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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
February 1, 1996
Vol. 53
No. 5

Forming Partnerships Around Curriculum

The focus for inclusive schools has shifted from excluding students who don't fit the mold to crafting learning environments where all students can succeed.

Sarah Cassidy is relying on learning centers to help her 3rd graders learn about measurement. Working in centers, she thinks, will provide her students with the hands-on experience they need. The children can work on projects individually or in groups—for example, to measure a series of rooms in the school.
Learning centers are a major departure from Cassidy's previous measurement activities, and she's a little nervous about taking such a risk. This year, Pine Street Elementary has become an inclusive school, and Cassidy's classroom includes a variety of students with mild disabilities. Grace and Martin, in particular, have difficulty working in groups.
Cassidy has set a time to talk with Maria Lopez, her special education partner teacher, about these concerns. Lopez begins their meeting with this question: “What do you think they need to know to be able to work in learning center activities?”
In inclusive schools, the roles and responsibilities of general and special educators must change in fundamental ways. In addition, a shift has to occur in how educators collaborate—from conferring only about individual student problems to making the curriculum accessible to a diverse group of students, including those with disabilities. The task becomes on eof integrating knowledge about curriculum and new curriculum trends with expectations about how learners with diverse characteristics will interact with the content. Through such collaborative discussions—and, then, actions—teachers can shape what goes on in classrooms to th eadvantage of all students before presenting content—rather than after a student encounters difficulty.

Curriculum-Centered Collaboration

In the broadest sense, the aim of schools is to assure that students gain the knowledge and skills to lead productive, satisfying lives. For the most part, however, many students now being returned to general education classrooms are the same students who—because they didn't progress successfully with the standard curriculum—formerly spent all or part of the day in segregated special education classes. As these students confront the barriers they originally faced, we may for a second time deny them access to the curriculum. The current challenge for educators in inclusive settings, then, is to frame classroom dilemmas from a proactive planning perspective—to change the curriculum to meet the needs of the students.
Thus, special and general education teachers must not approach business as usual. Most professional collaboration between these educators has been defined by looking at students' deficit behaviors or learning characteristics as the source of the problem. Over the last few years, we have worked with special and general educators to refocus their thinking about inclusion onto curriculum matters (Pugach and Warger 1993, Warger and Pugach 1993, Pugach and Warger, in press). We've guided them to use the curriculum as the jumping off point for redesigning classrooms to accommodate diverse learners.
The first step is to reconsider the demands that the curriculum places on students. Curriculum-centered collaboration can work on two levels: for troubleshooting around classroom curriculum problems as they arise and for broad-based preventive curriculum planning.

Troubleshooting Classroom Problems

Let's return to Sarah Cassidy and Maria Lopez, our general education and special education teachers. Lopez's question prompts a long conversation in which the two teachers talk about the need for students to move independently from station to station, to make decisions about their roles in cooperative activities, and to share the results of their individual part of the task with the group.
As the conversation progresses, Sarah realizes that at least five other students are also likely to have difficulty with the learning center activity. She and Lopez decide to preteach this set of skills to the entire group, taking turns working with the students for three days before introducing the measuring activities. By focusing on the demands of the task, rather than on the difficulties that Grace and Martin face, the teachers quickly realize that the social skills that these two students lack are ones that other students participating in this activity also need to learn.
In developing specific steps for a curriculum-centered approach to collaboration, we built upon a generic process typically used in partnerships between special and general education teachers (Aldinger et al. 1991). The process includes four phases.

Phase One: Orientation

Initially, teachers establish rapport and set expectations for their collaboration. In schools where professionals co-teach or the special educator provides services within the classroom, this phase is best begun at the start of the year.
This is a time for special educators to become familiar with curricular goals and student outcomes and with the general educator's instructional preferences. The special educator surveys materials and seeks to understand the learning characteristics of all students in the class. At the same time, the general educator makes it a point to learn about the special educator's skills and experience and how best to utilize them.

Phase Two: Problem Identification

  • Do the goals represent new curriculum standards? For instance, in mathematics, the emphasis may shift from computational skills to problem-solving skills.
  • Do the goals require prerequisite knowledge and skills?
  • What social skills do students need to participate in the lesson? In our example above, the skills needed for participation in cooperative learning were critical.
  • What level of independent learning strategies do students need to complete the learning tasks? For example, many inquiry-based lessons require students to sustain interest over time, to have the necessary cognitive capacities to recall information about the topic over several days, and to think critically about the information being gathered.
The result of the problem identification phase of the discussion should be a clear understanding of expectations for students. The teachers also identify new relationships among students, curriculum, teachers, and peers. For example, if the students are expected to solve problems collaboratively, then classmates must build a new relationship—one of interdependency.
Now the teachers are ready to predict potential student difficulties with the curriculum. Rather than assume that a particular student will have difficulty, the teachers focus on the curriculum goal and the instructional strategies selected to introduce the content (as we saw Cassidy and Lopez do). They determine whether the skills and knowledge that students have match the ones that they'll need to succeed in the lesson—and if not, how to teach them. To make these determinations, the special educator and the general educator will need to review students' portfolios and previous work and gather other data about their knowledge and skills.
  • Students need to apply several arithmetic procedures to solve such a problem, and some students might only be able to apply one procedure.
  • Students need to work together in teams to devise a plan for solving the problem, and some students have little experience working together.
  • To complete the task, students must sustain motivation over time, and some students might have difficulty staying on task.

