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The challenge of implementing collaboration between general and special education.

The Challenge of Implementing Collaboration Between General and Special Education

ABSTRACT: Although the literature distinguishes between expert and collaborative

interpretations of consultation, in practice it is difficult for specialists to relinquish their

"expert" status in a consulting relationship. While collaborative models of consultation appear to

be gaining favor, achieving real partnerships between special education and classroom teachers is

a much greater challenge than is often realized. This article describes differences between

consultation and collaboration and makes the argument that collaboration deserves far greater

attention in current attempts to redefine relationships between specialists and teachers in the

schools. * We appreciate the opportunity to extend the dialogue about issues associated with collaboration between special and general education by responding to Graden's critique of our analysis of prereferral intervention. We are also grateful for the civilized tone of the debate, and we hope this interaction sets a standard for future discussions of these controversial issues.

Our initial reaction to Graden's critique is that we have more areas of agreement than disagreement in terms of philosophical orientation, and we hope to clarify those areas. We part company, however, on one critical issue, implementation. Graden stated that our article was predicated on the assertion that collaborative consultation is a new form of service delivery. In contrast, as we stated in the introduction, the premise of our article was that what is problematic is the implementation of collaborative models. Whether collaboration itself is "new" is far less important than the reality that attempts to implement it on a wide scale are, in fact, recent and new. In far too many cases, it is the implementation of consultation that undermines the theoretical intent of the consultation literature, a body of writing with which we are most familiar. Too often, the "expert," not "collaborative" interpretations of prereferral processes are introduced in the schools. The very intent of our article was to challenge special educators to reach a clear understanding of the difference between more and less collaborative interpretations of prereferral interventions before rushing headlong into their adoption--as a means of ensuring that collaborative interpretations might prevail.

In implementing collaborative models, the issue we continue to worry about is how to achieve parity between classroom teachers and specialists. Our position is that theoretical discussions of collaboration continue to outweigh its practice in terms of mutual and reciprocal helping relationships and that the literature on collaboration fails to do justice to the claim that classroom teachers must be equal partners in problem solving. The major problem as we see it is that overcoming the tendency among specialists to take on an expert role in the schools is a much greater challenge than is often realized.

Concerning areas of agreement, a careful reading of our analysis indicates that we share with Graden the belief that the prereferral process should not be construed as a step to be completed before referral; whether it is called intervention assistance or prereferral, or whether it goes unnamed as a specific model, the intent is to encourage a problem-solving attitude on the part of all educators and throughout the school. We also agree, as stated in our analysis, that current trends in special education represent positive and progressive efforts to deal with problems in service delivery. We further concur that when small teams of professionals join to work collaboratively on a problem, such teaming must be predicated on collaborative relationships and not on formal bureaucratic procedures. In fact, this is precisely the distinction we were drawing when contrasting expert, bureaucratic interpretations of teaming with less formal, more interactive ones. We further raised the critical notion that team participants should reflect the contributions each can make, rather than the titles they hold. This was the point we were making in establishing the fourth assumption, namely, that all problems do not require the same configuration of educators to develop solutions. Since as far as we can tell we agree on each of these points, we wonder why Graden presented them as areas of contention.


Implementation of a model rarely proceeds in a pure fashion; that is one of the ongoing difficulties in relating research to practice. One must be attentive to practice, to the context in which an idea or model is being implemented, and to the conditions in which professionals work and are socialized. All these represent key features to consider in implementing any practice. Concerning collaborative consultation, Graden stated that, for more than a decade, the school psychology literature has been promoting this approach in concept and that if only its foundation were accepted, collaboration would be effective. Yet, in reality, there are problems implementing collaboration on a wide scale. Not the least of these is getting people to do it. For example, Witt and Martens (1988), in an analysis of problems associated with consultation, remind us that it is not as frequent a method of service delivery as we would like to think (see also Idol-Maestas & Ritter, 1985). Further, collaboration is now most often initiated by special education or school psychology personnel. Thus, from the outset, it is associated with special services even when the intent is to develop collaboration across all school professionals. These are very real aspects of the process of implementation that stand to weaken the collaborative intent of the model Graden described.

Graden also faulted us for making a distinction between team problem solving and consultation. When practices are being implemented on a wide scale, it is important to clarify variations on their use; such variations do not preclude a combination of approaches, and combining them does not change the need to distinguish between expert and collaborative interpretations of their use. Because school districts commonly adopt one variation over another, however, in practice the dichotomy is not a false one. In fact, one of the most problematic examples of the misunderstanding between expert and collaborative approaches is the trend to mandate a teaming variation specifically--with primarily specialist membership. In their book on intervention assistance, Zins, Curtis, Graden, and Ponti (1988) likewise made a distinction between individual consultation and group teaming as forms of problem solving.


In citing the basis for collaborative consultation, Graden emphasized the fundamental assumption that specialists and classroom teachers must be true collaborators. Graden believes that we misunderstand this assumption because of our persistent questioning of whether collaborative consultation is in practice a mutual and reciprocal process between teachers and specialists in the schools. On the contrary, precisely because we understand this assumption all too well, we continue to raise it as an issue both here and elsewhere. Parity is an essential aspect of successful collaboration, and it deserves the most careful consideration possible. Likewise, the question of mutual respect is such a critical concept that we simply cannot take it for granted.

In our estimation, although the issue of parity is raised repeatedly, very little direction is offered concerning the specific kinds of assistance classroom teachers can bring to specialists, exemplifying the reciprocal nature of collaborative consultation. What conceptions of collaboration can prospective special education teachers or school psychologists develop if the only instances of collaboration they read about or hear about are those in which classroom teachers receive assistance from specialists?

