Submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Special Education in the School of Education in the Graduate School of Syracuse University

    April 1999


    Professor Douglas Biklen

    Date___April 1, 1999


    This is a study of five high school students with significant disabilities and their observed participation and engagement in the academic curriculum in general and special education classes. The students had labels of mental retardation and either could not speak or could not speak fluently. The study looked not only at their engagement, but how their educators perceived and interpreted their participation in terms of engagement. Inclusion literature has focused largely on elementary and middle school students until recently. Most of this literature has focused on the benefits of inclusion for the development of social skills and the furthering of therapeutic goals and goals of daily living, and on the benefits of inclusion for the nondisabled peers. Only recently has research attention turned to the inclusion of high school students with intellectual disability labels. But this work has not addressed academic instruction. This study focuses on the details of class participation in light of what the students do in class and the meaning professional educators make of their presence, their disabilities, and their participation.

    I conducted a qualitative study of five students in the tradition of symbolic interactionism and from the perspective of disability as a sociology that describes disability as constructed by the meanings people make of it. Following the five students in three separate high schools and with daily schedules ranging from full inclusion to almost full segregation, I set aside assumptions of their intellectual incompetence and sought to get to know their perspectives and strategies for participation and nonparticipation.

    Analysis of patterns of educators’ perceptions and expectations of the students, the students’ patterns of participation, and the educators’ patterns of assessment revealed a chaotic set of competing representations and images of the students and their abilities. These images often obscured their identities as purposeful, thinking human beings with actual and potential interest in the academic curriculum. The analysis also identifies classroom opportunity structures and assessment strategies that enhanced and obscured students’ actual engagement and potential as students.

    Copyright 1999 Robin Merle Smith

    All rights reserved

    Table of Contents

    List of Tables…………………………………………………………………………... iv

    Acknowledgments……………………………………………………………………... v

    Dedication……………………………………………………………………………... vii

    Chapter 1: Introduction……………………………………………………………...... 1

    Chapter 2: Method…………………………………………………………………...... 39

    Chapter 3: Patterns of Expectancy and Perception: What Can the Students Do?.......... 64

    Chapter 4: Patterns of Participation: What Do the Students Do?…………………….... 95

    Chapter 5: Patterns of Assessment: How Can You Tell What it Means? ................... 129

    Chapter 6: Discussion: Conclusions and Implications………………………………… 172

    References………………………………………………………………………….. 206

    Vita………………………………………………………………………………… 216


    Chapter 1

    Table 1.1: Contrasting Perspectives on Disability…………………………25

    Chapter 2

    Table 2.1: List of School Visits and Interviewed Teachers ……………. 52

    Chapter 3

    Table 3.1 Educators Talking to Students ……………………………86-88

    Table 3.2 Educators Talking About Students ……………………….91-93


    The many people who contributed to my emergence as a scholar and as a researcher deserve profuse thanks. Each School of Education faculty member with whom I had contact both challenged and encouraged me; they were always willing to listen and think with me. Professors who have particularly challenged and pushed my thinking include Doug Biklen, Celia Oyler, Mara Sapon-Shevin, and Steve Taylor. They showed me that research could contribute to social justice and that I had something to say. They actively encouraged me in the process of finding my way as I struggled with the various challenges in the research and writing process of this dissertation. Eugene Marcus, Mayer Shevin, and Chris Kliewer also had well timed encouraging words. They and my other colleagues and friends at the Facilitative Communication Institute have helped me stay in touch with the immediacy of the issues I have encountered in my research and my activism.

    My study buddies, Ann Monroe-Belliargian, Ann Foley, and Yvonne Goodwin helped me stay focused and exchanged with me many conversations on the process and content of our dissertations. Stuart Carroll, our auxiliary member, made me laugh.

    I want to especially thank my family for their patience, love, and support. When I didn’t have time to eat, Fritzie Smith made me remember that meals are useful and delicious. When I had no time for socializing, Lynn and Corrinne Smith and Malcolm and Sandy Smith were understanding when I didn’t show up at family gatherings. They also made sure with well timed last minute invitations, that I got out of the house, took breaks, and enjoyed their company.

    I am indebted to the students in my study who welcomed me into their school lives with humor and warmth. They taught me more than I could ever describe. I am also appreciative of the parents who confided their triumphs and struggles and, likewise the educators who generously welcomed me into their classrooms and shared their perspectives and their passion as well as their dilemmas on behalf of their students.

    Finally, thanks to Doug Biklen. He has been a role model in activist research and teaching. He has challenged me with high expectations and his confidence in me. He offered patience, clarity in his feedback, and encouragement in the writing and rewriting process.

    I dedicate this dissertation to Abe, Gerard, Nick, Trish, and Tyrone.



    In this study I examined the academic participation of five high school students with significant disabilities. I studied how the students participated and how educators perceived their participation. I looked at data from three views: 1) educators’ expectations and perceptions of the students, 2) students’ participation, and 3) how educators assessed the students. Through these lenses I collected data that revealed a world of multiple and conflicting representations of the students. In this introduction I reflect on how disability has been represented to me and by me over the years. Then I review the research that precedes my study and reflect upon it.

    History of the Study

    My study of students with disabilities and their engagement with academics grew out of two aspects of my background: my experiences as a high school teacher, and my personal experiences with disability and disability rights activism. My Chicago high school teaching experience marks my beginnings as an "inclusive" educator before I became mobility impaired in the late 1970s. I did not realize until much later that my growth as an inclusive educator paralleled, in many ways, the inclusive education movement itself along with the rise of disability into public discussion. When I reflect from my current interest in disability research and issues upon the personal experiences I have chosen to share, I see that I slowly experienced the growth of disability awareness and its application in civil rights and education. In a way, my disability consciousness-raising paralleled feminist consciousness-raising, then called "CR," but lagged considerably behind and rarely intersected. For example, the classic article "Disabled women: Sexism without the pedestal" didn’t appear until the early 1980s and was still unknown to me until 1986. I cannot look at the students in my study without looking at myself, and could not have asked questions of my data without asking questions of my own development as a researcher.

    Disability as Invisible in a Progressive Public High School

    I taught French and Spanish in Chicago high schools from 1970 to 1975. My personal philosophy was that all students can learn. My instincts were to include those tracked or placed into lower level English classes into my group of "average" foreign language students. I wanted "equal opportunity" foreign language classes. During my first teaching year, I proposed to my principal that I offer a Spanish I class for students who were in "Basic English" and had reading difficulties. He rejected my proposal and called it impractical. Midyear, I transferred to another public high school that, unlike the first, was fully integrated by race, ethnicity, and academic ability. The school, The Chicago Public High School for Metropolitan Studies, was a new alternative high school called a "School without Walls." I seized the opportunity to welcome students like those my former principal had rejected as candidates for my classes. Bud was such a student.

    Bud, almost a fixture in the school lobby where he often gathered with friends, took the English classes that were geared toward basic skills and used content such as comic books and hobbies to foster motivation. When he asked me about taking beginning French, I was pleased to have him in class. At my previous school, I would not have had the opportunity to have him as a student as he would have been limited to the so-called "basic track" classes. As the French class approached Chapter 3 in our text, Bud fell behind. He did not want extra work, but was willing to have a tutor. Bud and I set a 10-week goal of mastering the material in Chapter 1. I gave Barry, an advanced French student, 1 credit for tutoring him. Barry was doing well in French, but his pronunciation was unintelligible. At the end of 10 weeks, Barry improved to the point where he could speak French and be easily understood, and Bud could engage in a conversation involving greetings and making his own sentences which included some slang. I was sorry Bud chose not to continue, but was glad he could leave with the success and the credits. I did improve at motivating students to continue French. That year I gave Mark, a beginning student who did not have a reading problem, but a motivational one, a full year’s credit for conjugating "I hate French" in every tense and bribed him into intermediate French with the promise that he didn’t have to speak. Since he knew all the tenses, unlike his peers, he spoke anyway and was conversing in French by the end of that second school year.

    In this vignette I had no idea what Bud could do well and what his academic difficulties were about and did not know how to find out. I thought that maybe Bud quit because he had gotten what he wanted from the experience, which was valid. I thought that I should have been able to figure out how to keep him involved like I did for Mark. It occurs to me now that there may have been other reasons related to his not continuing such as the fact that French teaching included considerable print orientation in those days, as well as practice in exchanging rapid paced dialogue. We dealt with students like Bud with a lot of flexibility and goodwill and the best we could do was let him enroll in any class he wished and to drop a course in good standing.

    We, the principal and faculty of 10, sought to create a learning environment where all students were respected and could achieve. I taught French, Spanish, assorted electives, and "sponsored," as the teacher of record, courses taught by our students. I accommodated the variation in learning ability and style through group activities, individual assignments, contracts, and peer tutoring. The faculty tended to avoid homogeneous ability grouping, and although teachers sometimes ended up with students of similar ability, no student, to my knowledge, was excluded from any class or made to feel different, ignored, or looked down upon. We had a class called Resource Room where any student could go for English credit to do an independent study project and receive coaching from the English teacher. Many students enrolled in Resource on the English teacher’s recommendation, because it fit their schedules, or because they wanted to focus on a writing project. I learned 20 years later that "resource room" was a special education term designating a (usually) segregated class where a special education teacher helped students with disabilities. Special education labels were rare in our school, and lacked stigma in our setting. For example, the English teacher asked me to remind a student with dyslexia to keep up a spelling log, but he was more known to faculty and peers as an artist who taught other students welding at the Chicago Art Institute. On the whole our students with what we would call now mild disabilities were invisible to us, even when named.

    I never met any students with significant disabilities or any special education teachers in Chicago schools where I taught. Presumably, they were in other facilities for "handicapped children" only out of sight and mind. To the extent that I ever thought of disability and schooling, I thought of special education teachers as particularly compassionate people, working patiently with students who took a very long time learning the basics of daily living.

    Looking back, I realized we had several students who would now be classified with labels such as learning disabled, emotionally disabled, and mildly mentally retarded. In our school, however, we never referred to them in terms of deficits. We conversed about their strengths and exchanged information about what classes would help them build on their strengths and how to improve their skills and knowledge. In my mind, and I believe this to be true for my friends and colleagues on the staff, the missing students with significant disabilities were appropriately placed in a medical educational setting. If I had been asked if we should admit them to our school, I believe I would have said "yes." Yet statements that framed these special education students in terms of "pathology," "deficiency," and, "disability" would have seemed natural to me at the time. This would have been the terminology of our planning for their education.

    For example, if my colleagues and I were to speak of a student with "severe handicaps," I was likely to be concerned with what was medically wrong, what the student lacked in cognitive and functional skills, or what he or she needed to get good grades in school. Like my colleagues, I would have been interested in programs that enabled students to participate at the level of our typical school norms. I recently read a statement assuming, for example, that a person with cerebral palsy had a "decreased joy of living" . I would not have questioned that assumption back then. I would not have seen that view as supporting a concept of difference that denied general education school participation and contributed to such students’ absence from my classroom and my school. I would not have realized that such a view was steeped in a tradition of misrepresenting people with disabilities as "other," abnormal, subhuman .

    I held these beliefs in spite of our progressive and civil rights interests. I believed in integrated schooling; in fact, our school intentionally reflected the economic, ethnic, and racial proportions of the city population. I was aware of integration landmarks such as Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954), a U.S. Supreme court decision establishing that separate is inherently unequal. I would not have applied to the missing "disabled students" the court’s statement that segregation "generates a feeling of inferiority as to their [the students] status in the community that may effect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone (p.5)." I was aware of civil rights legislation banning discrimination based on race and many of us had participated in civil rights demonstrations in the 1960s. In sum, I believed in integration, but people with significant disabilities were different and invisible, not part of the "integration" I and my colleagues were supporting.

    By this time, the early 1970s, Goffman had been writing about "spoiled identity." Goffman wrote about people who were managing an identity "spoiled" by disability labels, where individuals make positive meaning of how they are treated and their situation. I was unaware of his ideas and would have appreciated them. If our students with mild disabilities were engaged in this process of "managing their identities," they succeeded. I assumed, by their presence, we teachers could help them to succeed in the mainstream of school and work. I did not know they had disabilities because we focused on abilities without the use of labels. The school system had created a division, of which I was unaware, between our students, integrated by race, ethnicity, and academic ability, and the other missing special education students with moderate and severe disabilities. I did not think about the integration of all people with disabilities until ten years later.

    Disability as a Civil Rights Matter - For Some People

    Following the onset of my disability, I began to take "integration" and civil rights personally, and in the process, met the "missing students" I just referred to.

    With four other activists with disabilities from Syracuse, I learned and plotted with like-minded activists with disabilities from all over the United States. The room was a church meeting hall in Denver, the site of a 2-week training session in disability civil rights organizing skills. Most of us had significant physical disabilities and used wheelchairs. We were planning a major assault on the largest McDonald’s in Denver: a noontime demonstration to protest their lack of access to wheelchair using patrons and to secure a meeting with the manager. We were "practicing" our organizing strategies on the Denver McDonald’s. Our goal was to return to our respective cities and use our new skills to secure accessible mass transit at home. I was the least disabled among my group, even though I had limited use of my arms and legs. Mike was quadriplegic and a local advocate. Chris had MS and also came to local advocacy meetings. Ken was the only one of us disabled from birth. He had cerebral palsy, and spoke with difficulty, which made his speech hard to understand at first, and drove his electric wheelchair with his right foot, the only limb he could move at will. He was in a day treatment program when we met him and we asked him if he wanted to come to Denver to learn how to advocate for lifts on public transit buses. "Sure," Ken said. ADAPT (American Disabled for Accessible Public Transit) was a new disability rights organization known for its "in your face" organizing strategies inspired by union organizing practices and the strategies and philosophy of Martin Luther King; ADAPT members were the major force behind Denver’s fully accessible bus system. During this trip, we learned Ken had a sense of humor and adventure. We asked him to be our media spokesman during our first demonstration in Denver. He said no, then consented. He was very effective. Many others at the training, leaders in their respective cities on disability rights issues, had also spent their lives in institutions. I wondered why Ken was in a day treatment program. I wondered why so many of my new friends at this training, fellow leaders, were or had been in institutions just because they couldn’t move much or speak.

    This experience marks a second stage in my "disability awareness" and growth as an "inclusive educator." It was a first stage in learning the difference between the public representation of people with disabilities and the reality that I knew for myself. It also marked the beginnings of my interest in the inclusion of people with disabilities who were excluded due to presumptions of intellectual deficit accompanying physical disability. Disabled by rheumatoid arthritis since 1978, I became a disability rights activist in the 1980s. I took civil rights issues personally and the students who had been missing from my schools and classrooms became my peers, colleagues, and leaders in the fight for civil rights, and later, for "consumer" (as we called ourselves at the time) control of individual lives. A greater number of people became "competent" in my eyes. Previously I thought that people with such significant physical disabilities from birth were also cognitively impaired and incapable of making important decisions. I learned what my new friends could do. The people who populated our activist ranks communicated with devices, were mobile with wheelchairs, and breathed freely with respirators. I would not have imagined that they could plan such things as media campaigns and demonstrations, negotiate rights issues, or even participate in daily activities without physical and mental assistance. This group, dedicated to liberating disabled people from nursing homes, still excluded from active participation those people who were still in "developmental centers," institutions housing people labeled retarded who did not participate in public life or advocacy conferences.

    Even within our organizations we did not disturb the paradigm that some people are incompetent and thus they were treated as such. In fact, during demonstrations with a leading national disability rights organization, the participants with the most severe disabilities (some cognitive and some not) were brought to demonstrations and consistently excluded from the planning process. Not coincidentally, so were the women. This exclusion from the planning process appeared to mark an inability on the part of our leaders to think complexly about our liberation. As activists we advocated for access to public buildings and publicly funded programs under section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Focus on physical access to facilities and programs allowed advocacy with and for the full spectrum of people with disabilities without addressing our own judgments of their competence and their exclusion based on such judgments. This paradigm of discrimination based on ability, for me, would remain undisturbed for another decade, until my affiliation with Syracuse University and people I met through the Center on Human Policy and the School of Education.

    Disability as a Site for Conflicting Meanings

    As I became more aware that what we were accomplishing in the streets did not seem to be happening in the schools, I decided to turn my attention to education and focus on inclusion. In graduate school, as I learned about inclusion, I assumed that if a class were inclusive, the student would be a full participant. I saw what that could look like and recorded it in field notes from my first research class.

    Gerard, a 9th grader with Down syndrome, was participating in Social Studies class. The students, in small groups, were preparing presentations about different Asian countries. The teacher was playing theme music she picked out for each student group presentation. She announced that she would play it while they worked. "This is Indian music, hear that Sylvia? Gerard, this is your theme music you’ll be talking above that...nice like that music Gerard?" He replied, "Yes nice music." Later this teacher shared her goals for Gerard, which were "eventually, to assume more of an independent role with learning." I asked her what she saw as the steps to that happening. She replied, "Well I think, you know, the fact that he's in there a lot now [in Social Studies class], the fact that he's working with people now. He's working on something that's very related to what everyone else is doing...So there's no patronizing. I guess that's the worst of what I wouldn't like to see for him... patronizing, an easy A, things like that...I always want him to earn a grade and feel like he's earned a grade."

    This classroom observation took place while I was in graduate school and learning about inclusion and adapting curricula for students with disabilities. I wanted to see how inclusion worked at the high school level because I had been a high school teacher and because I had mostly read and heard about elementary level inclusion. I decided to study a high school student with Down syndrome, whom I called Gerard. He attended 9th grade academic classes with his nondisabled peers. The 9th grade had three teams of teachers (English, Science, Math, Social Studies, and Special Education). Each team had approximately 120 students with diverse cultural backgrounds, academic achievement, and cognitive abilities. Gerard was enrolled in a team with a history of inclusion of students with mild, moderate, and severe disabilities. I wanted to see how his teachers adapted curriculum, how he related socially and academically with his 9th grade peers, and how the teachers and administrators practiced inclusion. When I went to observe Gerard, I frequently couldn't find him. When he was not in his scheduled class, he was with special education staff at Speech, Adapted Physical Education, or traveling in the community. Therefore, the focus of my study turned from how teachers included Gerard to the meanings that teachers had made for inclusion. I found varied meanings, ranging from a lack of expectations for academic participation to academic goals for Gerard by some teachers. I called the frequent absence from class due to special education activities school sanctioned or "facilitated" truancy. The acceptance of these absences supported the teachers’ lack of academic expectation. Teachers who were committed to Gerard’s academic growth as well as his social growth were frustrated by his absences. Teachers agreed on the importance of consistent daily attendance, at least for social goals, but special education priorities interfered with his daily presence in class. I have only met a few teachers who think academically about students like Gerard.

    Disability as a Question of Competence

    Even while teachers were showing me that academic goals were suitable for someone like Gerard, I still thought that thinking about educating a student entailed adjusting or liberalizing the concept of limitation. After all, he had Down syndrome and I thought I knew what that meant: mentally retarded with learning limitations. However, discussing the social construction of mental retardation, Ferguson countered rigidity of such limited thinking by naming it. As he examined the treatment of people labeled severely retarded, Ferguson named and explored the problem of "chronicity" which conveys more than a notion that the condition is incurable. It connotes rather "unfixible" and "unsalvageable" , and implies that the judgment is permanent. I had absorbed these representations all my life as an unaware recipient of a cultural tradition that labeled and ranked such people below me and kept them far away. Now I was advocating inclusion and only beginning to understand calls for discovering "ways of focusing on the abilities of those previously regarded as incompetent and discover ways to help them express their abilities" . Learning that mental retardation was in the eye of the beholder, so to speak, didn’t affect me deeply until the following experience.

    In a School of Education conference room, about eight members of a research group met regularly to discuss research related to facilitated communication (FC) . With FC, people who could not speak or reliably point because of their disabilities were communicating using letter boards or keyboards with varying degrees of physical support to point to the letters. Many of these people now using FC had autism, Down syndrome, or cerebral palsy. At one such meeting we were discussing literacy in people previously thought to be mentally retarded and therefore assumed illiterate. Many people who had never before used typing through FC to communicate were often literate. Even preschool children were spelling out conversations "behind the teacher’s back," according to one researcher present. I particularly recall one exchange during this meeting.

    Eugene Marcus, a man with autism, regularly attended our research meetings as an experienced FC user who was interested in the issues surrounding it. He began to communicate using FC as an adult and was still considered retarded by some of the staff in his group home. Someone asked Eugene how he learned to read. He had been in inclusive classes since preschool. Through the keyboard he told us about throwing tantrums in elementary school during reading time. When the class broke into reading groups, he was supposed to work separately with an assistant on word lists. I wrote these words as his facilitator read them. "I learned to read by listening to what the other teachers were doing with the kids in groups I wasn’t welcome in. I kicked and bit myself till the aide left me alone so I could listen to the teachers and learn."

    This meeting was a turning point for me toward my focus on the academic life of students classified as severely disabled. It was part of my new experiences and friendships with people with autism. Prior to meeting them, I associated autism with retardation and with the concept of "savant" from movies and TV news magazine presentations of musicians and artists. My first contact with a child with autism was in 1963 working in a program for emotionally disturbed children where staff treated autism as a psychiatric issue. Although I later learned from my fellow advocates that physical disability did not mean mental disability, it did not occur to me that people labeled mentally retarded might be intellectually competent; I did not know that they might be able to understand and even read, while not being able to speak, write or have other means to communicate their knowledge or understanding.

    My attitude changed as I met people at a conference on facilitated communication and made friends who shattered my stereotypes. People with autism were using spelling boards, portable keyboards, and laptop computers to communicate at varying levels of independence ranging from support at the wrist to support by a light touch at the shoulder . The people with autism I met led me to "assume competence" in people who communicate with difficulty. The phrase "assume competence" was a recurring theme that seemed new to me while, at the same time, it struck me as an obvious and often overlooked truth. The people with autism expressed themselves clearly, often with striking metaphors and spoke about everything. They shared how they were performing in school, their likes, dislikes, and hobbies, their prose and poetry, their opinions on issues involving facilitated communication, and their plans for the evening.

    My education continued and representation approached reality as I read autobiographies and articles about others who had been considered retarded due to autism, Down syndrome, or from other difficulties with oral and written expression of thoughts . From the work of Temple Grandin, Sean Barron, and Donna Williams I learned the challenges of living with autism. I learned that the struggles of breaking through some of the communication barriers were not a matter of intellect or lack of thinking, but a matter of persistence and the quality of the help and emotional support provided. From the autobiographies on autism, I learned how important it is to believe in the person and to persist in supporting them.

    I learned to pay more careful attention to both the person and the environment from David Goode’s work and to look for clues as to how a person may be communicating. Goode wrote about a videotaped conversation between a man with Down syndrome named Bobby and other people in his group home. The staff found his rapid speech incoherent and thought that he had communicated very little. The videotape, when slowed down, made Bobby’s speech clear and revealed his sophisticated understanding and control of his situation.

    I learned that most of what I thought I knew about Down syndrome was irrelevant to the lives and futures of people like two young men named Kingsley and Levitz . In their book, Count us in: Growing up with Down Syndrome, these two high school students thought clearly about their future, their past, their limitations, their relationships, and the world at large including politics. Whether people with Down syndrome are in high school like these two boys or in a group home like Bobby, it is inaccurate to assume that they are incapable of complex thought. To generalize the overall potential of people like Bobby, or Kingsley, or Levitz, because of their limitations in particular areas, does a disservice to them and to all those who may know them. I learned through my reading and personal exposure to assume that people like Bobby can think. I began to think about what this knowledge or assumption of their complex understanding meant for their everyday lives or for my own.

    I thought frequently about Eugene, the man with autism who shared how he taught himself to read. I wondered what other special education students like him were doing in classes when the adults in charge assumed that nothing intellectual was going on or could go on for them. What strategies must these students devise to negotiate a world where people do not understand them? I thought that first I would need to learn about how students were relating to or engaging or participating in the academic curriculum.

    Where This Study Fits in High School Inclusion Literature

    My focus on academic engagement and patterns of participation of high school students with significant disabilities is grounded in the literature on high school inclusion. This literature naturally followed studies of inclusion at the elementary level. As elementary students became high school age, their included status was more tenuous and the rate of inclusion and the number of high school studies were proportionally fewer. I first review earlier works focusing on inclusive high school curriculum, showing that the focus was on social and functional skills. Then I describe recent literature that focuses on the participation of students with significant disabilities in academic subjects. I explore issues of competence and outline two contrasting perspectives of academic engagement of special education students to show how these two perspectives relate to legal regulations and expectations of participation of students. Then I give examples of autobiographical insights into school experiences that suggest various ways students with significant disabilities have engaged with academic curriculum and the difficulties teachers may have had in perceiving and supporting them.

    Early Research: Social and Functional Goals

    A content analysis of a dozen years of mainstreaming literature found that most inclusion research was dominated by surveys of teachers and measurement of student behavior . Until recently, inclusion literature regarding students with significant disabilities has tended to focus on elementary school, and Miller et al. reported that there was very little information on educational results (p.101). Research and discussion regarding students with significant disabilities also focused more on the teachers and the typical peers; reports of findings emphasized the social and therapeutic benefits of inclusion to the student and his or her nondisabled peers.

    High school studies have followed the same trends. Advocates of inclusion and researchers on behalf of high school students with significant disabilities have examined nondisabled high school student relationships with segregated peers to determine the effects of interactions on typical students. For example, peer tutors who met with students with significant disabilities based in segregated classrooms benefited as tutors with gains in self- esteem, self-confidence, and academic motivation high school peer tutors of students with mild disabilities . Another focus of research is the effects of general (as opposed to special education) class participation on the social contacts and social networks of high school students with severe disabilities . Kennedy and Iktonin found that class participation was the source of increased social contact with peers without disabilities. Ferguson and Baumgart discussed the degrees of participation of elementary and high school students with severe disabilities in general education classes and focused on social interactions. These studies did not include the perspectives of the students being tutored.

    Those who described academic benefits that accrued as a result of being included in general education classes have usually done so in terms of basic skills such as greetings, turn taking, or reading street signs. They framed academic participation in the service of social and functional goals. For example, inclusion advocates Pugach and Warger considered the academic curriculum at all grade levels to be a context for social interaction goals. Basic skills included appropriate interactions with peers. They pointed out the lack of interest on the part of special education professionals in the academic curriculum for students with mild, moderate, and severe disabilities. They turned their attention to alternative orientations such as "(1) remediation of academic skills and development of social competency, (2) maintenance of general education skills through such approaches as tutoring and learning strategies, and (3) functional focus as it relates to vocational and/or adult outcomes" .

    In their curriculum considerations for the merging of general and special education, Pugach and Warger called the students with severe and moderate disabilities "students with enduring disabilities." For these students they viewed inclusion as a social aim. They advocated also for the inclusion of "even students with mild disabilities." These students also had been relegated to a separate curriculum track limited to basic (mostly non-academic) skills and unrelated to the core curriculum. I interpreted use of the word "even" to denote their positive assessment of the intellectual competence of most of the students with mild disabilities. Pugach and Warger stated,

    Some students, chiefly those with severe and profound disabilities, are not expected to learn the core academic curriculum. Over the past decade, there have been major advancements in the design of functional and community-referenced curricula for students whose disabilities range from severe to profound. (p.126)

    Pugach and Warger did not limit their analysis to students with severe disabilities, but included students with moderate disabilities as unlikely candidates for academic learning.

    For these students, the challenge of integration is to define and provide the kinds of social interactions they will have with their able-bodied peers and in what contexts. Because the outcomes of integration in this sense tend to reflect social goals rather than academic learning, the curriculum may or not necessarily be targeted as an appropriate context in which to achieve the educational goal of integration. (P.126)

    Curriculum designs and studies of high school students with severe disabilities have tended to focus on functional curriculum, which "includes only skills that will be useful to the student in home, school, or work environments" . Wilcox and Bellamy (1982) grounded their activity-based design of high school programs for students with severe disabilities "in an outcome orientation, with specific interest in the productivity, independence, and participation of program graduates" (p.15). This community-referenced curriculum overcame approaches to functional curriculum that had the student perform isolated tasks that tend not to transfer to other settings. In prioritizing the community-referenced curriculum that "derives from the basic demands of adult functioning" (work, leisure, community participation, and residential living), Wilcox and Bellamy stated

    ...the importance of acquiring academic skills (e.g., learning to sound out five words or add two digit numbers by carrying) pales in comparison to basic community mobility skills (e.g., crossing controlled and uncontrolled intersections). Being able to print a grocery list is less important than being able to use a picture list to shop for groceries and personal items. (p.19)

    This quotation indicated that academic participation was seen only as an opportunity to expose students to tasks, most of which were considered relevant to the student’s future. The authors, while helping move special education students toward inclusion, did not explore other possibilities of the academic placement. For example, the academic task of the student in that shopping situation could have included planning what to buy, learning how to organize the list, or using pictures to help recognize a product at the store. The strategies that placed students in the same environments as their typical peers supported only functional skill development. The typical academic tasks were reframed as inappropriate to the goals of the students benefiting from inclusion in academic classes. In fact, the term "training" appears frequently throughout the narrative of Wilcox and Bellamy as in, "a teacher no longer ‘trains and hopes’ [authors’ quotation marks] for performance in the criterion environment [as in non-community-referenced functional skill training].... Rather the teacher trains and evaluates on a daily basis" (p.102). The authors referred to "mainstreaming" in terms of independent living skills, such as benefiting from the use of a home economics room (emphasizing the likelihood that the actual class may well be inappropriate,) and for vocational preparation in industrial arts class.

    The functional approach to community-referenced curricula for students with severe disabilities also had social benefits . Ferguson explored the curricular decision making of the teachers of students with severe disabilities; half of these teachers worked in integrated settings, but created new forms of segregation, such as individual instruction for a student who could profit from group instruction (p.101). As an advocate for the increasing practice of fostering "peer"(author’s quotation marks) relationships, Ferguson pointed out the benefits of increased self-esteem to nondisabled but otherwise "disenfranchised" teenage helpers or tutors. The students with disabilities benefited along with their nondisabled peers from the modeling of functional community-referenced curricula. Their work experiences in the community taught them skills they would use after high school; these skills included work habits such as promptness, learning and completing job-specific tasks, relating with co-workers, and following instructions. Ferguson advocated that the community-referenced curriculum becomes a goal for general education students who also are in need of non-school based and non-academic relevant activities.

    Recent publications have moved closer to acknowledging the academic life of students classified with "severe" or significant disabilities . However, the issue has been only recently addressed directly . There has been more focus on social skills (Falvey, 1995) within academic and vocational contexts, or on school restructuring with brief mention of academic and social outcomes .

    Recent Research Focusing on the Academic Lives of Students

    In this section I show how researchers on high school inclusion and school restructuring have increasingly focused on full participation of students with significant disabilities in academics. As this is a new focus in the literature, the writers show that academic inclusion is possible and tell how it is accomplished. In-depth attention to the details of participation is not yet evident.

    The approach of Fisher and Sax was based on schoolwide accommodations rather than accommodations for selected students. They taught accommodations to faculty that included alternative assessments, curricular adaptations, and creative thinking on how to achieve the Individualized Educational Program (IEP) goals in general education classes. For example, foreign language class might be a place to achieve some of the goals of expressive language. In a typical first year foreign language class, for example, there is considerable individual and group repetition of greetings and other common phrases as well as pronunciation exercises, and everyone in the room is involved. Fisher and Sax described chemistry students helping adapt a chair for a classmate, whose disability included poor balance. Using a popular saying, "Commit random acts of kindness," they generated an assignment called "random acts of chemistry kindness." The students did various random good deeds and wrote papers regarding the chemistry behind them. Fisher and Sax promoted an integrated curriculum for an integrated student body. They also created a checklist of individual goals that would be infused into the general education high school curriculum for the students with disabilities. Items for academic goals outnumbered social and therapeutic goals two to one. Udvari-Solner provided for high school teacher’s concrete strategies to include students with various processing problems. Further, Udvari-Solner included examples such as how an in-class writing assignment was adapted for a girl who communicated by pressing a switch which then played her choices of what to write. Jorgensen’s work on restructuring high schools to include all students emphasized strategies and examples for enabling students with disabilities to experience the social life and academic expectations of high school. These researchers and consultants, while describing students with significant disabilities who benefited academically from placement in academic classes, included examples of academic benefit and indicated that sometimes these benefits were unanticipated. A closer look at how students participate in these classes may reveal the successes and difficulties of their teachers in perceiving as well as fostering their academic development.

    Special Education Students and Issues of Competence

    Academic engagement and participation of students in this study raises questions among teachers and in the literature of how the students will benefit from their academic placements. Questions of benefit are founded on issues of how the student engages and how the student is perceived to engage with the class content. Contrasting perceptions of student competence, supported by education conventions, the school structures, and by the legal system, inform teachers’ perspectives, approaches, and expectations of the student. Inarticulate and nonverbal students who have developed communication as adults can offer insights into their school experiences and the effect on them of adult expectations. I end this section with how I defined engagement for purposes of this study, refined the focus to that of participation, and explain how these definitions influenced how I perceived my data.

    Deficit- and strength-oriented approaches. There are two contrasting educational approaches to students. The deficit approach, a medical model, has considered students in light of what they cannot do, the students’ limitations, and possible remedies or treatments. The strength-oriented approach has considered students in light of what they can do, their interests, their other skills, and the settings and adaptations that will enable the students to learn and maximize abilities. Two insightful parents made this distinction clear when they described their "two" teen-aged daughters. One of them, a socially active teenager who liked to talk on the phone and "hang out" at the mall with friends, participated in Girl Scouts and the school newspaper. They described the other as severely or profoundly mentally retarded with cerebral palsy, hearing and visual impairments, not toilet trained, and as loving Fisher Price toys. The two girls were really two opposite perspectives of their same daughter, Shawntell. Each perspective was likely to yield different social and curricular expectations in school. The Strullys chose an inclusion model for classes and fostered a strong school-based friendship network for their daughter. These two contrasting approaches, strength-oriented and deficit-oriented, also lead to differing perspectives on the intellectual abilities of students like Shawntell. Biklen and Duchan labeled these two opposing perspectives as normative and competence. Each perspective informs evaluation, relationships, programming, and education processes with people labeled retarded. Biklen emphasized finding "ways of focusing on the abilities of those previously regarded as incompetent and discover ways to help them express their abilities" (p.182).

