Volume IV Number 4, December 1997

Perspectives On Inclusion By Design: Science Curriculum Reform and Special Education

Eric J. Pyle
Gretchen Butera
Department of Curriculum & Instruction
West Virginia University

The call for reform in science education occurs within the context of a curriculum revolution in American education designed to bring schooling in line with society's most pressing needs (Pugach & Warger, 1996). Curriculum is being sought that ensures congruence between what is taught and what needs to be taught, to ensure that students are productive citizens at the end of formal schooling. Reform in science curriculum is illustrative of this transformation that is occurring in schools throughout the United States.

How teachers construct and interpret curricula at the classroom level is determined by years of experience as students and as teachers. The lenses through which teaching experiences are viewed have been shaped by educators' recollections from childhood, as well as a certain amount of nostalgia for the past. The underpinning of these recollections of experience include assumptions and beliefs about how students learn and about how schooling practices "should be" i n order to facilitate student learning. Assumptions must be examined in order to facilitate change in how curricula is developed an d enacted, as well as to create opportunities for meaningful learning by all students.

The purpose of this paper is to describe a novel approach to the preparation of science and special education teachers in the construction of curricula for science classrooms that include Grade 4 - 8 students with disabilities. Our basic mission is to include students with disabilities by design and collaboration, rather than by modification of existing curricula or lessons.

Specific objectives include: (a) describing the activities of the project, (b) describing current research trajectories with respect to the effectiveness of the project, and (c) discussing implications of the research trajectories for science and special educators as they relate the dual processes of science curriculum reform and inclusive special education service delivery.


As the body of knowledge about child development, psychology and human learning expands, the expectations for educators to respond to this knowledge with new and different teaching practices are increased. Tenner (1996) defines a "revenge effect," as classroom teachers - armed with increased awareness of the individual needs of their students - try to cope with the increased demand this knowledge implies.

This expanded knowledge base and the increased expectations for teachers come at the same time as the widespread adoption of educational policies that place increasingly greater numbers of students with significant learning disabilities in general education settings for a large portion of the school day (Turnbull, Turnbull, Shank & Leal, 1995).

The task of responding to this understanding places special demands on general education teachers as well as on special education teachers. Often classroom teachers who assume the major responsibility f or teaching children with disabilities along with the other students in their classrooms, report that they receive no special training related to undertaking the task of teaching a diverse set of students (Scruggs & Mastropieri, 1996). In an attempt to address the learning needs of individual children, students with disabilities are put in general education classrooms that have a team of general and special education co-teachers (See Paul, Roselli & Evans, 1995). Such partnerships often involve additional challenges related to "turf" and classroom ownership (Pugach & Johnson, 1995). In other cases, general educators have the entire responsibility for addressing the demands of teaching content and facilitating the learning of diverse groups of children.

One apparent difficulty that West Virginia special educators have experienced while responding to the need for more inclusive practices, is a lack of role definition. The changes in role and responsibility are often accompanied by considerable anxiety for special educators who describe a lack of "ownership" for their students and a feeling that they are taking on an inferior role in classroom s where they are asked to assist rather than co-teach. Often they are asked to modify curricula that they have had no part in selecting or designing. Under such circumstances, the reciprocity between equal partners implied in co-teaching models is lacking.

At the same time, the need for students to learn science, particularly in the elementary grades, has become more critical than ever. The recent National Science Education Standards (National Research Council, 1996) have emphasized the need for all students to have a basic science foundation, regardless of their ethnicity, socioeconomic status, or disabilities. The essential place of science instruction in the elementary and middle grades is particularly emphasized.

Changes to West Virginia education policy (re: Policy 2510) mandate that science be taught daily to students in Grades 3 and higher. General education teachers who face the stresses of teaching reading and mathematics to students with disabilities will now be faced with the additional task of teaching science to those same children everyday as well. Furthermore, special education teachers, who have been attempting to mitigate students' deficiencies in reading and mathematics, will now be asked to do the same for science instruction.

