Forging Special Pathways

November 1, 1995

Fourth grade was wonderful for Frank. It was his first year in a regular classroom with non-disabled kids, and his teacher set up a special computer that read his writing back to him, arranged study buddies for him from among his classmates, and developed learning objectives for him with his parents and the school's special educator. Frank gained two levels in reading and seemed to be on his way to a successful academic career--until fifth grade, when the transition to middle school left him in the back of the room again.

The movement toward inclusion--educating students with disabilities and those without in the same classroom--has been supported by the development of a wide range of technology, such as computers, telecommunications, and assistive devices, to help disabled students function in regular classrooms. Yet despite the promise that technology offers and the innovations in many individual classrooms, few schools or districts have included significant numbers of students with special needs over their whole school career. One year of effective teaching and learning is not enough; students need to participate, year after year, in educational experiences that are customized to their needs. Teaching and learning in one grade, including the use of technology, should build a foundation for the next. Few school districts have been able to create such pathways of learning.

That's why we at the Education Development Center (EDC), with funding from the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Special Education Programs, are currently working on the Pathways for Learning Project. Our goal is to develop, demonstrate, evaluate, and disseminate successful organizational strategies that, with the effective use of technology, improve learning outcomes for students with disabilities in regular classrooms.

Following are our our findings from the first year of the Pathways Project in Lawrence, N.Y. Lawrence is a small suburban district with seven schools serving 4,000 students. Ten percent of the student population receives special education services.

Creating teams.
In Lawrence, teachers from several consecutive grade levels, administrators, and support personnel, such as resource room teachers and social workers formed a Pathways Team within each school. The teams met to develop curriculum activities to support the integration of children with disabilities into regular classrooms using a variety of technologies. The idea was that planning for a child like Frank would be shared by his current and future teachers, ensuring that successful strategies for him would be carried over from one grade to the next, rather than each teacher having to piece together a new approach the next year.

The Lawrence district chose to build teams across school buildings as well. During the first year of the project, the teams met biweekly during school hours. They selected target students, defined the work regarding those students, and explored a variety of technologies and curriculum ideas.

Training the facilitators.
Key to having the teams work well was training facilitators to implement the Pathways approach. We quickly discovered that we needed two facilitators for each team--one for training teachers and one for ironing out administrative wrinkles. Collaboration across buildings can be a minefield, and it takes leadership skills to negotiate it. The second facilitator's job including securing resources--such as funds for new technology and professional development time for teachers, bringing in consultants, scheduling activities, and conducting an ongoing evaluation of the progress.

Selecting the technology.
A prime concern during this first year was to identify the technology that would be most useful for the students. How could we make use of and build on what was already available in the district and choose appropriate new software? The Pathways Team identified several requirements that the software had to meet:

  • The software should be suitable for multiple purposes so it can be integrated into different curriculum areas and different classroom situations.

  • It should include basic utilities (e.g., spell checking, text-to-speech capabilities, word prediction) that can help students with different kinds of disabilities to communicate more effectively.

  • It should be suitable for a range of ages to facilitate its use across grades.

  • It should be available for multiple hardware platforms to be compatible with the existing equipment in different schools.

This year teachers will use the software with their students in a variety of ways and evaluate the suitability of these kinds of technology for supporting their students' learning, not just for this year, but for the years to follow.


Laura Jeffers