Special Education: Access to the General Education Curriculum
Over the past three decades, the concept of access for students with disabilities has developed significantly. In 1975, when Congress passed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the focus was on getting students with disabilities into school. Once students made it into the school building, the concept of access began to center on social and academic inclusion in least restrictive settings. While teaching students in least restrictive environments remains an important objective of special education, attention is also increasingly addressing curriculum access. Access to the general education curriculum occurs when students with disabilities are actively engaged in learning the content and skills that characterize the general education curriculum. A primary goal of New York City’s current special education reform effort is to increase access to the general education curriculum and thereby improve outcomes for students with disabilities.
There is a strong research base that indicates that the more time students with disabilities spend in general instruction the better their educational outcomes (Wagner, et al. 2006; National Center for Education Restructuring and Inclusion 1995). Students with disabilities who spend more time in general instruction tend to have higher reading and math scores on standardized tests; better grades; fewer absences from school; fewer referrals for troublesome behavior; increased motivation to learn; and better prospects for employment and independent living. These differences have been identified regardless of a student’s type of disability, severity of disability, or socio-economic status. Meanwhile, other studies highlight the negative effects of more restrictive settings on students with disabilities. For example, Fisher, Sax, and Rodifer (1999) have found that spending more time in self- contained classrooms can lead to an overall negative influence on classroom climate;poorer self-concepts among students with disabilities; and generally negative student attitudes about difference.
Studies suggest that, other than smaller class sizes, there is little that is advantageous about self-contained settings and that the negative effects of isolating students with disabilities from their peers far overshadow any advantage resulting from smaller classrooms (Audette & Algozzine 1997; Lipsky & Gartner 1997). More definitively, research indicates that the majority of students with disabilities do no better academically when educated in separate settings (Falvey 2004). In addition, placement in inclusive classrooms does not necessarily impede the academic performance of students without disabilities with regards to instructional time; behavioral disruptions; and students’ achievement on standardized test scores and report card marks (York et al. 1992).
Although increasing access to the general education curriculum for students with disabilities is a positive move supported by research, many experts have noted that research-based, specialized instruction is necessary for students with certain learning and behavioral needs to be successful. Students with disabilities must receive the specialized instruction recommended on their IEPs while also engaging and moving forward in the general education curriculum. Otherwise, they risk falling behind their peers. For example, Catone and Brady (2005), who examined the IEPs for high school students with reading disabilities, discovered that as students enter middle and high school grades, they were less likely to receive specialized instruction for their reading shortfalls. As a result, students who were already facing difficulties in reading were likely to continue to do so through high school. Furthermore, as students’ ability to read improves due to specialized instruction, these students are more likely to, without assistance, access content in their general education classes. Specialized reading instruction may include research-based practices such as instruction in small interactive groups, questioning that includes literal and inferential responses, and individualized control of task difficulty so each student is adequately challenged (Morgan, Moni & Jobling 2006). Although, we use literacy as an example, the benefits of specialized, research-based instruction extend to students with particular writing (Berninger et al. 2008), math (Templeton et al. 2008), and behavioral needs (King-Sears & Bowman-Kruhm 2010).
One of the central goals of the DOE’s special education reform plan is to increase access to the general education curriculum for students with disabilities. Research supports this goal, showing that access to the general education curriculum can improve educational outcomes for many students with disabilities. However, to be successful in this effort, the DOE needs to prepare schools to deliver specialized, research-based instruction to students with particular learning and behavioral needs.
Audette, B., and B. Algozzine. 1997. “Re-inventing Government? Let’s Reinvent Special Education,” Journal of Learning Disabilities 30.
Berninger, V., W. Winn, P. Stock, R. Abbott, K. Eschen, C. Lin, N. Garcia, M. Anderson- Youngstrom, H. Murphy, D. Lovitt, P. Trivedi, J. Jones, D. Amtmann, and W. Nagy. 2008. “Tier 3 Specialized Writing Instruction for Students with Dyslexia,” Reading and Writing. An Interdisciplinary Journal 21.
Catone, W. V., and S. A. Brady. 2005. “The Inadequacy of Individualized Education Program (IEP) Goals for High School Students with Word-Level Reading Difficulties,” Annals of Dyslexia 55.
City University of New York, National Center on Educational Restructuring and Inclusion
1995. National Study of Inclusive Education. New York, NY: City University of New
Falvey, M. 2004. “Toward Realization of the Least Restrictive Environments for Severely
Disabled Students,” Research and Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities 29, no.
Fisher, D., C. Sax, K. Rodifer, and I. Pumpian. 1999. “Teachers’ Perception of Curriculum and Climate Changes: The Added Value of Inclusive Education,” Journal for a Just and Caring Education 5.
King-Sears, M., and M. Bowman-Kruhm. 2010. “Attending to Specialized Reading Instruction for Adolescents with Mild Disabilities,” Teaching Exceptional Children 42, no.4:30–40.
Lipsky, D., and A. Gartner. 1997. Inclusion and School Reform: Transforming America’s Classrooms. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes.
Morgan, M., K. B. Moni, and M. A. Jobling. 2006. “Code-breaker: Developing Phonics with Young Adults with an Intellectual Disability,” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 50.
Templeton, T.N., R. Neel, and E. Blood, E. 2008. “Meta-analysis of Math Interventions for Students with Emotional and Behavioral Disorders,” Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders 16, no. 4:226–239
Wagner, M., L. Newman, R. Cameto, and P. Levine. 2006. “The Academic Achievement and Functional Performance of Youth With Disabilities. A Report from the National Longitudinal Transition Study-2 (NLTS2).” Menlo Park, CA: SRI International.
York, J., T. Vandercook, C. MacDonald, C. Heise-Neff, and E. Caughey. 1992. “Feedback about Integrating Middle-school Education Students with Severe Disabilities in General Education Classes,” Exceptional Children 58, no. 3:244–258.
Examples of Best Policy and Practice
Advocates for Children of New York
National Center on Accessible Instructional Materials
Council for Exceptional Children
National Association of State Directors of Special Education
Prepared by: Advocates for Children of New YOrk, www.advocatesforchildren.org