    These two perspectives coexist not only in society, but even in the same school district, within individual schools, and in classrooms. The underlying assumptions contrast and conflict: certain students with so-called enduring disabilities, such as those labeled mentally retarded, cannot profit from the academic curriculum, versus all students can profit from the academic curriculum in meaningful ways. In the special education literature I found many examples of these contrasting perspectives in the language of research studies and policy articles. Table 1.1 shows some of the major conventions and codes of education relating to students with disabilities, summarizing the differences in language and assumptions that appear regularly in special education literature and practice. These perspectives had an impact, on a day to day basis, on the students with significant disabilities in my study.

    Table 1.1

    Contrasting Perspectives on Disability
    Perspective Deficit-oriented Competence (strength)-oriented
    Disability construction Medical model, "repair"; 

    deficit-based evaluation & planning ties student to norms

    Ecological model, "rights"; 

    competence-based evaluation & planning maximizes student’s abilities, interests and skills

    Common terms and labels "Special needs," mild, moderate, and severe disabilities (e.g., "learning disabled," "mentally retarded," "autistic");

    high incidence disabilities (mild & moderate), low incidence disabilities (severe); normal, disruptive, maladaptive, inappropriate

    Learning difficulty, impairment, disability;

    competence, "voice" meaning, causes (social, environmental, biological), environment, integration, functional and social integration, oppression, emancipation

    Terms related to solutions Treatments, remedial, special classes, inclusion (for some). Specialists Ecological, social change, structural supports, inclusion/integration for all
    Function of terms Sorting, ranking, diagnosing Describing, understanding
    Typical inclusion/integration themes Workability of inclusion, for whom it is meant, the value of special education; outcomes of selected practices and methods. Relationships between society structures and outcomes for people with disabilities; research application to outcomes of education practice and structure, understanding people with learning difficulties; issues of oppression & liberation of people with disabilities.
    Research perspectives* Functionalist paradigm, frequently positivist and

    Involves carrying out experiments to reveal the objective truths about disability, students with disabilities, and appropriate education. 

    Interpretivist paradigm, recognizing the role of values in inquiry *;e.g., qualitative, phenomenological, 

    Critical theory, feminist. (Emancipatory, addressing disabling structures and patterns of society).


    By illuminating the language we use to rank and sort people, we begin to illuminate the processes used to accomplish such divisions. By doing this, we can suggest also some other interpretations that support complicated and complex readings of our students.

    Legal supports for normative (deficit) oriented assessments of competence. Noting the regulatory differences between determining "learning disability" and "mental retardation" also provides insight into the issues surrounding intellectual competence. Students with learning disabilities, for example, are legally assumed to be as intellectually competent as their nondisabled peers. Discrepancy between expected achievement and actual achievement determined on an individual basis is one of the criteria used to determine learning disability in most states including New York. New York State Department of Education regulations (sec 200.1 (mm)(6) specify a 50% discrepancy in order to deem a student to have a learning disability . Thus ability is expected, and if the student does not produce, the assumption of ability remains. A student may have average or above average intelligence according to intelligence tests, but be performing considerably below grade level. Special education interventions have focused on providing students with learning disabilities with skills and support that will enable them to keep up academically with their peers.

    In contrast, the student with "mental retardation" is, according to New York State, "a student who, concurrent with deficits in adaptive behavior, consistently demonstrates general intellectual functioning that is determined to be 1.5 standard deviations or more below the mean of the general population" (sec. 200.1 (mm)(7)). Thus, comparison of and discrepancy between intellectual ability called "expected achievement," and actual achievement is not a defining characteristic of the student’s special education label of "mental retardation."

    Recent competence-oriented focus on academics. Inclusive placements have increased access to academic experience for students with significant disabilities. Academic lesson plans include ties to Individualized Educational Plan (IEP) goals such as initiating and responding to social interactions, performing functional tasks such as running a tape recorder, and increasing functional computation and reading skills. Reports of academic engagement have been framed as benefits and outcomes. An ideal assessment, according to the forms suggested in the high school inclusion packets, (Fisher and Sax, 1997; Udvari-Solner, 1997) should include a variety of evidence that the student is learning, from completion of assignments to participation in activities and projects.

    A parent lamenting about the segregated education of his daughter, labeled mentally retarded, wrote of her teachers as "kind people who treated the students as individuals, but I don’t think they [the students] were stretched intellectually as they should and could have been" . Inclusion strategies aim to treat the students as individuals. Literature documenting the academic benefits that accrued to included students has tended not to include detailed descriptions of the students’ involvement. When researchers reported such benefits, they were a result of processes and patterns of participation that were mentioned but not described. For example, a student with no speech and labels of autism and mental retardation made posters and contributed to a Civil War mural in a high school Social Studies class. Teachers used these murals to stimulate class discussions. The following report, while giving insights into how a student might participate, details neither processes of participation nor the student’s perspective,

    At the same time, he had opportunities to improve his skills in drawing, group participation, volunteering information (e.g., pointing to his pictures), and listening and responding to classmates (e.g., show the picture of Robert E. Lee). In addition, he had an opportunity to share and learn with his classmates information about key figures in the Civil War.

    Jorgensen (1996, 1997) also included many examples of students’ participation in high school classes. Her examples included a student who participated in theater class using a head switch to play her lines on cue, a student who did his seat work on a laptop computer and participated with peers by pointing to letters on a spelling board that his peers then read, and a student who completed multiple choice tests by pointing to the letters a, b, c, or d on an adapted answer sheet. This emphasis on inclusion strategies and successes, with examples of academic participation, although not capturing the students’ perspectives, has opened opportunities to explore that participation in more detail.

    Autobiographical insights into school experiences. Autobiographical accounts of people with disabilities have provided students’ perspectives on their school experiences. People who did not or could not articulate their inner life during their youth are now able to share their versions of school and home life. Temple Grandin , a woman with autism, reported she did poorly in school and had "bizarre behavior and (an) aggressive attitude" (p.87) which included hitting her fellow students. She could understand "hands-on" explanations and activities, but was not motivated to do her schoolwork. A high school teacher who believed in her and her abilities supported her academic progress. He encouraged projects that required her to learn subjects she had previously considered boring, such as Math, in order to prove the validity of a major project she had begun. The project was a machine modeled on cattle "squeeze machines" that would comfort her and enable her to function in non-autistic ways after using it.

    Sean Barron co-authored the story of his childhood with his mother . As a child he had frequent outbursts of aggression and was unable to use the feedback he received from loving but annoyed parents about his distressing repetitive behaviors. During his late teens, he was able to understand the nature of his disability and use that understanding to learn about and engage in reciprocal social interaction. He reported that, as an elementary school student with autism, he learned some things obsessively and in depth. His mother wrote about how difficult he was to understand and "get through to." They each wrote an account of his learning about the 50 states with information about each. He engaged every adult who visited his home with queries about the states. He already knew all the answers. If an adult was patient enough to converse about all 50 states, Sean began again. Sean wrote ,

    Looking back, I realize I conducted conversations that were fragmented and disjointed, that led nowhere. At the time, however, what mattered was that doing it made me feel a little closer to being a normal human being. I got recognition, and I felt powerful for at least a while when I steered the talk where I wanted to go. (p.107)

    Both of these young people had adults who believed in them and assumed understanding. During his adolescence, Sean was able to communicate more and he explained to his parents what he did and did not understand.

    Engagement as Observable Patterns and Other Evidence of Participation

    The term "engagement" in this study describes aspects of student participation that include observable and implied responsiveness, interest, and understanding. Engagement is often used interchangeably with participation in conversations and classroom studies. However, these studies are of the observable aspects of engagement such as participation or documented understanding. They may also include responses that indicate appropriate or reciprocal responses to peers and adults, but rarely report students’ perspectives of engagement or what they are doing .

    Defining engagement. There is limited research on engagement of students with severe disabilities . Logan and Keefe defined engagement as "active academic responding" (p.19). They studied instructional variables and engaged behavior for elementary school students with severe disabilities in general education classes. They cited positive correlation between engaged behavior and academic gains for both typical students and those with disabilities. Although their study did not inquire into the instructional outcomes or quality of the instruction or learning, the authors urged further research into these areas.

    An aspect of active academic responding can be peer interaction if there is a participation structure such as cooperative learning for it to occur. Oyler and Elwell stressed the importance of peer interactions to promote engagement and included "agency to move, decide, and act" as a force in student engagement. They worked through definitions of engagement in multilevel inclusive middle school classrooms. Their definition included involvement in the curriculum in such a way "that they [students] were not solely interested in accomplishing the assignment," but showed interest and care about the quality of their product .

    Other educators who have researched the education of students with significant disabilities have focused not on the quality of their schoolwork, but more on the observable aspects of classroom participation. They have developed a vocabulary and particular perspective on participation.

    What is participation? Ferguson and Baumgart succinctly summarized inclusion literature that urges educators to avoid confusing participation of students with severe disabilities with their physical presence in the classroom. Basing her work on the research of other advocates for meaningful individualized curriculum adaptations , Ferguson continued the development of principles of partial participation to generate functional school and non-school curricula for severely handicapped students. She used the term, "partial-participation" to affirm the viable application of functional, age-appropriate, community-based, and community-referenced activity. It was a means of supporting individuals with severe disabilities to "participate actively in the lives of their communities in ways that help others view them as contributing members" (p.222). As she cautioned against limited perspectives in the instructional agenda, she wrote that errors have included passive participation (e.g., observing rather than doing), use of a convenient part of an activity (e.g., a student choosing an item to buy at the grocery store and then sitting outside as her special education classmates learned to shop), "missed participation" (e.g., learning to do an activity rather than actually doing it), and activities neither connected to each other nor to life. She advocated for "… activity-based curriculum, buttressed by the notions of partial participation and functional outcomes, . . .meant to assure that school would matter, to all students in some very direct and visible ways"(p.219). Ferguson supported the argument that "…passive participation in the hopes of social competence is a poor substitute for growth in functional competence" (p. 222), with examples that were oriented to social skills, daily living skills, and work skills.

    Jorgensen and her colleagues, such as Shapiro-Barnard, built on these premises, and asserted the students’ right to attain knowledge. They focused on academic participation in discussions of high school inclusion and advocated for this right even for "even those who do not yet have a reliable mode of communication. Even those whose behavior greatly challenges us on a daily basis. Even those who have been labeled as having mental retardation" . Examples included how a student who could neither speak nor write used an instant camera to document the steps in a science lab experiment . Another example showed how a high school student with a severe disability interacted with materials, received hand over hand guidance, and made choices during class activities throughout a unit . Whereas Jorgensen and colleagues focused on strategies and structures for effective inclusion, others have looked at "academic engaged time."

    McDonnell et al. defined academic engaged time in terms of academic responding, task management behaviors, and competing behaviors. Academic responding was defined as "student behaviors made directly in response to academic tasks, commands, or prompts," such as (a) writing; (b) manipulating objects that were relevant to completion of an academic task, such as a computer; (c) reading aloud; (d) reading silently; and (e) engaging in verbal behaviors related to the academic task, such as talking with a peer about subject matter as part of a collaborative learning group (p.21). Task management behaviors enabled students to engage in academic tasks, such as raising a hand to respond, handling academic materials, or moving from one academic activity to another. Competing behaviors were defined as "unacceptable because they are against commonly accepted social conventions, classroom rules, or teacher directions" . They included (a) aggression toward others, (b) disrupting the academic task, (c) talking with peers or the teachers about subjects not directly related to the academic task, (d) looking around the classroom and not attending to the academic task, (e) noncompliance with teacher directions or commands, (f) self-stimulatory behavior, or (g) self-abuse (p. 22). The students in the McDonnell study were elementary school students in classes with teachers committed to inclusion. However, the categories of engagement are relevant to any age.

    A major problem with the study done by McDonnell et al. is that the study is less about engagement than about compliance. Their categories leave no room for student-centered perspective or student-centered interpretation. Furthermore, although academic responding and task management represent many teachers’ version of what students are presumably supposed to be doing in class, they are not reliable indicators of interest or even accomplishment. For students labeled with mental retardation, the so-called competing behaviors would lead to the conclusion that the students are not engaged or attentive. Although this could be true, it is equally likely that the students have a reason for their "competing" behaviors. The reasons could be wide ranging and include boredom, anxiety, desire to be more or differently involved, learning style, or an attempt to communicate any number of needs and wants such as illness, hunger, or thirst, etc. For inarticulate and nonverbal students, it is important not to automatically interpret some of these behaviors as nonparticipation or nonengagement.

    Purpose and Overview of the Study

    The purpose of my study was to explore the academic participation of students classified with "significant" intellectual disabilities who were attending subject area classes in high school along with their nondisabled peers. By "significant" intellectual disabilities I mean students who are labeled with mental retardation along with other disabilities such as autism, Down syndrome, or multiply handicapped, and who required individual personal assistance to participate fully in class. For many years the literature has referred to students like those in my study, as having severe or moderate disabilities and these terms will appear as appropriate to descriptions of such literature. As these special education labels and their implications can change over time, the term "significant disability" more appropriately applies to the students in my narrative.

    The students in this study were inarticulate, meaning that they had speech limitations ranging from little or no speech to limited fluency. I examined students’ academic engagement while identifying their patterns of participation. This is important because researchers have studied students with significant disabilities in inclusive settings through the lenses of social life goals (interpersonal behaviors, relationships, having nondisabled role models their age) and functional goals such as self care, daily activities, recreation and work . Most of the discussion has focused on whether the primary goal for students with "significant" disabilities should be inclusion for social reasons, or teaching functional life skills in community-based instruction such as learning about travel, shopping, or work away from the school grounds. My assumptions of competence allowed me to focus on the academic lives of the students with intellectual disabilities. Other researchers have reported academic gains that accompany achievement of the other goals, but academic aspects of classroom participation have not been central to these studies.

    Research Questions

    Although students with labels of mental retardation and autism have been considered by some educators to be unable to engage or benefit from general education classes , they are placed in general education classes with teachers who have a variety of views about students' abilities to benefit. This was true of the teachers who interacted with the students in this study. Bearing in mind that the educators involved with the students in the study could have competence- or deficit-oriented perspectives, I sought, with this study, to understand student observable engagement. As "participation" is more observable than "engagement," I sought to take a closer look at what was going on with the students and how educators supported them in high school. The following research questions guided me:

    1. What are the patterns of participation of the students with disabilities in general education classrooms?
    2. What can I learn about the techniques these students use to engage with the class content (or not) as presented to them and their typical peers?
    3. How do educators perceive the students to be participating or engaging?
    4. What are the educators’ expectations of the student and how are they demonstrated?
    5. What can student patterns of participation tell us about how educators construct and teach these students?
Significance and Preview of Upcoming Chapters

In this introduction I have introduced several threads that weave a tale of complexity regarding how people with disabilities are represented by and to education professionals and how they represent themselves. Beginning with my own emergence as an advocate researcher and following with the parallel developments in general education and special education, and an analysis of issues of competence as they appear in the law, I have framed the intent of my study. The significance of this study will emerge from the close observation of five students and an analysis of the patterns of expectation, participation, and assessment that emerged from the data. The findings that emerged from my data have implications for those who seek to replace deficit-oriented perspectives of current and future teachers and who wish to promote the students with disabilities as complex, thinking, "real" students.

In the following discussion on method, I explain how I set about to learn more about student academic engagement. In Chapter 3, as I show a complex array of expectations and perceptions regarding each student, I also show that each student is subject to changes from positive to negative expectations many times within a school day. These changes may be a powerful influence, but not all powerful; they certainly reflect pathways and barriers to academic participation. In Chapter 4, I show how the students participated and were perceived to participate, the opportunities afforded to them to participate, and the ways they were proactive in their classes. In Chapter 5, I show how conflicting assessments for each student, both over time and simultaneously, reflect a discontinuity regarding how the students are represented to educators and in how their educational careers are fostered. Finally I discuss major themes from these findings and specific implications for research and practice.



In this qualitative study I observed five students labeled with intellectual disabilities to learn how they engaged and participated in academic subjects. These students were assigned labels relating to mental retardation, and cognitive or intellectual impairment such as Down syndrome and autism; they were labeled severely or moderately retarded. I sought to understand the students’ engagement in academics through observations and by learning the meanings that the parents, teachers, and others involved with these students made of the students’ participation. The students were nonverbal or inarticulate and I did not interview them. However, I sought to learn as much as possible about the students by classroom observations, interviews, and conversations with educators. I listened to comments, observations, and interpretations that educators communicated about the students and what they were doing in class. I also read student work done in class and reviewed permanent records such as grade reports, IEPs, and related reports on file with the school district. I engaged in ongoing data analysis during my data collection. This chapter explains my methods and perspectives and explores issues and dilemmas I encountered in the process.

Qualitative Method and Perspective

My research method was based on the use of qualitative research to build a grounded theory as it emerged from my data. Grounded theory is not a method or a technique. "Rather it is a style of doing qualitative analysis that includes a number of distinct features, such as theoretical sampling, and certain methodological guidelines such as the making of constant comparisons and the use of a coding paradigm, to ensure conceptual development and density" . This meant that as I collected data, I explored and developed categories to describe the contexts and meanings the participants generated about the students. The categories emerged from words and phrases that represented regularities and patterns as well as topics I might cover. For example, "teacher perspectives" was a topic code I developed early on. I heard the phrases "clueless" and "I don’t know how much he understands" several times during teacher interviews. I recorded similar data that might fit with these; I then looked for dissimilar categories which described the student, such as "smart," or "getting a lot out of the class." These finally collapsed into a series of five categories in the assessment chapter such as "student as mystery" and "student as doing fine." During my ongoing data collection, I used the constant comparative method of simultaneously coding and analyzing data to develop themes and to ground analysis in my data . I also sought varied sources of information and accounts of the same events. I tested hunches about useful codes by looking for examples from different sources.

In the tradition of symbolic interactionism , I considered that "the meanings that things have for human beings are central in their own right… "(p.3). The human beings in question were the educators, and the "things" their students (including perceptions of them), along with what the students were doing. In symbolic interactionism, these meanings that the participants made through their social interactions were central to my inquiry. I focused on gaining in-depth understanding of the students’ academic classroom experiences and the meanings that would emerge and change through the social interactions.

Various approaches to qualitative analysis focus on the creation of social life, including social problems. They look at the relationships between the structures in society and the interactions among people. Social constructionists recognize that people go about their daily lives not realizing that their thoughts and words are distinct from an objective reality. According to social constructionists, people assume that what is real does not differ from their own thoughts and interactions; people instead fabricate the world from the meanings they make of each other and the things they do together, and then base their actions upon those meanings (Danforth & Navarro, 1998; G. A. Fine, 1993). Critical analysis, one of these approaches, has an underlying social justice agenda as it focuses on the meanings people make of things and events in their lives. Such analysis holds that much of social conversation, for example about disability, is a social construct of commonly agreed upon definitions that then take on a life of their own. The ways that people live and describe events construct students’ experiences as well as their identities; the identities are subjects and objects of knowledge. Such constructionist research analysis focuses on deconstruction of the dominant discourse to expose the dissemination of meaning beyond what a speaker or author might have intended, as "language is reflexive rather than representative...[and] produces meanings beyond an author's control" . I have been influenced by perspectives that support the view of disability as a social construction rendering the environment (and the people in it) more of an enabling or disabling factor than the actual condition of the person. Disability, framed thus, is the result of handicapping effects of a society that is geared physically and socially toward an able-bodied population . Allan helped me think about the educational context as she explained tools that her reading of Foucault offered to understand the experiences of special education students in mainstream classrooms. A research perspective that engaged me included the search for points of resistance which "would involve looking for evidence of them [students] challenging the identities they are given or opting for alternative experiences" . I folded points of resistance into the competence-based perspective I described in the introduction and I used it to revisit the education literature and terminology; while conducting my research I assumed a student with a disability was competent to understand, whether or not I could interpret the student’s response. For example, Trish often made eye contact with a person asking a question but rather than nod or smile, simply held his or her gaze. I assumed she could have several reasons for not responding clearly, but did not assume incomprehension was one of them. This work led me to think about these issues as they applied to my data. It also led me to look for evidence of the students taking initiative and other evidence that the students were thoughtful and purposeful individuals.

Data Collection and Analysis

In this section I first describe how I chose the participants and the sites. I next describe the participants and how I gathered data through interviews, observations, and from documents.

Sites, Informants, and Theoretical Sampling

I selected urban high schools for several reasons. Although my interest in urban education led me to first consider city schools, I also considered suburban and rural schools. When I decided to study five students in order to be able to observe more in depth, I felt the great differences in environment and the school communities rendered nonurban students better left for a follow up study. I felt that expanding into the non-urban schools available to me would dilute the depth of my research and be beyond my own limited resources. The three city schools have in common a diverse ethnic and racial population, similarity in class size and student body size (about 1,100 students), and special education students in various placement models from self-contained segregation to mainstreaming and full inclusion. Finally, I selected different high schools and varied disabilities because my findings would have broader meanings across specific disabilities and locations, and to reduce being influenced by assumptions related to a particular disability or location.

I originally intended to locate and observe severely disabled high school students in general education classes. In the three schools accessible to me, I found very few high school students with severe disabilities who were fully included in a regular (non special education) high school schedule. This finding led me to broaden my selection criteria to students who had at least one general education subject. The beginning stages of theoretical sampling had already come into play during my student selection process. Glaser and Strauss defined theoretical sampling as

the process of data collection for generating theory whereby the analyst jointly collects, codes, and analyses his data and decides what data to collect next and where to find them, in order to develop his theory as it emerges. (p.45) In other words, at the beginning of data collection, student selection criteria were changing as the information became available to me; I realized that I could learn as much from the student who was in only one general education class as from the student who was fully included in a general education schedule, and thought that such variety would enhance my theory building. This decision, in fact, enabled me to better understand the special education and general education relationships. I observed my student informants with their classmates, numerous teachers, assistants, and other individuals who interacted with them professionally, such as teaching assistants, occupational therapists, and speech therapists.

Also, in cases when the student was mainstreamed into only one or two general education classes, special education provided alternative sites for academic engagement and participation that I felt I should learn about. I first noticed this for the student, Nick, who had only one general education class. Because of his mainly special education-based status, he was not at first a candidate for my study because I wanted people with more general education classes. He was in a class where I was also observing Gerard. During the first 6 months of my study, I observed them both, as well as Trish, for another project studying friendships. I quickly learned that the special education setting was rich in opportunities to observe participation and academic engagement, understand meanings made by the educators, and to get to know the students in different settings.

Rather than having five students with similar educational programs, I sought five students who differed from each other in disability and in educational programs. The students in this study had three things in common. 1) Their special education labels explicitly or implicitly implied intellectual or cognitive disability; 2) they were considered or regarded sufficiently disabled to warrant extensive special services including past or current one-to-one assistance during school; and 3) they would provide me with opportunities to observe and to see what I might learn about their academic engagement. In the following section I describe the students in the study in the order I included them.

Descriptions of Participants with Disabilities.

The students were not to graduate with a general education diploma like their nondisabled peers but did attend some general education classes with them. The core academic high school curriculum for nondisabled diploma bound students included Math, Social Studies, English, Science, and Health. General diploma (not college bound) students often took Consumer Math and Introduction to Occupations. Students with learning disabilities may be exempted from taking languages. Students with "mild," "moderate," or "severe" disabilities may be included in any of these classes. Students with severe learning disabilities may be exempted from mandated statewide competency tests, as are those with other severe disabilities.

All five students would graduate with special education diplomas. The following descriptions include the special education placement categories as copied from a Committee on Special Education (CSE) form that explains them. This form accompanies the special education classroom assignments that are made every 3 years by a program evaluation committee that determines the level of supports and services and includes professional therapists, special and general education teachers, and parents. The placement categories appear on the student’s IEP under the heading "Student: teacher ratio." Here are the categories and the students in each. The ratios refer to student: teacher: teaching assistant.

Resource: Resource will address the academic needs of the student and supplement his/her general education placement. All other options would be considered too restrictive.

Special class 15:1 (Abe, Gerard, Nick) Student requires direct instruction by a special education teacher for more than 50% of the day. More modifications are needed for the student's instructional program than could be accomplished in Resource.

Special class 12:1:1 Student requires direct instruction by a special education teacher in a smaller student-to-adult ratio. The management needs of the student require more adult support than is available in a 15:1 setting.

Special class 8:1:1 (Trish in middle school and high school) Student requires individualized instruction and curriculum adaptation. Adult to student ratio in a 15:1 or 12:1:1 setting would not provide the level of support and inclusion.

Special class 6:1:1 Student's needs require an intensive amount of individualized instruction, as well as adult intervention. Adult-to-student ratios in a 15:1 or 12:1:1 setting would not meet the level of individual support needed for this student.

Special class 12:1 (3:1) [12 students, 1 teacher, teaching assistant for three students] (Tyrone) Student's management and academic needs require intensive amount of individualized instruction, as well as adult intervention. The other class options do not provide the adult-to-student ratio to meet the levels of support and safety for the student.

The students’ classifications in these categories varied over the years as a result of the official reviews and meetings among parents and educators; the assignments I described here were for the year of the study. During this year, the ratio described on the IEP was not always apparent in the classroom as different schools or programs within the school used varying arrangements to meet the need for assistance. Descriptions of the five students follow.

Gerard Field, age 19 and with Down syndrome was in the 11th grade at West High. He was assigned on his IEP a student-teacher ratio of 15:1 and was based in a special education class of about 10 students with one teacher and four assistants. His general education class schedule included Keyboarding, Introduction to Occupations, Health, and Biology. His special education schedule included Adapted Physical Education, Speech, Horticulture, and a work placement at a fast food pizza chain. Gerard would greet people with a friendly "Hi," was very interested in trains, and was said to enjoy Horticulture class and his part-time job at the pizza chain. He spoke in sentences of one to five words. His special education teachers said that he "doesn't know his ABCs." A full-time teaching assistant accompanied him to class and work. Gerard was in an earlier study of mine when he was in an inclusive 9th grade and I welcomed the opportunity to observe him in classes even though he was no longer in a "full inclusion" program.

Trish Antonio, age 16, had Rett syndrome and was in 9th grade at North High. She was assigned a teacher-student teacher ratio of 8:1 and was based in a Resource group with four students with learning disabilities and two assistants. During this study her Resource group doubled in size with the addition of five 9th graders to her group of 10th graders. She followed a full general education schedule. Her general education classes were Earth Science, English, Global Studies, Art, Health 1st semester/ Keyboarding 2nd semester. Her special education consisted of Adapted Physical Education, "push-in" Speech (the speech therapist attended general education classes with her), and Physical Therapy ("pull-out" meaning she left class to work individually with the therapist). According to her parents and her teaching assistant, she liked music, videos, going to the mall, and hanging out in the hallway. She could not speak and had hand over hand support to type, to eat, and sometimes to point among choices. During this year she began to type very slowly using facilitated communication. Diagnosed with Rett syndrome as a child, she has been in inclusive classes since preschool. A full time assistant accompanied her to class.

Nick Ernee, age 16, was "multiply handicapped" with brittle bone disease and an early head injury. He was in the 9th grade at West High. He was assigned on his IEP a student-teacher ratio of 15:1 and was in the same special education room as Gerard. He had one general education class, Introduction to Occupations. His special education schedule posted on the wall of his classroom listed Communications, Reading, and Recreation. Nick used a wheelchair due to the brittle bone disease, and he always had at least one limb in a cast. He could not speak as a result of a head injury incurred when very young. He communicated in school with head nods, gestures, and by pointing to picture symbols in a communication notebook. His teachers said they don’t know how much he understands. He communicated clearly and consistently in school about lunch and food preferences, and about going outside. He had a full-time teaching assistant who also assisted with personal care. His mother reported that he communicated fluently at home through facilitated communication and participated in a General Science class in middle school. At first not a candidate for my study, I included him because of opportunities to observe him both in the Occupations class and in special education academics.

Tyrone Evans, age 19, had autism and was in 11th grade at East High. He was assigned on his IEP a student-teacher ratio of 12:1:3. He was based in a combined class of two special education teachers who pooled their resources (24:2:6) so that assistants were available to accompany students to class and also be in the room when students needed a place to go to "cool out," study, or take a test. His general education classes were Applied Biology, Consumer Math, and Global Studies; his special education classes were a public library work placement, Adapted Physical Education, and Speech. Tyrone, an African-American student, had autism and was outgoing and friendly, often greeting people with a smile and a handshake. In class Tyrone often got up to walk to another person or to reading material. He read out loud in short phrases at a time. His speech was difficult to understand; most people (including me) found it easier to understand his short phrases than his sentences. Due to his autism he needed assistance with his personal care. He often became upset by change, such as late school busses, and his special education teacher reported that he was learning to control his aggressive behavior when upset. He was supported in school by a teaching assistant (T. A.) and at work by a special education teacher. At Tyrone’s school, I had only his class from which to choose students for the study. He was the only student who fit my selection criteria and also had a substantial general education class schedule (compared to Gerard and Nick), and regular attendance.

Abe Teckler, age 19, had autism and was in 12th grade at West High. He was assigned on his IEP a student-teacher ratio of 15:1. Abe was assigned to a special education teacher whose schedule conflicted with his so he went to a Resource period supervised by a different special education teacher. Three of the special education teachers who worked with upper juniors and seniors knew him and helped him when they were in his classes. His general education schedule included Environmental Science, English, Reading Lab, Foods, and Health. His special education classes were Resource and a job in the school library. Abe greeted people by name when he saw them, even if it had been a long time since they last met. He was an accomplished musician, and could sing while playing banjo, autoharp or guitar. He has had a long-standing interest in folk music. He spoke socially and in class in a loud voice and has repeated themes in his speech for months, even years at a time. In school he excelled at reading out loud and often did not show reading comprehension in class. He had recently begun to write in paragraphs in reading lab and in letters to personal friends and family friends. He was supported in his academics during a Resource period and during several classes with a T.A. or Resource teacher who also supported as many as 10 special education students at a time in some general education classes. I included Abe because I saw him in the same Health class with Gerard and had observed him in the 9th grade, when he had more academic supervision and a full-time teaching assistant. He "graduated" high school by participating in the graduation ceremony with his age peers in June 1997, and was eligible for school district service until the age of 21. He attended a job-training program run by the school district for a brief time. I added him last to the study since I thought that as a more verbally fluent participant, with his previously more supervised special education status, he would add interesting depth to my study. I found it interesting that although I observed Abe in classes, I often observed him from across the classroom, as he tended to sit in locations I could not approach by wheelchair. I have the fewest observations of Abe, as he was the last to join the study and the first to graduate. However, I found that I was able to learn from my observations and that Abe indeed added depth to my study.

Data Collection Processes

Data gained in the varied academic settings of the five students assisted in understanding the patterns of academic participation, and the meanings and relationships of the five students regarding their academic participation in high school. I gathered data from the following sources:


Over 3 school semesters, I conducted observations of five high school students who were attending high school and enrolled in at least one academic subject in the general high school curriculum. These observations totaled 52 visits ranging in length. The shortest was 15 minutes when I went to observe Tyrone who was not in class but rather in the bathroom recovering from an upset, which his special education teacher explained to me. The longest, 6 hours, was also with Tyrone on the day I followed him to his morning classes and then to watch him work in the period after lunch at a community library.

The average visit was one to three high school 40-minute periods. My visits to West High enabled me to often see more than one student that day. Table 1 shows the total visits for each student and the interviews with their general and special education teachers. In the case of Abe and Gerard, the * indicates that I also had informal conversations with another special education teacher who had them in a class.

Table 2.1

List of School Visits and Interviewed Teachers
Student School Visits Special education teachers  General education teachers
Abe West High 6 1* 3
Nick West High 13 1 1
Gerard West High 16 1* 2
Trish North High 20 1 5
Tyrone East High 8 2 5

The number of visits reflects the student’s length of time in the study and the number of general education classes I was able to observe. I began with Nick, Gerard, and Trish. Nick and Gerard had fewer classes and I could cover more than one class period per visit. Trish was the longest in the study, and because of the nature of the general education class observations, I felt I required more time to process my observations and therefore made more visits in order to see her in every class. I also visited her twice when school started the following autumn. Abe was the last student to enter my study and graduated that year. During the 6 visits I observed two or three periods at a time which included breaks to work on my field notes. I felt I learned what I needed from those observations.

Conversations and Interviews

I had conversations and interviews with adults involved and concerned with the student, such as general and special education teachers, assistants, and parents. I recorded and described these conversations in field notes and transcriptions. For the parent interviews, I interviewed two couples and three mothers. Each of these interviews lasted approximately 90 minutes. I conducted two interviews in the students’ homes. Although these homes were not wheelchair accessible to me, I managed to get into their living rooms with considerable assistance. I was grateful that the parents of two of the students offered to come to my home for the interview. Nick’s mother was in the hospital and welcomed me to visit her there. After that I had two to three short phone conversations during the study with most of the parents when I had particular questions on topics such as their child’s schedule or summer plans.

The semi-structured interviews with the parents of each student included the following kinds of questions:

1. Tell me about the history of your child’s schooling.

2. What are the child’s strengths? That is, what is he or she good at?

3. Where does it get hard for the student?

4. How does he or she like high school? How can you tell?

5. What do you see your child learning?

6. What are your goals and dreams for your child?

7. What else should I know about your child to better understand what is happening for him or her in school? I conducted similar interviews with the special education teachers, which included discussion of their educational goals for the student. I conducted one formal interview with each special education teacher with further interviews as necessary to enhance understanding of my data. These other interviews were often in the form of brief conversations during or in between class, interviews by appointment, and phone conversations.

I also conducted interviews with the general education teachers in the form of formal, informal, or brief conversations that fit into the teachers’ schedule. The formal interviews averaged 30 minutes to fit into a teacher’s planning period. I also had some conversations with the general education teachers by staying a few minutes after class and asking them questions about what I had observed that day or how they thought the student was doing. With two of the teachers, I was able to conduct phone interviews, which felt more relaxed and contributed to building rapport between the teachers and myself. These interviews and conversations focused on "how the student was doing" in class, what the student was (or seemed to be) getting out of the class, and as teachers got to know the student over the year, what they had learned about the student.

