Special Education: Inclusion or Specialized Intervention

“Street Crowd” by Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen (French (born Switzerland), Lausanne 1859–1923 Paris) via The Metropolitan Museum of Art is licensed under CC0 1.0

A fair amount of academic literature calls for clinical, evidence-based models of intensive intervention for students with disabilities in K-12. Yet in the field, there is limited effective implementations of such interventions.

Models such as Response to Intervention (RTI), multi-tiered support systems (MTSS), and standard, evidence-based protocols and programs all make complete sense when you learn about them. But there’s also a problem with these interventions: they are based on clinical frames of implementation, as in a trained clinician in the given model or protocol delivers the intervention in a prescribed manner.

The daily reality of a K-12 school, however, is far from clinical. Opportunities to deliver prescribed interventions, whether in a small group or in the ideal of a 1:1 setting, are few and far between. Moreover, opportunities to be trained in such interventions are few and far between. One is certainly not trained in any given intervention in any traditional education program.

The very model of a self-contained classroom, a class in which students with more severe disabilities are separated from their peers, relies upon this clinical ideal. And again, in isolation, as an ideal, it makes perfect sense. Let’s separate out the kids with greatest of needs so we can provide them with individualized, supportive instruction.

Similarly, within an inclusive classroom, district leaders continually speak about and prescribe the need to move away from a one-teach, one assist model to a parallel, station, or team teaching model. Or they speak of the need to “differentiate” and “individualize” instruction.

Idealized models that make perfect sense and sound great, but that rarely play out that way on the ground.

A Division Between Inclusion and Specialized Intervention

There is some scholarly debate about this. Fuchs et al, in a 2010 paper, “The ‘Blurring’ of Special Education in a New Continuum of General Education Placements and Services,” provides a useful delineation into two camps they term IDEA and NCLB. The IDEA group advocates for a top-down (i.e., replicable), linear, and time-sensitive process with fewer tiers of instruction, which serves both prevention and a more valid method of disability identification. They believe in evidence-based programs at Tier 1, the strength of standard protocols in Tier 2 and Experimental Teaching for Tier 3 intervention. They believe in the importance of a distinct special education program.

On the other hand, the NCLB group focuses on a problem-solving approach based on standards. “Whereas special education remained a distinct entity in reform making in the 1980s and 1990s, many in the NCLB camp today are advocating for obscuring, smearing, dimming, and confusing special education by blurring it into general education. In their plans—however implicit—special education vanishes in all but name (and maybe in name as well).”

Research suggests that the standard-protocol approach is superior to problem solving in accelerating the progress of children with serious learning problems. However, the authors acknowledge that “because there are insufficient numbers of such protocols in many academic areas and in the higher grades, and because ‘the school bus arrives every morning,’ many practitioners may have little choice but to rely on some variant of problem solving.”

In a more recent paper in 2015, “Inclusion Versus Specialized Intervention for Very-Low-Performing Students: What Does Access Mean in an Era of Academic Challenge?“, Fuchs and other authors again examine the split between those who push for a problem-solving, inclusionary approach vs. that of “specialized intervention” approach and advocate for a focus on explicit, specialized intervention delivered in a separate setting.

Here’s a couple of provocative quotes from this paper that struck me:

“. . . access cannot be assumed even when inclusive instruction reflects state of-the-art accommodations and support. Instead, only evidence of adequate student outcomes demonstrates that access to the curriculum has been accomplished. In fact, the present analysis indicates that such access is sometimes more satisfactorily achieved under a service delivery arrangement that occurs outside the physical space of the inclusive program and using instructional methods that differ from the inclusive program. All this argues for a definition of access to the general educational curriculum that is based on empirical evidence of adequate learning— regardless of the setting in which or the instructional methods by which that learning is achieved.”

“…it is not possible to ignore students’ foundational skill deficits if progress toward CCSS is to be realized. For example, to demonstrate meaningful improvement with informational text, specialized intervention must address very low performers’ decoding, word recognition, and vocabulary deficits, and this often requires out-of-level foundational skills instruction. Therefore, although reconceptualizing access as empirical demonstration of learning, schools must also recognize that the access mandate often requires schools to provide out-of-level instruction to meet students’ needs for accessing the grade-level curriculum.”

Yet I don’t agree with the authors that putting in place explicit instructional intervention programs will solve all the problems they’ve identified with inclusionary practices. You can place my own professional stance as firmly within the “NCLB” camp outlined above. Schools are not clinics, and unfortunately, special education teachers and other personnel in school buildings are rarely, if ever, trained in the delivery of specific interventions.

In fact, I think the issue of either strong inclusionary instruction or specialized intervention comes down to the same fundamental issue: there is a general lack of instructional capacity and expertise in most schools, in addition to a general lack of curricular coherence and vision.

Either way, we certainly need to rethink how we are putting in place supports for students who struggle the most and assessing whether those supports are actually effective.

My argument, however, is to place our primary and immediate focus on establishing coherent and rigorous curriculum and expectations for all students. I thus argue for inclusion and a problem-solving approach.

