening teachers) were not statistically significant, F(3,16) = 0.43, ns. At the individual student level, 3 of the 5 target students of intervening teachers showed larger reading gains during treatment than baseline, whereas the other 2 target students showed the opposite pattern. [Tabular Data 3 Omitted]


This study sought to characterize how classroom teachers in one elementary school planned for, tailored, and executed specialized instruction for individual students in their classrooms who were experiencing reading difficulties. We begin this section with a discussion of the match between teachers' diagnoses of their students' reading problems and the interventions teacher designed for those problems.

The majority of classroom teachers in our study (70%) chose interventions that appeared appropriate for specific types of reading problems. Like allopathic physicians who differentially treat fractures (with casts) and nonviral infections (with antibiotics), our teachers differentially treated decoding problems (with phonics) and comprehension problems (with instruction emphasizing meaning). Although we do not know if specialists would have done better or worse in matching interventions to diagnosed problems, a good portion of our sample of classroom teachers seemed to take a systematic and thoughtful approach to planning specialized instruction.

Several caveats must accompany this finding, however. First, we do not know the validity of our teachers' diagnoses. Although all educational diagnoses should probably be treated as hypotheses of undetermined validity, we did not ask the teachers to justify their diagnoses, nor did we collect evidence to corroborate their judgments. Perhaps if specialists had an opportunity to teach and test these same children, they would have drawn different, more valid conclusions about the children's reading problems.

Second, we do not know the validity of our classification of interventions as primarily appropriate for one of the four problem categories: decoding, fluency, comprehension, and motivation. Because our classification was based on intuition, we are far from certain that a specific f intervention (e.g., repeated readings) is any more likely to facilitate one type of outcome (e.g., reading fluency) than some other outcomes (e.g., decoding or comprehension). For example, research on repeated readings, an intervention that we categorized primarily as affecting fluency, indicates that it may influence decoding, fluency, and comprehension (Dahl, 1979). Hence, a generalization from these results that classroom teachers select appropriate interventions for their students' reading problems hinges on assumptions about (a) the accuracy of their diagnostic judgments, (b) our classification of intervention emphasis, and (c) the representativeness of the classroom teachers who participated in this study.

In characterizing classroom teachers' thinking about possible intervention approaches, we noted they were most inclined to change the "amount" and the "how" of teaching, that is, the type of teaching and practice. Their second preference was for making adjustments in the "what" of teaching, that is, teaching something different. They were least inclined to change motivational conditions. Deno's (1985) special education resource teachers, on the other hand, did not significantly favor any one of those three strategies, although they too tended toward altering the amount and type of teaching a practice. Whereas resource teachers sometimes altered the criterion for performance levels on practice tasks in an effort to improve proficiency (e.g., requiring students to read a word list at a particular rate), none of the classroom teachers in our sample listed this as a possible intervention approach. In a study of how resource teachers approach math instruction, Fuchs, Fuchs, Hamlett, and Stecker (1990) found that type of instructional modifications had a significant influence on student achievement. Thus, the differences that we observed in the kind of intervention strategies used by special education and classroom teachers may be an important element in designing specialized instruction that is effective.

Why might classroom and resource teachers approach specially designed instruction differently? Perhaps different environmental demands of their respective work places or different training and experiences lead classroom teachers and specialists to think differently about approaches to intervention. One hint that the demands of the classroom environment influence the way that teachers approach intervention turned up during our interviews. Teachers told us that rather than having an aide, volunteer, or another student provide the specialized teaching, they personally would deliver the teaching more often under the "no constraints" condition than under the "constraints" condition (54% vs. 27%). The same workplace constraints (e.g., the number of students in their class, the curriculum materials, requirements for content coverage) that influence whether classroom teachers implement specialized teaching themselves may also affect their thinking about the king of intervention they would employ. For example, classroom teachers might be less inclined than resource teachers to arrange motivational contigencies with one student for fear that other students would request the same conditions. They might be less inclined to use performance mastery criteria for fear that it would create one more group. And, classroom teachers might be more inclined to change the how and amount of instruction if they could justify making these changes for the larger group rather than for one student.

