The Students Had a Lot to Say
I currently work for SWIFT Center, a national technical assistance center for inclusive school reform, but I was not always such a strong advocate of inclusive education. Earlier in my career I taught special education with students who spent most of their time in a segregated setting. Don’t get me wrong—I wanted my students to be fully included in general education classes. I knew that was the goal, and I worked tirelessly to help my students achieve that goal. However, the truth is, I just did not think that goal was appropriate for all students. I remember thinking some students simply needed the type of individualization and support that could only be provided in a more restrictive setting, like the self-contained setting to which I was assigned. In reflection, the problem was that I saw only two options: general education with little or no support, or segregated education with extensive supports. Then a group of students helped show me a third option and better way: equity-based inclusion.
For my dissertation study, I wanted to know more about how students with significant behavior challenges described their relationships with their teachers. I knew from reviewing the literature that positive student teacher relationships are associated with improved student outcomes (Liew, Chen, & Hughes, 2010; O’Connor & McCartney, 2007; Roorda, Koomen, Spilt, & Oort, 2011). Therefore, I hoped to learn more about the interactions that contributed to positive and negative student relationships, specifically for this population. Although the students I talked to had plenty to say to me about their relationships with their teachers, in true qualitative fashion, I stumbled upon a different issue while conducting focus groups and analyzing the data.
I began my study thinking the point of intervention would be improving relationships at the classroom level, but the students talked about a larger systemic issue. They all happened to attend segregated, alternative schools that only served students with identified behavior problems, which turned out to have considerable implications for my findings. The focus groups on relationships revealed students had a lot to say about their experiences in alternative versus traditional schools.
At traditional schools, it was evident the students were not getting the supports they needed to be successful. They described their experiences there as “sink or swim”, where you either make it or you get sent somewhere else. On the other hand, the students felt they got more individualization, support, and attention at the segregated, alternative schools. Unfortunately, that level of individualization came with a cost. Both the teachers and the students described the stigma associated with the alternative school, not to mention having less access to elective courses, being bussed (sometimes significant distances) from their home neighborhoods, and the inherent problems with clustering a lot of students with behavior challenges into the same classroom. After interviewing these students, I concluded neither the traditional school not the alternative school were really appropriately meeting the needs of this group of students.
After analyzing the results of my dissertation study, I had a better understanding of why equity-based inclusion is so important. As long as we continue to have separate schools for some students, we have no expectation that appropriate supports can or should be fully provided in inclusive settings for all students. The students I interviewed were forced to either sink in a traditional school, or move to a separate school where all of the “life rafts” were kept.
Today, I support schools that are implementing that third option, equity based inclusion. We begin with the assumption that all students have the right to belong in their neighborhood schools, and it is our job to ensure they have the supports they need to be successful. You can learn more about this work at swiftschools.org.
Liew, J., Chen, Q., & Hughes, J. N. (2010). Child effortful control, teacher-student relationships, and achievement in academically at-risk children: Additive and interactive effects. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 25, 51-64.
O’Connor, E., & McCartney, K. (2007). Examining teacher-child relationships and achievement as part of an ecological model of development. American Educational Research Journal, 44(2), 340-369.
Roorda, D., Koomen, H. M. Y., Spilt, J., & Oort, F. J. (2011). The influence of affective teacher-student relationships on students’ school engagement and achievement: A meta-analytic approach. Review of Educational Research, 81(4), 493-529.