A recent article in Education Next,”Reforming Remediation” neatly encapsulates the rationale for this inclusionary argument. Students placed directly in college-level statistics did far better than their counterparts in remedial classes.

While that example is focused on a higher education setting, we can find parallels in K-12 by looking at access to Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) programs, or to difficult academic subjects such as Latin. Disadvantaged students rarely have the opportunity to experience such rigorous curriculum. Yet when they do, as Bronx Latin teacher Peter Dodington put it, “The combination of a difficult topic and a well-ordered, step-by-step curriculum allows even otherwise weak students to succeed, and gives them a new understanding of their own strengths and talents.”

If we raise our expectations and the rigor and coherency of our curriculum, then we will see more educational benefit for all students. The dire reality of poor teacher training and knowledge of the content they teach is a significant problem, but a stronger school-wide curricular program can help to assuage this.

I strongly believe in the need for specialized interventions for students who require the most support. But how can we put in place effective interventions when a strong and well-implemented core curriculum is not present?

Let’s address the foundations first before moving to the clouds.


On Venture Capital and Education

By Jim Gordon [CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons]
If you care about education, it’s worth paying close attention to what’s going down in Silicon Valley. The hyperdrive capitalism of venture investment, with its raw focus on the rapid scale of the highest performing and rapid failure of all the rest, parallels and in some ways informs edtech and charter models.

There’s certainly a healthy and necessary space in education for a private marketplace of rapid iteration, scale, and fail. But there’s also a necessity for the less efficient but robust, slow-growth, long-term models of public schools.

In The New Yorker there is an interesting piece on Y-Combinator’s Sam Altman relevant to this. It’s interesting purely as a biopic, but scattered throughout are insights into the driving mindsets and ethics of Silicon Valley. Let’s take a closer look at some quotes from the article with the frame of education in mind.

Altman, as he nursed a negroni after dinner, had his own warning for the timid: “Democracy only works in a growing economy. Without a return to economic growth, the democratic experiment will fail. And I have to think that YC is hugely important to that growth.”

Democracy needs a heck of a lot more than just a viable economy. It needs strong civic institutions and an active citizenry that has a shared understanding of how to engage with those institutions and of their purpose. Public education should serve the public in cultivating shared civic knowledge and values.

. . . In his book “Hackers & Painters,” Graham calculated that smart hackers at a startup could get 36x more work done than the average office drone—and that they would, therefore, eventually blow up employment as we know it. He made this sound patriotic and fun; how could an oligarchic technocracy go wrong?

Indeed? How could a focus solely on only the most productive and efficient members of society go wrong? In education, imagine if we only invested in the most gifted and talented. The rest would be herded into service professions or unskilled labor. A meritocracy! Wait. Isn’t that more or less how things used to be before the advent of a public education . . .

. . . And he told me, “It’s bad for the companies and bad for Silicon Valley if companies can stay alive just because they’re [associated with Y-Combinator]. It’s better for everyone if bad companies die quickly.”

This is a driving philosophy of venture capital and rapid scale that Silicon Valley pursues. Scale the few most successful ventures rapidly, and fail the remainder. With schools, we could only invest in and scale the ones that demonstrated strong academic performance — all the rest we would close. Sounds good, right? Kids should only be in schools that have demonstrated their worth.

But there’s a problem with rapid scale in terms of sustainability:

. . .The truth is that rapid growth over a long period is rare, that the repeated innovation required to sustain it is nearly impossible, and that certain kinds of uncontrollable growth turn out to be cancers. . . Every great startup—Facebook, Airbnb—has no idea why it’s growing at first, and has to figure that out before the growth stalls. Growth masks all problems.”

A school could be high performing, but not such a great place to be.

This isn’t to say that there isn’t a place for markets in the education system. A market doesn’t have to mean Silicon Valley style scale and fail.

A more sustainable model can be seen in an article in the NY Times about MailChimp.

…it’s possible to create a huge tech company without taking venture capital, and without spending far beyond your means. It’s possible, in other words, to start a tech company that runs more like a normal business than a debt-fueled rocket ship careening out of control. Believe it or not, start-ups don’t even have to be headquartered in San Francisco or Silicon Valley.

. . . You can simply start a business, run it to serve your customers, and forget about outside investors and growth at any cost.

Schools that do this work are the ones that get better: they put their focus on service to their students and families and adapt accordingly.

But there’s other ways that those who abide by the scale and fail model are investing in, recognizing the limitations of a brick and mortar approach.  Venture capitalist Marc Andreessen (you may have heard of AltSchools?) lays out the long-game for software and tech in the education industry in this Vox interview:

Primary education in the US is a monopoly. It’s a public sector monopoly with very little competition. Even the charter schools end up under sustained attack for violating the monopoly. You see this most recently in New York with De Blasio trying to shut them down. A government-sponsored monopoly is not easy to move.

. . . New technologies tend to vaporize on impact with those institutions. The last thing a unionized public school wants to do is to fundamentally change how they operate. Of course they don’t want to adopt new technology. It’s antithetical to the philosophy.