I taped and had transcribed in-depth interviews, and I embedded observer comments in the transcribed text as I reviewed it. I wrote down informal conversations as soon as possible, and when possible, wrote during the conversations according to the comfort level of the participants with note taking. I used a Hewlett Packard 200LX-palmtop computer, which enabled me to take legible and detailed, notes and add more detail soon after an observation.

Official Records and Documents.

Official records and documents were another source of information. At the very end of my study I went to the district office of special education which kept the official records of all five of the students. I looked in each file to learn what I could about the students’ grades and progress reports along with the professional assessments and recommendations regarding the students’ schooling. I took notes on my hand-held computer and read long quotes into my tape recorder for later reference and transcription. I took notes on students’ work in class and from some student work I found in the files, and collected samples of their work, where possible.

Finally, I relied heavily on very detailed field notes. At first I wrote everything I saw. As I narrowed my focus I consistently included the students’ interactions with adults and peers, their reactions to what was going on, and what other students were doing at the same time. Describing interactions of the non-speaking students was challenging; due to the crowded conditions of several of the general education classes and my being in a wheelchair, I was not always able to be close enough to the student to observe facial expressions. Fortunately, each student was accessible to me most of the time, especially when I was well into the study and a couple sympathetic teachers invited the student to sit where I could be close by. Thus many of my observations were able to include whispered dialogue between the student and support person helping with an assignment.

Coding and Analysis

In the initial stages of my study, I expected that the students who were in general education classes would have teachers who expected full participation. I thought I would observe academic engagement as one of the processes, as well as results, of inclusion. As I collected and analyzed data from preliminary observations, I found issues to explore. As I analyzed data, questions arose that created a need for further observing or interviewing. Using the constant comparative method of analysis , I collected data, looked for emerging themes and recurrent events, categorized them, and reevaluated my themes and categories. As I collected more data, I wrote analytic memos about my data, and reevaluated my previous theories as I compared old data with new . The themes of academic engagement, generated by my pilot study, continued to expand in depth and breadth and they generated more themes that guided the development of my study.

For example Nick, one of the students I observed, sat with his assistant in the last row by the door, separated by another row of desks from the class; he seemed an observer in class lectures and discussions. When his assistant supported him to participate in hands-on activities, the assistant did the task for the student. The educators in the room said to me, "He doesn’t understand much of what’s going on," and they did not expect him to benefit from the actual curriculum content ("He’s not getting much out of It."). In contrast Trish, a student with even less physical coordination and verbal expression, followed a full academic schedule and many of her teachers considered her to be involved, interested, and learning. This led me to look for signs of expectations of the student and how people evaluated the students. Thus early data codes such as "expectation," "perception," and "assessment" led to a chapter regarding expectations and another regarding types of assessments.

I used Q.S.R. Nudist to code my data. This program enabled me to identify text segments in various ways including participants’ names and roles, as well as assigned categories such as "engaged," "disengaged," and "academics," that resulted in 98 data codes. A few of these original codes survived my ongoing revisions and collapsing of categories to my final analysis. I printed categories out in groups and coded them again by hand, testing new coding categories by merging several categories and reexamining the data. For example, many of the text segments that I had labeled "expectation" evolved into "assessment." Once I had determined that assessment was an important category, I subdivided it into "formal," "informal," and "professional," each with its own set of categories which are explained in my data chapter, "Patterns of Assessment." In another example, broad codes of "participation" and "nonparticipation" included various types of student interaction such as "student-adult," "student-student," "student initiated," and "adult initiated," various versions of expression of interest and disinterest, uses of humor, and who initiated various interactions. Further hand coding yielded the categories I finally used in the chapter on "participation." My NUDIST program was useful to me at that stage to find, using the search function, a passage with a phrase I that remembered in order to see if I should use it in a particular category.


The issue of voice emerged during analysis of the study. Inclusion literature has mostly focused on teachers’ perspectives. Those studies of student perspectives on inclusion have focused on typical peers’ reactions to students with disabilities. In the beginning I thought I would want to interview the students even though I realized the difficulties of interviewing nonverbal or inarticulate students. Two recent attempts to interview nonverbal people encouraged me to think about interviewing the students in my study. The two articles were as much about the difficulty of the method as about the perspectives of those surveyed. Minkes, Robinson, and Weston were able to determine responses of nonverbal young people to their respite experiences. Booth and Booth engaged in narrative research with "inarticulate" informants in pursuit of their life stories. The authors focused on the problems of inarticulateness and unresponsiveness of interviewees with learning difficulties (a British term for students who would be labeled "retarded" in the U.S.) telling their life stories. They urged researchers to overcome the barriers rather than dwelling on the limitations of informants. Although the studies provided inspiration, they did not provide a model that I could adapt within the scope of my research.

I thought about the work of who studied the patterns of interaction and communication of and with deaf-blind youth and learned their coping strategies and demonstrations of competence. He relied on the often-contrasting interpretations of professionals, parents, and his own experience to understand the situations of the nonverbal participants. Goode found that the deaf-blind individuals had multiple and conflicting identities (p.116-117), a phenomenon that complicated the perception of these individuals’ perspectives. My close observations of the students and conversations with the various adults who offered their interpretation of the student to me provided me with insights into the students’ experiences.

Another aspect of voice that had not been mentioned in the two interview articles was that of who sets the agenda during interviews. I wanted to know what the students thought about school. If I had made a questionnaire where students could point to the answers, I would be setting the agenda not only for the conversation but the content, including the answers. This would be true even if I included "none of these" as an answer. My rapport with the students was based on spending time in their classes and that I told them that I was interested in how things worked for them in their classes. Goode’s approach served me better and, over the course of time, I learned some things about the students through interactions with them as well as observations. Although I did not learn their perspectives, I had some clues as I learned more about how they expressed themselves.

As I learned how the students represented themselves, I also was taking notes from interviews of people who represented the students to me as they interpreted students actions and reactions to me. I needed to particularly scrutinize my interviews and my own memos as I attempted to determine to what extent the adult interviewed should be considered a credible proxy for an inarticulate student. I took Myers et al.’s declaration seriously that "where people have limited interpretable means of communication, the opportunity to arrive at a negotiated meaning is still to a great extent precluded" . I therefore sought multiple sources of data about the students’ modes of self-expression and tried to take into consideration what I had learned about the perspectives of the people I interviewed.

Finally, influenced by feminist research perspectives (M. Fine, 1993), I hold as an ideal to ground my analysis in the student’s perspective, to represent the students’ voices. I realized that imposing my own voice was unavoidable and the best solution was to be clear about my own voice throughout this narrative and remind the reader that many other voices are also at play in this study. Thus, this narrative will have the imprint of a researcher with a disability who does not presume to speak for others with disabilities, but who attempts to illuminate the educational processes which influence the life choices the students make and that people make for them.

Exposing Researcher Values

During this research I have continuously inspected my expectations and values as a continuing reminder of the role that values have in inquiry . Strauss argued that "theories ought to be developed in intimate relationship with data, with researchers fully aware of themselves as instruments for developing that grounded theory" . Ongoing self reflection in memos and discussions with mentors throughout the course of the study helped me identify and account for the interference of my assumptions in my study and helped me clarify both my data collection and analysis. For example, sometimes I was tempted to express findings about expectations in cause and effect terms. Learning to identify causal assumptions helped me see other aspects of my data and go deeper into the complex issues under an expression of expectation.

I expose my values in my narrative as playing a significant role in my inquiry. In sharing my values in the introduction, and further here, I have attempted to take them into account as I share my data and analysis. For example, as a disability rights advocate, I have hoped that my research regarding students with disabilities would be a contribution toward achieving equality and full integration of people with disabilities. I remained aware of my bias against the self-contained setting, where four of the students in the study were based, in order to see what might actually benefit the students in that setting. I am aware that my bias is related to my advocacy stance against segregation and to the negative accounts of friends who have experienced segregated special education. I also had a prejudice against professional assessments along with the likelihood, as a participant in American culture, that I might be influenced by the contents if I read them early in the study. To counter inappropriate influence of this prejudice, I read the assessments at the end of my study and took a class in how to administer psycho-educational assessments. The class was very helpful. I learned that the assessments are neither inherently helpful nor harmful but can be used as tools to learn things about a student’s learning strengths. I learned not only how to read and understand what I would find in official records, but to recognize and respect a well-researched and well-written assessment. For example, some evaluation reports were terse and some detailed with observations that served as alternatives to testing instruments that the psychologists could not use with some students because of their communication and processing difficulties.

As I listened to my informants, I was aware of my own assumption that students benefit from academic inclusion and that all students have the right to attain knowledge (Shapiro-Barnard, 1997). I also assumed, from my own past experiences and from biographical and autobiographical writing such as those cited in the introduction, that students do attain knowledge even when the educators cannot discern it due to the communication difficulties of some of the students. I had read research over the years that has justified both inclusion and exclusion from general classes. However, I found no research that has shown definitively that only some children can learn or that segregated special education is definitively more viable than inclusive education. On the other hand, for my observations and interviews, I kept an open mind to the notion that special education settings do not preclude learning, may even enhance it, and that observing the special education academic experiences could also inform me about student engagement and how they participated in the academic activities.

Leaving the Field

The process of leaving the field was gradual. I was learning less and less from observations by the end of spring. Completely ceasing the first school year observation was precipitated by the beginning of the university summer session and my assignment to spend all day in a suburban school as a student teacher. I was assigned to Trish’s summer school class the second summer session and took notes on that experience. I visited her twice in the fall but was excluded from her general education classes due to overcrowding. Also in the fall, I spent 2 days with Tyrone to get an idea of his whole day and because I had begun observing him so late the previous year. By then I had been analyzing data and felt the main thing lacking was the assessment material from official records. Waiting until the following summer to look into the records proved wise, as I was able to find them a rich source of data. I actually eased my way out of the field rather than leaving, keeping contacts with many of my informants and calling to find out what is going on with a student or to clarify a question.


As in any study, there are limitations to this research. Data collection took place in three urban schools where inclusion programs were in various states of development. It is possible that other important themes might have emerged had I included suburban and rural schools in the study. For example, differences may have arisen related to the cultures and education-related values of the suburban and rural communities. In addition, the five students’ inclusion status ranged from almost complete segregation to full inclusion. Other important themes related to student engagement would surely have emerged if there were more students in each inclusion situation: special education based with one or two general education classes, Resource-based, part-time or full-time inclusion. Furthermore, it would have been desirable to find ways to directly interview the students involved to learn more about how they perceived themselves to be engaging and participating.


The choices I made regarding my research methods, selection of sites and participants, and approaches to analysis yielded insights, observations, and themes that I explore in the following chapters. In this chapter I have explained my research method and perspectives. In the next chapter, I explain patterns of expectations and perceptions I found in the data and how they were reflected in the students’ academic lives.


In this chapter I explore the idea of expectation. I focus particularly on the patterns of competence- and deficit-oriented perceptions and behaviors that both reflect and influence expectations. These perceptions appear in the ways the teachers express how they understand the students through their words and classroom behaviors toward them. I call this confluence of expectation and perception expectancy patterns. I use case studies of Nick and Trish to demonstrate how expectations related to educators’ actions could enable and disable opportunities for the student to participate academically. The expectancy patterns contributed to very different educational experiences for Nick and Trish. I then describe two competing perceptions of Trish that inform expectations and assessments to which she appears to conform. I will then include supporting examples for the three other students in this study who experienced similar contrasts in perception, expectation, and educators’ support within their school day. Finally, I summarize observed educator interactions in practice and how they expressed and demonstrated their competence- or deficit-oriented expectancy patterns.

By focusing on expectancy patterns, I intend to emphasize the importance of expectancy to the educational career of students in a context of perception, understanding based on relationships with students, and deficit- or competence-oriented interactions. Rather than framing expectation as a cause of student behavior or self-fulfilling prophecy, I frame expectation as part of a complex web of factors ranging from perceptions to verbal and nonverbal behaviors and relationships with students. Rosenthal pointed to the preponderance of unintended nonverbal behaviors in expectancy studies. However, there is more to consider. My data validate other studies that show that inaccurate preconceptions of the included student’s needs changed when general education teachers got to know the students with disabilities on an individual basis . Students may even learn in spite of these expectations and perceptions. They may even defy them. By studying the interactions of these factors in the students’ daily lives, I came to note themes and patterns in teachers’ expectations and perceptions that accompanied their behaviors and interactions with the students.

Case Studies

The importance of expectancy patterns in the presence, and perhaps creation of learning opportunities became evident as I learned more about each student. The contrasting expectancy patterns surrounding Nick and Trish stand out due to the many things these two students have in common. Both Nick and Trish are mobility impaired, cannot speak, and communicate by pointing, sometimes independently and sometimes with physical support. They both have labels involving cognitive disability and mental retardation. Both sets of parents had been surprised to learn from the school that their child was literate. However, their school experiences were very different.

Nick was in self-contained special education class, with one exception, with his special education peers almost all day. The lone exception was Introduction to Occupations, which Nick attended during the first year of this study; he did not attend general education classes during the second year. He sometimes participated in the academic sessions in the self-contained special education class. He was in Speech both years; Speech was a special education class, and the Speech teacher sometimes saw him individually and sometimes with a small group.

Trish was in subject area classes with typical peers almost all day. Trish had a full academic schedule similar to that of other 9th graders. She also had a Resource period, a time for the special education students to get help with homework and prepare for tests and the rest of the day. The speech teacher came with her to one subject class per week and sometimes to the Resource period.

Expectancy Patterns and Nick

Nick’s teachers expressed to me high regard for him as a person and did not seem able to think about him as a student. His Occupations teacher responded warmly when Nick sought her attention. She said to me, "I have no clue if he’s getting much out of this [class]. He participates as much as he is capable. He comes to class and is well behaved." This statement, along with the fact that her interactions with him were rare and nonacademic, indicated to me that she did not expect much of Nick in terms of the class content. Nick’s teaching assistant also indicated to me in words and actions that he did not think Nick understood much of what was going on in class. The following examples show the various ways that low expectation of academic participation linked with a deficit-oriented understanding of Nick limited his options to participate, and contributed to his marginalization as a student.

Nick attended this class regularly and sat in his wheelchair at a row of sewing machine tables near the classroom door. An empty row of the same kind of tables isolated him from his classmates. They sat at tables and desks arranged in a U shape opening toward the teacher’s desk and a freestanding chalkboard. One day his teaching assistant, Bob, was leafing through a file folder during Occupations class. I asked him if that was Nick’s homework. Bob responded, "It’s my homework." He meant that he did Nick’s assignments for him because he thought Nick was "not interested." In that same conversation I also asked him what Nick does in this class. Bob replied, "Not much. I do most of the work. He doesn’t like it. I really do the work. He did a collage on needs and wants. That went O.K. He does best on the hands-on activities." Bob did not think Nick could engage with the content and did the work for him.

I did not see Nick’s collage or observe that lesson. It is the type of assignment where 9th graders tear or cut magazine pictures representing what they want and need and make a collage that shows they know the difference between wants and needs. I did observe another hands-on activity where the students chose and sewed pieces of fabric to make a small pillow or a potholder. In this hands-on activity, Bob directed Nick’s attention to what he (Bob) was doing.

I asked Bob, "What are you making?" "Supposed to be a pillow or pot holder depending what they put in it." The teacher was telling the students how to measure their length of thread. Bob trimmed the squares, saying to Nick, "Nick, watch this." The teacher said to the class, "I want you to come and stand around me. You're going to put your needle in that stitch.... If you do it your way it will fall apart." The teacher and students gathered near the front of the room, near her desk. Nick remained at his usual spot in an otherwise unoccupied row near the classroom door. Bob was still trimming the fabric squares. [OC: All the action is far away. There is an empty row between Nick, Bob, and me and the rest of the class.] Bob stood up to see what the students at the next table were doing. He asked a student, "How many lengths is it supposed to be?" A girl said, "From your chin." Bob paid attention to what was going on in the class. He directed Nick’s attention to the assigned work as he completed assignments for Nick. He similarly completed academic assignments and directed Nick’s attention during class. I observed Bob working on questions at the end of a textbook chapter on money management. The class had been studying a unit on money management. Nick and Bob, from their usual place in the row by the door, had been listening to the teacher review some of the ideas from the chapter. She assigned the class to spend the rest of the period answering the questions at the end of the chapter in their textbook. Students worked quietly and individually at their desks. Bob said, "We've got to do these questions. What do you think about money management?" Nick pointed to the book. "Reasons why you should plan a budget while you're still in school. Get you prepared for the real world, right?" Nick nodded yes, pointing to the book. "O.K. And another reason." Bob wrote and said, "It’s never too early to start saving for the future." He continued in a similar manner with five more questions with Nick nodding consent when asked. Nick otherwise looked around the room or turned pages in a magazine while Bob was working. Bob expected Nick to pay attention when asked but not to meaningfully respond to the content of the assignment. Nick was not engaging in one of his common behaviors of tearing paper or backing away from the desk. Neither was he doing the assignment. He was listening, nodding consent, looking around the room, or leafing through his magazine. He had nothing else to do (that I could perceive) between the interactions about the assignment. I thought of this as "down time," a time of nothing to do with few alternative options. Nick’s interactions consisted of consenting to Bob’s answers. While watching, I wondered how Nick would do if challenged to choose between several answers to each question. In that same class I had just been watching Gerard doing the same questions with his aide. She had asked him about banking. Gerard shook his head and said, "I don't know." She said, "Let me put this another way. When you work at [your job], what do you do with your check? Does your mom put it in the bank or do you spend it?" He said, "Bank." Gerard was involved in the assignment, as were the other students who were working quietly on the questions until the bell rang. I did not see any of this "down time" for Gerard or for the nondisabled students who worked until the end of the period. The difference in the approaches of the two assistants to the same assignment was striking. While one drew Gerard into the content and expected a response, the other simply read it to him. The assistants in this classroom knew each other well. I wondered if they ever exchanged advice on teaching or support techniques and the extent to which different expectations would have compensated for Bob’s apparent lack of skill. The issue of expectation might be less about self-fulfilling prophecies than about teachers’ access to the skills and information they need to understand him. However, perceptions seemed to be important in spite of skill levels of the teachers.

Early in the semester I began to question the limited expectations of Nick’s understanding. I was observing in Occupations class during a period when the students were having a break from the academics and chatting as they finished up an assignment. I had asked Nick his age. Each time I asked him a question he nodded yes. "Are you fourteen? Are you fifteen? Are you sixteen?" After nodding yes to all three his assistant, Bob, said to me, "He probably doesn’t understand." Alone with him for a few minutes, I wrote 14, 15, and 16 on a piece of paper. He pointed to 16. I checked it out later and learned he would be 17 in a few months.

People with whom I shared this anecdote have asked me if it was due to chance that he answered my question correctly. I had thought he answered my question because I expected him to and persisted. As I came to know him through observation and interaction, I collected a series of vignettes that led me to believe he does know what is going on and that he is not usually sufficiently challenged in high school. His mother said that he was more challenged in middle school and mentioned that he had done homework for Science class. She also said that he communicated in middle school with a speech therapist who supported him to type, using facilitated communication (FC), and that he also communicated to her, and that his brother facilitated with him to spell out messages on a keyboard. He did not spell during high school. His high school special education teacher had never seen Nick use FC. The teacher said that he tried, but that Nick would not do it with him.

I had an opportunity to interact with Nick academically during a day I was observing in the special education class and several of the teaching assistants were absent. I volunteered to sit with him as the group did Menu Math. Everyone in the special education class was participating.

The students were to choose from a menu similar to that of a standard luncheonette or a restaurant chain. The main courses were mostly burgers and sandwiches, with side-dishes, drinks, and desserts. The students each had a turn choosing their meal. The teacher asked each student how much each item cost and the teacher wrote it on the chalkboard. Two of the students were learning to carry numbers in addition and they did the calculations and corrected mistakes the teacher made on purpose to challenge them. I acted as if he would be able do what the other students were doing if I supported him. While the other students were taking their turns I whispered to Nick. I asked Nick to point to what he wanted and he pointed to each picture. There were pictures of all the major menu items. Because he had selected so many of the main menu items, I whispered, "Pig," and we laughed heartily at my mocking his apparent greed. I was struck by his sense of timing that made this interaction funny to both of us. Then I asked him to pick from the burgers after reading them. He pointed to a House Burger. I enlarged a few price selections and wrote two prices to choose from in the margin as the print was very small and the items were very close together. I asked him to point to the correct price. He wasn't precise; he waved at the general area where I wrote the prices. I held his right arm back for a moment by holding onto his sleeve to add slight resistance while he pointed, and asked him to select the price of his burger. He correctly chose $2.25. I did the same with the drink and the side dish. He got one right and one wrong, but by the time he was going to pick a dessert, it was his turn and the teacher was asking him what he wanted. He said/pointed to the House Burger and the teacher wrote it on the board. He chose coke and fries. Upon reflecting on that lesson and others, I believe that if I had not volunteered, Nick would not have participated at the level he did. Instead he would have observed without support until his turn came. Then the teacher would have asked him what he wanted, had Nick point to three items or nod yes/no to suggestions, which the teacher would add up. Then the lesson would have moved on to the next person. I learned that he can identify the correct price written even when in my poor handwriting (a possible cause of the one he missed). I learned that he had a sense of humor, which included subtleties, appreciated a good wisecrack, and had a good sense of timing. These qualities also showed up in other notes that I took during observations.

Could the above vignettes imply that Bob did not adequately scaffold Nick’s assignments or that teachers did not hold high expectations? Or, do they mean that Bob did not have the skills? Although Bob was with other special education teachers and teacher assistants who did have them, I never observed Bob being coached by his peers or supervisors to try things. Bob did push Nick to do things he thought Nick could do such as paying attention or move pieces on a Bingo game. All of Nick’s teachers also treated him as a person who understood little about the content of any given lesson.

I also learned Nick responded to behavioral expectations that were supported by the environment. The general education teacher’s comment on his "good behavior" was confirmed in my observations. His behavior was similar to that of the general education students. Although his participation ranged from active to napping and looking around (similar to the nondisabled students), he was never disruptive of class activity or to his classmates during the times they sat near him.

This behavior contrasted to that in the special education room where he had a wider range of behaviors. These included a) physically touching, tapping, or waving paper strips in the faces of adults and peers; b) wheeling away from the group to pursue his quest for paper to tear into strips; and c) responding to comments, questions, requests, and commands immediately, intermittently, or not at all during an academic activity in progress.

As I got to know Nick, I felt I was learning much about the limitations of segregated special education and the way a student can be isolated in a general education classroom. Nick was becoming, in my eyes, a prime example of a student with a deficit-oriented education. It seemed that the expectancy patterns around Nick assured that he would not have access to the teaching skills of those involved in his schooling. Although it seemed that some lack in skills reinforced the extent to which Nick did not participate academically, the low expectations and deficit-oriented perceptions seemed to be a barrier to those who might notice when he was interested and engaged and build on that. In contrast, Trish’s experience spoke well for competence-oriented patterns of education and inclusion.

Expectancy Patterns and Trish

Trish’s teachers expressed positive regard for her as a person. As they came to know her as a student, they spoke of her academically and their expectations rose. Her special education teachers expected and demanded more and more as the year progressed. Even before her general education teachers knew her, they were open to her participation and allowed their understanding and expectations to grow. One teacher said at the beginning of the year, "I wonder if she’s in there?" She wondered if Trish understood what was going on in class or in conversation. Unlike Nick’s teachers, she expressed this in the form of a question rather than as a conclusion. At the end of the year she said that Trish did well though she still wondered sometimes, but less often, "if she’s still in there." As I got to know that teacher I felt she welcomed opportunities to include Trish, to be guided by the special education teacher, and to make personal contact with Trish. Another teacher responded when I asked her how Trish was doing, "Good. She comes to class and turns in her work." Near the end of that year I asked her again how Trish was doing.

I think she's getting a lot out of it. For example yesterday somebody's father had married a woman from Japan, and she brought in some things to show. The student brought in a kimono and Trish got excited about it. She is getting a lot out of it and putting a lot into it. To put her in a separate classroom with just special education would be a sin! …. It’s good she is in there not just for the socializing, but for the academics. This Social Studies teacher seemed to be open to Trish’s presence at first without knowing what to expect. Her comments were descriptive. They are less statements about expectation than indicators of them. Even at the beginning of the year, she was expecting Trish to turn in work and describing her perceptions of Trish in terms of her role as a student. By the end of the year she had definite opinions on how Trish was doing and that she was learning academic content. Her special education teacher talked about her academics in terms of doing the same work as the others, about accommodating to her disability, and creating alternative routes to class participation. She does the same content as the other children. Earth Science is difficult because it's so abstract. So we have actually hooked up to the Internet in Science and she has done some of the research while the class might be doing multiple choice questions on the weather. You know, she’s on the Internet pulling things up to share with the class, which has been really great. Trish did, in fact, take tests and write essays for all her classes. I observed multiple choice tests for Science and Social Studies, and essay writing for English and Health. When worksheets and exams had matching questions or fill-in-the-blank items, the special education teacher or aide would create choices and Trish would point to her choice for the answer. She usually passed tests and maintained a 90 or above average for which she received a certificate of achievement, along with many of her classmates, half way through the 9th grade.

Competing Expectancy Patterns for Trish

During the study I observed two different teachers working individually with Trish on communication and typing. For each, the competence- or deficit-orientation toward Trish played a role. Trish responded to these two differently. The first, Ann, had been trying out different approaches to augmentative communication. These included various devices with pre-recorded speech output that required pushing buttons for various recorded selections. A speaking person could program three answers for Trish to select. I learned during an interview with her parents that Trish needed time to process questions and answers. They noted that by the time they have recorded the choices in the machine, Trish has had some time to process the question and her answers. During classroom observations, I learned from teachers’ comments and conversations other factors that negatively influenced Trish’s responsiveness. These included her physical health (on days she wasn’t feeling well), her feelings, and fatigue related to activity the previous evening (getting to sleep late because of a basketball game). Time of day was another factor. For example, lunch was sixth period, about 1:00, and she arrived at the school at 7:30 a.m.

Ann expressed difficulty in being able to tell what Trish did and did not understand and this difficulty led to some conclusions about Trish’s responses. She said that Trish did not "initiate" with any of the communication methods tried so far. My conversation with Ann continued.

Trish doesn't use it [the speech device] consistently, does not seek it out. I don't know how much they [the other teachers] are using it. I only see her for 45 minutes [per week]. For something to work everyone has to be using it with her and I don't know if they are. I said that I saw her use it at home. Ann asked, "With her peers or sisters playing around and putting choices in it?" "No. I was interviewing her and her parents, and they put in choices." Ann said, "She doesn't appear interested in it and is not consistent in her answers. She favors the choices to the left. I made pictures of her eating, going places, etcetera for her to point to choices of what she wants to do. She chose going to the bathroom instead of eating. I forgot the question, but it was considered the obvious choice. Her mother said she is just fooling around or being manipulative, but I can't tell between thinking at that level or not understanding. I don't see her that often. We're trying a lot of things." I observed Trish to be less responsive with this teacher who was trying a variety of communication approaches, but did not think Trish understood basic interactions. Although this narrative represents Ann trying a variety of approaches, it also represents her doubts about Trish. Ann also said that a reason she doesn’t know what Trish understands is because people cue by nodding yes when they are presenting the yes choice. I did not observe people cueing her during assignments and tests although I made it a point to watch for that after Ann mentioned it. In addition, I wondered that if people were cueing and if Trish were responsive to cueing, she would have had more correct answers on some of the tests I observed where the answers seemed obvious to me. For example, she chose 1993 over 1947 as the date of Gandhi’s death. I don’t know why she chose that answer; however, most of her other answers were correct on that test.

Another example of Trish’s lack of response to Ann was highlighted by her relatively positive response to a new teaching assistant, Nell. During a Resource period I observed Trish with Ann and Nell, her new teaching assistant. Trish was still getting used to Nell. They were supporting her to finish a lab assignment for Earth Science. She was to choose a color code for different air pressures, identify the points on a weather map that indicated certain air pressures, then connect the same pressure points to form isobars, indicators of weather fronts. In the following observation notes, Nell and Ann are expecting Trish to complete the assignment.

Trish was finding all the 40 pressure points, little circles, and coloring them in with a marker, then Nell would attach the circles to make an isobar, for a map of pressure lines or weather fronts. After the 40 isobar was done, Trish was asked to pick a color; she chose yellow. It was going slowly so Nell put the handout on the Plexiglas stand so Trish could see it better (I think). Nell said, "Remember this morning we worked on the isobars…" Ann added, "We’re looking for a number that looks like this." She wrote 080 on the bottom of the handout. Nell said, "You can't make the isobars ‘till you pick the pressures." Trish looked down at the table. Ann put the handout back down on the table saying, "Since that’s where you’re looking." Nell supported Trish at the left wrist, Trish holding the marker, but not moving it. Ann asked, "Do you understand what’s going on?" Trish nodded yes. Ann said, "Then do it," and said to Nell, "Maybe push her elbow forward a little ...that’s it." Trish colored the pressure point and looked away. Ann held Trish’s head and pointed it toward the lab sheet. Nell asked, "Is there another one?" Trish pointed to one and Nell asked, "Should I connect them to make an isobar? Should I connect them to make an isobar?" Trish nodded yes. "That does it, good." Nell said, "120, we’re getting down to business." (Trish had chosen the correct circle.) Both said, "Good job looking." Nell said, "I can’t see where you’re pointing, you have to do it again." Trish chose the 120 point, then picked four in a row. "Good. See, we need to get you mad Trish then you do it. Trish picked green for 160. Ann asked, "Does that say 160?" Trish did not respond. Ann said, "It’s not O.K. not to answer, [then] you can’t say yes to everything. Do you not want to do this? Is that why you’re acting like this? We agreed you would do this during Resource." It was almost the end of the period and Ann said, "I've had enough what about you?" She got up and went to a sink in the corner and washed her hands. Nell continued with Trish, "It's not O.K. not to do this assignment...can we finish up this assignment?" Trish nodded yes. Nell asked, "Should we send this home?" and commented to Trish and Ann something about how her parents might respond to Trish not having finished her work. This passage shows Ann and Nell demanding that Trish complete the assignment. From my vantagepoint, I could not tell that Trish was mad when she chose the four points for the isobar. She did not answer and when told it was not O.K. not to answer, she nodded yes to everything. It did seem that she responded mostly to Nell and not Ann. Trish’s resistance could have been due to a number of reasons. These might include fatigue since she had been in class already for 4 hours, hunger since this was the period just before lunch at 12:45, or resistance to Ann. It is interesting that Ann gave up and expressed it ("I’ve had enough") in a tone that alerted me to anger or frustration, and that Trish responded to Nell even though she had only been supporting Trish a short time (less than a month).

In Medical Keyboard, Ann was working with Trish to type. I wrote in my notes that "Trish seemed to be on strike." Ann was trying to get Trish to type her name.

Trish hit the wrong letters with her fist. Ann asked her if she wanted to try her other hand, "Try it with knuckle," and Trish made an indefinite movement. Ann asked if she wanted to do something else [besides her name] and Trish nodded yes. When she asked, "Can you hit the letter Y?" Trish put her hands by her face and her right hand behind her neck, then both near her mouth. "You’re getting upset, why?" No response. After several questions regarding what Trish might want to do, Trish still was not responding. Ann thought she might want to type standing up, and encouraged Trish to stand up unassisted. After considerable effort, Trish stood and smiled at me. She still did not type anything and Ann put away the keyboard. During the typing session, she told me, "I’m not sure Trish even knows the letters." I shared that I thought she did. She had initiated pressing letters with her special education teacher during Medical Keyboard class, during my previous observation visit. I was surprised that she expressed her thoughts about Trish’s knowledge in front of her as if she were not there. At the time, I took that as a possible indicator of low expectation not only of her academic abilities but also of her ability to understand what was being said in front of her.

In contrast, I observed a different speech therapist, Beth, and a completely different response from Trish. Beth acted as if Trish knew exactly what was going on and was literate. Beth also supported Trish to complete lab assignments and to type, and accepted nodding responses during typing conversations. During one period she completed a multiple choice Biology test. Following is an interchange showing Trish taking the Biology test. Beth said she didn’t know most of the answers, not having been in a Biology class since her own youth. The choices "yes" and "no" were written on post-its, sticky memo papers that could be moved around on her desk or bookstand as needed.