Although the teachers had rated themselves as moderately confident in their ability to effectively modify instruction, some of their comments during the interviews disclosed a lack of confidence. Three teachers expressed the sentiment, "If I knew what to do. I'd already be doing it." Another teacher wanted a specialist to tell her what should be done in her classroom. She said, "They [the specialists] would know about interventions that I could use in the classroom that [student's name] could use by himself, so I could continue working with the rest of the class." She continued, "I don't want to invest time in developing and starting something that might not work, when someone else already knows things that do work."

Teachers in our sample seemed better able to prescribe treatments than to implement them. As noted earlier, of the original 12 teachers, two asked not to participate in the intervention phase of this project, despite the fact that both had students with reading problems. Perhaps their stated reason for not participating, that they were being assigned to a different school next year and thus did not need to implement and evaluate interventions, reflected a lack of interest in, distrust of, or opposition to CBM evaluation procedures, rather than a disavowal of responsibility for providing differentiated treatments for students with learning problems. If, on the other hand, their request not to participate reflected a lack of interest in designing specialized instruction for students whose achievement is unsatisfactory, and if their number were representative of classroom teachers who hold a similar viewpoint, it would constrain the kinds of approaches to mainstreaming that schools might implement.

Of the remaining 10 teachers who completed the diagnosis and prescription phase, only half implemented their chosen treatment and maintained if for the 5-week intervention phase. One other teacher began an intervention, withdrew it, and did not replace it with a different one. Why did only 50% of the teachers who planned for specialized instruction manage to execute it? Two teachers seemed to lack confidence in how they would actually implement their teaching modifications. During interviews one asked, "What book do you think I should use?" The other asked, "When during the day do you think I should have my student read to a partner?" Two other teachers indicated that timing was an obstacle; that is, it was too late in the school year to make a change. The last weeks of the school year may indeed be a time when teachers are less likely to try out new instructional approaches. The sheer number of changes that the school had undertaken (peer tutoring, in-class services, cooperative learning) during the year may have drained teachers' energy for instituting yet another treatment. Perhaps more of our teachers would have implemented specialized teaching for target students had this study been scheduled earlier, or had it not occurred in the context of the other changes.

Teachers appeared to meet with only limited success in designing specialized teaching conditions that improved students' reading performance, but in a study of this scale such effects are somewhat difficult to evaluate. The traditional tests of significance that we used were low on statistical power both because of the small sample and also because of the number of teachers who did not actually implement an intervention.

Even though we would be the first to acknowledge that the objective of specialized instruction is improvement in student learning, we hesitate to place much emphasis on our findings that students' growth rates did not show large changes when special teaching procedures were introduced. The CBM approach to tailoring programs for individual students can be conceptualized as a process of testing hypotheses in which teachers modify and test alternative treatments, using student performance as the data that their either support or disconfirm their hypothesis. Thus, CBM is a process involving repeated interventions accompanied by databased evaluations (Fuchs & Deno, 1991). In the present study, teachers were introduced to this process but were able to test only one teaching change before the school year ended. Moreover, our finding that students' reading proficiency did not improve markedly after one program change is with precedent. Deno's (1985) study of resource teachers is again instructive. He found that, on the average, instituting a new intervention did not significantly increase students' rate of growth in reading proficiency. Apparently, such improvements do not come easily.

To summarize, this research sought to characterize how one group of classroom teachers thought about, planned, and implemented specialized instruction for students with reading problems. Overall, the teachers expressed moderate confidence in their ability to develop effective interventions, designed interventions that appeared to be appropriate for diagnosed reading problems, and tended toward implementing changes that altered the method and the amount of teaching or practice. Our classroom teachers favored instructional modifications that differed somewhat from those found in an earlier study to be used by special education resource teachers. Finally, we found that teachers in this study experienced considerable difficulty in implementing their proposed interventions and, over the short term, were not able to affect their students' rate of gain in reading proficiency.