While special education teachers may realize that science instruction often provides a unique context for students with disabilities to achieve success (because it presents many opportunities for hands-on learning), they often have little background in the content of science instruction and they often lack the appropriate knowledge to make use of this opportunity to address individual learning needs. Without appropriate assistance in developing effective strategies, both science and special education teachers will experience increased frustration without much prospect of students with disabilities showing improvement in science.

Many West Virginia teachers are aware of their shortcomings in dealing effectively with the challenges that this situation presents. For instance, during the initial training of Project CATS (Coordinated and Thematic Science) science mentor teachers in West Virginia attended a disability equity session conducted by WVU faculty. Feedback on the session, which focused mainly on physical disabilities, was favorable. Several of the teachers, however, made comments such as, "I wish that the presentation had been geared more for the common classroom situations: learning disabilities, ADD, behavior disorders, mental impairments...These challenges are the daily life of every classroom teacher."

One teacher went on at length:

"I agree we need to be more aware of the student population which has special needs BUT [emphasis original] the deaf and physically handicapped makes up a VERY small percentage of the student population. Why wasn't someone there to talk about the learning disabled or the behavioral disordered child? They make up over 60% of the special needs students. We as science teachers have always overlooked this population."

Such arguments are compelling and have not gone unnoticed. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has produced a series of publications under the heading "Barrier Free in Brief." These documents focus almost entirely on the physically challenged, with scant mention made of students with mental and developmental disorders. AAAS recognizes this need. Virginia Stern, Director of AAAS's Project on Science, Technology, and Disability, stated:

"...We are frankly weak on learning disabilities (although we are trying) and have so little specific experience with students with behavioral and developmental disabilities -- even though we are quite aware that these students are being included and that teachers want and need help to teach them along with the non-disabled students in their classes." (V. Stern, personal communication, 8/28/96).

Thus, it becomes apparent that neither science teachers nor special education teachers are adequately prepared to meet the needs of students with disabilities. Yet both groups of teachers possess, as professionals in their fields, unique bodies of knowledge in terms of definitions, strategies, and content-specific pedagogy. Such information is accessible to all teachers, but for most teachers, there is limited time to develop an expert understanding of content or special learning needs.


Inclusion in a Climate of Reform (ICOR) was developed and implemented as part of a project funded by the Dwight Eisenhower Mathematics and Science Education Act (DEMSEA). It was conducted in West Virginia in the summer and fall of 1997. Little was found in the described initiatives that included science and special education teachers as teams of "change agents" with respect to inclusion and science curricula reform. ICOR was therefore experimental and emergent, and it continues to develop.

The 12 participants were Grade 4 - 8 science and special ed teachers from five counties in North-Central West Virginia. The participants were divided into four teams. ICOR emphasized a front-end approach to science instruction, whereby modifications for students with special needs are addressed up-front, both in planning and in lesson implementation.

Case studies of students with disabilities developed by project staff and participants were used along with the state science curriculum to guide the teams in developing integrated plans for science instruction. One product constructed by the participants was a set of lesson plans that incorporated the needs of the prototypical students. More important was the facilitation of the process of personal rationale development as it relates to inclusion, co-teaching, and the continued development of curricula that reflect the West Virginia Instructional Goal and Objectives (IGOs) and the Individual Education Plans (IEPs) of real students.

During the course of the summer workshop, participants kept daily journals of their experiences as co-planners and co-teachers. Lesson plans and modifications with respect to real and prototypical student IEPs were collected in order to provide feedback on change and growth by participants. The teams used observations about their classroom interactions and the lesson plans as a guide to analyze their roles as special and science educators. In order to help the participants become change agents at the local and state levels, participants were encouraged to take part in two state-level professional meetings. Planning sessions for the preparation of state-level professional presentations were used as an opportunity to re-focus on project activities. The evaluation of the project is ongoing. The lessons learned thus far are preliminary, pending the completion of the grant period and the academic year.