Beth asked, "Are you prepared?" Trish pointed to yes. "Do you want to read the questions silently to yourself?" Trish pointed to no. Beth read a question about protozoa and said, "If you want me to read it again point to this." No. Beth read, "Amoebae move by using finger like projections called …pseudopods, cytoplasm." Trish pointed to cytoplasm. "Paramecium move by using hair like structures called flagella or..." Trish chose flagella. "Ready for this one?" Trish looked at her. Beth read about the whip like structure of something. Trish looked at her. "I don't know. You have to make the decision." Beth supported Trish’s hand poised saying, "Make a decision." Trish was staring above the board, "Are you with us? Make a decision. Even if you don’t know take a guess... I’ll read it again...Cilia or flagella?" Trish chose flagella. They went over the test again: she did not change her answers. Then Beth asked her if she wanted to continue a conversation about an upcoming project, the conversation they had started about the death of a fellow student, or hang out with a student in the room. She broke into a smile at the last suggestion, but chose to talk about her confusion regarding the student who died. During this conversation, both of them typed. I have included some of the interaction to contrast with the typing interaction with Ann from the previous semester. In this passage the capital letters are Trish’s computer keyboard input. Beth said to Trish, "Put your right hand in your lap so that you can see what you are doing." Trish rubbed her eyes with both hands. "The topic must be making you nervous." Beth was next to Trish, on her left supporting Trish’s hand and forearm leaning on her own forearm. "Did you know him?" Trish had her right hand in her eyes. "Trish, try to put the hand down." She put it down. "There. Did you know ________[student’s name]?" Trish looked at the keyboard, pulled her left hand to her mouth, put it down and pointed with support to the letter Y. Beth spoke and typed her part of the exchange, "Is there anything you'd like to say about it?" Trish made a short humming sound and some squeaky sounds "If nothing else you can just say no or n." Trish pointed over the keyboard and with support typed. Beth read each letter as Trish typed it, thus narrating both sides of the conversation along with the process. I was looking on, copying both the conversation as I heard it and the letters off the computer screen in all capitals. "You went for the d or the l, I wasn’t clear. DAM N do you swear? Are you saying damn it?" Y. "Make a space O.K.? I think you never thought about this. I can see it in your face." Trish typed I TIAR. "I'm not sure what that means. HAI didn’t make a lot of sense to me. R hair OUT [I TIAR HAIR OUT]. Does that mean [student name] died makes you really upset and mad?" Trish typed, Y… In the case of Trish, even though academic demands were placed on her, the person supporting her made a difference. The people with whom she communicated best assumed she knew what was going on or were sensitive to the variety of reasons she might not respond. They were often successful in figuring out what to do. They supported a number of communication options and always included a choice relating to "other" than their best guesses. I saw many opportunities for academic and social interactions taken and become more complex over the period of time I observed her. Her special education teachers pushed her by insisting on completing an assignment or negotiating another time to do it. They balanced figuring out what was going on when Trish did not respond. They would ask her if she was bored, thirsty, hungry, tired, feeling sick, if she hated the topic, needed a break or to go to the bathroom, or was just joking around. Sometimes they would ask, "Are you saying yes [or no] to everything," or "Are you being a jokester?" and Trish would often break into a smile, laugh, or nod yes.

In contrast, those who supported Nick’s schoolwork did not persist if Nick did not complete work or participate in class. They were sensitive to his physical feelings (hunger, pain), but not persistent if Nick backed away from academic activity. His teacher said, "His only interest in books is to tear them up." In Menu Math he was expected to choose items, but not deal with their prices.

Expectancy Patterns and Opportunity

The three other students also experienced this variety among their teachers’ expectations and perceptions as shown through how the teachers talked about them. Abe’s health teacher said he seemed to understand what was covered in class. When he answered questions in class he seemed to have the basic idea of what they were talking about. She said that he did even better when he had help. She described him reading about heroin on the Internet for a class project, and taking notes. She expected Abe to turn in work to her and he did. She described him in terms of his student role. In contrast, his English teacher, unaware he could do these things, wondered what he was getting out of the class. In her class, Abe did not appear to her to follow the discussion and often did not turn in his assignments. She told a special education teacher that he should be in art class instead of English.

Tyrone’s Science teacher also appreciated him as a student and was positive about his class participation and class work. His teaching assistant was very proud of him and showed me a folder of papers that had passing test scores and positive comments on assignments. One of his other teachers expected little work from Tyrone and described him in terms of the social benefits of being in class. When he wondered if Tyrone was getting anything out of class, he was surprised when I quoted the Science teacher saying, "Test wise, he does as well or better than some of the other students in my class."

Similarly, during this study, Gerard’s 11th grade teachers didn’t think he was getting much out of the class content. However, three of his 9th grade teachers, whom I had interviewed for an earlier study, thought that he did and included him academically as well as socially. His current teaching assistant expected him to engage with the class content and said that sometimes at work Gerard would ask a question or make a comment about something they had discussed in Health class.

Each student also had at least one educator who thought he or she didn’t understand much (and said so) and who missed opportunities to find out what the student understood. My interpretation of the missed opportunities was based either on what I saw the student do in similar circumstances, or had seen other teachers try in similar situations. I did not presume the student knew the answer, for example, but I felt I could recognize when the student did not have a chance to try, succeed, or fail. Missed opportunities highlighted the meaning of expectancy patterns when students had substitute assistants who did not know their capacities or see their capacities as expansive. For example, I had observed Tyrone calculate the answers to problems in Consumer Math. One day a substitute teaching assistant was doing the calculations for him. In some cases he told Tyrone what numbers to press on the calculator, in other cases he did it himself. His regular aide would have said something like, "What number is that…then put it in," and would wait to see if Tyrone would keep going with the problem before coaching the next step.

In the two case studies, we have seen two students who have much in common in terms of their needs for special education supports. However, they were very different in how educators delivered those services and supports and how their teachers regarded them. The two sets of expectancy patterns are as different as the two descriptions of Shawntell Strully shared in the introduction. We can see from reading the examples that expectation and perception are more than attitudes. They are embedded in patterns of verbal and nonverbal behaviors that are often unintentional communications to students. In the next section I elaborate on how the teachers communicated expectations with words, behaviors, and practices.

Expectation and Perception Interactions

Tables 3.1 and 3.2 summarize the behaviors and practices that reflected the perceptions and conveyed expectations of the educators with regard to the students in my study with examples from the data. Teachers reflected their expectations in certain observable ways, which indicated relationships between expectation, perception, and understanding of the student. These relationships were not necessarily causal. They also indicate the presence of degrees of opportunity for the student to participate and for the teacher to perceive that the student is benefiting from being in class. Expectancy patterns showed during teacher interactions with and about students. Table 3.1, Educators Talking to Students, gives examples from the data that reflect competence or deficit orientations. These included engaging with students in academic interactions such as, calling on students, checking on their work during class, facilitating student involvement with peers, and insisting that the student work in class with the same tone as used with the nondisabled students. Table 3.2, Educators Talking About Students gives examples of how educators’ statements reflected their competence or deficit orientations about the students. These included articulating student goals in academically referenced terms, and giving positive descriptions with academic references. Classroom practices are implicit in the two tables and throughout this narrative. I address them more directly in relation to participation in the next chapter. I drew the examples from teachers involved in whole class, small group, and individual instruction, and from individual instruction by teachers and assistants. Examples drawn from observations of teaching assistants (T. A.) are indicated where relevant.

Table 3.1

Educators Talking to Students
a) Competence-Oriented Interactions Examples
Asks questions, gives instructions, corrections "Why did the Europeans call the Ottoman Empire the sick man of Europe…?" (sets up answer choices)

"I don’t have my glasses on, what does that say?" (T. A. during in class reading assignment)

Calls on all students in class "S., what do you think …"

"S., what language did they speak in Rome?"

Checks on student during in-class assignments when circulating among the students "Just one wrong, take a look at that one."

"Who are God’s chosen people, the Jews or the Arabs? You know this."

Facilitates student involvement with a partner or peer group "You and Sam [classmate] work on this together."

"S. You’re in [cooperative] group four."

"Gerard, you play the customer."

"Am I in the way? Do you want to work with [student] instead of me (T. A.)?"

Insists that students do schoolwork during class; same tone as with nondisabled students "Get to work, I'm not kidding."

"…Did you finish reading this?"

"We need to do these; [questions], you’re stalling." (T. A.)

"Can you sit up please? Cause everyone else is paying attention." (T. A.)

Questions student regarding needs or consent "May she look at your work?"

"Are you just bored or don’t feel well?"

"Shall I leave you alone [with peer]? Want me to stay with you? Yes or no, my feelings won’t be hurt."

Assigns classroom jobs "I want you to take attendance."

"… Put the chairs back, everybody is helping here."

"Please get the calculators…[and pass them out.]."

b) Deficit-Oriented Interactions Examples
Ignores student during whole class lessons "Everybody gather around closer to watch this." [Student remained far away during demonstration.]
.Calls on general education students only Teacher gives up when student does not answer correctly or does not call on the student any more.
Takes over student’s assignment "The collage I am making is on needs and wants." (T.A.)

"It’s my homework…" (T. A)

"Write down [answer]…." (T. A.)

Responds for student e.g., in role play:

[To student playing waiter]"Ask him what he would like to drink. [And to the student-customer]: What would you like to drink?" (T.A.)

Accepts student nonparticipation "You don’t have to do this if you don’t want to."

People who have seen this chart have told me that that regarding nondisabled students, those that I labeled competence-oriented are typical teacher behaviors and that those that I labeled deficit-oriented would be infrequent. In fact, with nondisabled students who did not participate or had unexplained absences, the teachers in these high schools more likely took actions such as contacting parents or other school personnel . Although general education teachers may overlook a nonparticipating student during class discussions, the teachers I met would be unlikely to do their assignments for them, even if they did adapt them to the student’s needs. On the other hand, when some teachers felt the student in the study did not understand, or if the teachers did not know how to include the student, they failed to make demands on the student. They treated the students instead as guests or welcome visitors or as people there to learn social skills; they did not treat them as students who could or should either benefit from or be interested in the class content.

These conclusions are reinforced by how the teachers spoke about the students in my study. For the majority of the time spent in academic class activity, either in the general education or special education classes, the students who were invited to participate in content learning were more often interacting with teachers who demonstrated academic expectations and said so. Table 3.2 presents categories of how educators expressed their expectations and perceptions, with examples.

Table 3.2

Educators Talking About Students
a) Competence-Oriented  Examples
Articulates academic goals for students "This one [assignment] will be harder for him because it’s longer but it’s better to have some of it than nothing."

"…She’s developing her opinions about things. And much of that comes from learning about different philosophies through literature."

Describes student academic achievement or how the student benefits from the class "He has improved over two years in increasing his attention span [when taking tests] and writing longer paragraphs."

"Sometimes he can do the work [in this class], and sometimes he can’t." 

"When you ask him questions in class, he has the basic idea of what we’re talking about."

Positive description of student related to academics 


"We do a lot of group work in Social Studies and ...she goes to one girl who she's close with and she'll do the work with her."

"He’s a good student…conscientious about what he does, he makes an attempt."

"I don’t care who they are. I expect them to do their best."

b) Deficit-Oriented  Examples
Describes student in deficit or non-academically referenced terms "He is low functioning... he can't add 2+2 or say his ABCs. From the academic classes he gets structure and social skills."

"He does best on the hands-on activities." (T.A)

"He’s in here for the social [benefit]."

Describes student’s deficits in the presence of the student "I’m not sure she even knows the letters." 

"Isn't it all right that he's mentally retarded?

He can’t read or write his own name."

"His only interest in books is to tear them up."

"He doesn't like it, isn't interested in it." (regarding in-class assignments)

Positive description unrelated to academics or curriculum content "He's brilliant, he knows where the curb comes whether I’m pushing or he is pushing himself." 

(T. A.)

Those teachers who demonstrated and expressed competence-oriented expectancy patterns also created more opportunities for participation. Although certain practices fostered or limited opportunity for student interaction and engagement, it is interesting to remember that all the examples occurred both in traditional classes based on lecture and discussion and in classes with a higher portion of small group and hands-on activities.


In this chapter we can see competence- and deficit-oriented expectancy patterns from the educators toward the students in the study. Each student experienced a variety of competing expectations and a variety of situations. This chapter focused on the adults’ perceptions of the students and how these perceptions and expectations manifested in classroom observations and teacher interviews. In many cases the teachers’ interactions with and about students were verbal and nonverbal perceptions and assessments of the students’ understanding; they reflected expectations and the quality of perceptible student engagement.

None of these interactions, taken individually, would necessarily have a major impact on student engagement. However, taken together, they are potent as patterns that reproduce a given situation for the student and his or her peers. In fact, the deficit-oriented expectancy patterns represent years of accumulated cultural influence regarding disability and special education students. The competence-oriented expectancy patterns are relatively new and are still fragile in our culture (Biklen & Cardinal, 1997; Biklen & Duchan, 1994). Nick’s occasional interaction with a competence-oriented educator was insufficient to overcome the ongoing deficit-oriented expectancy patterns that contributed to his academic and social isolation. Trish’s interaction with a single deficit-oriented educator was, fortunately, insufficient to derail her overall academic progress and achievement as a fully included student. The expectancy patterns cited could be components of opportunity structures that have a major impact on the students’ educational career. In the next chapter, I look more closely at the five students, focusing on their patterns of participation to better understand the opportunity structures that support and contribute to these patterns.



In this chapter I explore student patterns of participation in the academic curriculum. I begin with a description of difficulties I encountered in learning to identify and interpret signs of student participation. I include the ways students had in common of showing participation. With the understanding that participation in the academic curriculum can only be understood in context, I explore the contexts in which students participate, framing them as opportunity structures. Several factors contributed to the complex nature of the students’ participation, not the least of which are the students’ contributions. I end this chapter with a discussion of the students’ strategies of participation and nonparticipation.

Interpreting Participation

Educators bring their own backgrounds to their perceptions and interpretations of participation. These interpretations and contexts of participation also draw upon expectancy patterns and upon interaction between students and the curriculum-related tasks, activities, and settings that the educators provide. I found myself attempting to remain aware of my own perceptions while interpreting those of others. In this chapter I explore patterns of participation with all these things in mind.

Difficulties and Dilemmas Defining Participation

For purposes of this study, participation means that I or others observed the student to be engaging in academic activities; that is, the students were doing what students generally do or what teachers expect them to do in school. This included responding to the teachers, the materials, the class content, getting ready to do a class activity, paying attention to the teacher or peer who is speaking, and relating to other students within the context of the class (small peer groups, role play, and the like). Participation includes interacting academically with others (peer, teaching assistant, general or special education teacher) in apparently meaningful ways. I use the term "apparently" to indicate an observed response, whether or not others or I were able to interpret the meaning correctly or with confidence. An example of an "apparently meaningful" response would be listening during a lecture even though an observer could interpret the "listening" as interest, politeness, or compliant "good" classroom behavior, depending on the interpreter. Nonparticipation was not doing these apparently meaningful responses when others were doing them, for example, taking a nap while classmates took a test.

I gained insights into the general education teachers’ dilemma working with these students as I sorted out my own interpretations of what the students were doing. I spent considerable time getting to know the students through observation, interaction, and interviews with their teachers and parents. This was a luxury most of the teachers did not have. The general education teachers had large classes, for the most part, and saw about 130 students a day. Some found ways to, as one teacher put it, "steal a little time" to get to know the student, for example, by chatting with the student between classes or stopping at the student’s desk while the class was engaged with an assignment. Others did not know how to approach the student beyond a warm greeting. These general education teachers expressed that they had no or few conversations or briefings with special education teachers about the student and had no time to seek them out and meet with them.

Only one special education teacher accompanied a student, Trish to class, which gave her teachers access to special education consulting and information about the student. Trish’s general education teachers, while appreciating the special education teacher’s presence and assistance, still expressed the need for more information through planning and meeting time. The teaching assistants consistently spent the most classroom time with the students. However, their training and talents for supporting the students varied greatly. Some had great difficulty figuring out how to best support the student even though, in many cases, they spent more time than any other educator did with the students in this study.

The amount of time I, as a researcher, had to observe would have been unavailable to even the most motivated general education teacher and to some special education teachers. It was surpassed only by Trish’s special education teacher and teaching assistant who, between them, supported Trish in class all day. This arrangement worked because all of Trish’s four special education peers were in class together. This arrangement became impossible the following year when these five were in 10th grade and five 9th graders joined this special education group. The other special education teachers had their students in many different classes. These teachers had to stay in their special education classroom as some of their students were in that room at any given time.

As I came to know the students, I noticed how they responded to what was going on, how they showed interest, how they shared their knowledge, how they resisted participating, or looked when not participating. Some of their actions remained difficult to interpret even after months of observation. For example, I observed Gerard evoking reprimands and being sent to "time out" during special education classes and often had difficulty figuring out exactly why he did that at particular times. In contrast, when I observed Gerard in Health class he sat quietly, laughed at the teacher’s jokes, and answered all rhetorical questions. I noticed his timing was appropriate as were many of his answers, most of which were "yeah" and "I don’t know." Since he did not do that in some other classes, I concluded he was interested and involved in Health class. His teaching assistant told me he loved the Health class and talked about it at work, thus validating my perception that he did enjoy and participate in this class. Yet, another special education teacher (not his) who was supporting other students in the Health class had a different interpretation of his participation and told me he wasn’t getting much out of it. She was an experienced teacher and had a good relationship with Gerard, but she did not have the luxury of watching him to compare his responses in two different lecture classes and learning from others what he was taking from class.

Learning the Signs of Participation

Evaluating and interpreting the signs of participation included noting when students did and did not do the same things as their peers. Each student in the study had repertoires of responses in common with each other and with their classmates. Their idiosyncratic responses were often equivalent to what typical students did, just different in degree and visibility. All five students took general education classes with interactive and noninteractive lectures. The interactive lectures also included class discussions. The five students participated with expected or typical responses using sounds, speech, or nodding. They engaged in some general education class activities, which included hands-on activity such as drawing or choosing pictures for a collage or mobile. They participated in question/answer exchanges, did worksheets or class work, and watched videos.

Each student also had an academic activity or discussion about food. The context varied. The Health teacher taught about cholesterol, vitamins, and good nutrition. In Home Economics classes the students learned about balanced meals and how to follow recipes. Speech classes or individual sessions engaged students in discussions about weekend and holiday meals, and Math dealt with recipes, budgets, and checkbooks. Gerard and Nick also had academic exchanges around food in the special education class during lessons about menus, shopping, and identifying perishables. They sat faced toward the teacher during whole group lectures or discussions and appeared to listen. They looked at videos, and laughed at the teacher’s jokes or at their own jokes.

During my observations, general education teachers initiated conversations with all of them, except Nick, regarding outside interests and activities. These conversations ranged from asking a student about his or her weekend or vacation to soliciting class work related to their hobby or interests. Special education teachers only initiated such conversations with Nick. They asked such questions as, "Did you have turkey for Thanksgiving?" "Did you go to the basketball game?" The students always responded with words, sounds, and body language. The students often made eye contact with the teacher during these one-on-one discussions.

All five students also shared some nonparticipation behaviors with each other and with typical classmates. All five, at least once, took naps or appeared to be napping or trying to nap in class, looked around the room at peers or into space, and also attended to something besides (or perhaps in addition to) what was going on in class. They leafed through magazines. They sometimes left class to use the bathroom or came late from the bathroom (although this was rarely tolerated for nondisabled students). In most classes, general education students also sometimes did these things.

In some cases, these typical nonparticipation activities were more noticeable than for the nondisabled students. Sometimes activities stood out due to the nature of the student’s disability that either exaggerated the behavior or the image of the behavior. Also, the students were more closely monitored. For example, when Gerard or Nick gazed around the room during class, an assistant was likely to say, "Pay attention." I never saw a nondisabled student singled out that way for gazing around the room, or even putting his or her head down on the desk. Sometimes I thought of interpreting such attention as demanding participation (by paying attention), but sometimes the teacher did not match the demand by efforts to draw the student into the activity or discussion.

For an individual student, I called a response "nonparticipation" if it contrasted with a participation response in a similar situation for that particular student. This helped me avoid stereotyping some activities as nonparticipation due to a response being outside of social norms. Thus I did not interpret slouching as nonparticipation unless it contrasted with a different posture used in another similar situation. For example, Tyrone had a variety of postures and movements in Social Studies class. Sometimes he sat and watched the teacher intently, sometimes he looked in his notebook, wrote something with a pencil, turned pages, or looked around, but responded to teachers’ questions. Or, sometimes a student seemed to be doing his or her best responding to multiple choice questions in one class, then refused to participate in a similar activity at another time. Some of the students sat forward, leaning toward a video or movie they were watching; at another time they might sit back and look around or at the ceiling. In the special education class, Nick sometimes wheeled away from the class discussion or lecture in search of paper to tear or a new location in which to tear it. He did not do that during Occupations class, unless he was not involved in an activity and his classmates were also moving about the room.

In order to understand student participation and nonparticipation, I next examine the contexts of the interactions and how several factors create enabling or limiting structures of opportunity.

Opportunity Structures

Opportunity, along with special education supports and services, is a way to think about student access to the curriculum. Some of the supports for opportunity such as competence-oriented demands can be compared to ramps. Ramps afford access to a building, but do not ensure full participation in the activities within the building. Positive expectant interactions, such as demands to participate, and inclusive practices, such as role plays and cooperative groups, do not alone ensure rich academic participation.

Opportunity comes in varied forms that influence and frame both the signs and contexts of participation. The quality and coherence of the interactions and practices that make up opportunity influence student actions, reactions, or outcomes. The interactions among the behaviors and practices and their contexts of participation are complex and together form opportunity structures. For example, teachers with high expectations (academic, social, or both) may invite and encourage a student to participate, but the student may need adaptations including personal assistance to maintain focus or complete an activity or assignment. The structure of a lesson may invite student responses, and the physical setup of the class might foster or limit student-student interaction. In the following examples students had varying access to the academic content, and varying assistance and curricular adaptation to engage with it and show how they were participating. The following four categories are structures of opportunity to participate and are made up of a constellation of behaviors and practices, often supported by expectations and perceptions, that afforded students access to the academic curriculum to varying degrees. The opportunity structures are 1) Academically Demanding and Encouraging, 2) Socially Welcoming and Inviting, 3) Inhibiting and Limiting Opportunity, and 4) Denying Opportunity. A closer look at student participation in the context of interactions and practices also gives insights into understanding of student responses in the classroom and what may be happening when the student participates to greater or lesser degrees within the school day.

Academically Demanding and Encouraging

When teachers demanded and encouraged participation, they called on the student, expected and demanded completed homework and tests, and recorded grades. The highest visible participation levels for students in the study, along with their nondisabled peers, occurred during 1) teacher-student interactions, such as interactive lectures, 2) activities involving student interaction, such as pairs doing worksheets or hands-on activities, and 3) role plays. The special education support person gave individual attention, pushed and challenged the student, was sensitive to his or her frustration level, and if necessary, re-negotiated when the student was to complete the task. In the following example, after giving some background on how Trish generally responded while working on academic assignments, I show how a teacher, assuming that Trish will work on an assignment, supported her sensitively.

Trish responded in class mostly by looking, nodding, and pointing. She sometimes pointed independently, sometimes with support at the wrist with slight resistance to steady her pointing. It took considerably more time to support Trish with an assignment than for other students in this study. For example, one day while working on an assignment for Health class, and supported by her new speech teacher, it took Trish 6 minutes to type the sentence, "They take care of sick children." To get an idea of how long things took, I pressed a time function key on my note taker as they worked. Her speech teacher read the letters and words out loud as Trish typed.

9:49 a.m., "They take" 9:50 a.m., "space" 9:50 a.m., "car" 9:51 a.m., "e" 9:51 a.m., " o" 9:52 a.m., "f" 9:52 a.m., 9:52 a.m., "s" 9:52 a.m., "i" 9:52 a.m., 9:52 a.m., "that came out siks, the spell checker will take care of that later. Chil" 9:53 a.m., "dr childrrrr e-n" [sounding it out] "n" 9:54 a.m., "You do the n and I'll take a turn. - n" 9:55 a.m., "Do you mind if I type the next one? Then we will have time to talk to…" Trish nodded yes. In this example Trish had chosen the topic of her essay. She had spent time in the library with a source book about health careers and Trish had chosen key sentences that she needed to put in order for her essay. Trish was choosing the order of the sentences and deciding whether she would type the next sentence or whether the speech teacher would type it. The teacher challenged her to complete the sentence herself, but also offered Trish the choice of whether to continue or have the teacher type some of the sentences. By doing this, the teacher was acknowledging the effort it took Trish to type as well as the opportunity to prioritize how she would spend the remaining minutes of the period.

For another class, Trish was to write an essay on Romeo and Juliet. Since I learned that she hated the play and refused to go on the class trip to see it at the theater, I wondered if she would refuse to do the assignment. Her classmates were to write an essay on the obstacles faced by Romeo and Juliet in Shakespeare’s play. Trish was to write a paragraph about Romeo and Juliet. The special education teacher cleverly had her write about why she hated the play. Betty, the special education teacher, and Nell, the teaching assistant, supported her. Betty also supported three other students at the same time. Nell began.

"We're going to start, O.K.? I liked the play Romeo and Juliet; I did not like the play Romeo and Juliet. Will you let me know? I think I know your answer. Will you tell me?" Then Betty said, "Remember, you have to get four sentences done this period." Trish smiled and pointed to "…did not..." Nell asked, "Is that your answer? Show me your answer? I liked the play, I did not like the play," as she tapped each one. Trish looked at my tape recorder. Nell said, "It’s just the tape, no big deal," and repeated the two choices. "Make a choice, you're going to write a critique of the play, whether you liked it or not and why." Trish chose "did not." Nell asked, "Is that your answer?" and switched the position of the post-its. (Nell had told me that Trish often favored the answer to the left so they switched positions of the answers to make sure.) Trish tapped hard with her three fingers. "You didn't like the play! That will be your first sentence then, I did not like the play Romeo and Juliet. Is that a correct statement? Yes. O.K." Trish’s nod was definitive and she laughed. Trish pointed without assistance to the answer. In 20 minutes Trish had chosen four sentences for an assignment which the teacher had adapted to match her interest as well as her ability to produce a certain length essay within a class period. The teacher accounted for her processing time delays and accounted for the fact that Trish sometimes chose the answer on the left instead of the answer she wanted, insisting that Trish choose the answer she wanted. There was no question of whether she would do the assignment or turn it in on time, although she sometimes got extensions on longer assignments. However, Trish could not have met these expectations without the addition of sensitive support in the form of adapting the essay and the assumption she could make choices along with a method of verifying her choices.

High levels of demand and encouragement also opened doors for students to initiate responses showing their knowledge. The first two examples showed Trish being supported by special education teachers, but this support was even more effective when some general education teachers also demanded that students, including the special education students, stay on task and hand in their work. In fact, during Social Studies class, Trish was working with a partner, Diane, who got her into a conversation about something that had happened between them the day before. The Social Studies teacher approached them and said, "Get to work, I'm not kidding." Diane told her they were talking about yesterday’s visit (to her house), adding some details. The teacher responded to Diane, "But she’s got to stay focused on the work, get serious." She then asked Trish, "Who are God’s chosen people? The Jews or the Muslims?" Then the teacher told Diane to write on post-its, "Put down Jews and Arabs and see what we come up with."

In such an opportunity structure, Trish also contributed her knowledge to the completion of assignments. In the following example, Trish was doing a worksheet paired with the same friend, Diane. The friend filled in the answers; Trish had first chance at the answers. Sometimes Betty, the special education teacher, read the question, sometimes the friend. Trish pointed to "yes" for each question. One example was about major contributions of the Persians.

Betty said, "Good work, I think it’s the answer." Diane volunteered to do the writing saying, "She [the teacher] said we do one [answer sheet] for both of us." Diane read, "Why did the Christian Crusaders invade the Middle East?" Betty said, "I see it on page 576. I’m going to read it to Trish if you want to listen." "Yeah." Betty read from the textbook looking for why the Crusaders invaded the Middle East and proposed an answer, "They were helping the Byzantine emperor. Do you think that's the answer Trish?" (Trish nodded no after Diane nodded and softly said "yes.") Betty said, "Trish says that’s not the answer. Their goal is to capture Palestine. Trish, is that what you wanted to say?" Trish nodded yes. "Very good Trish, thanks." Trish acted involved and attentive; she was involved with the Social Studies content both with her special education support person and with her classmate, and made a definite contribution with an answer her friend did not know. The classroom teacher made overt academic demands on all her students. Betty was also modeling and coaching the classmate how to support Trish on assignments and sometimes Diane and Trish worked alone on a worksheet or project.

When students experienced demands that they work, they often demonstrated enthusiasm and involvement in their work. Tyrone usually took notes in Biology by copying, as did his classmates, from the overhead-projected outline. He also chose answers for multiple choice, matching, and fill-in-the-blank questions on worksheets with assistance, coaching, and sometimes cajoling from his teaching assistant. He sometimes worked when classmates were not, and sometimes took initiative to do a class activity, such as a Math problem or hands-on activity. Support from Garth, his assistant, consisted of helping him get started, or to stay focused on a task, taking turns with him while helping him with a reading or a worksheet assignment, and encouraging his verbal responses in class. Tyrone demonstrated enthusiasm for class on several occasions, as the following example illustrates.

During one class, as I conversed with Garth, Tyrone was still writing his notes about nutrition from the overhead; the other students were talking quietly, reading, or waiting for the period to end. A boy in the back was cleaning his notebook by inspecting the pages and discarding some of them, a boy in front of me (I was in the back of the room next to the right wall) had his head down and looked like he was trying to get comfortable. Tyrone demonstrated his enthusiasm about Biology class another day by showing me his notes that he had copied. He was obviously proud. He showed them to other teachers and a hall monitor, and looked at them several times during his next class, which was Social Studies. I observed him reading Biology lab worksheets with his assistant, Garth, and then answering worksheet questions. Garth’s approach included taking turns and cajoling him onward.

Garth asked Tyrone, "Do you want to read it or do you want me to?" Tyrone said, "You." "I don't have my glasses so you'll have to help me." Tyrone read it aloud, while Garth helped with some words like "carbohydrate." Tyrone underlined as he read. As they read, they finished each other’s phrases and echoed each other. "Show me on my arm where the capillaries are." "Here," Tyrone pointed. "Show Robin." I said, "Show me on my arm." Tyrone pointed on my arm. Tyrone continued to read. He read "transportation" clearly. Garth read the questions and pointed to the paragraph in the text that had the answers and asked, "What’s the answer?" Tyrone answered, "vitamins," then "water," with Garth sometimes spelling and sometimes coaching ("You know how to spell that." "It starts with a v…") as Tyrone wrote. In this example Garth was not only challenging Tyrone to read difficult material, but also taking turns and asking questions to help Tyrone focus. He also personalized the passage, asking Tyrone to point to capillaries and asking him to say the answers that he was to write on the worksheet. Some days I felt I was observing something akin to artful dance as I saw the support people such as Garth interacting with different students. Their interactions often reminded me of the interactions of modern dance partners as they take turns leading and are tuned into each other as they change directions and execute moves.

Special education teachers supporting in demanding/encouraging ways talked their students through transitions, and helped them stay on task by joking, reminding, trading turns, and giving feedback and praise. They encouraged independence wherever possible whether through choice making or doing all or part of an assignment without supervision. The general education teachers treated these students like everyone else, as full members of the class, which included acknowledging them and their work in class, accepting and demanding assignments, and keeping grades.

Socially Welcoming and Inviting

The same kinds of classes where students experienced academic demands and encouragement could also be welcoming and inviting, but without academic demands. The difference was the lack or lesser amount of active academic attention of the general education teacher given to the special education student. These socially welcoming classes made academic demands on general education students, but not on the special education students in this study. These teachers also tended to include interactive lectures or hands-on activities. The welcoming (but not academically demanding) teachers did not have academic expectations of the students I was observing, but felt they were there for social benefits. In some cases the student was listening with interest and even showing knowledge and the teachers did not know what the student was getting out of class, even though they acknowledged student response and input. They frequently spoke of topics of interest to the student and related the material to the students’ lives.

When the teaching assistant also actively supported the student, the student had more access to the content. In classes, the teaching assistant supported Gerard in the form of simplifying material into statements and leading questions, assistance with note taking, conversation, and encouragement, and some physical support for hands-on activities. In general education class he often participated with apparent enthusiasm. In Health Class, Gerard sat in various locations in the classroom. I could observe him best when he sat near the back row near the door, next to his assistant who helped him take notes and who emphasized key points from the lecture. I observed several times that Gerard responded to the lecture and to the repartee between the teacher and her students.

Health class was sixth period. At the front of the room, the Health teacher was lecturing on nutrition from a handout. Teaching about cholesterol, she wrote LDL with a sad face and HDL with a happy face on the board. "You don’t need to know what it means," she said, "I don’t. Happy cholesterol breaks down. Loser cholesterol clogs arteries." Gerard chuckled at the word "loser." "It's present in all animal cells," Gerard’s teaching assistant whispered to him. The teacher asked, "Any animals in here?" Gerard responded, "Oh yeah." The teacher asked the class, "Any question on page one [of the handout she was lecturing from]?" Gerard said "No." The teacher continued through the handout asking the class for definitions. "Trace minerals...iron." Gerard’s assistant wrote in his notebook and whispered, "Iron for your blood." The teacher asked the class, "What’s the blood carry?" Students replied, "Oxygen." Gerard said "Oxygen" almost at the same time as the others. The teacher was ending the lecture; "This is the one statement you should know. The best diet is a balanced diet. Turn to the food pyramid diagram." Gerard’s assistant wrote and then said while pointing to the diagram, "Eat less, eat more. You need more vegetables." As the teacher explained the difference between vegetarian, vegan, and "semi-vegetarian, no red meat," Gerard said, "Pizza" and the teacher nodded. In this passage the teacher personalized the lesson for all the students and maintained a repartee with rhetorical questions to which Gerard responded. Although other students usually did not respond to this type of question, Gerard’s answers were well-timed direct responses. His assistant emphasized the key points in a personal way, which also helped him maintain focus. In this class, Gerard listened along with his peers, interacted with the teacher, and contributed his ideas. He kept a class notebook. Along with his peers, he put his notebook in front of him on his desk, and at the end of the period arranged his books in a neat pile in front of him in preparation for the end of class while the teacher was still lecturing. His assistant helped him with taking notes, which consisted of writing key words and phrases, filling in blanks on the handout, and hand-over-hand assistance with drawing a line on a graph relating to cholesterol and the food pyramid. Twice she reminded him to sit up (he was leaning his upper body on the desk or his head on one of his arms) and he told her he was tired. Throughout the class, however, he consistently responded to questions the teacher made to him or to the whole class. He gave audible responses to questions the teacher put to the class and he also responded to questions that could be interpreted as rhetorical ("Any animals in here?"). Although his responses of "I don’t know," and "Oh, yeah" were audible and unlike his classmates’ responses, his answers were well timed and direct, and the volume was low and apparently acceptable. His answers to "yes" or "no" questions were on target (e.g., during a drug education unit the teacher asked, "Would you get on a plane if the pilot was high?" Gerard responded, "No"). These were also typical responses in his social conversations unless he initiated the topic; even then he spoke in short phrases.

The teacher welcomed Gerard’s participation, but did not show academic demands with him. But, Gerard’s assistant academically supported him. Although tired and occasionally slipping into nonattention (or appearing to prefer to rest), Gerard responded to his assistant’s stated expectation that he pay attention and he responded to the teacher’s lecture with apparent interest. Although the teacher told me that she did not know how much content he was learning, she treated him as a social member of the class, calling on him for social responses, responding to him, and making sure he got the handouts.