Because the present research was essentially exploratory and focused on teachers in one school, we hesitate to draw broad generalizations from our results. However, they do lead us to think that classroom teachers might require technical assistance (e.g., collaborative or expert consultation) in designing and implementing specialized instruction. This conclusion should not be construed as a condemnation of classroom teachers' skills relative to those of special education teachers. Fuchs et al. (1990) reported findings indicating that the resource teachers in their study also needed "expert" consultation to modify their teaching in ways that improved students' achievement.


Chalfant, J., Pysh, M., Moultrie, R. (1979). Teacher assistance teams: A model for within-building problem solving. Learning Disability Quarterly, 2, 85-96. Dahl, P. R. (1979). An experimental program for teaching high speed word recognition and comprehension skills. In J. E. Button, T. C. Lovitt, & T. D. Rowland (Eds.), Communications research in learning disabilities and mental retardation (pp. 33-65). Baltimore, MD: University Park Press. Deno, S. L. (1985). Experimental teaching: An approach to improving student achievement, changing teacher beliefs, and identifying effective procedures. Final Report, Department of Special Education, University of Minnesota. Durr, W. K., Pikulski, J. J., Bean, R. M., Cooper J. D., Glaser, N. A., Greenlaw, M. J., & Schoephoerster, H. (1989). Houghton Mifflin Reading, Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin. Fuchs, D., Fuchs, L. S., Reeder, P., Gilman, S., Fernstrom, P., Bahr, M., & Moore, P. (1989). Mainstream Assistance Teams: A handbook on prereferral intervention. Nashville, TN: Peabody College of Vanderbilt University. Fuchs, L. S., & Deno, S. L. (1991). Paradigmatic distinctions between instructionally relevant measurement models. Exceptional Children, 57, 488-500. Fuchs, L. S., Fuchs, D., Hamlett, C. L., & Stecker, P. M. (1990). Effects of curriculum-based measurement and consultation on teacher planning and student achievement. Unpublished manuscript, Peabody College of Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN. Gartner, A., & Lipsky, D. K. (1989). The yoke of special education: How to break it. Rochester, NY: National Center on Education and the Economy. Idol-Maestas, L. (1983). Special educator's consultation handbook, Rockville, MD: Aspen Systems. Jenkins, J. R., & Heinen, A. (1989). Students preferences for service delivery: Pull-out, in-class, or integrated models. Exceptional Children, 55, 516-523. Jenkins, J. R., & Jenkins, L. M. (1981). Cross-age and peer tutoring: Help for children with learning problems. Reston, VA: The Council for Exceptional Children. Jenkins, J. R., Pious, C. G., & Jewell, M. (1990). Special education and the regular education initiative: Basic assumptions. Exceptional Children, 56, 479-491. Pugach, M. C., & Johnson, L. J. (April, 1989). Unlocking expertise among classroom teachers through structured dialogue: Extending research on peer collaboration. Paper presented at the 1989 Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, San Francisco, CA. Stainback, W., & Stainback, S. (1984). A rationale for the merger of special and regular education. Exceptional Children. 51, 102-111. Stevens, R. J., Madden, N. A., Slavin, R. E., & Farnish, A. M. (1987). Cooperative integrated reading and composition: Two field experiments. Reading Research Quarterly, 22(4), 433-454. Will, M. (1986). Educating students with learning problems--A shared responsibility. Washington, DC: Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, U.S. Department of Education. JOSEPH R. JENKINS (CEC WA Federation) is a Professor and NORMA LEICESTER is a Doctoral Student in the Department of Special Education at the University of Washington, Seattle.
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Author:Jenkins, Joseph R.; Leicester, Norma
Publication:Exceptional Children
Date:May 1, 1992
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