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How Can Special Educators Become Part of the Solution for School-wide Differentiation?

In a recent 90-minute webinar with PresenceLearning, an audience member wondered whether special educators are used by gen ed teachers and administrators to avoid school-wide differentiation, and asked Dr. Carol Ann Tomlinson, an expert on differentiated instruction, how they can become part of the solution. See Dr. Tomlinson’s response below.

I love this question. You could substitute the notion of special education in there, or special programs for the gifted, or remedial settings for reading. The big question is, why don’t we just put all those kids in a room where they belong, and then we won’t have to worry about them. The thing we sense as a burden is taken away.

Of course, everything in life depends on the lens through which you look at it. I grew up in the South at a time where I remember hearing politicians on the radio using the notion of separate but equal schools, and thinking as a 12-year-old that that doesn’t sound right. I’ve become such a believer that we live in the world together, and that school is the first place we experience that world. And if we have people to shepherd us in understanding one another and appreciating the value of each person in the world, and listening and looking for the contribution of others in our lives, we will be in a very much better place as individuals and as a society.

That’s my bias. I’m sure it’s not the bias of everyone, but I do think there’s a fair number of us who see that. And in that case, we need to work together to say our first goal is to serve these kids well. We’re going to start with the general education classroom. We’re going to do everything we can to make that work. When we need different kinds of assistance, we’ll talk about that. We’ll see what we can do.

But first, let’s try it out in the regular classrooms and work to say clearly that there are times when kids who have just come to this country do not have the English language. There are some kids who are going to have to have a resource room because of learning difficulties they have.They need a little while in a special context. Personally, I’d prefer this not be the whole day or the whole year.

I’ve taught 12-year-olds who went straight to college and did remarkably well. And the only reason they went is because they were getting nothing in public school that made any sense for them. And those kids might not have been able to be well integrated into a regular classroom. I think what we need to be asking is not in “what room do these kids get their needs met,” but “how do we work together to find the best way.”

Special educators become part of the solution by being willing to say, “Yes, a part of my job is working with a specific set of kids in a particular location to which kids come, but I also want to be a part of their success in your classroom, or part of the success of kids in your classroom who won’t make it to mine but who need some specialized help.” That’s one of the reasons I think differentiation teams are so powerful.

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