What does effective, contemporary inclusive practice look like at the secondary level for students with disability? At a time of significant change in the field of disability support in schools, this is a question worth considering, write Dr Julie McMillan and Dr Jane Jarvis from Flinders University.
Programs and practices for students with disability (SWD) are guided by legislative obligations under the Disability Discrimination Act and the associated Disability Standards for Education, which enshrine their right to access education ‘on the same basis’ as all other students. But, beyond the legislation and the references to inclusive practice on school websites and in policy documents, what issues should secondary leaders and educators consider (or reconsider) in the provision of a contemporary, inclusive education for SWD?
In this article, we propose three such issues for reflection. While we use the term SWD in a somewhat general way throughout this article in discussing trends and practices, we acknowledge that SWD is a very broad category used to describe a diverse group of individual children and young people.
The role of teacher aides
Among the most significant recent shifts in the Australian educational landscape has been the proliferation of teacher aides (TAs) in mainstream classrooms. According to the Department of Employment, the TA workforce grew by a staggering 34 per cent in the five years to 2017, and it continues to grow. With changes to funding arrangements and levels for students with disability, the presence of TAs, often employed to provide personalised support to SWD, has become an established classroom practice.
The significant increase in TAs has changed the role of the classroom teacher. Yet, it has occurred without due reflection on its implications for teachers and students, or systematic evaluation of its effectiveness. Large-scale research by Peter Blatchford and colleagues in the United Kingdom, and research such as that of Michael Giangreco in the US, has consistently identified a lack of positive impact on student learning for SWD. In fact, well-documented outcomes of reliance on TAs across a range of settings include further social isolation for SWD, and negative consequences for learning and the development of independence. In addition, TAs are commonly expected to assume responsibility for curriculum planning and adjustment, assessment modification, and program design and evaluation, representing a shift of these responsibilities away from classroom teachers or educators with specialist qualifications.
The presence of TAs in classrooms might have a questionable impact on student learning, but some evidence points to reduced stress for teachers who feel overworked, overwhelmed, or inadequately prepared to teach SWD. Of course, support for teachers is an important consideration that should be seriously addressed, but the question is whether the goal of TAs is to help teachers reduce stress, or to support inclusive outcomes for SWD. Since the intention of additional funding for SWD is to facilitate access and progress through the curriculum, any intervention should prioritise this core purpose.
There is no question that many TAs are highly competent and passionately committed to their work. This value notwithstanding, the evidence suggests a number of considerations in the employment of TAs to support inclusive outcomes:
Deploying the school’s least qualified and lowest paid educators to spend the majority of time with the students most in need of highly qualified, experienced teachers raises questions about the effective use of resources.
The role of TAs should be to support, rather than replace, the classroom teacher. The presence of a TA should not result in the reassignment of curriculum planning responsibility away from the qualified teacher, or reduced interaction with the classroom teacher for SWD.
The effectiveness of TA support should be systematically monitored – in terms of both academic and social outcomes for SWD – to ensure that it is a warranted use of funding.
TAs should have access to a clear description of roles and responsibilities, meaningful collaboration with teachers, effective supervision, and adequate training and support. Teachers should also be clear about roles and responsibilities and have a chance to negotiate this as appropriate.
The need for highly qualified special education personnel
Qualified special education teachers offer specialist knowledge in areas such as assessment, behaviour, evidence-based intervention, communication, inclusive and adaptive technologies, developing individual goals, and curriculum adaptation and modification. This expertise complements the classroom teacher’s content and curriculum expertise and therefore enhances collaborative planning efforts for SWD in inclusive settings. In addition, special education teachers can guide the work of TAs and facilitate effective relationships between teachers and support staff. Special education is a field particularly prone to expertly-marketed interventions and programs with questionable independent evidence of effectiveness. It is essential that both classroom teachers and TAs are supported in their work by personnel with genuine understanding of evidence-based practice for SWD. Yet, many secondary teachers do not have ongoing, on-site access to such expertise.
A particularly problematic view of teaching SWD holds that it is ‘just good teaching’. At the other extreme is an equally problematic view of teaching SWD as the exclusive province of specially-trained staff and, therefore, beyond the capabilities of classroom teachers. The reality lies somewhere in between; SWD typically do best in mainstream classrooms with competent teachers who are knowledgeable about SWD and well supported by specialist staff.
Classroom teachers are responsible for establishing inclusive learning environments, knowing their content, and designing effectively differentiated learning experiences. In order to do so, they need access to quality professional learning opportunities tailored to their own contexts, and quality on-site support to develop and sustain effective practices. Professional learning for all teachers and leaders is necessary for sustained implementation of inclusive practice and quality education for SWD.
Putting the pieces together: Multi-tiered systems of support
With the right personnel in place, schools can work to address the needs of all students through a continuum of evidence-based practices. Underpinned by a significant body of research, The Technical Assistance Centre on Positive Behavior Interventions in the US recommends a continuum of practices ranging in scope and intensity from universal practices for all students (e.g. differentiated learning experiences), to targeted supports for a smaller number of students (e.g. modified curriculum and systematic instruction), to more individualised supports to address specific, identified needs. This model is often termed a Multi-tiered System of Support (MTSS), and has applications across academic, social and behavioural domains. School leaders play an essential role in ensuring the sustained implementation of evidence-based, quality teaching and intervention at all levels.
The MTSS aims to prevent academic and behavioural difficulties and facilitate the early identification of students who may need special educational or more intensive supports. This approach stands in contrast to traditional categorical models, whereby a student was ‘in’ special education or not, based on some qualifying criteria. Instead, the implementation of the MTSS requires that all students receive quality differentiated teaching practice at the first tier. If a student has a learning or behavioural difficulty that is not responsive to these more universal strategies, increasingly intensive supports are provided at the secondary tier, while the tertiary tier provides for highly personalised supports if progress is still inadequate.
This flexible combination of prevention and intervention, applied when and how it is needed, enables a timely response to specific needs in the context of an inclusive education. Implementation of the MTSS requires systemic, school-wide resourcing and long-term commitment from leaders and specialist teams. It relies on qualified special educators to lead the development, intervention and monitoring of interventions across levels, and professional support for teachers to implement inclusive teaching practices.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to inclusive education for SWD. However, a flexible and thoughtfully considered suite of adequately-resourced, evidence-based approaches that promote the philosophy of inclusion and address the inherently diverse nature of schooling, is a good fit for any setting.