Phase Three: Intervention

Using these problem statements, the teachers begin brainstorming ideas to expand, modify, or enhance the curriculum. The resulting plan should incorporate all their ideas for making the curriculum more accessible to every student, and draw on the strengths and talents of both educators.
Teachers next identify various strategies for enriching the curriculum. If it becomes necessary to introduce more intensive strategies for certain students, they should do so only in the context of that specific curriculum goal. No one should assume that a student who needs additional support on a goal one week will necessarily need help with next week's goal—as is often the case in traditional problem-centered collaboration. The teachers also identify support practices for students and/or teachers, and develop and implement an intervention plan.
To expand our measurement example, let's say that Cassidy and Lopez ask their 3rd graders to use measurement principles to design and build a toy box and, later on, to coordinate a toy drive for a local homeless shelter. The two teachers decide that the students need help organizing the many skills involved in both tasks, that individual students should have opportunities to pursue personal interests related to the topic, and that they need an explicit way to demonstrate their understanding.
Each day, the teachers decide, the main activity will be organized into three blocks: review of basic skills or independent study, hands-on tasks, and reflection. Together they devise a list of cognitive, social, and independent learning skills needed for the project. Any students who need help on a particular day can place themselves into the basic skills review group. Others can use this time to pursue personal interest projects related to the unit. During reflection time, all students evaluate their progress on the identified skills for the day and then add these reflection sheets to their unit portfolios.

Phase Four: Closure

During the final phase of the discussion, the teachers establish a plan for determining how well students achieved the curriculum outcomes, how they responded to new instructional strategies, and how well the assessment approach evaluated their learning. Some questions to ask are: What did the students learn—and how well? What did we learn about our students' learning and behavioral characteristics that will help us plan better lessons next time?
At the classroom level, curriculum-centered collaboration can go a long way toward improving teaching and learning for all students. In schools where such collaboration is occurring, teachers say that expanding these collegial exchanges to curriculum planning and renewal teams is a logical next step.

Preventive Curriculum Planning

In Cashopa School District, the vocational education curriculum was up for reconsideration. A specific purpose was to bring the programs closer to the district's School-to-Work goals. The curriculum review committee was made up of three vocational education teachers, the district's curriculum coordinator, a high school student, a parent, and two local business representatives.
At the same time, the district was intending to move the segregated vocational education centers for special education into the regular high school building. These efforts were spearheaded by a committee made up of two of the special education vocational teachers, one special education teacher from the regular high school, a high school counselor, and the district's director of special education.
At the first meeting of the vocational curriculum review committee, one of the teachers casually mentioned the special education vocational situation. Before the meeting ended, the members of the committee asked the director of special education whether they could meet with the special education vocational teachers. They had never met before. Because the district was moving toward inclusive education, the director deemed the joint committee a good idea, and the two groups merged. Working together, general and special educators identified substantial overlap in their curriculums and materials. Consequently, they decided to totally revamp the vocational program, select better course offerings, and develop a unified set of curriculum goals appropriate for the full range of students taking vocational courses.
Historically, special educators have been noticeably absent from most curriculum redesign or renewal teams. In some cases, classroom teachers also have been absent. Yet it is on these teams that real proactive curriculum planning can best take place to prevent common curriculum problems that students experience. As each new curriculum trend finds its way into the district's scope-and-sequence, it is important to discuss how those trends will affect learning before they become established classroom practice.
When special and general education classroom teachers work side by side on curriculum renewal or redesign teams, the goal is to identify the knowledge and skills that the district deems critical for its students. Just as teachers refocus their views about the role of curriculum during classroom-based collaborative troubleshooting, curriculum renewal teams determine on a districtwide basis whether all students will be able to succeed with the new curriculum goals.
  • Identify specific new curriculum trends.
  • Determine the impact of these new trends on the district curriculum.
  • Review scope-and-sequence and determine where the new trends best fit.
  • Identify goals of curriculum trends, and infuse them into the scope-and-sequence. Here the discussion should also cover prerequisite skills that support goal attainment at different levels.
  • Identify and discuss potential areas of mismatch. Appropriate questions include: What effect will these new goals have on student learning? What skills will students need in order to master the goals? From here, the discussion should focus on how the district can build in supports to ensure student success.
Any curriculum renewal process can be adapted to foster collaboration between special and general educators. The important points are to make an explicit effort up front to consider how the curriculum fits the learning and behavioral characteristics of all the district's students, and plan what the district can do to support learning.

A Shift in Thinking

Educators are finally recognizing that unique learning needs are the norm rather than the exception. The push for inclusive schools has moved away from excluding students who don't fit the mold to one of creating learning environments where all students can succeed. This view has led to a major shift in thinking about the relationship between students, particularly those with mild disabilities, and the curriculum (Pugach and Warger 1993).
Collaboration between regular and special educators holds great promise for improving the educational experience of millions of youngsters. The mind-set of past efforts at integration—and even some early efforts at inclusion—has favored turning general education classrooms into hybrid special education ones. Curriculum-centered collaboration, in contrast, lets educators focus their collective attention on the real barriers to student success and craft new environments where all students have a greater chance of success in school.

Aldinger, L. E., C. L. Warger, and P. W. Eavy. (1991). Strategies for Teacher Collaboration. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Exceptional Innovations.

Pugach, M. C., and C. L. Warger, eds. (In press). What's Worth Knowing? How Curriculum Trends Affect the Reform of Special Education. New York: Teachers College Press.

Pugach, M. C., and C. L. Warger. (1993). “Curriculum Considerations.” In Integrating General and Special Education, edited by J. I. Goodlad and T. C. Lovitt, pp. 135-148. New York: Merrill.

Warger, C. L., and M. C. Pugach. (1993). “A Curriculum Focus for Collaboration.” LD Forum 18, 4: 26-30.

End Notes

1 Names of persons and schools are pseudonyms.

Cynthia L. Warger has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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