The class seating arrangement may encourage student interaction. Most of the students in Occupations class sat in groups around tables as they were working on their own collage, finding pictures from magazines related to their future careers.

The teacher, knowing of his hobby, said to Gerard, "Did you find your train?" A student two seats away said, "Mrs. T., here’s a picture of a train.". Mrs. T. handed it to Gerard and said, "Why don’t you cut these out?" Gerard handed a picture to a girl to his left. She took it and said, "A turkeyyyy." Gerard continued choosing his pictures, showed some to other students, and glued them onto a box. "Can I see that glue?" Gerard passed it to the girl who had said "Turkeyyy." "Thank youuu hon!" In this example, Gerard was working with students on the same kind of assignment as other students, traded pictures with them, and gave and received help. He participated even though a substitute assistant less skilled than his regular one supported him. He also handed in this assignment along with his classmates, which the teacher acknowledged, but with no attention to the content of his work.

Regarding his answer to the question about the blood carrying oxygen, I later asked his assistant if Gerard knew the answer or said it after the other students. She told me, "I don't remember, but he could have because he knows that, he has had that before." He also participated in role-plays in Health class. In this class he sometimes took adapted tests, but the teacher did not record his grades.

Tyrone provided an example where the class structure enabled participation even though the teacher had no academic expectations or demands while he included Tyrone. Tyrone’s assistant had academic demands despite the teacher’s lack of participation in these demands. One day, Tyrone’s Social Studies teacher announced they would review. "Chapter 25 on imperialism, the reasons for it, why the British were successful, how they did it. I'm going to put up an outline...motives, reasons for success, forms of control." The headings were on green construction paper and a student handed them around to her classmates.

Tyrone put his "nationalism" sign under the heading "motive." Garth asked him, "Why did you put nationalism there?" Tyrone responded, "The people worked together." He was referring to the efforts to free India from British rule. Garth encouraged him to raise his hand, but when the teacher called on him, Tyrone ducked shyly. Garth said to the teacher that Tyrone "put it there because the people were all there, he means the people were working together." Then Garth whispered to Tyrone, "I don’t know why you're so shy sometimes." Later when the teacher was talking about natural resources and India, Tyrone said "cotton," and when the teacher was talking about the motives of imperialism Tyrone said "market" to refer to expanding market. The teacher acknowledged that Tyrone had put his outline word under the correct heading and acknowledged that his answers were related or correct. Tyrone’s teacher welcomed and accepted his academic participation even though, as I had learned later from talking with this teacher, it was unexpected. This teacher had difficulty interpreting how much Social Studies Tyrone was learning.

Structure that is socially welcoming and inviting could (and I feel should) include supports that accompany academic demands, but in this study the general education teachers frequently did not expect or demand consistent academic work. Consequently, teachers that were only socially inviting did not know that the student was in fact learning content in their class with help from the assistant. In these contexts, academic demand and acknowledgment rested in the hands of the teaching assistant. The general education teacher appreciated the student, but remained undemanding and unaware of how and if the student was engaging with or benefiting from content. The next two structure categories are more inhibiting of both academic and social participation.

Inhibiting and Limiting

Although I did not meet a single teacher who would not welcome participation from any student, some of the teachers acted as if academic participation was either not possible, not likely, or hard to figure out. Many teachers did not have an idea of the student’s strengths, interests, or ways of showing understanding. They misunderstood the student’s responses and made no academic demands on the student. Sometimes the student sat, not necessarily by choice, on the classroom margins, far from social interaction with peers, and without invitation to join the group.

The Occupations class students were collecting pictures to make a collage on their future careers. The teacher instructed them to find pictures for five categories. "Each side of a box will contain 1) your career, 2) your lifestyle 3) your family, 4) your image [of what you want to do at work], and 5) a collection of things that will make you happy." Nick sat by the door with Bob, his teaching assistant. As usual, two rows of desks separated him from other general and special education students. Nick leafed through magazines and tarried on pictures that appealed to him. When the teacher walked by him he pointed to a picture. She said, "Jelly beans, do you like jelly beans." Nick ripped out the jellybean ad. Then he continued leafing through the magazine. Neither the teacher nor Nick’s teaching assistant had given him direction regarding the categories for the collage or challenged him to find particular kinds of pictures. No one asked him or helped him to choose or reject pictures that related to his interests. Bob had asked him, "Nick, do you want to cut out some pictures to put out your thoughts or what?" Bob finished making a box. The students had to find pictures in five categories to go on each side of the box. Bob then went looking for magazines, put them in front of Nick, and said, "You gotta find some pictures, find some pictures, keep turning the pages. Keep turning the pages, identify some pictures cause we're going to cut 'em out and put them on here (on the box)." Bob usually did Nick’s assignments for him. Nick was in Occupations class daily and interacted rarely with his peers since they sat two rows away. He did appear interested in the hands-on activities and the interactive lectures and class discussions although his participation was mostly as observer. Sometimes he listened with interest during some of the class discussions and he closely followed the conversational repartee during the hands-on activities and lectures. The Occupations class was having a discussion about honesty at work. Nick was looking toward the students and teacher. Nick looked at me. Bob told him to pay attention. Several students mentioned people they know who "ripped off McDonald’s" when they worked there. Bob had a magazine that served as the day’s textbook and told Nick, "You can look at it if you don’t rip it." Nick turned some pages, turned to an article about health with a full-page color picture, a colorful abstract painting. Nick was alternatively looking toward the magazine and listening to the teacher who was talking about past students and how they were caught stealing from their employers. During this part of the discussion, Nick was still; his attention fixed on the speaker. Every student leaned forward into this discussion, as did Nick. My interpretation about his engagement was based on his similar behavior when he was predictably interested (conversations and lessons about food) and on contrasting behaviors of nonparticipation (looking around, napping, or tearing paper). No teacher visibly noticed that Nick was fully engaged in this discussion; no one invited him further into the discussion. His assistant asked him to pay attention; he appeared satisfied that Nick was not distracting other students, and acted unaware of Nick’s interest. I wondered about some yes/no questions teachers could have asked Nick, questions like those he responded to during special education class discussions. Other students experienced limitations when an assistant who did not know them well worked with them. The assistants did assignments for students, choose the worksheet answers, and asked (or not) if the student agreed. They underestimated the student’s ability to understand the content, did not attempt to rephrase material they thought might be hard, and did not find alternative ways to do fill-in-the-blank worksheets (e.g., "Do you think the answer is this or that?"). They relaxed with the student during class while others were working. The general education teachers who deferred to these assistants regarding how to approach the student either ignored the student academically or responded only when spoken to. This made it more difficult for the students who could not speak to participate.

In the case of Abe who had no individual teaching assistant, he often yawned and put his head down in English class. Abe did not consistently complete assignments or participate in class. The teacher did not know Abe’s disability, and no one advised her regarding how to support him. When the special education assistant was absent for several weeks with no one substituting, Abe participated even less, particularly in contrast with other classes where the academically demanding and encouraging teachers kept track of his work, checked up on him during in-class assignments, and had him take the exams. In fact, one teacher had him take the final state exam "even though it didn’t count" for special education students because she said, "he was part of the class."

Teachers, who were limiting and inhibiting opportunity, by treating the students as people outside their academic teaching responsibility, affirmed and recreated their ongoing deficit orientation. In doing this they not only failed to assist the students with gaining access to the content, but missed out on opportunities to notice the students’ areas of interest and possible intellectual development.

Denying Opportunity

This category emerged not from observations, but from the lack of observations. During the second autumn of the study, I went back to experience "a typical day" with a few students. I discovered there were no general education classes in two students’ (Nick and Gerard) schedules. Many of the special education students in Nick’s room who were usually scheduled into some general education classes were in the special education room waiting for space to become available in "overcrowded classes." In other words, these students were low priority for admission into general education classes. After the others got into classes, Nick was still in the special education room all day. Special education rooms throughout the district, including this one, had been increasing their academic content, but there were still very few demands and little effective support for Nick to participate.

In most cases where the students had general education classes, those teachers had consented to have them in their class. This was the reason Trish took Earth Science when her 9th grade Health Careers cohort was in a different Science class. In other cases, "specials," special education mandated activities such as speech and adapted physical education, took priority over a class the that the student might benefit from and enjoy. This phenomenon of scheduling around special education activities was common practice for many students. This frequently disrupted their participation in general education class. It caused me to change the subject of my pilot study from how teachers included Gerard to the meanings of inclusion . I thought of professionals supporting the student to miss class as "facilitated truancy." This occurrence frustrated some of his teachers who had planned for him to be in class and, to their credit, persisted in thinking about him academically. In the spring semester of this study, Gerard missed the last 3 months of Occupations class and several Health classes because of an "experimental" change in his work hours.

Student Strategies of Participation and Nonparticipation

The students may have flourished more or less in the various opportunity structures, but they were not passive recipients of their administrative fates. Students responded to their teachers and the styles of teacher support. They flourished more or less within the various opportunity structures to the extent that their teachers were able to interpret and respond to their communication. Each student had ways of communicating his or her preferences, wants, and needs. For example, all had preferences and strategies they invoked when interested and when they were bored. The following categories could easily be applied to any high school student. The students in the study often had unique styles of proactive and reactive response to convey their understanding of given situations. Teachers’ understanding of the student was enhanced by their knowledge of the student. Teachers’ expectancy patterns regarding student competence, and their own skills in opening opportunity to participate, enabled them to understand how and what the students were communicating about understanding, learning, needs, feelings, and interests. The following strategies include examples that could fit into more than one of these categories, adding insight into the complexity of interpreting student response.

Direct Communication

All the students had ways of making their needs and wants known. For example, some time before I met her, Trish made sure she would not take a high school Math class. Her parents said that she had made it clear to them she could do it, but hated it by performing math problems and then refusing to do the math problems again once she had proved herself. She made sure math would not be in her 9th grade schedule. She also communicated to her teachers when she was unwilling to do an assignment and answered questions to determine if it was because she hated it or if she were tired. I also noticed she would not work with a particular adult whom she did not feel respected her. Her special education teacher and parents confirmed this conclusion. Trish responded, in contrast (my interpretation would be that she was forgiving), to other well meaning and patronizing adults who talked down to her, but seemed to appreciate her or respect her as a student. In class she completed assignments by choosing answers and by confirming with nods if that was her final choice. Sometimes, she had unexpected ‘No" answers that were definite choices. After a particularly productive typing session, the teacher wanted to record something in the notebook for communication with Trish’s parents. "Shall we write in your notebook and tell how great this was. No? Are you being a stinker? No."

Evasive Action

Evasive action was another strategy that students used to get what they wanted. Tyrone attempted to avoid finishing a Science lab sheet, saying he had to go to the bathroom; then he said it was too hot in the room. His assistant told him to "hold it," to "open his collar," and finish the page. A typical indicator of evasive action was the adult response that meant, "No, you are supposed to be doing this right now." Sometimes evasive action succeeded, such as when Gerard interrupted his special education teacher to show him pictures from the textbook. Sometimes the teacher would respond with a comment about the picture. Sometimes he would redirect Gerard to the pages they were supposed to be on. However, evasive action worked in other circumstances. Abe took evasive action after I asked him to show me his business letter. "I'll show it to you after I’m finished. I want to go to the library 4th period." I asked him if I could see it in progress. He said he was going to the library. I asked if I could follow him. He said "Sure," went to the Resource Room and disappeared. I never did see his letter.

The students got themselves kicked out of lessons in special education class or just rested during general education class. They decided in which classes to simply sit or nap, and which ones to disrupt or otherwise get some different kind of attention (rebuke, exile). I never saw them interrupt a general education class in a way that would get them removed. Incidents that I heard about seemed to have causes outside of the class such as illness or upset.

Attention and Responsiveness

The students in the study responded with attention to teacher questions when they were interested or willing. Trish responded when working on assignments, though sometimes took longer to complete them. Taking longer was sometimes due to other factors (processing delays, fatigue) besides desire or interest. In the following example, Gerard responded when interested.

The teacher addressed his six special education students, their desks in a semicircle facing the board, "Who can tell me what perishable is? Gerard?" Gerard said, "Raviolis." The teacher asked, "What does perishable mean?" Another student said, "Cake…it means it spoils easily." "What is perishable? Do you put the milk back in the cupboard?" asked the teacher. Gerard answered, "In the refrigerator." In this example, Gerard was responding to the discussion that he could relate to his experience. In other classes and discussions he also responded if the teacher related the discussion to his experience, as we saw in the Health class lectures on nutrition and on drugs. During a special education History class, when the lecture stayed too long in the past (The Roman Empire) without present time examples, Gerard turned his attention to the pictures in his textbook. However, when the teacher related Roman games to football games, Gerard added "hockey."

Gerard’s special education History class was not demanding. In general education classes that were less demanding classes for the students in the study, the students responded to teacher questions and sometimes entertained themselves. For example, during a Social Studies class, the teacher (welcoming and inviting) sprinkled repartee into his interactive lectures, and Tyrone responded in kind.

Tyrone’s Social Studies teacher was questioning the students about a worksheet they had done on the early 1900s, asking them about historic people and events. "John Jacob Astor?" A student replied, "American Fur Company." The teacher talked about the Broadway musical about the Astor family, asking for the title. Tyrone called out, "Scrooge." The teacher laughed, "Good guess." Several of the teachers had a repartee lecture or support style to which students responded positively. They often decided to pay attention, whether or not anyone noticed, as in the example where Nick tuned into the discussion about stealing. Trish’s Health Careers class was mostly interactive lecture with a sense of humor and included many discussions with the students. Trish listened, even when she was without her support person, who sometimes left her to assist another student.

Sense of Humor

The students each had a sense of humor that went beyond appreciating teachers’ jokes or entertaining himself or herself in class. Gerard seemed to laugh the most at teachers’ jokes that included slapstick imagery like "loser cholesterol." He often smiled when he added one-word replies to teachers’ rhetorical questions and thought of something in his experience to add to a teacher’s point. Students showed their sense of humor, which they used interactively in various ways. Tyrone thought it was fun to call people by their wrong names (even though it annoyed them). Often when he could fit it in, as when somebody asked him to hand them something during class, Tyrone would respond, "You got milk?" which was (or seemed to be) the pervasive advertising slogan of the year. One day his teaching assistant yawned while helping Tyrone with an assignment and said, "Excuse me." Tyrone replied, "You need a blanket." Trish laughed heartily when she was "caught" being contrary, for example when Amy or Nell asked, "Are you saying no to everything?" She also showed an appreciation for wisecracks. One day she had spent so long in the bathroom the special education teachers were going to send a complaint home to her parents. I had been waiting for about a half-hour for her to return and I said, "You took a long time in there. There’s a reason the bathroom is the most important room in the house; they say it should be the largest." She smiled broadly and giggled.

Abe’s sense of humor tended toward the obscure and it showed less during school. His parents said he had favorite "tricks" that he would repeat for a while. For example, he changed the verse of a folk song to reflect a personal or family experience. His parents were trying to get him to broaden his jokes so more people could understand them. He changed the words to a zipper song (a song where you substitute one word to make a new verse) called "Down By The Bay." He wrote, "Did you ever see a snake eating carrot cake," because at the time carrot cake had special significance for him. He also liked to do verbal tricks drawing on his musical talent like imitate your tone of voice. His father demonstrated how Abe would copy his intonation when he called him and they sometimes made a game of it: "Abe." "What?" "AAAAbe." "Whaaat?" "ABE!" "WHAT!" I include these examples, even though they occurred at home, because they give a glimpse of how his humor could have been engaged at school.

Accepting Help

The students’ strategies included accepting the help that was available and working hard on social and academic goals. Abe, as well as the other students in the study, participated and responded in general education classes when a teacher or assistant redirected their attention to the classroom task and expected them to complete it; they also accepted help while working on improving various academic and social skills. Abe’s reading teacher said that Abe has "improved over two years in increasing his attention span when taking tests and for writing longer paragraphs." Abe could work independently and, according to his teachers, sought supervision and reassurance that he was doing it right. His special education teacher wrote an observation of Abe working independently to indicate his progress and interest in his work.

Abe announced he had Algebra to do, and took what he needed out of his backpack. He began working independently on the assignment at a table by himself across the room. After a suggestion by a student that he come over and sit near everyone else…he said, "Sure," and moved his things closer. "How do you do number 15? I need help," [he said] after a few minutes. Abe has worked much more patiently this year through academic work that he doesn't immediately understand. He will "study" and attempt to work through the steps of a process. A fairly new skill. He was anxious to work independently on his Algebra assignment as soon as he understood what to do. (Special education teacher’s written observation, May 1996) In this passage, asking for help and responding to the invitation to sit next to the student were also new skills, along with working through the steps of an Algebra problem.

A related skill is to let people know when you do not need help. One day when I went to observe Tyrone in Biology he was not in class, he was in the bathroom of the special education room. His special education teacher told me,

He went off today. He was hitting people and banging his head. When he does that, he stays here to cool off. He’s alone in there splashing water on his face. We checked on him a couple of times and he said through the door, "I know. I know." So we let him stay there until he is ready to come out. When he is ready he will go back to class. Tyrone had made progress in handling himself when he got upset. In past years he had physical restraint when upset. That day he was practicing self-restraint and the teachers said they now "considered frequency" of upset rather than the degree of his acting upset, and said, "he does this [acting out physically by hitting] rarely now." Tyrone was accepting support at the same time as reassuring his teachers by calling through the door that he did not need more help at the time. In this case, not accepting help was part of Tyrone’s process of calming down and preparing to return to class.

Using Body Language

Nonverbal students used sounds, head nodding, pointing, and the use of preferred activities and postures as key communication strategies. Students expressed a full range of responses such as enthusiasm, interest, physical discomfort, and resistance. Nick, who frequently had painful bone fractures, made particular sounds that caused teachers to ask him if he was hurt or feeling sick. He stopped tearing paper when he was particularly interested in a discussion or activity. He told his mother that he tore paper because he liked to do it, it felt good. (I tried it and it felt good to me also because of the sound, the texture, and the rhythmic movement.) During a lesson using his communication symbols, Nick pointed to the picture-symbol in his notebook as the teacher called it out. During the time when the teacher was answering the phone or walking across the room to retrieve the lunch menu, Nick tore strips of paper. He nodded vigorously, yes or no, to each lunch item the teacher read. Nick chose a chicken sandwich from the menu and pointed to salad and milk in his symbol book.

Nick made clear when he did not want to participate by placing himself outside of the discussion circle but used body language to participate in an exercise that attracted him. For example, one day Nick had been sitting outside of the circle of special education classmates practicing street sign reading. He backed up to the wall by the door, holding a magazine. He was watching the teacher explaining and drilling "in and out" with another student who could not speak. The teacher held a box and the student put the ball in and out of it. Bob noticed Nick making a sound and pointing and said, "Nick wants to do it." Nick said, "Kibblekibblekibblekibble." The teacher carried the box and ball to Nick, "Take it out, put it in." Nick smiled. He took the ball out and put it in. Bob said, "Good job, Nick." Nick returned to his original spot away from the group.

Students who could not talk, or could not talk well, resorted to some conspicuous nonverbal strategies to vary from the expected classroom activity. For example, classroom demands on Nick focused mostly on socially "appropriate" behavior and he appeared to be skilled in testing the extent to which he could ignore the demands of adults. I observed this several times. One day the special education students were watching a Social Studies video about the Saxons, which I found very hard to follow and which did not hold the students’ attention.

Men on horses were speaking in English accents about punishing Saxons for killing Charlemagne's Christians. The dialogue was fast paced and referred to military and political events not shown. The video showed a battle and lots of Saxons died; the victors required the survivors to become Christians and build churches. (O.C.: Without the narrator I would have been lost. The whole class was tuned out.) Two students were resting. Another was shuffling paper money, another was looking at the ceiling, and yet another was looking in the general direction of the video without leaning into it as he usually did when watching videos. Nick was making sounds, and the sign for eat. Bob, the teaching assistant, said, "Be quiet and watch the movie, Nick." He flapped his hands hard and bounced his head and upper body vigorously in his wheelchair for quite a while. He stopped for a moment, then did it more quietly. (O.C.: I never saw him do that behavior before or since.) In this passage Nick made it clear he wanted to be doing something else and when he could not, settled for occupying, perhaps entertaining, himself until the video was over. I was frequently struck by Nick’s refusal to participate in several activities and by his acute sense of timing in the pursuit of his own agenda. An example of his timing was his starting and stopping of certain behaviors, such as in the example above, that would have provoked exile to time out. Another time we were racing down the hall in our wheelchairs and he ignored Bob’s command to slow down. I said, "We have to slow down in time not to scare those people standing down there" (at the end of the hall), and he chose the perfect spot to slow down. He did things during special education classes such as wheeling around the room in search of paper to tear, waving strips of paper in people’s faces during class, or touching his neighbors and getting them to say, "Stop it," and never got sent to time out when I was there. He did not do those things in Occupations class. During certain special education activities such as a role-play about ordering at Denny’s, he participated with enthusiasm during his turn and watched during others’ turns.

Gerard had a slightly different approach to communicating dissatisfaction with an activity. During the video about the Saxons, Gerard watched intently at first, sitting forward. After a while he leaned back in the sofa and slid down to a slouch. He said something that I could not hear.

Bob said, "You’ll have time-out if you keep being disruptive." He said nothing. Then he put his feet on the table. Bob said, "Put your feet down off the table." He slouched further down, put his feet on the floor, and then from his new position raised his legs high in the air, feet toward the ceiling. A classmate, Eileen, said in a stern tone, "Gerard. Put your shirt down." "O.K.," he said. Gerard then did something else. I couldn’t tell what it was besides looking at another classmate who was to his right. Bob sent Gerard to "time-out," for an infraction I did not see. Gerard got sent to time-out several times in special education class, but I couldn’t always tell why. Sometimes I concluded that he did not want to participate. I wondered if he rejected activities that he had a hard time following, like the Saxon video, or that otherwise bored him. For a period of time, he went to his job in the morning and, returning at noontime, he just laid down on the floor of the special education room. When he went to Health class he was more fidgety than usual and frequently missed 5th period Biology due to his behavior, according to his assistant. His teachers concluded it was best to schedule classes in the morning and work in the afternoon. Biology was an 8th period class. "He isn't in Biology anymore because he got tired. It showed in his behavior at school and at home. That was his way of telling us the day was too long."

In general education class, if Gerard did not want to participate, his assistant would try to figure out why. If he was tired, she encouraged him to stay with it. One day he didn’t want to do an assignment and demonstrated it by looking at a magazine and looking around the room. The assistant figured out it was because the teacher was absent and the other students were either resting, conversing, or reading.

Students looked around the room as a way of taking breaks from attention to classroom tasks as well as from boredom. In addition to looking around, Tyrone often left the room for a short time to go to the bathroom or be in the hall for a few minutes. When I asked his assistant about it, he said that sometimes Tyrone needed to relax. I noticed this happened the most during his last class of the morning, fourth period. Earlier in the day Tyrone wanted to leave and his assistant said no and redirected him back to the assignment.

Trish sat and looked down, refusing to respond to questions, when she needed a rest. Sometimes she didn’t even respond to the question, "Do you need a break?" She was already resting. Her special education teachers were sensitive to this message, particularly after a physical education or physical therapy workout and after or during two or three periods of sustained academic work.


This chapter explored the complexity involved in fostering and interpreting students’ participation. The educators’ individual behaviors and practices that contributed to students’ opportunity to participate academically would not necessarily alone have a major impact on the student. However, when taken as components of opportunity structures that reflected competence- or deficit-oriented expectations and student supports, educators’ behaviors and practices became part of a structure that drew the student into larger cycles of academic and social inclusion or exclusion. The challenges of interpreting participation included taking into account some unique ways that students expressed themselves. Some teachers had difficulty interpreting some of the students’ signs and strategies of participation and the following chapter adds insights to their interpretation dilemmas. The varying opportunity available for people working in high schools to take time to get to know the student was another factor that helped or limited the teachers’ progress in learning to interpret students’ participation. In the next chapter, I explore how educators assessed students’ participation and progress and how these assessments contributed both to opportunity structures and cycles of inclusion/exclusion.



Interpreting Assessment

"Sometimes Jamie cannot represent himself; he must be represented." . In speaking about his son with Down syndrome, Berube was describing how he had learned to interpret Jamie’s inarticulate speech to others who were unused to the shortcuts Jamie took to communicate his message. Educators represent students like Jamie to each other, often without the contexts for understanding that Jamie’s father enjoyed. In addition to representing or interpreting the student, educators use assessments for evaluation purposes to plan programs, determine placements, and estimate progress and benefit. In this chapter I describe three kinds of assessments and the patterns of interpretation that I found. These are formal, professional, and informal assessments. I first explain how I use the terms "assessment" and "interpretation" to frame an important aspect of the special education student’s classroom life, and then I explore these assessment patterns with regard to the students.

For purposes of my study I called the first category "formal assessments," the day-to-day classroom products of both general and special education students. They included exams, quizzes, written work, projects, folders or portfolios of work completed, and report cards. I found only occasional formal records in the permanent record folders at the district office.

The school district kept professional assessments, the second category, in student permanent records at the Board of Education special education offices; the bulk of these records were Individual Educational Programs (IEP) and triennial reports. The IEP is a yearly plan stating the goals for the student. The goals tended to be oriented toward functional skills, behavioral and social skills, vocational skills, and classroom participation skills. Sometimes they included academic functional skills such as reading sight words, writing your name, using the phone and memorizing or dialing phone numbers, and the like. Professionals included academic skills when they considered them appropriate for the student.

The IEPs were documents that included the special education supports and services the student needed to meet the educational needs that result from the student’s disability. The supports and services were to enable them to participate in the general and special education curriculum. IEPs included by law "lists of measurable annual goals, consistent with the student’s needs and abilities including benchmarks or short term instructional objectives and evaluative criteria" . Although there were spaces on the IEP form to indicate progress in each goal, the images and implications for the child’s time spent in academic instruction, inclusive or otherwise, were unclear and unpredictable.

I included in this "professional assessment" category what the professional evaluators labeled "informal assessment." These were the observations or interviews they used to gather data on the student for both their yearly reports and progress reports. For example, some of the school psychologists or other professionals observed the students and interviewed them and significant others to gather information on areas of intelligence and personal learning style . They recorded anecdotal evidence of a student’s behavior or classroom performance for clarification of a point or comparison with past performance. For purposes of this discussion, I included these "informal" but professional narratives in the category of professional assessment because they were done for specific evaluation purposes.

Informal assessments formed the third category. Informal assessments were statements about a student regarding what he or she accomplished, or could accomplish. Examples of such statements were, "He’s really smart" and, "He can’t read."

I came to realize that teachers used informal assessments to represent the student to themselves and others; these informal assessments reflected what the teachers thought about the students’ abilities and achievements. Teachers were involved in ongoing informal assessment of their students. As they expressed what they perceived the students to be doing, they interpreted the student’s actions and revealed their own perspectives regarding what was and should be happening. Whether declarations of expectation or interpretive assessment of the students, many of these remarks magnified or obscured some of the content of the professional assessments. These interpretations of ability and participation sometimes influenced, and sometimes reflected, the opening or closing of the gates of academic opportunity. I explore first the formal assessments, then the professional and informal assessments.

Formal Assessment: The Meaning of Assignments, Tests, Quizzes, and Grades

For general education students, assignments, quizzes, tests, and grades loomed large as a core component of the high school experience. At the end of each marking period, projects and assignments came due and teachers prepared their students for unit tests. Generally, for teenagers aspiring to graduation in the United States, a general diploma is their ticket to a job or vocational program; an academic diploma with transcripts showing good grades is their passport to college. Both diplomas focus on grades that are generated by student in-class performance. Although this is certainly not a hard and fast rule, and could even be an interesting topic for its own qualitative study, the record of formal assessed performance has maintained visibly high status since I was a child, then a teacher.

Grading Dilemmas

For special education students receiving an IEP diploma, both the images of assessed performance and the uses of such assessments, along with the implications regarding the student’s future, are unclear and variable. Even for special education students who are to receive a general diploma, a problem remains regarding grades and what they represent and mean. A special education administrator voiced the dilemma.

I sometimes wonder if we are doing a disservice. How do we help with the skills needed for survival? Is Chorus II a significant course when they can’t balance a checkbook? We also struggle with the grading policy. A student with severe medical problems was graded as everyone else even though he had an IEP. He missed a lot of school and was graded based on his low attendance. We had to fight to grade him according to what he did in class and according to his IEP goals. He should have had an IEP time extension. On the other hand, is the purpose to be like everybody else, but grade like anybody else, or to educate each student? And this goes for the regular education students too. This statement reflects the confusion over grades for all the students and implies related issues of placement. This teacher indicated that she and her colleagues were struggling over issues related to the purpose of schooling for each student, the setting of viable goals and procedures to meet them, and issues of how to grade students fairly. These evaluation dilemmas increased when they pertained to students with significant disabilities. This increase was due to the teachers’ difficulties regarding how to understand a student’s process, progress, understanding, and what the students did or produced in class.

The students in my study were to receive the IEP diploma. Many of their general education teachers did not know how to assess the student’s performance and were unlikely to try. A teacher told me Tyrone got a lot out of his class last year. I asked him how he could tell Tyrone was getting something out of it.

Mr. Jones (Garth, the teaching assistant) told me. Because Mr. Jones interpreted. The system is one shoe fits all and teachers don’t know how to assess except in the usual ways, tests, research projects, essays. He seemed to do best in groups of kids. It is good he was in class, rather than where he would be in a less enlightened age. This teacher reflected a sentiment that many of the general education teachers, who could tell that the student was benefiting from class, shared. Most left the assessment to the special education teacher or to the teaching assistant.

One teacher who did not delegate grading to the special education teacher was Abe’s Health teacher. She attempted to work out how to accommodate him grade-wise. When I asked her about Abe’s grades she told me,

"His grades are fair, you know in the 70s. For what he completes and what he hands in." I asked, "So he's on the same grading system as the whole class?" "Basically yeah. We grade all the students based on their ability and level and for what he's graded." I asked, "When you say they're graded based on their ability, is his 70 ... will his 70 paper look like someone else’s 70 paper?" "No." "Okay so it's an adaptive grade?" I asked her. "Adaptive, yes to his level." "He can get an A within the expectation?" "Yes if he's working." "Not doing his personal best so to speak?" The teacher replied, "Well you know it's like how do we know what his personal best is. You know, I mean how do you measure that when you've only known... I've known Abe for how many weeks now into the course and what is his personal best? And sometimes I'm dealing with so many other kids I don't even get to Abe; you know what I'm saying. So it's kind of difficult. But his personal best, it's your guess sometimes is as good as mine." This teacher appreciated Abe, expected work from him, yet also experienced the dilemma -- how to think about specific students and evaluate them with little time and support -- expressed by so many others about their special education students with and without individual assistants.

Who Gets Grades and How Do Teachers Do It?

The five students each had a different academic relationship with each general education teacher and with each special education support person. The academic quality of these relationships did not seem to be contingent on the nature or severity of the disability. As we saw in Chapter 3, it related more to the expectancy patterns surrounding the students, and the effectiveness of their supports. A combination of parental and special educator advocacy skills also tended to promote higher participation for the special education student in conjunction with these and other factors. Nick and Gerard had the least involvement in formal assessments. Nick had practically no relationship with the academic curriculum. This was in spite of some apparent success in middle school Science, and his mother’s report that at home he was literate and communicated with the family using facilitated communication. He was a mystery to all his teachers. I never observed him or heard about him taking a test or making decisions about the answers in assignments. One time his assistant told me that Nick fell asleep when the Occupations students were taking a test.

Gerard also did not get grades. I asked the special education teacher how he thought Gerard and Nick were doing in Occupations class, and if they get grades. "No, they don't really do much." He said he wasn’t sure what they are getting out of it. "Gerard is listening, I try to assume he is getting something out of it, but he can't communicate what... often he say's ‘I don't know.’ He's a lazy boy. He's had lots of socialization, he socializes too much...can act like a cool dude. Sometimes I ask him things and he says ‘Don know.’" I asked about keyboard class. "He practices letters, word finding, and phrases. I can't tell what-- how much he is learning. I'm taking this class (Facilitated Communication) and I'm trying to assume that something is going in, but it's just not coming out." On the other hand Gerard’s assistant was keeping track of what he got out of class. She told me about Occupations class, "It's good. They are learning about savings accounts, it relates to his job. That is his main focus now, sometimes he goes to the bank with his mother and deposits his paycheck." Sometimes he turned in the assignments, adapted worksheets, and hands-on activities such as a collage on needs and wants, but they have not been translated into grades. For example, the Health teacher announced a due date for a project. During my previous visit they were going to review for a test on the unit about drugs and addictions. I asked Gerard’s assistant as we were leaving class if he was going to do a project.

"He'll probably do something with one of the kids." I asked, "Did he take that drug test? (from last week)" "She was mad at them. They weren't reviewing so she just handed out the test." I asked, "Did he remember anything?" "Not really. It was a lot of facts. He answered questions like, Have you ever had the DARE course before? Did you have Drug-Ed in elementary school." Thus, in Gerard’s case, the special education teacher and the general education teacher did not know how much he was participating academically. He often did not hand in assignments or tests to the teachers; the teaching assistant did know the extent of his participation, but her informal assessments are only recorded here.

At the other extreme, almost all her teachers accepted Trish as a student who turned in assignments, quizzes, and tests; and Trish usually got passing grades. The tests covered the same content as her peers, but with fewer questions to account for her long processing and response time. Midyear in 9th grade, she received a certificate from the Health Careers Program, as did several of her classmates, that said, "Congratulations on mastery and excellence for your cumulative average of 90% or more for the first marking period." Her special education teacher delivered this to her during Medical Keyboard class, but it was not included in her permanent files.

