Researchers hoping to overhaul ‘special ed’

A team of researchers based at Kansas University will spend the upcoming year fine-tuning a new model for special education that they hope will completely overhaul the way schools educate children with special needs.

Wayne Sailor, a KU professor of special education who is leading the project, calls it the beginning of “a school reform process that braids special education, general education, second language programs and other discreet programs available to schools in such a way that all of the resources benefit all of the kids.”

“Right now we have what are called ‘silos’ within schools,” Sailor said. “Special education is a silo; (English as a Second Language) is a silo; Title I and gifted-talented programs are silos. And schools all spend quite a bit of resources determining eligibility of kids for entry into their silos. And the only kids who benefit from the resources in those silos are the ones who are identified and get entrance.”

Classroom makeovers

Sailor says the goal of the program is to break down those silos by reconfiguring the way schools and classrooms are organized, so that all students can receive all the services they need.

The five-year project is funded by a $24.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education, the largest single research grant ever received by KU. Based out of the Schiefelbusch Institute for Life Span Studies – one of the largest human development and disabilities research centers in the country – the project brings together the work of many different departments and research centers at KU, as well as researchers from other universities around the country.

Ultimately, it will establish a new center at KU that will provide technical assistance to schools throughout the country to help make their special education services more inclusive.

“When you look at schools in low-income areas in particular that are multicultural, often all the kids in those schools need something in order to help support their ability to benefit from the teaching-learning process,” Sailor said. “They don’t have the preparation that privileged kids do to make gains from education.”

“What our approach is about is to help schools integrate these systems, so that all kids get a better match with their problem in learning with available resources at the school,” he said.

Inclusion study

Sailor and his team will spend the first year of the project studying six schools in the country that have already made significant progress toward inclusion. Those schools will serve as “knowledge-development sites” to provide more information about how an inclusive special education program can operate.

The nearest knowledge-development site is a district in Camdenton, Mo., he said. Others are in California, Wisconsin, Massachusetts, Florida and Maryland.

“We’re going to learn a whole bunch of stuff from looking at these six schools,” Sailor said.

The next four years will be spent working with 16 school districts in four states, providing them with technical assistance in moving to the new model.

“In a full-blown arrangement of this type that’s got all the features in place, you’re not going to see special classes where kids spend all of their time all day outside of the general classroom,” Sailor said.

Instead, students in special programs will spend a greater part of their time in the general education classroom, where there could be two or more “co-teachers” during different parts of the day. Other parts of the day, students might be grouped in different rooms receiving other kinds of help.

“We’re going to have kids engaged in the general ed curriculum at all times,” Sailor said. “You can think of it as a lot more moving around, and a more complicated schedule. So it involves moving kids around a bit more, rather than thinking of the grade-level classroom as the source of all supports.”