A recent example should illustrate the point. Conoley (1989) contributed a chapter on collaboration in Knowledge Base for Beginning Teachers, a book intended to define the state of knowledge for teacher education. In that chapter, Conoley discussed the notions of parity, mutual respect, and professionals' learning from each other as a basis for schoolwide collaboration. In describing how first-year teachers might engage in collaboration, Conoley accurately stated that they are more likely to be in the position of receiving rather than giving advice. However, in specifying where such assistance should come from, she stated that first-year teachers "should be advised to use the building's resources, such as special education resource teachers, the school psychologists, speech clinician, nurse and physical therapist as sources for their continuing skill development". Noticeably absent from the list of helpers are experienced classroom teachers. "Each of these specialists," she continued, "in addition to working directly with children, must be given opportunities to share their knowledge and skills with classroom teachers". We do not impugn Conoley's motives in portraying assistance as coming solely from specialists; on the contrary, she has consistently supported collaborative approaches to professional interaction. Rather, we believe this example portrays the depth to which professionals trained in a specialization have difficulty transcending the notion that classroom teachers are somehow less able than "experts" to provide assistance in the school.

A second example is perhaps more poignant. In an informal discussion at a recent state conference on collaboration, a permanent team of teachers consisting of two classroom teachers and one teacher of children with learning disabilities were describing their joint work. Other participants said it was wonderful that the classroom teachers on the team had the opportunity to learn so much from the special education teacher as a result of their co-teaching arrangement. The special education teacher said that what she was thinking was, "Why doesn't anyone ask about all the things I have learned from them?"

Graden cited the research of Witt and his colleagues on acceptability of interventions by classroom teachers as further evidence of school psychologists' sensitivity to classroom teachers. In much of this research, particularly the earlier work reviewed by Witt and Elliott (1985) to which Graden referred specifically, the interventions considered for acceptability by classroom teachers typically were limited to four or five strictly behavioral alternatives, for example, token economy, praise, ignoring, response-cost lottery, and time out. Given the importance of mutual respect, we should ask ourselves if we are fulfilling the goal of parity when we limit the number and scope of interventions so severely.

Despite Graden's citing of early research that consultation results in increased teacher confidence in dealing with classroom problems, within the field of school psychology there appears to be disagreement over the collaborative nature of consultation. In a recent analysis of consultation, Witt and Martens (1988) observe the following, specifically concerning collaborative consultation:

Even when addressing problems which are

adequately circumscribed to warrant a

case-centered approach, there is little evidence that

consultation is ever truly collaborative. Given

that schools typically pay school psychologists

at a higher salary, require more training at the

entry level and give us the responsibility of

helping teachers, the school system itself acts

to put us in a hierarchical rather than

collaborative position with teachers.

Maintaining the illusion of collaboration may further

introduce some unnecessary complications

into the process of working with teachers. Their discussion is predicated on the notion that consultation may inadvertently be reducing independence on the part of classroom teachers, a point we similarly have raised elsewhere (Pugach, 1988; Pugach & Johnson, 1988). In collaborative consultation models, playing an expert role is not typically purposeful, but the effect on teacher independence is problematic nonetheless. Witt and Martens (1988) continue:

To be generous, school psychology has done

a reasonably good job of ... identification of

consultee concerns. However, because of our

implicit or explicit expert status and because

of the ways in which we have chosen to meet

consultee needs (i.e. through use of installed

interventions), it is perhaps the case that we

have usurped rather than empowered teacher


Empowerment of teachers seems to be a tricky issue relative to collaborative consultation. The question should not be whether empowered teachers will cease to need special educators or school psychologists; schools are incredibly complex places, and demographic changes in our society have increased the need for support services in the schools. These services, however, need reconceptualization to fit the current context of schooling. Special educators or school psychologists certainly are able to engage successfully in collaboration. But given current patterns of professional socialization, these specialists still tend to take on an expert role, and this continues to remain a major obstacle. For collaborative working relationships to be realized, specialists will have to work hard to shed the "expert" image to which they have been socialized and which many classroom teachers have come to expect of them. As specialist roles shift to accommodate the current needs of students in the schools, conceptions of expertise should shift with them.

It seems to us that if classroom teachers acquire the skills to deal independently with any of the problems they now face, whether or not those skills are acquired as a result of working with a specialist, we should celebrate the result. There will continue to be times when specialists will be called on to work with classroom teachers, although the nature of the specializations may look far different from those that exist today. There should always be times when classroom teachers solve problems in the absence of specialists. Currently, a realistic balance has not been achieved; the expectation continues that specialists consult and classroom teachers work with them to solve classroom problems.


Progress clearly is being made toward collaborative partnerships in the schools. One sign is that a debate such as this is taking place publicly, with room for clarification and persuasion. What remains to be seen is whether we can challenge ourselves to advance to the next level, that is, recognizing that collaboration can occur only when all participants have a common understanding of their strengths and weaknesses and demonstrate a willingness to learn from each other. To ensure the success of collaboration, special educators and school psychologists must recognize the expertise of classroom teachers as a valid source of assistance. Graden characterized her response as an effort to bridge collaboration between special education and school psychology. What is even more important is building a bridge between specialists and classroom teachers--to enable us to achieve true collaboration in the schools.

MARLEEN C. PUGACH is Associate Professor, Department of Curriculum and Instruction, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. LAWRENCE J. JOHNSON is Associate Professor, Area of Special Education, University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa.
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Title Annotation:includes bibliography
Author:Pugach, Marleen C.; Johnson, Lawrence J.
Publication:Exceptional Children
Date:Nov 1, 1989
Previous Article:Redefining "prereferral" intervention as intervention assistance: collaboration between general and special education.
Next Article:Nationwide survey of post secondary education services for students with learning disabilities.

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