I observed her taking several tests and her teachers supported her in class and during the Resource period to complete assignments, quizzes, and exams. She often handed in assignments on time, although a project requiring library research might be a few days late. Trish usually submitted in-class assignments on time. Her special education teacher adapted the assignments and supported her to finish them. For example, I observed that Trish spent 20 minutes, as did her classmates, working on an essay on India and South Africa. Betty, the special education teacher, was assisting her in Social Studies class and wrote choices on post-its that she then read to Trish.

Betty asked about the Blacks in South Africa and wrote two answers on post-its. "Could they run for office? [or] They could only speak to one person at a time." Trish pointed independently to the post-it that said, "speak," and hit it with her fist. "Is that your answer?" Trish nodded yes. Betty asked, "Which of these, ‘they had to stay in one area’, ‘they could do whatever they want?" She supported Trish at her wrist as she read each, then Trish pointed independently going tap-tap-tap with her finger. The answer was correct "Blacks in South Africa is still our topic...go only where they wanted to, had to stay in one area." Betty tapped each using Trish’s hand. Trish pointed without support, tap-tap to "certain areas." "Is this your answer, are you saying only go in certain areas?" Trish nodded yes. "Good job, three right in a row." (OC: I think she was referring to the pace at which Trish accurately answered the three questions in a row, faster than I had seen her.) "Untouchables... are the highest... or...could not/could go to school." "Do you know the answer?" Trish nodded yes. "Choose could... or they couldn’t. You chose ‘it could not,’ do you want that on your essay?" Trish nodded yes. You're doing a lot of touching (Trish was touching her face a lot), are you tired?" Trish nodded yes. "Tired from weight training?" Trish nodded yes. "One more. Should I make it hard, really challenging?" Trish turned to Betty and smiled. "The caste system has/has not been outlawed...means they made it not legal." Betty supported Trish to touch each as she read the choices, then Trish answered correctly independently. "Let’s read them all." Betty set up two lines of answers as the essay on the stand and read them as an essay. The students have been working quietly on their individual essays during this time, about 20 minutes. As the end of the period approached the teacher asked students to hand in the essays before they left for their break. She said, "Anyone who does not hand them in…." She didn't finish the sentence, but the tone promised dire consequences. Betty lined up the three sets of answers that were on post-its, three sentences on South Africa and three on India and placed them on the teacher's desk. In this passage, not only did Trish do the work, but also Betty, her support teacher displayed it to her. Betty acted as if it were important to finish the essay and turn it in, just as she would have for a general education student. The classroom teacher demanded the students turn in their assignments and received Trish’s paper on time. This short essay would receive a grade, which the teacher would enter in her grade book.

General education teachers often noticed what it took for students in the study to succeed with some of the tests and assignments. Abe’s Health teacher recognized that he did his assignments best when he was supported. She spoke about him as a "good student."

He is conscientious about what he does, he makes an attempt, he's in class every day. And when he's not, he definitely comes in and tells you why. Why he couldn't be there, he shows you a pass or whatever. He is courteous; he's Abe. I had asked her how he was doing in class and with assignments. Tests and writing assignments, he seems to do pretty well, if he has somebody to help him. You know he definitely needs somebody to sit down and help him write out some of the information. Sometimes I'll get things that make no sense. But when somebody is sitting there helping him out he can do pretty well. …. Like the drug projects we were just working on. He put together a few things; he's not done, because I haven't received a paper from him yet. But he was able to put like drugs are bad for you; drugs can make you sick, things like that. From what we're talking about that illicit stuff. Now his poster, I don't think he's put together a poster yet. But like I said, he needs to have somebody else in there to help him out because he can't do by himself. Recognizing Abe’s needs for support did not prevent her from assigning him grades although, as we have seen, she remained with the dilemmas of how to determine their meaning in terms of what he might be able to do or what progress he had made.

Valuing Student Work

Special education teachers and teaching assistants showed they valued the student’s completion of assignments and exams not only by their statements, but also by the qualities of their support. In the passage showing Trish writing the Social Studies essay, all the teachers involved clearly and explicitly expected and valued her work. Abe’s Health teacher, in spite of her inability to define his "personal best," valued, appreciated, and graded the assignments he turned in. Garth also was explicit in valuing Tyrone’s work and demonstrated this with his style of support. When I watched Garth assisting Tyrone with a Biology test, I saw how he adapted the test on the spot.

Garth read multiple choice questions with two choices rather than three or four that were on the test paper. He crossed out the unused choices. "Is it a or c? this gas, is it a or b?…the next one, is it coughing or sneezing." Each time Tyrone said his choice and wrote the choice on the test paper. "The respiratory blood supply must be...hang on to that one." Garth paused to look up the answer in the book. Tyrone answered correctly before Garth narrowed it down to choices. After Tyrone had finished, Garth explained proudly to me some of why Tyrone was doing so well. "I had Tyrone the year before last and this year. At first it took a week to go through a multiple-choice test, but now because we have established a bond of friendship, we go faster and do more. When Tyrone knows the answer he says it out. I also give him lots of praise and I know his limits, how far I can push him." He kept a log of how Tyrone did each day with comments ranging from "got 82% on Math test," "Great job," or "Was upset" and nonparticipating in class due to unexpected changes in his routine.

Although most teachers kept track of what the five students handed in to them in their own grade book, I did not perceive consistent expectations among most students’ teachers. They did not expect that all assignments be turned in or that all the students’ class-work translated into grades. Trish’s teachers, some of Abe’s teachers, and two of Tyrone’s teachers (in addition to his assistant) seemed to expect and value these students’ class-work. Although parents got grade reports, there were no "report cards" or "grade reports" in the special education files. I did find two instances of grade reports for the first marking period, but there was no comment on why they were included. Nor were there alternative assessments we might come to expect from inclusive models that are clear about the content value of the academic placements . Official transcripts existed, as for the general education students, that recorded grades and whether or not units were earned that would count toward graduation. These transcripts were never attached to the special education files, but were kept separately with the other general education transcripts. Although grades are not reliable evidence of academic engagement for general or special education students, transcripts are a likely source for some leads. For the students in this study, the professional assessments served that function of providing those leads. Parents’ placed varying value on the grades from "very important" to "not meaningful." As one parent recently told me, "The grades are meaningless. I go by the IEP." The inconsistencies of the presence and meaning of grades for these five students, and the fact that they seemed unrelated to the severity of their disabilities, highlighted for me the difficulties involved in discovering (or advocating for) support or even recognition of student engagement.

Professional Assessment

The students in the study underwent periodic evaluations with the results gathered in triennial reports. Student records kept in the Special Education office at the Board of Education contain triennial reports, other reports from support services professionals, other records relating to Committee on Special Education reviews, documents such as copies of parental consent for me to read the records, and the Individualized Educational Programs (IEPs). Grade reports were not, as a rule, in these folders. The triennial reports consisted of assessments by psychologists and other professionals (e.g., occupational therapists, physical therapists, speech therapists) who used both standardized testing instruments and informal assessments to describe the students’ abilities regarding social, academic, and functional skills with implications for classroom placement. The assessments described students’ abilities and supported recommendations for the students’ continuing individualized educational programs (IEPs). The IEP, written annually, follows the triennial blueprint for the student’s next 3 years in school. It is a yearly report of goals met, unmet, and next steps. The triennial assessments, mandated by law, can be terse with test results or rich in description regarding the student response to the testing situation and content, and can reflect the perspectives and expectations of the authors of the assessment.

Contrasting Recommendations

In many of these reports, I found contrasting perspectives and recommendations. These responses represented an individual student to those reviewing progress and responsible for implementing recommendations. The following excerpts from a professional report reflected a particularly strong contrast in approach and recommendations for speech pathology services.

Informal observations indicate the use of head nods. Data collected throughout the school year was obtained in several different environments with a variety of different communication partners. The results indicate an accuracy of between 30 to 60%, indicating inconsistency. However other staff members report that Trish’s responses are more consistently accurate. Observation shows that Trish at times will perseverate on a response (yes or no) making validity uncertain. Other interactions also reveal that Trish's responses can appear correct by the phrasing or repetition of the question posed by the adult. If the desired response is not obtained, Trish is said to be "lying" or "silly." Often these interactions make it seem that accuracy and comprehension are more constant… This therapist went on to recommend a reduction in speech-language services from five to three times a week. She recommended focus on use of the Rocker Plate Switch, the photograph board, and the eye gaze board, "which has recently been introduced and may be potentially successful," and that the services be provided on a pullout basis since, "prognosis for improvement is limited."

Another assessment of Trish provided a different picture in spite of her obvious motor and processing difficulties. The examiner began with the measurements of adaptive functioning which placed the student in the "infancy" levels and established why he could not administer standardized cognitive or achievement tests. Although he felt it necessary to report the norms of her physical abilities, he used the results to justify his alternative assessment approaches to reveal the abilities she shared with her age peers. He prefaced his own observations with information from interviews which included a parent description of her child as a "beautiful, happy, and content youngster" whose "best trait is … sociability." He quoted the mother’s account of Trish’s adaptability to the family schedule and trips, and of how she socializes with her friends. He included the parent assessment of her biggest challenges of "rigidity, nonverbal communication, frustration, and lengthy process time" and that her mother described her as "consistently inconsistent." He quoted the special education teacher, who said,

Her placement is very appropriate. Trish is an active part of class. Her work is always completed and her family works very hard with Trish and her homework…Trish is a successful and integral part of our [high school] community. He then went on to report that "assessment consisted of multiple classroom support and transitional observations, interviews with teachers, mother and support service personnel, and administration of adaptive scales." These scales included the Vineland Adaptive Behavior Scales and comprise three different scales designed to measure an individual's level of social competence in his or her environment. The scales provided information regarding an individual's adaptive behavior in four domains. They included communication, daily living skills, socialization, and motor skills and are administered as a set of questions and semi-structured interviews. The bulk of his report was a narrative of 2 days of observation in Earth Science, English, Keyboarding, Social Studies, lunch, and Art. The narrative included observations that will now be familiar to the reader such as gazing around the room instead of responding to the speech therapist during Keyboarding, answering worksheet questions after considerable repetition, sometimes correctly and sometimes not, and answering three Social Studies test questions in a row correctly.

Administration of the adaptive scales yielded the conclusion that "Trish’s level of functioning is in the severe deficit range in all specific areas." However, he recommended her continuation in inclusion classes along with continuation of speech-language therapy five times a week, and continuation of the other services she was receiving. He continued giving Trish the benefit of the doubt regarding her inclusive academic schedule, but focused on the functional goals.

It is difficult to assess Trish’s programming needs within general education as communication is limited. However, focus should probably remain on increasing receptive and expressive language skills, maximizing functional personal daily living skills, and continuing inclusion in those subjects which appear relevant to Trish’s well being…. with emphasis on functional self help skills. [He recommended] that the classroom environment include an array of communication devices, hands-on tasks which might generate more interest than typical yes and no response boards, allowing access to sensory activities especially when Trish appears stressed, allow adequate wait time for Trish’s lengthy processing style. Perhaps his exclusion of academic focus for her inclusive classes was influenced by the approaches to special education in terms of social skills and functional skills outlined in Chapter 1. These views could have been reinforced by the examples of ambiguous responses that he recorded in his field notes and included in his report, such as the following that occurred when Nell was helping Trish in Art. She asked Trish if she wanted to roll out some clay and Trish continued to shake her head no. Nell got the clay and some shapes to make the designs. Trish dropped the shapes one by one on the floor. It is unclear if this is a lack of coordination, a game Trish was playing, or a desire to communicate that she did not want to do this activity. He went on to summarize his observations: Communication appeared to be through the use of smiles, head nods, pointing, and close proximity. It was unclear to this examiner as to the accuracy of Trish’s responses on the boards she uses in the classroom as she had difficulties with motor control and crossing of the midline. In addition, there appeared to be signs of distractibility, fatigue, and what might be signs of oppositional behavior when tasks did not suit Trish’s interests. Even though he saw her answering questions accurately in another class, his report lacked a recommendation for learning related to course content. Perhaps he found it difficult to determine academic progress or need from his observations or interviews. Or, perhaps he felt the academic content has no relevance to the special education needs he addressed.

Academic Irrelevance

The impact, both positive and negative, of these documents could vary and might show up in the educational plan as presence or absence of academic goals. The impact, whether positive or negative, also appeared to me as limited since only special education teachers knew the content of these documents. The special education teachers often appeared little influenced by the recommendations, indicating, in most cases, that abilities usually associated with academics appeared irrelevant in both professional assessments and recommendations. Academic goals could appear, disappear, or appear in a student’s history and be overlooked while goals for behavior remained.

For example, in Tyrone’s records from 10 years prior to the study I read references to his academic improvement, which included being able to recognize 200 sight words and being able to spell 50 words. I read a printed conversation from 5 years previous to the study between him and his speech-language pathologist (labeled "SLP" in the following passage) who was supporting him with facilitated communication.

SLP: I want to talk about what you said on Tuesday about learning about meosis (sic) in science class and know now that you don’t have science class.


SLP: So you weren’t being serious, kind of kidding around.


SLP: When people want to convey humor or sarcasm when they are speaking, they do so with their tone of voice and facial expressions as well as their words. When you are kidding, it’s difficult to know because we can’t hear your tone of voice or [see] a different facial expression. What would you like to take if Math can’t be scheduled in?


SLP: But if for some reason Math isn’t an option what is your second choice?


Although this was a conversation about academic classes, the psychologist’s report from the previous year focused on social behaviors indicating that the purpose for Tyrone’s attendance in general education class was related to communication skills and behavioral skills. But the following psychologist’s report from the same period indicates the likelihood that these skills were already developed.

The teachers also report that Tyrone is remarkably well liked and that bad behaviors are not frequent. He enjoys the companionship of his peer group and will behave well just so that he is not removed from the group. In class he generally pays close attention to teacher and is generally obedient to all classroom rules specific to each teacher and according to his positive feelings about the assistant with him. This same psychologist tentatively acknowledged Tyrone’s potential ability to communicate with no apparent references to writing samples such as an English worksheet requiring Tyrone to identify examples of alliteration, metaphor, and simile. "There has been an attempt to improve Tyrone's communication skills by introducing facilitated communication. Some of this assessment was conducted using that approach, though it is invalid technically it does provide some sort of sense of potential."

Although I could find no explanation in the reports regarding this psychologist’s references to technical validity or any formal reference to the encouragement or abandonment of facilitated communication (FC), Tyrone’s IEP goals included use of FC to develop communication skills and use with academic tasks. The IEP for 1993-1994 included the following: "Tyrone will develop FC system with fading of physical support with 90% accuracy with a variety of people." The list continued:

Use FC in academic classes with 90% accuracy; participate in group discussions with 80% accuracy; ask for clarification with 80 percent accuracy; facilitate peers and academic classes with 85 percent accuracy; use FC to take tests and notes with 85 percent accuracy; demonstrate ability to utilize and care for the Canon [hand held print output keyboard device] with 90 percent accuracy; monitor validity of statements with 95 percent accuracy; communicate feelings with FC with 75 percent accuracy; These goals indicated a priority on expressive language and engaging with academic content with no particular reference to subject content mastery. Although there were some samples of Tyrone’s poetry and English homework, there was no reference to IEP goals or other related commentary. The communication goals for high school, written in July of 1995 for the following school year, became more vague regarding expressive language and academics. Tyrone’s special education teacher supported oral and other communication methods that the students could use independently unless the parents particularly wanted their child to continue to use FC. The special education teacher stated during an interview that, One big thing we found out too with our students, those that have come in using FC, the majority of them, the autistic ones that were able to talk, wanted to use their voices. Much more so than continuing communicating on paper that way. So we have to give them their choices. The choice that they picked was to be verbal [sic]. An annual IEP goal stated that Tyrone "will utilize augmentative communications system [sic] in the school program including academic and community based environment to communicate and initiate strategies." Instructional objectives were to "ask clarification questions with 80 percent accuracy." Other goals stated that Tyrone was to:

1. Acquire needed details or improve understanding of a concept

2. Maintain topic consistent with situations with 85 percent accuracy

3. Clarify oral messages when not understood with 85 percent accuracy

4. Participate in group discussions with 85 percent accuracy

5. Take tests and notes with 85 percent accuracy

In the year of the study his special education teacher noted on a report to the Committee on Special Education in preparation for the triennial review that, "Tyrone is very intelligent with limited expressive language at times. Currently Tyrone is taking Biology, Consumer Math, Global studies with improved note taking. The ongoing challenge is breaks in his routine--need to continue to work on this at school."

With the shift in Tyrone’s expressive language goals to increased oral communication, academic priorities leaned more toward the accomplishment of goals for behavior over actual the academic achievement implied in Tyrone’s augmentative communication goals. Tyrone’s academic goals along with many of the behavioral and functional goals in 1995 appeared on successive IEPs in successive years through 1998. They were worded the same.

After orally/silently reading a selection at the 5A level, Tyrone will demonstrate comprehension of explicitly and implicitly stated meaning and details by recognizing and identifying the main idea main character with 80percent accuracy; Given a scale and an object to weigh, Tyrone will weigh the object and state its weight to the nearest pound/kilogram with 75percent accuracy. Shown models of pint/qt/gal/liter Tyrone will name/identify them with 75 percent accuracy. The same academic goals appeared on Tyrone’s IEP for 5 years in a row; there was no narrative record of his progress or standing in Math and Science classes. He also had goals that remained on his IEP from 1996 through 1998 such as, "Tyrone will be able to read numbers as encountered in everyday life," with an instructional objective to "demonstrate the ability to select and memorize important telephone numbers with 100% accuracy." Also, Tyrone was to "demonstrate the ability to use the newspaper to determine the following with 90% accuracy: cost of food, clothing, shelter, weather, page numbers, sports data, entertainment schedules." During the year of the study, Garth, his teaching assistant, kept a portfolio of Tyrone’s academic written work, but no work sample accompanied the reports in his high school permanent files.

In summary, we saw that in spite of Tyrone’s strong interest in Math and apparent achievement in Science and English, Tyrone’s academic goals were inconsistent and irrelevant to the content of the classes he took, remaining the same from year to year and subordinate to his behavioral goals and to functional goals without contexts. Garth and Tyrone’s Biology teacher appeared to value his schoolwork. This was insufficient to create an educational program for Tyrone that would be relevant to his intellectual growth as a person. He did not have written goals that might call on his interests, knowledge gained in class from year to year, or writing skills. His goals did not reflect that he might participate in social or work activities that reflected his interests or knowledge.

Hidden Academic Talents

We have seen that the professional assessments by psychologists, therapists, and teachers of the students with inclusive schedules acknowledged the need for the students to be in class. However, they emphasized goals relating to functional skills and goals related to behavior. In addition, the IEP forms themselves did not include official space for academic assessment or achievement. The back page of the IEP form gave an overview of the priority issues contained in the document. The categories were Self, Peers, Authority Figures, Structured Setting, and Unstructured Setting. The annual goals were designed around provision of the special education services and supports provided for the student. Academic goals, when included, explicitly or implicitly supported these support services goals or functional goals. The special education teacher sometimes included academic annual goals and could check off the box regarding mastery or need to improve with little that would represent the accountability one would see if the student were not disabled.

Yet, Tyrone’s academic achievement was rarely referred to beyond a psychologist’s statement from elementary school that described Tyrone "maintaining an 85 average in his special classroom setting," and a notation 3 years later regarding improvement in elementary school Reading and Math. While we have evidence of Tyrone’s academic ability in middle school, statements of challenges and achievement beyond listings of the classes he took were oriented to his social and functional behaviors in class. The following poem, written 5 years prior to this study, was included in his files without accompanying commentary. I found no other follow-up work samples or academic goals regarding the development of his written self-expression.







Nick, another student, also had shown promise regarding literacy and participation in his middle school science class. His speech-language-pathologist reported that Nick underwent some testing using FC with no explanatory details, "DAISI-II indicates IQ of 54, however, it was stated by the psychologist that his cognitive functioning may be higher based on informal testing measures." The speech-language pathologist wrote,

Informally Nick uses a variety of syntactic structures- although the sentences he facilitates contain syntactical errors. He is beginning to formulate "wh" questions using the Canon communicator. The sentences he facilitates contain 3-8 words on average. He uses a variety of vocabulary, although not always relevant or appropriate in the context he uses it. Nick uses several communication boards with success. These boards allow him to use correct sentence structures and communicate his needs and feelings. Nick also uses several signs (please, help, book, more, go, eat) and verbalizations (pot, go, get a book) to communicate. This total communication approach has been very successful for Nick. The school psychologist wrote a report focusing on an observation of Nick in middle school Science class. The report focused on his behavior and positive interactions with classmates. The teaching assistant reported to him that Nick "can now comprehend some oral information, [and added that]…all assignments are read to him." He added no further information on Nick’s literacy skills, but included a conversation with a Science teacher. His science teacher reports, that through associative teaching methods, the staff is able to ascertain some evidence that Nick is learning. For example, after he is instructed on the food chain, he can point to a diagram that describes the concept or definition asked of him. His accuracy rate is reported to be high. Thus, in spite of indications that Nick might have cognitive functioning other than indicated by the testing measurements, along with some literacy, Nick entered high school with an IEP containing no academic goals except to "utilize augmentative communication." The goal had the following objectives: "1) increase his/her ability to point, sign, or otherwise indicate a specific item with 80% accuracy; 2) comprehend the relationship between the symbol and the object to a level which corresponds with his cognitive functioning with 80% accuracy." Later high school IEP goals included building on his total communication skills which included some academic goals. One annual goal was to increase literacy skills. The accompanying instructional objectives were, "1) improve letter recognition skills to 80% accuracy, 2) improve functional word recognition skills to 80%." Another was to "improve his overall academic skills" (also repeated in 6/96 and 5/97). The instructional objectives were, "1) Nick will be given 5 words a month and will demonstrate word recognition of these words by selecting a word from a group with 80% accuracy; 2) use a calculator when numbers are required in his daily routine." A third annual goal, annotated in June 1996 with "NP" (needs practice) was "increase his basic academic skills" with instructional objectives to "1) develop a functional sight word vocabulary; 2) develop basic money skills; 3) develop basic computer skills." In Nick’s case, the IEP included the goals, but recorded no progress or plans to access his abilities. It is ironic that in spite of the individualized nature of special education, those responsible for the students’ programs would overlook and hide actual interests and talents that students show.

Specific Academic Goals

In contrast to other students I have described so far, Trish’s IEP goals increased in specificity and content as she moved through the grades. This was in spite of the apparent difficulty the psychologist had with assessing her abilities. Trish’s IEP at the end of 9th grade specified that she was "to increase ability to communicate her knowledge of content at the 10th grade level," and a year later the same goal said, "at the 11th grade level." Her IEP for the 9th grade included taking curriculum-based tests and quizzes, commenting on a peer’s opinion during group discussion, and responding to curriculum set or cloze material activity (sentences with blanks to fill in) with different peers. The 10th grade goals became more demanding. Her IEP goals emphasized academic goals and skills in contrast to Nick, Tyrone, and Gerard. She was to "continue to increase her written expression both creatively and in the content areas." These goals included the following:

1. Develop narrative pieces that have an introduction, body, and conclusion; (Four paragraphs were added to this goal for 11th grade.)

2. Develop essay questions in the content areas with a main idea followed by at least 4 sentences with 85% accuracy. (Changed to six supporting sentences for 11th grade.)

Other academic goals included: 1. Increase knowledge and use of vocabulary in 10th grade content areas. Instructional objectives were, 1) Given 10 vocabulary words from the content area, represented both visually and orally, Trish will choose the correct definitions from a choice device containing; 2) two choices with 85% accuracy (changed to 7 words containing three choices for 11th grade);

2. Given a cloze sentence and 2 content word choices, Trish will use a communication device to choose the correct word and fill in the blank with 85% accuracy (changed to three choices for 11th grade.)

Thus we see in Trish’s IEP an acknowledgment of her status as a student in general education classes. Adapted but typical academic goals (the curriculum content) were combined with the special education agenda of functional goals, along with some evidence of yearly progress beyond social and functional behaviors. This academic acknowledgment by the special education teacher was supported by strong parent advocacy. In addition, skilled and competence-oriented special education teachers worked in collaboration with the general education teachers, who were open to learning about Trish and to having her in class.

Acknowledged Contradictions

All the students’ folders, as repositories of professional assessment, contained contradictions. I found the most explicit acknowledgment of these contradictions in a psychologist’s report that documented one student’s journey through the special education system. A report on Abe said,

Previous measures of cognitive functioning have shown a wide scatter from MR [mental retardation] to average ranges, formal scores have been suspect, however as not indicative of his true potentials. Abe's educational programs have journeyed from self-contained classes to partial mainstreaming with an individual assistant, to the inclusion model he has experienced at West High School (currently in his fourth year here). During testing this psychologist concluded that, "It seemed evident that he was capable of abstract thought, although he had difficulty with sequential reasoning and tangential thoughts were often introduced." There was no narrative regarding the evidence of abstract thought or how this ability to show abstract thinking could be developed. In contrast, neither the teachers I interviewed nor his parents could recall any instances of abstract thought. A speech-language pathologist reported how the problem with abstract thinking manifested in class: According to some classroom teachers Abe has difficulty comprehending main ideas presented during lectures and consequently participation in ongoing classroom activities can be difficult. English classes related to long term literature projects are a difficult area for Abe. However, classes where information is given in shorter segments or tap into his areas of strength (e.g. spelling, formulation of language-oral and written-when responding to questions) provide Abe with more successful experiences. Yet, these reports demonstrate acknowledgment and some support for academic achievement. Abe is the one student whose grades were both included in the special education file (only for the first marking period the year of the study, coincidentally) and whose records referred to academic achievement without explicitly keying it to functional skills. His first quarter grades were Environmental Science 78, English 85, Food and Nutrition 90, Reading Lab F, Health and Safety 84, Independent Living 90. There was no commentary accompanying these grades. There were no other records of year-end grades in this particular file.

This lack of acknowledgment of actual academic achievement for Trish and the others calls into question whether it is possible for any student, even when in a fully inclusive program, to have academic achievements or growth acknowledged or predictably supported as long as he or she is enrolled for a special education diploma.

Informal Assessment

The student’s general education teachers rarely knew the results of the professional assessments or the IEP goals. Many tried to understand the needs of their special education students, and even with a special education teacher or assistant in their classroom, had difficulty in figuring out how to challenge and support these students. A Health teacher told me,

IEPs I have no clue. Sometimes you'll get some information on the students and sometimes you have absolutely nothing, they're just placed in your class and it's just like, okay go with it. And it's just like, okay so what should this child or student be getting out of the course and how much should he learn and is he going for a diploma or is he not going for a diploma? So sometimes I know, sometimes I don't know. Unless I start asking questions saying, "Does this student have to pass?" Or is this student just in here gathering information, or sometimes dust? Sometimes you'll get a written form to say, "Going for a diploma," "Not going for a diploma," these are their limitations, which is nice when you get that kind of information. And sometimes you get nothing. And you sit there and like, oh my. Until you get the first test back or, you know, the first writing assignment and it's like you've got to start with the first step, how to read. You know, or how to write. Educators shared their informal assessments in remarks that indicated their dilemmas, what they had and had not figured out, and their challenges. In addition, their comments indicated that all the students lived in a culture of ongoing informal assessment, which reflected and sometimes influenced the availability of opportunities to participate and become engaged. Several themes emerged from their comments.

Student as mystery

The student was a mystery to those general education teachers who did not know the content of the Special Education assessments, rarely knew the IEP goals, or even the nature of the student’s disability. I observed fewer opportunities for academic participation for the mystery student and fewer instances of recognition of academic engagement. One teacher told me, "I don’t know how much Tyrone is getting of the content, I hope he is, but I haven't delved deeply into it yet. But he seems to enjoy himself here. The special ed teachers seem to send a lot of their kids here." This teacher interacted with many students during discussion with good humor. Tyrone contributed to discussions and handed in work on the day I observed. It was the beginning of the school year and this teacher indicated a desire to learn more about Tyrone.

An English teacher told me she didn’t know what was in Abe’s IEP. She responded to my saying that he had autism, "Is that what he has? I didn’t know." She also told a Special Education teacher that Abe was getting nothing out of her class and that he should be in Art instead. This was a class where Abe had little support and the most difficulty following the long-term literature themes.

Still another teacher, dual certified in general and special education, expressed his lack of understanding about Tyrone’s participation saying, "I don’t know much about autism." He said, "I don't know where he is at, to kind of figure out where we should be going with him intellectually." This teacher didn’t know "how much Garth did for him" when he handed in Tyrone’s assignments. The teacher said that Tyrone did not turn in much work, but not understanding how and what Tyrone learned, he did not demand much. "Tyrone is a mystery to me. For the most part. It's hard for me to understand what he knows, what he is comprehending."

Several teachers used the term "clueless" in their responses to my queries regarding what they thought the students in my study were getting out of their classes. Nick was a mystery to all his general and special education teachers and they never spoke about him academically except regarding their lack of knowledge regarding his understanding. Special education teachers and support services teachers were also sometimes mystified. Nick’s special education teacher said:

I don't really know what he knows. He uses his [symbol communication] board well, but won't facilitate. His brother is the only one he will facilitate with, he says Nick does, but I haven't seen it. He is suspended a lot and I keep asking him to come by, but he doesn't. I've tried lots of things, but I don't know, I can't figure out what's going on with Nick, I wish I could. Others may not know the student well and take the student’s in-class responses at face value. In Chapter 3 I quoted Ann, the Speech pathologist who said that she could not distinguish when Trish was thinking at the level of "being manipulative" or "not understanding" when she made contrary or unexpected choices. She was mystified but she apparently leaned toward the latter choice. Likewise, a special education teacher, who co-taught the Foods class and supported students in Health class, mentioned that Gerard had taken Foods class. "He took it last year. I think he did good. He took health. He sat there and said ‘yup’ [she laughed]; I don't know what he got out of it. His Health teacher knew him from middle school and was "charmed" by him, but said, "He doesn't do much. He follows directions. When I pass out papers he makes sure he gets one." Regarding the Health class, Gerard’s assistant told me that he enjoyed the class and later, often when he was at work, he would mention the content or ask her a question about it. Gerard was not a mystery to his special education teacher who defined him as "low functioning... he can't add 2 plus 2 or say his ABCs. From the academic classes he gets structure and social skills." In contrast, he was not a mystery to his mother who said that in middle school he got a lot out of the classes and he also got a lot out of 9th grade Social Studies. So he succeeded, … he got interested in Science and he got interested in Social Studies. Which were new things. I mean he had had that in elementary school, but it never clicked. And I think a lot of it had to do with the way it was presented in middle school. Small groups, cooperative learning, he just all of a sudden got excited about science, he was doing experiments, you know, in the class….

I was thinking about the Social Studies again. That was something he liked, and I think just the self-esteem too of coming home and being able to talk around the dinner table, a current event, or whatever it was Social Studies-wise, with siblings and Mom and Dad, and he could plug in with something he recognized and plug in. Not a lot of information or whatever, but you knew he was on track, things that were connecting with him that had never connected before. It was like he was much more aware of things. Like opening windows I think.

Another aspect of student as mystery was the underestimation of the students by people who did not know them well. Some of the educators seemed confused as to how to support the student and they underestimated what the student could do. This was particularly true of teaching assistants who were substitutes or newly assigned to the student. For example, during the study, Tyrone had several people substituting for Garth when he was absent or reassigned to another student. One person told me he thought, "Tyrone is smart." He was doing Math problems with and for Tyrone and entering in the numbers on the calculator. I had observed Tyrone entering the numbers himself and finding the answers with coaching from Garth. I said jokingly, "He's taking advantage of you." The assistant replied, "I feel sorry for him." Another teaching assistant who had been with Tyrone for a few months was telling me about Tyrone’s classes. "He likes Health and Biology. He likes Social Studies, but I do much of the work because there are so many words that are too hard to pronounce, words he doesn’t know. In Biology too." In Social Studies, Tyrone did the matching questions on assignments and this assistant filled in the blanks, saying to me, "A lot of the teachers expect him to turn in what he can do, but I try to complete all of them," that is, the assignments. I also observed the substitutes doing the schoolwork that I knew from prior observation they could do, for Trish and for Gerard.

The answer to unraveling the mystery of what students understand may not be found during the actual class session. Clues may be found informally through conversations with successful assistants, or parents who help with homework or report conversations about what their child learned in school, or through close observation and thoughtful competence-oriented interpretation and sharing of information.

Student as Surprise

The informal assessments also both reflected and influenced the quality of expectation teachers had for the students, whether limited or high. I observed two versions of surprise. The first was that some teachers were surprised when told about the students’ interests or achievements in other settings. The second was that teachers open to new information, and to the element of surprise, had more open ended or variable statements of informal assessments. They gave the student the benefit of the doubt even when not fully understanding the student.

Trish’s Health Careers teacher thought that she was getting something out of the class. He said that she handed in assignments and that she answered some questions in class with her yes/no voice box. However, he thought that "she would get more from a smaller special education Health class since he interacted less with individual students" in such a large class. He wondered if it was good for Trish on the whole. He said, "In the past I did a health class for the kids in the self-contained class. It was a small class and I thought they got a lot out of it. Maybe Trish was getting less out of this one than the other class got." I told him that Trish had said during my interview with her and her parents that he was her favorite teacher. He was surprised when I told him this, taking it to mean she was getting something out of his class. Similarly, Abe’s English teacher, who did not know he had autism and felt "he would be better off in [a class like] Art," was surprised when I told her that he was a musician and wrote new verses to a folk song.

Garth had known Tyrone for over 4 years. Garth had consistently expressed pride to me in Tyrone’s intelligence and progress, but was still surprised by him. I learned from Tyrone’s special education teachers and from Garth that he was better able to handle change and rarely missed class due to disruptive reactions to changes in his routine. Garth told me Tyrone had improved in his reading, speaking, and writing.

