Julie Schmidt

Julie Schmidt is superintendent of Kildeer Countryside District 96 in Illinois. She has served in many roles throughout more than 20 years in education, including school psychologist, director of student services, and assistant director of special education.

Does "All" Really Mean All?

I have had the privilege of working with staff in numerous schools and districts who are doing incredible work in professional learning communities with the hope of improving outcomes for all of their students. At times, however, they are focusing on strategies to re-energize their efforts because their results have plateaued or “hit a brick wall.” Their data has stalled, they are not seeing the improvement they hoped for, and they have become frustrated.

These staff members are often frustrated because they first worked to restructure their school day to build in collaborative time for teams to meet. Once that was in place, they engaged in collective inquiry to understand exactly what they should be doing during this embedded time. As a result, they turned their attention toward ensuring a guaranteed and viable curriculum by clearly answering the question “What is it we expect our students to learn?” All of this is very powerful and essential work—so what gives?

A closer examination of data reveals that very little progress has been made toward closing the gap for some of their students who are most at risk. Although some increases in student achievement have been seen for general education students, very little improvement has been noted amongst, for instance, special education students.

This leads to an examination of structures and practices. While what I often discover is not true for all, it is true for many.

The reality is that often grade-level and content-area teams are meeting on a regular basis to gain clarity about which standards and targets are most essential and what mastery of them looks like. In high-performing teams, this leads to discussions about student data and instructional practices. Where are special educators during these crucial conversations? It is all too common that they are updating progress toward goals and objectives, preparing IEPs, and attending to other procedural safeguards—despite the fact that many of these teachers are responsible for delivering core content to special-education-eligible students on a daily basis. In fact, these teachers may not have even been at the table participating in the conversations that led to the identification of essential outcomes. And when general educators were receiving critical professional development supporting them in teaching these targets, special educators were nowhere to be found.

When the teachers who deliver instruction in core content areas are not at the table when the deepest adult learning occurs and are then left out of the collaborative team structure, one has to ask: does “all” really mean all? If so, it is time to rethink the relationship between general and special educators. If we don’t, expecting to make significant progress toward closing the gap and ensuring high levels of learning for all will remain elusive.

Comments

Chenel Sanders

I found myself agreeing with everything that was said in this blog. There is definitely a gap between special education classes and general education. At my school, there are many times when we are in a faculty meeting discussing data and student improvement, but the special education teams are not included. Unfortunately, many schools have students with unidentified issues when it comes to their learning. The general education teachers are frustrated about students not being able to grasp a concept, behavior issues, and many more issues. This is where the special education experts can give some insight as to what may be going on or offer some strategies to those general education teachers. This could not only help the teachers, but the students as well.

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Heather MacKenzie

I found myself being able to make connections to each point you share in your initial post. It's interesting to hear the similarities that exist in so many different state, districts, and schools. As a general classroom teacher, I have been an active participant in different PLCs and share the same concern as you - why aren't special education teachers able to be a part of these critical conversations? I often feel like the teaching and learning of my special education students is disconnected from that within the special education classroom. A supportive bridge needs to be there for the success of these students and I believe that if we were "all" committed to these learning communities together, we would see an increase in student achievement.

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Julie Schmidt

Thank you for your thoughtful comments! On Monday of this week I had the opportunity to spend the day with over 100 educators in a 2-part session focusing on "The Changing World of Special Education: An Unprecedented Opportunity". We were able to delve more deeply into this topic. What is clear is that we cannot continue to function as two separate systems (general ed and special ed) in terms of collaborative teaming, data analysis, and collective responsibility for the learning of all. Only when we begin to change our behaviors around closing the gap will our beliefs about whether ALL of our students can make it evolve!

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Shanae Wilfong

Julie,

I have been pondering the inclusion of special education specialists in our weekly grade-level collaboration meetings for a few weeks. My solution is slightly selfish, yet simple- let's expand our weekly, hour long collaboration outside of school hours. Specialists ARE bombarded with task lists and never-ending obstacles, just as a teacher is, but their voice needs to be clearly communicated. Speak with the specialists assigned to your students and find a time that is acceptable for all parties to meet. It may seem crazy to extend a sometimes overwhelming and exhausting day, but I promise, the topics of conversation in these all-inclusive collaboration meetings will be worth the trade. After all, a professional learning community that is effective must contain all of the valid professionals in the equation.

Shanae

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Amanda Mincer

I struggle with this idea at my school. We have a data team process that allows collaboration time for each grade level team. We have been using a system in which the four Title I reading teachers co-teach reading with a gen. ed teacher. We have two special education teachers who also co-teach with a gen. ed. teacher. So, our data team process includes the special education teachers but only at the grade levels in which they co-teach. We find that we do not have opportunities to work with the special education teachers to make sure that our students with IEPs are sufficiently growing and in what ways their work could be accommodated more appropriately. I believe that it's important for the special education teachers to have more time for this collaboration but I'm unsure how to make it all work. I believe our leadership understands the value of the PLCs we have formed for our data team process but I don't feel that they understand the importance of sharing the special education teachers.

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ashley stacey

Julie,
I found myself nodding in agreement with much of what you said. I am a special education teacher and the teams I work with have met many times to talk about student scores without me. I know that my fellow special ed teachers faced the same struggle that you talk about. General education and special education teachers share students. Therefore they need to talk about these students and understand how to help them be successful. Often times it feels like general education teachers pawn students off on special education teachers so they don't have to "deal with them". I would love to see changes made towards complete collaboration between the two positions. I feel that is the only way to help all students be successful.

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Stephanie Call

It is refreshing to read something that hits the nail on the head. As a high school special education teacher, that teaches all core subjects, I find it difficult to attend one if any of these other PLC's. As self-contained teachers we try to use are PLC time wisely but I feel over the last two years we have made little to no progress. In the upcoming year I plan on proposing that we divide up and attend the other core subjects PLC and then bring the information back. My main goal is to look to the classes that I hope to get my students moved into, like a CC model Government class and find out what they expect my students to be able to do, to attend that class. We need to start working "together" so that ALL our students are progressing even if my students progress does not look the same as another teachers students.

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Julie Reyhons

Julie,
Thank you for your post. My elementary school has been implementing PLC work for 3 years now. I am a member of a PLC that works together well, but feel we have hit a "brick wall" just as you stated. One thing we need to do a better job of is looking at and sharing classroom practices that result in good student data. We also need to make sure our special education teachers have the same "buy in" as our general education teachers in each PLC. This is definitely an issue in our building. We need to figure out a way to make sure they realize how important they are to this process and to student growth. Not an easy task, but one that must be mastered.

Julie

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