So the solution? Software!

Look, there’s great potential for technology in the education sphere, and I think experiments like AltSchools and Udacity are well worth making. But Andreessen’s premise here is false. Having worked in NYC public schools for even the short length of time that I have, I’ve seen so many tech fads get readily embraced by educators and districts that it’s become ridiculous. Rather than “vaporizing on impact,” new tech fads rather seem to become desperately embraced and then just as hurriedly discarded. Harried educators and administrators would love it if a SMART Board or data system or robot would magically and rapidly improve the outcomes for their kids!

But I do think Andreessen makes a more balanced analysis and point here:

We can’t revamp the entire system. Nobody can. But I think more and more, there are gaps in what the current system can accommodate compared to what people actually want. There are opportunities to build on the edges, around the sides, parallel systems. And at the very least introduce choice. In the best-case scenario, it becomes a real challenger to the status quo.

I fully agree that there are massive gaps and many opportunities to better serve our nation’s students, and I for one welcome the evolution of edtech and tools and software, as well as the vibrant niches of effective charter models and networks. But we’re on a quixotic mission if we’re shooting for supplanting public education systems, rather than supplementing them.

The argument for why this is so can be viewed in statements that Barack Obama and Vox’s Ezra Klein have made about the function of public institutions vs. private ones (I’ve posted this before):

President Barack Obama at the White House Frontiers Conference:

The final thing I’ll say is that government will never run the way Silicon Valley runs because, by definition, democracy is messy. This is a big, diverse country with a lot of interests and a lot of disparate points of view. And part of government’s job, by the way, is dealing with problems that nobody else wants to deal with.

. . . sometimes we get, I think, in the scientific community, the tech community, the entrepreneurial community, the sense of we just have to blow up the system, or create this parallel society and culture because government is inherently wrecked. No, it’s not inherently wrecked; it’s just government has to care for, for example, veterans who come home. That’s not on your balance sheet, that’s on our collective balance sheet, because we have a sacred duty to take care of those veterans. And that’s hard and it’s messy, and we’re building up legacy systems that we can’t just blow up.

Ezra Klein in an interview with Tyler Cowen:

I will say one thing about both government and private-sector production, which is something that I do think is important is there is an advantage to being willing to do kludgy, difficult, somewhat unpleasant things.

. . . As you say, there’s an attraction — recognizing the government is inefficient — to just saying, “Well, let’s just do cash transfer for everything. Let’s go UBI for everything.” But there is a lot that government does, often not that well, that somebody needs to be doing, because a lot of the people you want to help are actually really difficult to help. This is something . . . this is one of the things I believe strongly in policy that we underrate.

A lot of what we’re trying to do in government is not help people who want “free stuff,” but is help people who are actually very, very difficult to help. This is particularly true in health care.

And particularly true in education. The work of education is a slow, complicated, incremental process that will benefit from new technologies, software, and schools, but that will not rapidly scale, and provides a public service that makes rapid failure of massive amounts of schools or students a nonviable option.

A Balanced Complexity

An interesting relationship to consider:

  1. A balanced complexity of ecosystem sounds = environmental health
  2. A balanced complexity of brain activity = mental health














If you’re interested in the concept of self-organized criticality or networks, more here:

Principles for Robustness

“Snow Crystal” — Wilson Alwyn Bentley

In an article in Harvard Business Review, “The Biology of Corporate Survival*” the authors lay out some principles for managing complex adaptive systems. While framed for a business audience, these principles could be applicable to the complex adaptive system (or, perhaps more aptly, the “complexicated” system) of a school.

The authors delineate a set of principles for robustness into structural features, and managerial levers:

Structural Features

  • Heterogeneity (Diversity)
  • Modularity
  • Redundancy

Managerial Levers

  • Expect surprise, but reduce uncertainty
  • Create feedback loops and adaptive mechanisms
  • Foster trust and reciprocity

How might these principles apply in a school?

I’ll leave that to you to contemplate, but for the record, I’ll note that most public school managers typically do quite poorly in reducing uncertainty and in fostering trust.


* “The Biology of Corporate Survival – Harvard Business Review.” 2015. 15 Apr. 2016 <https://hbr.org/2016/01/the-biology-of-corporate-survival>

Like students, plants give up after years of failure, too

By Famartin (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
“The plant life of Australia’s outback may have “given up”, according to satellite-based maps tracking the impact of changing climatic conditions, such as rainfall and temperature, on the world’s ecosystems.

“The study suggests the vegetation of our interior does not respond to sudden increases in rainfall because it has “learned” that drought will soon follow. . . .

“‘Sometimes when you subject an ecosystem to some kind of disturbance, such as a drought or fire, they behave differently depending on their past,’ he explained. . . .

“‘They don’t care if it is good favourable conditions now, because they know it is temporary and it is not worth investing in growing more at this time because they become bigger and it is a lot more to care of when the drought returns,’ he said.”

–Dani Cooper, “Global satellite map highlights sensitivity of Australia’s plants to changes in rainfall and temperature” on ABC Science News