He's becoming more independent...taking notes and tests by himself, taking the initiative in Math. He passes out the calculators. Last week he did his own Math problem on the board with no help at all which was totally amazing on my part. He surprised both the Math teachers and myself. One day Tyrone surprised both Garth and myself in an incident that the Science teacher took in stride. Garth had decided I needed the experience of assisting Tyrone and backed away. Garth asked Tyrone to read me a paragraph about the middle ear. Tyrone read a mimeographed paragraph from an activity sheet on the middle ear. I pronounced the technical words when he left out too many syllables. He then answered five questions, finding the answers on the activity sheet as I directed him to the beginning, middle, or end of the reading. Question #5 asked, "The cavity of the middle ear was filled with ______." Tyrone said, "Oxygen." I looked in vain in the text to verify the answer. Garth couldn’t find it either and I asked the teacher for help. The teacher found it for us, reading "air." Tyrone knew the answer and Garth and I didn’t. Garth said he usually reads the assignment first to himself so he has an idea of what’s going on and so he (Garth) is prepared and knows the material. As I write this, I reflect on the passage that I found in Tyrone’s records when he tried to impress his speech therapist with his knowledge. He certainly impressed me and caused me to wonder why his academic skills were not acknowledged in his special education plans.

Student as "Doing Fine"

For some of the teachers, their assessments changed or grew in depth as they came to know the student. From time to time I asked teachers how the student was doing or how things were going. Trish’s Social Studies teacher responded early in the school year, telling me "Fine, she knows what’s going on, she turns things in, takes care of business." Later in the year she had not only said, "she’s getting a lot out of it," but added strong opinions indicating she had gotten to know Trish better.

She is getting a lot out of it and putting a lot into it. To put her in a separate classroom with just special education would be a sin! She is delightful, funny, the kids accepted her, she has accepted them. With the grouping [work in small groups], she feels included, there is Diane and Harriet (two friends in the class)... Her special education teacher also grew in her assessment of Trish’s competencies as well as in her demands. The testing. I think I'm most excited about the testing. It's moved from in the beginning of the year that Trish’s test would be like four questions and it would be just exactly what I sent home for her to study, same form. Like if I sent a definition, then she'd have to give me the definition back on the test. And we've moved to doing fill in the blanks and short, like 5 sentence, essays. Garth supported Tyrone with high expectations, proud that he was doing so well, and was still learning new things about him. Tyrone’s Science teacher did not know what to expect at the beginning of the year, as it was her first class that included students like Tyrone. She spoke well of his academic performance. The class was Applied Biology, a general diploma class, and had many students whom she described as unmotivated. She spoke of Tyrone as a role model because in spite of or because of, his difficulties he had to work harder to keep up and always did the work in her class. I approached her after class one day as she was grading his test.

He got 45 out of 54= 83%. She used a calculator to get the grade.

Garth asked her to look up his grades for me. She read, "87, 93, he’s doing better than most of my students test wise," she said. Garth said, "you've got to understand they're modified tests... but I don’t know, maybe he can." Turning to the teacher he asked, "Do you think he can take an unmodified one?" We have already seen that Abe had experienced the full range of special education placement options and assessments, and that some of his general education teachers and his special education teacher attended to his academic achievement. Abe’s reading teacher said that he was making progress. His teacher told me that Abe had improved over 2 years in increasing his attention span for series of test questions and writing longer paragraphs.

Student as Doing the "Same Things"

Some of the teachers had the same general education goals for the special education students as for their general education students. Trish’s English teacher said,

My philosophy of teaching is not that I teach English in isolation. I teach English because I want students to be successful adults. They need to learn how to communicate verbally, and written, in order to be successful. They need to be able to develop their own philosophy of life that they live by, and much of that comes from literature. Trish can do those same things. At her own pace she can do those same things. I asked this same teacher about Trish’s grades: I don’t believe in grades, I never give multiple choice questions, I emphasize critical thinking. As long as they can think, I give the grade that Betty (special education teacher) says... as long as we make a notation that it’s for an IEP it’s O.K. This teacher, although counting on the special education teacher for assessment, indicated she was getting to know Trish as a student. As she related how she was getting to know Trish as a student, she expressed the connection between the academics and the skills Trish and all her students need as adults. I haven't learned so much about how Trish learns as what it takes to work with her. I don't know how she learns. And I'm not quite clear what she learns except for I get projects that she does with her teaching assistant and she's being exposed to social interactions with other students in the classroom which is everybody’s needs. I don't believe that she is gathering any written communication type of skills from the class, but possibly learning how to develop -- she's developing her own opinions about things. And much of that comes from learning about different philosophies through literature. Her Social Studies teacher, who also counted on the special education teacher for help with grading adapted assignments, spoke emphatically of Trish in an academic context. She said, "It’s good she is in there not just for the socializing, but for the academics."

Tyrone’s Social Studies teacher did not understand how he learns or know how much he learned. He expressed academic goals, but in generic terms.

What do I see his purpose for being in there? Well I would hope he would improve some of his skills, reading, listening, writing, some of those generic skills, literacy skills, I hope that he would... I mean this is a general hope, that he would pick up some specific knowledge of things. And as far as socializing, I hope he feels more comfortable and he can possibly make some friends, and at least have a number of friendly interactions. I think we all need those. Sometimes general education teachers expressed their goals for the students through citing their accomplishments. As Abe’s Foods Class teacher welcomed me to stay and observe the class. She said, "... you should have come two days ago. Abe made snowball cookies all by himself. He followed a recipe." Abe’s Foods Class teacher also thought about him academically and showed me his work that the students kept in files in her classroom. Even though considerable class time was devoted to hands-on activity, she required students to keep notebooks, recipe files, and to take exams, including the final state exam, the Regents. "I think Abe is a regular student even though he has special needs. They [the special education students] aren't required to take the regents and I don't submit it to Albany. Then I show it to them [the students]. If they are going to be integrated in the classroom they do everything everyone in the classroom does. Abe’s Health teacher also wanted the same for all her students and described her goals for her class. For the overall classes, just a general understanding of health related issues and how they apply to themselves and how they can better their own lives, and basically the same thing for Abe, and to do the best that he can for his learning level. To at least grasp some of the basic concepts from the different content areas that I talk about. And maybe have somewhat of an understanding of how that applies to his own lifestyle and he seems to understand. You know when you ask him questions in class he seems to have the basic idea of what we're talking about. Abe’s parents and special education teachers reported that Abe did well in the English and Social Studies classes when the topic was keyed to his experiences and interests. His special education teacher was rarely able to help him in English due to her schedule conflicting with his. However, she was able to determine he could do more with support. English has been hard. I pulled him out one day and we spent a period mapping the relationship of the characters (Romeo and Juliet). He did good and he handed it in. I felt bad about pulling him out, but I know he's been lost all year, and the teaching assistant was out, and I had to go to Math class.
Student as Typical Teenager

Some of the teachers perceived the student as having not only the same or similar academic goals, but also as having the same social responses as many of their typical peers. The two categories of academic and social responses were not always considered together or within the same perspective regarding how they were typical. Tyrone’s Health teacher knew him in elementary school. She lamented the loss of academic demands she saw placed on him in elementary school. After observing Tyrone in her class, I stayed behind and asked her about his participation. Each student had chosen a chemical combination or element and was looking up facts which would contribute to a mobile. Tyrone’s mobile was about sugar and he focused on coloring some of the designs that were to hang from it. During the class he was very social and frequently asked the teacher about Dick Tracy, one of his recurring topics of speech, until she told him to stop. She compared his participation in this class to a prior experience.

He typed independently in 6th grade. He can read and write. Something happens between elementary school and high school. Maybe at middle school they all fall apart. He manipulates the system. I think the T.A.s hold back to avoid getting [physically] hit. High school is harder. At elementary school a TA may walk by and they stop the shenanigans. Maybe because it’s like a family there. High school is harder. If I had 150 kids I couldn’t give him the attention I give him here. This class is for kids at risk. [There were about six students in attendance that day]. Two years ago he typed the notes off the board. I told him he couldn’t play with markers until he did it. He manipulates the system so he doesn’t have to do much work. He’s a typical teenager. In this case, since the teacher knew him in sixth grade, she was able to see him from the perspective of a teacher with academic goals for everyone in class. In this case, all of her students were also not working up to their potential or would rather socialize than study.

For Trish, being typical did not conflict with her academics. Her Social Studies teacher said, "She participates, not typical participation, but what can you expect...I just know it. I can feel it...I see that something's happening in her. If she’s bored she lets you know too, same as the other kids." Another teacher who said that if Trish is enjoying class, then she is learning added, "It's like any other kid. It's nothing that I learned from Trish that I can't learn from any other student."

Typicality was often used to explain or justify selective behaviors or decisions. Betty, Trish’s assistant, explained to me why Trish had answered some questions wrong then refused to point to an answer, and then laughed. I had wondered if my presence as observer was inhibiting. No, "She was being a jokester, being a 16 year old." During the next period she was working on homework questions, pointing to each answer instead of choosing one, and then responded in time to leave for lunch. She was not laughing. Betty gave a more likely interpretation than being a 16-year-old when she said that Trish was tired as "she starts out strong in the morning communicating, then she tires. She has a long day and doesn’t have lunch till 1:00." This teacher felt that it was typical for most students to be tired after going so long without a snack or a break.

The teacher based these interpretations of knowing when the student was "being 16" or being exhausted on her experience of prolonged contact with Trish. These are the same behaviors that confused the speech therapist and encouraged the psychologist to cite teacher and parent comments in the professional assessments. Interpretation based on long- term relationships can often help clear up some confusion caused by contradictory data.


In this chapter we have seen that three approaches to assessment, formal, professional, and informal, can both support and contradict each other. In all three approaches, perceptions and descriptions of each student varied regarding intelligence, understanding, and skills. Evaluators and teachers tended, with a few exceptions, to ignore the students’ actual and potential academic or intellectual development. The next chapter addresses what we can learn from these patterns of expectancy, participation, and assessment that might help us make sense of contradictory data.



This study focused on the patterns of expectancy, participation, and assessment of five students with cognitive disabilities as they engaged with the academic curriculum in general and special education classes. My initial focus on these three aspects of students’ educational careers looked not only at their engagement, but also at how educators perceived them to be engaging or able to engage. My quest to understand student engagement was like being a detective in a mystery story. I found it was not possible to definitively determine the extent of student engagement without knowing the inner thoughts and motivations of the student.

Although this would be true for all students, the best leads to understanding the students’ academic engagement emerged from among interdependent themes of participation and perceived participation. These themes included expectations of the student, observable participation and nonparticipation, and various official and unofficial assessments of the students.

Although I expected to find differences in student participation and perceived participation, I was surprised at the extent to which the varied perceptions contrasted both sequentially and simultaneously. By sequentially I mean that the student experienced the contrasting perceptions from people during different classes, activities, days, and years. By simultaneously I mean that several educators with highly contrasting perceptions might be with the student at the same time. I was also surprised with how inconsistently professional records and reports reflected the course of the students’ educational career.

The major findings of my study contradict the simplified versions of disabled students’ experiences that many educators attached to the students and their disability labels. Examples of simplifying experiences might be to label unexpected, unwanted, or misunderstood student interactions with terms associated with disability and misbehavior, such as "not understanding," "acting out," or "manipulation."

Similarly, the findings contradict the notion that the problems of disability reside in the student. Students engaged or not, and participated or not, within a complex web of images and interpretations of themselves and their disabilities. Different images and representations of the student were supported by attitudes, activities and assistance which, when combined, enabled or disabled the student in terms of participation and acknowledgment of engagement. This chapter emphasizes certain of these themes and suggests implications.

Students with Intellectual Disabilities: Complex, Thinking and Purposeful

The situation of people with disabilities in our schools has many parallels with their situations in popular and literary culture. In her exploration of the disabled figure in literature and popular culture, Rosemarie Garland Thomson elaborated on the marginalization of literary characters.

Disabled literary characters usually remain on the margins of fiction as uncomplicated figures or as exotic aliens whose bodily configurations operate as spectacles, eliciting responses from other characters or producing rhetorical effects that depend on disability's cultural resonance." (p.9). As Thomson read the texts of literature, she made the case for the disabled body as text, read according to the perspective of those constructing the person with the disability. For example, she cited authors who used disabled film or literary characters to evoke particular images in people’s minds. These images, often associated with tragedy, isolation, fear, powerlessness, or urgency, often have uncomplicated or simple meanings for the viewer or reader. These meanings are not inherent to disability and people with disabilities. They come from the nondisabled authors and the viewers rather than from people with disabilities themselves. Thomson added, "The discursive construct of the disabled figure, informed more by received attitudes than by people's actual experience of disability, circulates in culture and finds a home within the conventions and codes of literary representation" (p. 9). In other words, these images, constructed by others, become common and accepted as truth by the public.

Similarly, in the field of education and its literature, policy makers, administrators, and editors have internalized and reproduced images constructed in the culture in our schools. They have relegated the special education constituency, which does not count general education teachers and students, to the margins of education. Special education conventions and codes segregate their constituents in special education or disabilities studies journals. Likewise, these conventions contribute to the segregation of special education students in schools. Although there are notable exceptions showing powerful images of disabled people and their allies acting in central and powerful ways, in culture as in education, this marginalization is even true for most articles discussing inclusion. In our institutions, in this case our schools, certain education language and processes add to and perpetuate another layer in our culture of multiple and conflicting interpretations and treatments of people with disabilities in school.

A chaotic array of oppressive and liberating images and activities pervade the culture, the schools, and my data. In my data, the language of sorting and ranking that accompanies labels and segregation contrasted with the language of understanding and strength building that accompanied descriptive terms and integration. Consequently, I have found it reasonable to generalize that the students with disabilities are constantly at risk of being constructed and simplified as uncomplicated beings with less than full understanding of their situation. They risk being perceived as having few needs that entail meaningful interactions beyond their immediate survival.

The various references to deficit- and competence-oriented perspectives throughout this narrative referred to aspects of how educators have constructed disabled students. The exploration of the patterns and process, both long term and day to day, revealed not only how the educators rendered the disabled students as uncomplicated, but also revealed the possibilities of educating emerging full and complex students. The following paragraphs elaborate on these ideas.

Multiple and Incongruent Representations of Students

Throughout the data the students with disabilities were subject to conflicting images of their studenthood and personhood by educators. Once again, disability appeared as an overriding social construction in the lives of each student in ways that had an impact on their lives on a day-to-day basis. Particularly poignant was the fact that many educators seemed to overlook the fact that each student was capable of complex thought and purposeful behavior. In an article on the social construction of humanness, Bogdan and Taylor noted, "Whether or not people with severe disabilities will be treated as human beings or persons is not a matter of their physical or mental condition. It is a matter of definition" (p.146). These definitions informed how people treated the students. They emerged from the data in how educators spoke about the student in such a way that positive images, negative images, and expectations conflicted, often simultaneously. Tyrone’s teaching assistant treated him as if he were "smart" and could produce answers on his worksheets and exams. He pushed Tyrone to read aloud, write answers, finish an assignment, and stay with a task. At the same time a teacher would say he was doing well in her class and keep track of his passing grades. A few minutes later the next teacher had no idea what to expect or demand, noting that he turned in few assignments, and that the student was a "mystery" regarding what he could do and what he was learning. Tyrone’s special education teachers also said he was "smart" yet did not link his smartness with his written educational goals or reports. The official records indicated Tyrone enjoyed Science class in middle school. A transcript of a facilitated communication session showed off his knowledge about meiosis, spelling it correctly when his speech-language therapist spelled it wrong. Another sample included his poetry. Yet his IEP revealed the same limited academic goals several years running and no written expressive language goals. In effect some of the educators treated Tyrone, as much as they could, as literate. These teachers were limited by lack of knowledge of his needs and goals, and did not have the information to question lack of support for class content goals. Others, particularly special education professionals, regarded Tyrone only in light of his behavioral development; when records mentioned his enjoyment and participation in academic classes, they commented only on his behavior. For each student in this study, there were similar competing images of the student. There were varying indications for each student that academic goals, and goals which would include intellectual development, were viable and appropriate.

Only Trish, who ironically had the most severe disabilities of the five students, had academic and intellectual goals that reflected progress during the school year and expected progress for the following year. In her case, I observed there were more competence-oriented educators in her daily life than deficit-oriented educators. Of the teachers I met and observed, four out of five of the special education staff were competence-oriented, as were the general education teachers. Some of them were unsure of what to expect, but they were open in the beginning, and by the end knew her better as a student. In addition, both the parents and her special education teachers placed emphasis on the "student" part of being in a general education class. For these teachers, the classroom behavioral obligations served her academic responsibilities, just as for the nondisabled students. For example, one time when she was making complaining sounds in the hall, a hall guard came by and told her if she didn’t have a pass she should be in class. She went in and sat down. Gerard had special and general education teachers who planned for him to participate academically in the 9th grade and different teachers in the following grades who did not.

The data from these students strongly imply that a special education student who is to achieve intellectual goals, reflected in both the official records and daily school life, will need strong competence orientation and persistent advocacy on the part of his or her special education teacher. But advocacy is not the whole story. The essential question changes from "How can a special education student fit into a certain general class?" to "Under what conditions can any student flourish intellectually and socially in class?" The next theme provides more leads.

Opportunity Structures and Purposeful Behavior

Structures of opportunity to participate obscured or revealed students’ purposeful behavior. The conflicting assortment of competence- and deficit-oriented images is part of a web of opportunity to participate. On the one hand, many teachers who did not know what the student was doing or thinking in class, acted as if they did know. This approach opened possibilities for the student to engage, sometimes without particular assistance of their support person. I observed that the students appeared engaged or showed interest in the ways I described in the chapter on participation. They responded to teachers, paid attention, made jokes, accepted help with assignments, and used body language. Teachers, who saw the students as intellectually deficient often did not notice these students’ purposeful acts, and when they did, did not appear to regard them as academically meaningful. Sometimes a classroom teacher was polite when a student called out an answer or comment, acting patient about an unexpected or only slightly related response. Yet the students showed other people outside of class they were learning things and thinking about the classes. Gerard went home during 9th grade speaking about current events discussed in Social Studies class. In the 12th grade, his mother told me he spoke with his brother about Italy, recognizing places in his brother’s travel photographs. During the special education class about Italy, Gerard had answered direct questions with "don’t know," but did contribute his own thoughts, saying "hockey," during a discussion about the modern equivalent of the Roman Games. These students showed they could learn things even though their teachers didn’t notice or responded to them only out of politeness.

Often, when students appeared to resist participating in general education class, their competence-oriented teaching assistant knew what to do. The assistant often got information from the student by guessing; the student’s same behavior in another context often evoked a special education teacher or different assistant to use the terms "manipulating" or "acting out," or simply "inappropriate" and threaten to send them to "time out." Such "behaviors" would imply intention on the part of the student and therefore competence.

On the one hand, some opportunity structures enabled and promoted the students’ competence and expanded their participation. Trish answered questions in Social Studies and even corrected her partner’s wrong answer. On the other hand, the student may have participated in spite of the lack of opportunity, only less so and unnoticed. Nick was quiet and attentive to a class discussion about students who stole from their employers, refraining from his usual activity of turning pages or tearing paper into strips. Open opportunity structures allowed a path for the students to be seen in spite of deficit perspectives and "surprise" the teachers with their interest or knowledge. Opportunity structures were deficit-oriented or competence-oriented on different levels. With varying intensity, these structures could be enabling or disabling factors for student participation and perceived participation, a spotlight or a mask for their purposeful behavior

Goals Level

This level is intrapersonal, originating with how teachers think about students. On the goals level, deficit-oriented teachers paid attention to behavioral and functional goals only; they set finite and limited goals for the students. The general education teachers in this category showed a lack of ownership for the academic and social growth in relation to the student. Such a teacher spoke of Nick only as well behaved and never noticed or called on him when he appeared interested in class discussions.

For the competence-oriented teachers, the special education goals included cognitive and intellectual development goals as well as goals relating to social relationships and independent living. By independent living, I am using the term as used by disability rights advocates and centers for independent living; this means making short-term and long-term choices, including life choices. Trish would choose not only test answers, assignment topics, and lunch, but where she was to do her Health Careers internship or whether to stay in class or go to the nurse when not feeling well. Competence-oriented general education teachers showed and expressed ownership in academic and social relationships. For example, they expected assignments on time and said, "Get to work" in the same tone they used for nondisabled students. With such a teacher Abe exercised new skills and progressed in his reading class.

Personal Support Level

This level is interpersonal, relating to teacher interactions with students. On the level of personal support, deficit-oriented support people tended to be laissez-faire with the students, ignoring them unless they did not "behave appropriately." They sometimes sat with the students to monitor behavior, and did the student’s work for them. Nick was able to opt out of class activities at will, but was constantly asked to "behave appropriately."

Competence-oriented support persons adapted the work so the student was in charge of how it turned out, assisted with developing focusing and attention skills when necessary, facilitated expressive language development, and facilitated peer relationships. With such support, Abe learned to ask for help to work through an algebra problem, and finally to work through the steps by himself.

Environmental level

This level is structural and occurs outside of an individual or interaction between two individuals. On the environmental level, lack of opportunity actually compounded any impairment the student had by denying opportunity to participate, interact with other students, and learn. Limited opportunity is not only deficit-oriented, but also deficit promoting. Environmental structures included exclusion from the classroom, a separate or segregated curriculum, special services in a separate place ("pull-out"), marginal location in the classroom away from other students, or only occasional proximity to other students. None of these alone would necessarily impair a student’s opportunity to participate, but several of these would leave students with only a little social interaction with teachers, even less social interaction with other students, and scant academic participation.

Competence-promoting environmental structures provided both social and academic interaction with teachers and students, curricular adaptations tied to course content and student’s IEP goals, and special services integrated into the classroom ("push-in"). These teachers also tended to set up classroom group activities such as role-plays, work pairs or groups, or hands-on activities such as making collages.

A Culture of Competence-Orientation

"Treat everyone like a visiting dignitary from another country, who doesn’t know your language very well." This quote from a conversation with Eugene Marcus, a man with autism, who communicates with facilitated communication. The quote summarizes how competence-oriented people might act toward people with significant disabilities. Such an orientation made it difficult for me, at first, to understand some of the apparent inconsistencies in my data, particularly the assessments.

Random Education

An aspect of my data that I found striking was the apparent lack of order in regards to intentional educational plans regarding academic or intellectual development for the five special education students. I found many examples and counter examples during my observations where students participated in spite of adverse conditions and didn’t participate in spite of mostly supportive conditions. However, the inconsistencies within the professional reports were even more surprising due to the several examples of evidence of student intellect and strengths that had no follow-up. I would have expected to find systematic follow-up in the recommendations, in the IEPs, or in the classroom.

My mind was spinning with questions as my researched progressed. Could these students have been, for the most part, subjected to random acts of teaching and learning? What did it mean that Tyrone was a poet, but had no written expressive language goals? What did it mean that the psychologist recommended that Trish continue in a full inclusion program with no mention of academic goals? How could educators fail to address the needs of someone like Nick, who spent all day on the margins, his intelligence unnoticed in school, but literate at home? How was it that some of the general education teachers let themselves be surprised by the students’ acts of intellect? How could they have had the same goals for all the students in the class – adapted, but not eliminated for the special education students, while so many of the special education professionals limited their student support to behavioral and self-help skills? I looked for answers in the systems of representation that I described above. Why are these representations and these ways of perceiving students so hard to change? Why does the popular slogan, "A mind is a terrible thing to waste," not apply to the special education students?

Shifting Understandings to Competence-Orientation

As I considered my data and the above questions, I realized that I had given up a set of deficit-oriented assumptions that had ceased to work for me. I had forgotten about these assumptions only to rediscover them while trying to make sense of my data. Events in my study, such as finding poetry in Tyrone’s files, became guiding metaphors for my old and new educational understandings. I came to realize that the special education-related assumptions and processes that were no longer working contained seeds for the new ones.

The dominant assumptions of special education teaching have revolved around the special status of the student. This status was based in a medical model which sought to repair deficits or render students as normal as possible. As I reflect back on the sequence of incidents and literature reviewed in my introduction, I could follow advances and shifts in understandings about students with significant disabilities and the seeds of change in myself. Advances, but not shifts, within the special education set of assumptions have been to categorize more individuals closer to normalcy. For example, the periodic changes in the legal definitions of mental retardation do not mean the students actually change in intelligence; the definitions all have in common the presence of permanent intellectual impairment . The legal definition of learning disability was a great advance for the students who were legislated into the "smart" or nonretarded category. Mainstreaming moved students from medical model quarantine-like conditions to partial, but still marginalized integration. Progress included meeting the students’ need to socialize with general education students to in order to accelerate and promote learning and meaningful social interaction. Progress has, in fact, been made as a result of this model in that nondisabled peers who have been in academic and nonacademic classes with students who have significant disabilities generally have a more positive attitude toward them .

Civil rights advances furthered school integration of students with and without disabilities. But, the disability education laws still divided assumptions about "intelligence" between "learning disability" and "mentally retarded," the latter effectively divested of consideration of complexity or intellect. When the students who are able to attend college because of facilitated communication are no longer identified as "retarded," the students have changed categories. However, the special education set of assumptions remains untouched for their peers who are still regarded as retarded. From this special education deficit-oriented perspective, my findings are no longer chaotic, but make complete sense. The students are in "regular" class for "the social," as one general education teacher explained. Or they are there to learn some "functional skills" in the presence (not necessarily along with) their peers.

The data surprised me because I have shifted, or am shifting, into a different understanding of competence. Assuming all students can think, I can acknowledge that some students show their thinking, or perhaps think faster, slower, or differently than other students. When Nick does not respond to a request or a question, I do not assume he doesn’t understand, but that he has a reason for doing so. From the seeds of special education research such as the work of Goode and Lovett, and the later research on high school academic inclusion, new guidelines for understanding and thinking about students are emerging. An excellent example of these earlier seeds can be found in the early research on partial participation. As I already stated, these early writings promoted new approaches to curriculum adaptations in the interest of social and functional skills for students with severe handicaps. These early researchers wrote about types of individualized adaptations to help promote skills in meaningful activities in school and non school environments: "utilizing/creating materials and devices, adapting skill sequences, adapting rules (established guidelines, procedures, customs), and social/attitudinal adaptations" . They wrote, "Social/attitudinal adaptations refer to changes in assumptions, judgments, beliefs and so on that allow or enhance at least partial participation in environments and activities" (p.22). The authors did not consider applications to intellectual or academic activity, but neither did they preclude such considerations. Thus we have current literature such as that described in the introduction to this study, and many classroom teachers building on the same sorts of curricular adaptations to integrate students with significant disabilities into high school Math, Science, Social Studies, and English.

The shift of students and educators to a culture of competence-orientation finds that every student is presumed to understand what is going on around him or her. In such a culture, adults notice that students have devised ways to be proactive in getting their wants and needs met; they understand that students have needs for intellectual growth in the form of opportunities to interact with their peers and share their thinking and feelings. If we don’t understand the student, it’s because we haven’t yet learned his or her particular way of communicating. Feminist research and liberatory pedagogy are contributing to this shift in perspective. In the world of social science and literary criticism, data, insights, and conclusions that are moving us toward a culture of competency-orientation are simultaneously emerging in more and more sites. These insights could well be forecasting a thoroughness with which special education is preparing the way for its own change.

Competence-Oriented Opportunity Structures

"In clinical disability research only knowledge that is resonant with the practices of everyday life will likely be useful for purposes of application or intervention" . Building on notions of shifting understandings, I wish now to take the advice of David Goode and turn to findings that I hope will contribute to this complete shift. These findings relate to the applications in the daily life of schools with regard to relationships and intentional educational interactions.

The opportunity structures that open doors for participation are places to ascribe intellectual meaning to the purposeful acts of the students and imply applications. Likewise, do the images and expectations teachers are likely to have for fully participating students have implications? Yet such insights into process are incomplete without considering several aspects of the student-teacher relationship in the educational settings and tasks. The following aspects of cultures of competence-orientation fit together as jigsaw pieces rather than sequentially. The several aspects that I describe below further undermine the medical model that still lingers whole or in part within our consciousness and education system. We have seen that educators have been given and pass on different and contradictory messages on medical/educational models in the course of their own education and development as educators. It is thus understandable that teachers would be confused about this. In reading the examples provided in this study and below, it is important not to blame teachers for their education but to regard them as having or not having the skills that promote and demonstrate competence-oriented perspectives. Each of the following represents a set of skills that should be developed.

Confidence in Each Student

Educators showed confidence in the student’s ability to understand and respond even when they did not immediately understand the response. Confidence often accompanied high competence-oriented expectations of the student. They also either believed in the student or appeared to suspend disbelief. The environment reflected varied levels of confidence in the students. The environment included the educators who supported the students well in some cases, enabling them to improve their academic and social skills. Among them were highly skilled support people, including some with no formal training who were able to push the students to new accomplishments. In contrast, others, regardless of their professional standing or training, did not display confidence in the students; these educators could not seem to see past the student’s disability and their own preconceived limits of students’ thinking and understanding. This resulted, for each student, in the emergence of two versions of the same student, competent and incompetent, productive in the traditional sense of doing school-related tasks, and nonproductive. Trish, "the mentally retarded" student who some thought did not understand much, went on strike with a special education professional trying to get her to express herself at the keyboard. With her counterpart, a few months later, she "was" an intelligent young woman who communicated some strong feelings with a few pithy typed phrases while discussing the death of a classmate. Confidence reflected by high expectation may not be causal and may even be defied. But, it was certainly influential as a factor in what a student did in school and the opportunities for participation educators made available. A confident educator will, when faced with a student who is not responding, try another approach assuming the student will either respond or indicate a need for something else. Thus, Trish’s academically demanding and encouraging teachers were also confident when faced with a repeated yes or no answer. They switched the position of the answer, reframed the question, or asked her if there was something else going on such as illness, fatigue, or joking around.

For these students, each living multiple identities of varying competence in a single body, the extent of the disability seemed unrelated to the extent of inclusion or participation in the academic life of the classroom and, more related to the confidence in the student to learn.


Ownership means taking seriously the teaching relationship with the student. It means counting the student as a class member rather than delegating all thinking and planning to special education support people. Special education teachers had varying commitment to inclusion and perceptions of student competence. The general education teachers were volunteers who consented to have students with disabilities in class. They also had varying commitment and experience with inclusion and understanding of student competence. The inclusion programs were not an integral part of the high school structure. They were fragile, segmented, or ad hoc. Yet those teachers who were supported by collaborative relationships with special education teachers, in some cases co-teaching classes, took the most ownership in the special education student’s success. Even those who did not see the student as benefiting academically created welcoming spaces that enabled the student to participate and learn.

The implications for this finding are that if the teacher will act as if the student is competent and counted as a class member, there are more opportunities that the student and the teachers can seize to foster intellectual and personal development. As teachers learn that the students are also there for the academics, they will learn how to count them in to their lesson planning. Also, there are some particular things they can do to begin to "act" as if they assume competence. Teachers are likely, with results, to become more confident and provide even more options as they develop the habit of thinking spontaneously about including the student. Here are some selected suggestions, based on my data, of student supports suggesting both ownership and confidence.

    1. Look for and use opportunities for choice making, such as yes/no questions, choosing from among phrases, and choosing topics for assignments.
    2. Call on the student in class. For nonspeaking students, give advanced notice or ask choice-making questions, accounting for any processing difficulties or delays the student may have.
    3. Invite the student in advance to ask or submit a question or present some information.
    4. Include students in small groups, role-plays, projects, and the like.
    5. Reframe questions when the student does not respond.
    6. Expect regular attendance.
    7. Expect assignments; adapt them, personalize them, shorten them as necessary.

Teachers showed respect for students with responsiveness, reciprocity, and authenticity. Respect was the basis of enabling relationships. Teachers responded to students who approached them, and initiated academic and nonacademic interactions. Reciprocal relationships included two-way interactions about classroom content and about outside interests. Respect for students, marked by encouragement and persistence, increased rapport. It enabled the students to participate, increasing the chances of having their participation acknowledged.

My data chapters are sprinkled throughout with examples of enabling relationships and disabling ones. Trish, who produced essays, quizzes, and tests, went on strike when working with one particular individual who doubted Trish’s thinking ability and whose relationship with her was marked by frustration and impatience. Relationships based on deficit-oriented perspectives and teaching approaches tended to disable the student by interfering with or blocking expressive communication and opportunities to participate.

Respect can simply mean being open to unknown possibilities about the student. Sometimes a skilled special education teacher or paraprofessional effectively demanded, cajoled, or simply helped the student complete an assignment or interact with others. Others supported the student less proactively although still enabled participation. Of particular interest was the fact that several of the general education teachers who did not know if and what the student was learning, whose perceptions I labeled "student as mystery," did in fact respect and like the student. Trish’s Health teacher was one such example. He did not know if she would have learned more if he had her in a special education class, yet she said it was her favorite class and earned passing grades on his class content. The teachers with high expectations academically were demanding and expected the students to do schoolwork; other teachers had lower expectations, but respected the student as a class member, for example, that the student would want the handouts, listen to the lectures, and participate in activities. In some cases, the special education student demonstrated academic understanding, in others the student learning was a secret, unknown to the teacher or the special education teacher. Most of the teaching assistants were sure learning was going on, some were not, and the quality of their support reflected the quality of their respect for and confidence in the student.

Although you cannot pretend to respect and believe in a student, you can respect the student and suspend belief/disbelief. This was perhaps the case with the teachers who were "surprised" by the student. Tyrone’s teachers did believe he was "smart," but did not know how or if he could show it in class. Some teachers who did respect the student lacked confidence and didn’t notice when the student might be showing interest or might participate if invited.

Communication as a Collaborative Act

Sometimes a third person can assist a teacher with the development of an enabling relationship. The teacher may need to be prompted or coached. A teacher whom I had told that Tyrone was getting good grades in Science happened to include him in the next lesson that I observed, and called on him. I wondered if that was mere coincidence since this teacher had told me Tyrone was a "mystery" to him. I also wondered, after talking with him, how general education high school teachers, who are not part of a collaborative team, can learn what they need to know about how to include their special education students like those in my study. Trish’s special education teacher, who had frequent contact with the general education teachers, shared her thinking with the general education teachers whenever she could. Without the team-based structure, she was able to establish rapport with teachers and some co-teaching relationships for the following year.