All ICOR participants who examined their own teaching and curricula construction appreciated the opportunity to engage in the change process. The change process, however, was dependent on each teacher's unique instructional circumstances and experiences. Several change trends have emerged.

The first trend typifies the approach that each team has taken with respect to the process of co-teaching and planning for inclusion up-front. For example, the participant teams initially adopted (a) linear approaches to inclusion, developing the full lesson plan first and then incorporating child modifications, (b) personal approaches to inclusion, where the participants adopted a personal s take in the IEP development and implementation, according to their experience in observing students in the classroom, (c) mode-shift ing, so that the lines between the special educators and the science educators were blurred and that each shifted from a special educator to a science teacher mode and back again, and (d) merging, such that mastery of the science content served as a general endpoint for each student, and the participants constructed curricula that converged on the content.

A second trend emerged that relates to the format of co-teaching. During the course of the field visits, focus groups, and professional meeting sessions, three co-teaching roles emerged. The first role type saw the special and science educators act as interchangeable units during instruction, such that either could assume the role of the other for short periods of time. The second role type was exhibited by the special educator acting as a distant "shadow" to the science educator in planning and implementing appropriate instruction. Administrative structures (scheduling, hall duties, etc.) precluded direct interaction between the science and special educators, but planning focused on particular content was enacted in the physical absence of the special educator. Finally, the roles of the special and science educators could be merged into a single individual, such that the classroom teacher carried out both the regular and special education instruction. This role was reinforced by both the school setting as well as the capacities of the teachers.

The third trend that emerged depended upon factors that act in support of, or as barriers to, co-teaching. In general, participants felt that it was easier and more meaningful to consider inclusion by design as opposed to simple lesson modification after plans for the class were developed. Initially, it was difficult for the participants to overcome preconceived ideas about inclusion that focused solely on lesson modification. The approach that evolved allowed participants to examine both the mandated science curricula and students' IEPs in a critical and pragmatic light. Participants described or acted in ways that demonstrated the importance of (a) trusting relationships for stakeholders, (b) the need to include models of co-teaching into pre-service teacher education, (c) the need to critically examine the administrative structure that supports continued teacher territoriality, and (d) the need to overcome the assumption by general educators that the "special" in special education means that those students cannot learn.

Despite situation-specific constraints, the participants remained enthusiastic about the project. To a large extent, their focus on front-end inclusion has validated what they have come to believe as self-selected project goals. As change agents, their expectancy of success and the value attached to that success are the basis of continued motivation to develop science curricula and instructional approaches in support of students with disabilities. The most difficult hurdle, however, remains the administrative climate. Without proper support by the school-level administration, science and special educators will face difficulty in any form of inclusion in the science classroom of students with disabilities.


The preliminary results of this study thus far indicate that inclusion by design in science instruction is an effective means of approaching the needs of all learners, regardless of whether they have an IEP or not. What underscores this apparent effectiveness is the belief of the teachers involved that it is efficient, pragmatic, and m ore representative of the daily demands placed on teachers. As many teachers in the elementary grades are self-contained and many junior high schools transition into middle schools, the increased numbers of students identified as having special needs places an overwhelming burden on the teachers as they attempt to meet the needs of all of their students. Models such as "inclusion by design" described here offer one solution to the problem and will act as springboards in the process of science education reform.

As the project progresses, focus will be placed on the student-level effectiveness of the project, as measured by state achievement tests and attainment of IEP goals and objectives. Based on the initial trajectories determined thus far, there is every reason to believe that the experiences gained by the teachers will directly and positively impact all students under their charge.


The authors wish to acknowledge the support of the Dwight Eisenhower Mathematics and Science Education Act - (DEMSEA) Higher Education program, grant #EPDP-97-WVURC-2.


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Turnbull, A. P., Turnbull, H. R., Shank, M., & Leal, D. (1995). _Exceptional lives: Special education in today's schools_. Columbus, OH: Merrill.

Pyle, E. J. & Butera, G. (1997). Perspectives on inclusion by design: Science curriculum reform and special education. Information Technology and Disabilities E-Journal, 4(4).