In Tyrone’s school, the special education teachers circulated to teachers information about the students’ strengths and the best way to include them. No one followed up to check to see if the teacher knew what to do with the information or on how the student was getting along, participating, or turning in assignments. There was no ongoing interpretation. This was true for three of the students in two schools. Even Tyrone’s highly skilled assistant could not overcome a teacher’s impression that he probably did Tyrone’s work. Garth, Bob, and Nell, as paraprofessionals, had neither the training nor a mandate to collaborate with the teachers or discuss students’ educational goals. It is not news to inclusion practitioners that the paraprofessionals were assigned, spent the most time with students, had the most responsibility for their day-to-day education activities, and had the least formal preparation. Other studies have noted the need to acknowledge the importance of paraprofessionals and the need to teach them to support the student without hovering or otherwise isolating the student from peers . There is also a need to attend to the role development of paraprofessionals and include them in special education planning, assessments, and staff development. However, this study adds not only to the case for acknowledging the need for skill and role development, but also highlights the importance of these support people in the student’s development of major life skills. The paraprofessionals’ ability to learn to understand the student, see below surface behaviors, and interpret for the student to peers and professionals plays a key role in the students’ intellectual development. They can, in collaboration with their fellow educators, effect the course of a student’s life. There was no formal evidence of paraprofessional collaboration and no legal mandate for them to participate in ongoing training or evaluation.

Nick provided an example of the consequences of lack of collaborative communication. His classroom environment simply provided the opportunity for students to absorb and follow what was going on in class no matter what the level and quality of support. However, we also saw Nick as a student responding to class discussions with no one appearing to perceive or acknowledge, or inquire regarding his response, thus affording him no opportunity to actively participate or show his interest. This example also points out the potential position of special education practitioners as interpreters or translators for the student in the collaborative process. I shall develop this in the next section.

The Interpreter Role

We have seen how special education students, particularly those with intellectual disabilities who are nonverbal or inarticulate, often live behind the screen of others’ preconceived notions regarding what they can do. The special education teachers, even when taught these preconceptions in their own schooling, also are in an excellent position to contradict these preconceived notions.

The relationship between participation and opportunity environment and structure was complex as the students brought their own interests, skills, and strategies into the picture. Teacher perceptions of a given student, ranging from student as mystery to student as doing well academically, imply how special educators learn to understand their students who do not express themselves in typical ways. This is, of course, also true for all students. Special education and inclusive education teacher preparation programs not only need to address how to help the labeled student learn in class, but also how to figure out what the student is communicating. They also need to learn how to get help from people with disabilities, parents, students, professionals, and peers to figure it out. We have ongoing homework as educators.

People who have much in common with the students in this study, but who have mastered linguistic communication, provide examples of sources for help. A group of people who have autism or are "autistic-like" call the rest of us who attended their conference "NT" for neurologically typical. At the 1998 AUTREAT conference-retreat organized by and for individuals with autism, I not only learned that I was NT, but gained insights that assuming competence was only a small piece of my homework as an educator and ally to people with disabilities. I needed to learn to listen very carefully to people with disabilities, especially those who are not NT and those who cannot speak as we do. I needed to learn to listen beyond surface behaviors, in ways modeled by Herb Lovett and David Goode (1994, 1989). I also needed to learn how to accept the surface behaviors and incorporate them into my mental storage place labeled "normal." I learned some of this as I listened to a group of people at AUTREAT, not NT, who sat around after lunch laughing about and celebrating their favorite obsessions and compulsions. They showed them and explained them to each other. Later that evening I learned more while listening to an animated discussion they were having about the differences between AUTREAT and their lives back home. At home they suppressed their autistic behaviors at great expense to their physical and mental energy. At home, they shared how they lost their ability, in some cases, to speak out loud in public places or in groups where they did not know people well.

Goode’s and Lovett’s approaches were simple, direct, and based on personal authenticity. They listened within the context of the person’s life and the person’s environment to determine what the person might want and need to happen. They listened with an attitude of reciprocity in their relationship with the person. Lovett was a consulting professional, so his interactions were often relatively brief. Goode spent more time with some of the deaf-blind people he described and also got a lot of information from the children’s parents. Paying attention served him well, and he was able to compare what he and the parents saw to what professional staff, who spent considerable time with the children, saw. The results were again, two differently perceived humans in the same body: profoundly disabled and retarded versus proactive people with physically impaired bodies and alert minds making the most of what they had to work with. Professionals often accused the parents Goode met of denying their child’s disability. It would have been more difficult in the current culture to effectively accuse these same professionals of denying the child’s ability, and then give them a hand toward the stage of acceptance.

In this study, in less than ideal inclusion settings, I learned it is possible, even though more difficult, to get to know the students under these conditions. That the students had teachers who did and did not see below the surface behaviors highlighted both the problems of limited perceptions, and the possibilities of more open attitudes and approaches. It showed that a busy high school teacher could see to or take part in enhancing the full participation of a student with some supports in place.

The general education teacher may have sufficient skills to make demands on the student without the assistance of a paraprofessional. Abe’s Reading teacher served as an example of a teacher who made demands on him, making him, in the words of his father, "toe the line." Gerard’s 9th grade teachers planned for him in cooperative groups and designed assignments for him. These teachers had the benefit of a consulting special education teacher and a skilled paraprofessional accompanying him, as did Trish’s teachers. Gerard’s 11th grade teachers had varying levels of consultation and the skills of his assistant made the difference for him. She interpreted the class and teacher to Gerard; however, she did not interpret Gerard to the teacher.

The process of teaching or learning a competence-oriented perspective involves interpretation. Just as I need an interpreter to understand American Sign Language, so might I need an interpreter to understand Abe, Trish, Gerard, Tyrone or Nick, until I get to know them well. When Gerard or Tyrone spoke, I often asked (or wished I could), "What did he say?" In addition I learned to interpret their responses both by asking and by close observation.

In many cases the teachers did not see or misunderstood the students’ signals. Many high school teachers have no way to learn the students’ signals and no one to mediate or interpret on behalf of the student. The teaching assistants often know the student and what he or she is communicating, but have no sanctioned way to help a classroom teacher include or think about the student. For example, the Special Education teacher could have been encouraged Garth to approach the teachers when supporting Tyrone. He would not only support Tyrone academically in his classes, but also approach the Social Studies teacher to ask him how he felt Tyrone was doing. Garth would have shared with this teacher the kinds of work Tyrone did well in other classes and the grades he was receiving in other classes; he would be helping the teacher get to know Tyrone as a student. Likewise, Gerard’s teaching assistant could have approached the Occupations or Health teachers to let them know how Gerard was relating to the content; she could have exchanged ideas to make those classes even richer for Gerard.

Special education staff can enhance the process of learning to understand the student by helping teachers experientially learn a competence-oriented perspective. They can do this by helping a teacher get involved with the student, and facilitating dialogue with the student through conversation and through assignments. They can interpret for the student, and they can teach others how to interpret and understand the student, which will help them identify signs of participation. In addition, special education staff can provide necessary supports and services in ways that demystify the student and his or her learning process. When they do so, and support interpersonal interactions, the student can take more advantage of, and flourish in, the educational environment. The student will have more pathways to intellectual growth. Special education teachers, paraprofessionals, and therapists all can assume this facilitative role.

For example, Nick’s special education teacher might teach Bob how to set up choices about the class content and encourage him to involve peers with Nick during the hands-on activities. He could talk with the teacher about directing yes/no questions to Nick; he could help Nick to contribute something prepared in advance to a class discussion. Nick might be prepared to answer a question when the teacher is reviewing a worksheet or a test. For a while Nick was learning to use a voice output communication device. Perhaps using it during the Occupations class might have motivated Nick to continue learning to use it. As Nick’s special education teacher was unable to go to class with him, he could have set up a dialogue between Bob and the teacher that would help both of them integrate Nick more into class activities and discussions. He could teach others how to read Nick’s responses so they would better understand his level of engagement during class.

Professional preparation programs can show, then coach teachers and therapists how to detect responsiveness, communication, problem solving, and ways of giving the student the benefit of the doubt when either of them (teacher or student) are confused. In these high schools, the general education teachers lacked time or information. In some cases, a small amount of information regarding how the students responded and how they succeeded, in other classes, was sufficient for the teacher to draw upon teaching skills they already had to include them. Teachers who are left in the dark often do not have the skills or understanding of how to include the student or know how the student is benefiting from the class.

Competence-Oriented Assessments and Follow-up

Students’ assessments highlighted the discontinuity in the students’ educational career both longitudinally and at any given time. Educators grossly underestimated the potential of these five students as we saw in the conflicting views within the professional assessments and with the informal assessments. The students who were most subject to these deficit-oriented assessments had varied classroom reactions. These ranged from shutting down their attention, to wandering attention, to evoking negative attention. In some cases the teachers evoked negative or minimal responses from their special education student and received no help in figuring out why. Sometimes they interpreted the response as nonunderstanding or defiance. They then seemed to write off the student.

Professional assessments completely ignored the students’ actual evidence of intellectual ability or potential in their recommendations and IEPs. Professionals who included academic goals in the IEP tended to either ignore them or evaluate them in terms of socialization. Although developing "expressive language" is a typical special education goal, the special education professionals did not acknowledge in their assessments or recommendations any student’s potential for meeting expressive language goals through writing. The sole exception was Trish’s academic goals regarding paragraph writing that increased in requirements from year to year. These paragraphs were not necessarily typed. Sometimes she selected sentences from choices, which she had to then put in order. In the student records, behavior was a priority over academics, and most professionals expressed behavioral goals for content courses and tended to exclude content mastery. For example, one teacher wrote a comment that a student was learning to take notes, but never mentioned what they were for or where and why such a skill may be used. In effect, the students were in class as if class content did not matter. The patterns of professional, formal, and informal assessments have implications for practice on several levels:

  1. People who assess students with cognitive disabilities should assume them to be competent in their use of recognizable strengths whether or not people can understand their responses. Professionals can encourage teachers to identify and use student strengths and to remember that just because we cannot understand them does not mean they cannot understand us.
  2. Assessments should encourage and support that students be given opportunities to participate in high school class activities by being in classes of interest to them and by supporting them to respond to discussions and participate in class activities and assignments. Students’ areas of interest should be used to access the class and its content.
  3. IEP goals should be tied to classroom content and activity, and include thinking skills related to context and content.
  4. Assessment practitioners need to contribute to the development of school-based approaches that are coherent and collaborative. Their assessments should enable planning and implementation of individual goals. They should support educators to make IEP decisions on an individual basis and then to translate them into classroom practice and communicate them to individual teachers.
Social Implications of This Study: Toward a Paradigm of Possibility

Just as the students in my study were viewed as different students in the same body, the study itself is subject to diverse perspectives. One such perspective has been suggested by Henry Giroux as he succinctly summarized a liberatory perspective toward the current educational culture.

Education as a moral and political practice always presupposes a preparation for particular forms of social life, a particular vision of community, and a particular version of the future. From this perspective, the medium is the message; the context of the curriculum is in fact the powerful hidden curriculum. In this light, advocates for school restructuring and school inclusion advocate an integrated and quality education for previously isolated students with disabilities. They are advocating for ending isolation of students from each other based on class, race, gender, sexual orientation, and so forth. But they also advocate a vision of possibilities, and the building of learning communities that will mature into communities of adults who will know each other as friends, classmates, playmates, work mates, and the like -- in effect fellow citizens .

To read the study in this light of possibility is to notice how we can disable children by limiting expectation and opportunity by failing to assess their development as complex, purposeful, thinking individuals. We would concurrently fail to provide for their intellectual development. Educators and the educational structures they provide would assume that critical thinking is not an option these students will ever be able to exercise. They would not account for the choices students make with their limited resources and why they might make them; they may not even recognize that the student has made a choice.

We can also notice how to enable students by assuming competence and understanding. We can and should avoid the assumption that they are not learning, but to persevere as if they are. If we don’t have the means to figure out what they can do, we can enable them by trying to give them the opportunity to learn from their environment. We can do this even though they may not be able to express it, or we may not know how to perceive their signals.

In this vision, inclusion practitioners are increasing who express goals of intellectual development for students with intellectual disabilities. They understand and promote the claim for all students’ right to knowledge . Yet, if the structure is the curriculum, the various cases of inclusion for the students in this study seem to have in common that they are, for the most part, inclusion incidents rather than stages in the growth of an inclusive vision. As stages, they could become part of the liberatory vision: people struggling together, and risking failure in order to improve the quality of the school experience. As a stage, the inclusive structure would still be there after the student, with parent-advocates, has graduated or the teaching inclusion-advocate has changed schools. In this light, every incident in this study can give insights on how to foster progress for this vision in the schools. Each student, including those with severe disabilities, who completes high school, could or would leave a legacy of understanding and skills. This legacy would help teachers to be even more competent educators and allies to future students.

A different view is that the students’ cases of inclusion, or inclusion incidents, are static, as fixed or chronic states rather than stages for the student or the school. This is "ad hoc inclusion" where people do it where they can with whom they can, in isolated pockets within a school, with the quality of supports dependent as much on chance as upon planning. It often works well as a result of the efforts of strong diplomatic parent-advocates or individual teacher-advocates. It falls apart when the student or teacher moves on. However, in this static model, the mystery students remain a mystery with no chance to demystify their lives and gain teacher allies on behalf of future students. The parents struggle in isolation about their child’s future. For example, Nick’s mother, when I asked her about her goals and dreams for him, replied

My dreams. What kind of dreams can you have for a child if you don't know if they're going to survive this world, or if I'm going to die before he gets a chance to…I don't think about it because I don't know. Abe’s parents, as skilled advocates, acknowledged that the schools helped him achieve many of his social goals. However, intellectual goals were not addressed over the long term, especially those they felt he would need after graduation. According to his father, after Abe’s senior year "the Committee [on Special Education] didn’t have anything to offer … that was appropriate. What they had was either not helpful or harmful" for Abe’s development. The parents, finding high school no longer "helpful," had him graduate at 18 instead of 21 and found him a volunteer job where he did data entry, filing, and other office jobs. It takes more than advocacy skills to combat the isolation of people with disabilities and get appropriate support that the system legally mandates.

Ad hoc inclusion, as a particular version of the future, is a warning bell. It presents us a vision of the future where students and advocates meet by chance and are always in the position, often on an inclusion island, of overcoming isolation and bureaucracy, treading water toward an uncertain future. It is a call to be sure our inclusion incidents become stages in the restructuring of our schools. It is a call to insure that these inclusive acts become stages in the shifting of the special education mindset, or paradigm, to reflect the community we want. It is a call to learn from the situations of these five students, to look again at all the students in inclusion programs, to see what is going well, so we can do it more. It is a call to see the problems and invent solutions. It is also a call to look again at each student to see if their right to attain knowledge, to develop intellectually, to share their thoughts and feelings is being addressed. This is a job for teachers, policy makers, administrators, and researchers.

And, because in the real world inclusion/exclusion are no more black and white issues than competence/incompetence or retarded/intelligent, we need to vision our structures to accommodate complexity in design and implementation. Each of these students taught some educators what it meant to be involved beyond the expectations of those around him or her, what it takes for them to participate, and the real meaning of assessments. Their students gave them knowledge and skills that they can use for other students, and to improve understanding on the part of their own peers.

Hopefully this study will encourage people to use the lenses of patterns of expectancy, participation, and assessment to combat rigidity in these patterns and to look blamelessly at the present and future lives we are creating for our students. Those of us who seek to influence the education of teachers and the policy makers are in a position to contribute to the overcoming of many years of cultural deficit-oriented conditioning regarding people with disabilities. If we view the attitudes, the competence-oriented perspective, the openness, and the skills that have been elaborated in this study all as skills, then we simply have work to do and we can chart the tasks and identify problems without blame. For those of us positioned to implement an inclusion agenda, it is incumbent on us to try to figure out how to reach the people who need to learn these skills -- who we might see as afraid, rejecting, or simply lacking in skills that foster academic inclusion -- and to involve them in sharing our sense of possibility and direction for inclusive education along with the difference we could make.

Next steps for researchers would be to look into the following issues.

    1. How does intellectual inclusion for non college-bound students with intellectual disabilities affect the student’s life outside of school and after graduation? How can the principles be applied or adapted to leisure, living, and work settings?
    2. What are some approaches to interviewing inarticulate students and to learn their perspectives that would also empower them in their daily lives?
    3. How can schools practicing partial or ad hoc inclusion be assisted to view students (general education, "at risk," and special education) through their strengths and as thoughtful and potentially interested participants in all aspects of school activity?

Robin Merle Smith

308 Standish Drive

Syracuse, N.Y. 13224

315/449-4215; 443-2685


Ph.D. expected Spring 1999, Syracuse University, Syracuse, NY, Department of Education, Teaching & Leadership: Special Education Program. Dissertation: "Academic engagement of high school students with significant disabilities: A competence oriented interpretation." Chair: Douglas P. Biklen

M. S. Special Education, 1998, Syracuse University, Department of Education, Teaching & Leadership: Special Education Program

Master of Arts in Teaching French, 1970, University of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois

B.A.,1968, Antioch College, Yellow Springs, Ohio. Majors French & Spanish. Foreign Studies: Universidad de Guanajuato, Summer 1964, Universite de Montpellier, Faculte des Lettres et Sciences Humaines 1966-67

Professional Experience

Teacher, Field supervisor. Syracuse University, Department of Special Education, Graduate Assistant (courses and supervision of pre-service teachers): Elementary Practicum supervision of pre-service teachers, 1994-1996; Secondary practicum for pre-service teachers in inclusive education (SPE 511), Supervision of practicum students, high school. 1994-1995; "Perspectives on disability"; discussion group leader, re: field placements, Spring 1994

Educational Consultant, Integrative Learning Associates, Inc., 1987-present

Designed and taught Pre-Employment Skills for Syracuse Job Training Partnership Agency, Syracuse Housing Authority students labeled "at risk:" "Career Connections," and "Leadership Training for Students at Promise,"1990-1991

Syracuse Area Reference Person (Administrator), Re-Evaluation Counseling (R.C.), 1987-1993. As Certified R.C. Teacher: classes & workshops, Fundamentals of R.C.; Intermediate and Advanced level classes (leadership, counseling skills.) Disability Support Groups, (letting go of self stereotyping/self limiting attitudes & behaviors). Classes, workshops and groups on prejudice reduction); disability liberation workshops (USA & Canada), 1982-present

Independent consultant to community organizations, administration, business, writing, counseling, 1977-1987

Substitute teacher (all grades), San Francisco Bay Area Schools (Hayward, Mountainview Districts), 1975-1977

Private practice in Chicago in counseling, communication skills and personal development, with individuals and groups, 1974-1975

French teacher (certified, tenured), Chair of Foreign Languages, The Chicago Public High School for Metropolitan Studies. Classes: All levels French, Spanish, independent studies, and student tutoring program in foreign languages; Classes in Music, English and Social Studies; created & managed student led Freshman Orientation program, 1970-1974

French and Spanish teacher, John Marshall Harlan Public High School, Chicago, Illinois, 1969-1970

University Courses Taught/Designed

"Introduction to Special Education," Cazenovia College, 1997

"Perspectives on Disability," co-taught with Mary Fisher, Syracuse University, 1997

"Learning with the Whole Brain: Introduction to Integrative/Accelerative Learning," Syracuse University,1995-1997

"Inclusive Education and The Law," Syracuse University, 1995

"Introduction to The Study Of Elementary and Special Education" (EDU 203), co-created with Douglas Biklen, Syracuse University ,1993 & 1995-7; taught alone 1996

"Philosophy of Learning (Learning to Learn)," at Syracuse University: Center for the Study of Learning and Retention, 1988

"Excellence in Teaching,"(Integrative Learning Staff Development Program,) teaching and materials development, 1987-89

"Activate the Genius in You," co-designed and taught student survival skills and learning strategies class, Higher Education Opportunity Program, Syracuse University College, 1987-88

Academic Publications

Smith, R. (In Press). "View from the ivory tower: How academics construct disability." In Semiotics and Disability: Interrogating the categories of difference. (Eds.) Swadner, B.B. & Rogers, L. SUNY Press

Smith, R. (1997). "Varied meanings and practice: Teachers' perspectives regarding high school inclusion." Journal for of the Association for the Severely Handicapped . 22 (4), pp. 235-244

Smith, R. (1996). "Accelerative Learning and the practice of freedom." Journal of Accelerative Learning & Teaching. 20(3&4), pp. 117-129

Smith, R. (1996). Moving Out: "Two Self Advocates Choose Their Lifestyles." Facilitated Communication Digest, 5 (1) Winter, pp. 3-4

Smith, R.(1995). "Inclusion: Three encouraging Reports." Facilitated Communication Digest, 4 (1), November, pp. 3-5

Non-academic Publications

Smith, R. (1998). "Offensive humor: Can I handle it?" Tuesday’s Child Magazine, March/April, pp.31-32

Smith, R. (1990). The Princes and the Frog: A Green Liberation Tale. Integrative Learning Associates, Inc., Syracuse, NY

Smith, R. (1989). Integrative Learning Staff Development. Syracuse University in house publication

Dessauer, J. (Producer), Smith, R.,(script coordinator) (1989). Queremos La Paz: Nicaraguans Speak out to North Americans . Syracuse Alternative Media Network: Syracuse, NY

Dessauer, J., Smith R. (Co-producers).(1986) Witnesses for Peace Syracuse Alternative Media Network

Smith, R. (1985, April). "Teacher as Ally." Present Time, p.65

Smith, R. (1985, April). "Speaking Out on Disability" Present Time, reprinted in Complete Elegance #9. Seattle: Rational Island

Refereed Presentations and Workshops

Smith, R. (1999) "High school students with cognitive disabilities: Patterns of acceptance and academic engagement." American Education Research Association Annual Meeting

Smith, R., Sapon-Shevin, M. (1999). "Stereotyping disability humor and the promotion of empowering pedagogy." American Education Research Association Annual Meeting

Smith, R. (1999). "Academic participation of cognitively disabled high school students." Holmes Partnership Annual Conference, Boston MA

Smith, R. (1998). "Whole brain learning: Inclusive academics, music, and games." The Association for the Severely Handicapped (TASH) Annual Conference, Seattle, WA

Smith, R., & Sapon-Shevin, M. (1998). "Using disability humor to promote awareness and inclusive practices." The Association for the Severely Handicapped (TASH) Annual Conference, Seattle, WA

Smith, R. (1998). "High school students classified with severe disabilities: A qualitative study of inclusion and academics." American Education Research Association Annual Meeting

Smith, R. (1998). "Reconstructing disability in everyday life." Holmes Partnership Annual Meeting, Orlando, FL

Sapon-Shevin, M.& Smith, R. (1997). "Disability humor: Moving beyond "That’s not funny." The Association for the Severely Handicapped (TASH) Annual Conference, Boston, MA

Smith, R. (1997). "High school students with severe disabilities: the meaning of mainstreaming and academic curricula." American Education Research Association Annual Meeting, Chicago, Ill.

Smith, R. & Sapon-Shevin, M. (1996). "What's so funny? How can you tell? What to do?" The Association for the Severely Handicapped (TASH) Annual Conference, New Orleans, LA

Chadwick, M. & Smith, R. (1996). "How rosy are your rose colored glasses?: Teaching attitudes for good facilitation." International Facilitated Communication Conference, Syracuse, NY

Smith, R.(1996). "Teaching students about the effects of stereotyping language." Holmes Group Annual Conference, St. Louis, MO

Smith, R. (1995). "Teaching students about the effects of stereotyping language." The Association for the Severely Handicapped (TASH) Annual Conference, San Francisco, CA

Smith, R. (1995). "The power of language." Fourth Annual International Facilitated

Communication Conference, Syracuse University, Syracuse New York. Workshop

Berrigan, C., Smith, R., Flores, S.,. Kagan, J. (1994). "Special education in Italy: Lessons

brought home." The Association for the Severely Handicapped (TASH) Annual Conference Atlanta, GA

Smith, R. (1994). "Education for all. Really!: Including people with disabilities in our learning communities." Society for Accelerated Learning and Teaching (SALT), Pre Conference Workshop

Smith, R.(1994). "Heart to heart." Syracuse University, International Facilitated Communication Conference, Workshop on disability awareness and internalized oppression)

Smith, R. (1993). "Valuing diversity, valuing ourselves: A SALT approach to valuing diversity training." Society for Accelerated Learning and Teaching (SALT), 1993 workshop

Knoblauch, A., Smith, R., Blackmoor, G. (1992). "Understanding the personal insights of the facilitated speaker." Syracuse University, International Facilitated Communication Conference

Smith, R. (1992). "Valuing and working with diversity: A SALT approach." Society for Accelerated Learning and Teaching (SALT), pre-conference workshop

Smith, R. (1992). "Women and power." SIETAR INTERNATIONAL (Society for Intercultural Education, Training, and Research), International Conference in Boston, MA, pre-conference workshop

Smith, R. (1992). "Team building: Valuing diversity in the workplace." SIETAR INTERNATIONAL (Society for Intercultural Education, Training, and Research), International Conference in Boston MA, pre-conference workshop

Invited Presentations & Workshops

. "Teaching for social justice." Equity and Excellence Conference, University of New Hampshire, strand led by Mara Sapon-Shevin, 1998

"Whole brain learning in inclusive classrooms," and with Mara Sapon-Shevin, "Disability humor." "Better All Together IV" Conference, Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities, workshops, 1998

"Rhythms of learning: Musical intelligence in classrooms." Oneida NY BOCES, 1997

"Disability Humor: What’s So Funny? What Can You Do?" "Whole Brain Learning In Inclusive Classrooms." Colorado Inclusion conference, interactive workshops, 1997

"Integrating Learning Perspectives: Education for All, Really!" Edward Smith Elementary School, Syracuse, NY, In-service workshop for 150 faculty, October 6, 1995

"Infusing cultural diversity into the classroom." with Joya Carter, Syracuse University All-Academy Workshops for Co-operating Teachers, March 19, 1997

"Introduction to Integrative Learning." Syracuse University All-Academy Workshops for Co-operating Teachers, March 22, 1995

"Introduction to integrative learning. Syracuse University Professional Development School Conversations," March 8, 1995

. "Our Perfect Bodies: Working as Allies with People with Disabilities." The Carlton School of Social Work, Ottawa, Canada, ." October 15-16, 1993

"Valuing diversity." Le Moyne College, training series; class to train small group workshop leaders, 1993

"Disability awareness for educators." Syracuse University School of Education. "Speak-out" Panel moderator, 1991

"Leisure, Fun, and Fitness Starts Now." Plenary Session. ARISE, Annual Independent Living Conference, Syracuse, NY, 1992

"Managing cultural diversity." Salvation Army two day workshop, 1992

Syracuse City Schools, Workshops, (1989-1992):

"Unconscious bias in the classroom"

"Overcoming learning barriers"

"Building self- esteem into the curriculum"

"Students at risk to students at promise: Building your learning community" (30 hour class)

Reevaluation Counseling Workshops (Local, National, International) (1982 - Present)

"Eliminating white racism"

"Our bodies, our lives." (Identifying & recovering from the effect of racism, sexism, classism, disability oppression on our physical well being) (one and two day workshops)

"Liberation and empowerment for people with disabilities & allies"

"Liberation from oppression & internalized oppression"

"Fundamentals of Re-Evaluation Counseling"

"Advanced Re-Evaluation Counseling"

Invited workshops before 1988:

"Communication Skills and Conflict Resolution." Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 200A, Syracuse, NY

Disability Awareness , Le Moyne College, Syracuse, NY

"Pluralism." Girl Scouts, Syracuse Chapter

"Using integrative learning and peer counseling to overcome learning blocks." Transitional Living Services, Syracuse, NY.

"Overcoming Prejudiced Attitudes and Behaviors." Eastern Paramedics, quarterly orientation for new employees, 1986-1989

"Effective peer counseling." "Co-dependency"; "Self-esteem." ARISE Independent Living Center, Syracuse, N.Y. Inservice presentations

Disabled Women's Speak Out , creative consultant and facilitator, ARISE Independent Living Center Annual Conference, Syracuse, NY., 1987

"Emotional release and physical healing." Health Fair '88, Syracuse N. Y., workshop

"The disabled addict." (Disability Awareness Workshop). Onondaga Council on Alcoholism/addictions, Inc.

"Civil rights awareness." U.S. Department of Soil Conservation

"Empowerment, key to overcoming prejudice." May Memorial Unitarian Society.(Workshop)

"Eliminating racism." "Building bridges across disabling barriers." "Introduction to Re-Evaluation Counseling." "Overcoming learning blocks." Syracuse Women's Information Center, workshops

Second Annual New York State Self Advocacy Conference. Address to plenary session, workshop on improving living situation of developmentally disabled self-advocates, 1986

"Emotional release and physical healing: Building your own support network." Syracuse Center for Self Healing.

Syracuse Peace Council, Staff development (Unlearning racism)


New York State Permanent Teacher Certification: French, Spanish, Special Education

Re-Evaluation Counseling Permanent Teacher Certification

Grants and Awards

Syracuse University Graduate Fellowship, 1998-1999

Holmes Scholar, 1995-1998, Syracuse University Dept. of Education

Graduate Assistantship, 1993-1998

Graduate Student Organization Travel Grants 1993-1998

Department of Education Travel Grant 1993-1998

Teaching Fellow Travel Grant, Future Professoriat Program, 1995

Hometown Video Festival Award for Witnesses for Peace, 1986 to Syracuse Alternative Media Network, produced by R. Smith & J. Dessauer

Syracuse Chapter Arthritis Foundation Award: Outstanding Achievement for 1984

Ford Foundation Tuition & Internship Scholarship to University of Chicago, Department of Education, Summer 1970.

Honorable Mention Woodrow Wilson Fellowship Competition, 1968

Continuing Education

Society for Accelerated Learning and Teaching: Accelerated Learning Training Institute with Georgi Lozonov, 1991

Learning Styles Network, St. John's University, Queens N.Y., 1991; Teaching Students Through their Individual Learning Styles, at BOCES I, Buffalo, NY

Syracuse University, Syracuse, New York

Excellence In Teaching In the Information Age, Levels I-III, Integrative Learning Staff Development under Peter Kline, Master Trainer, 1987-89

Social Policy and Disability, Fall 1986

Magazine Article Writing, Fall 1983

Basic Accounting, Fall 1980

National Coalition Building Institute, Boston, Mass., 1986 Prejudice Reduction and Coalition Building Training

Advanced Re-Evaluation Counseling, Advanced Training yearly since 1985, quarterly weekends since 1983

Access Institute of ADAPT, Denver Colorado, May 1986 (Community organization and negotiating skills)

Grantsmanship Center Training Program, 1981

Wright Junior College, Chicago, Illinois ,1974-75, Theory & Practice of Group Behavior, Community Health Problems Oasis, Midwest Center for Human Potential, Chicago, Illinois, 2 year Facilitator Training Program completed March 1973, continuing training through 1975

Community Service

Dept. Education: Multicultural Affairs Committee, Search Committee, Student Member, Disability Access Consultant, Proposal Reviewer, Facilitated Communication Conference. Syracuse University, 1993-98

American Education Research Association, SIG/Critical examination of race, ethnicity, class, and gender; Proposal Reviewer. 1996-present

International Alliance for Learning, Annual Conference: Convened meeting of Special Interest Group for Inclusion of People with Special Needs and Disabilities in the Integrative/Accelerative Learning Classroom (SIG Inclusion/Special Needs), 1996.

Board member of Society for Accelerated Learning and Teaching (SALT), 1993-1995.

Advisory Board, Enable, Consumer Directed Personal Care Program, Syracuse, NY 1992-present

Commissioner, Human Rights Commission of Syracuse and Onondaga County, Commissioner; Employment Committee, 1989-1993

Disabled In Action of Greater Syracuse, Inc. Past President; community advocate: Spokesperson & lead negotiator in campaign for accessible mass transit, CENTRO (Transit Authority) transition committee to lift equipped service; Advisory Committee to Onondaga County Department of Social Services for Consumer Directed Attendant Care Program beginning 1991. membership 1980-present

ADAPT (American Disabled for Accessible Public Transit), national negotiator and organizer regarding handicapped access to McDonalds, 1984-85

Syracuse University Center on Human Policy Institute: Community Living for Adults, consulting participant May 21,22 1989

Syracuse Alternative Media Network, Founding board member, 1985 to present. Co-producer of documentary, Witness For Peace (re: visit to Nicaragua); script coordinator Of Queremos La Paz: Nicaraguans Speak to North Americans; script coordinator for Women’s Options (poor and working class women speak of their lives and futures, in progress). 1984-present

Syracuse Community Choir, member, Coordinating Committee (grant writing, creative consultant), chair membership committee, 1985-present

Onondaga County Council on the Disabled, Committee on Home Care Services and Policy 1988-1992

Arthritis Foundation, volunteer & grants coordinator. 1981-1984

ARISE (Alternatives for Reaching Independence through Services and Engineering) Independent Living Center, Founding Board. 1981-1985

New York State Coalition of People with Disabilities, 1980-1986

Professional Affiliations

American Education Research Association (AERA)

AERA SIG/Critical Examination of Race, Ethnicity, Class & Gender

International Alliance for Learning (formerly SALT), Co-ordinator SIG/Special Needs

Society for Accelerated Learning and Teaching (SALT), Board Member 1993-1995

The Association for the Severely Handicapped (TASH).

Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD)

National Coalition Building Institute

Other Employment

Free lance translator, Leo Kanner Associates, San Mateo, California, 1975-1977

Placements under Antioch College Co-operative Work Program, 1964-1967:

Rochester Children's Nursery, Rochester, N.Y., Assistant Kindergarten Teacher, 1964 Children's Convalescent Hospital, Washington, D.C., Group Worker (disturbed children ages 3-9), 1964

Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Jacobi Hospital, Bronx, New York, Social Work Aide OB-GYN, (research, group work with GYN patients), 1965

AECM, Lincoln Hospital, Bronx, N. Y., Social Work Aide, Obstetrics Home Care, (Interviews, visits to post-natal mothers), 1965

University of Southern California Psychological Research and Services Center, secretary-receptionist,1966

Chateau de Charbonnieres, Authon-du-Perche, France, "au pair" in family-run hotel, 1966

Bar Ceuta, Marbella (Malaga), Spain, bartender, 1967