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Monday, October 24, 2011

Teaching in Numbers; Economy of Disability in Teacher Preparation.

I do not like having to give students a failing grade even if they have earned it. For many years I took moral and professional pride in being able to adjust the learning environment with students in ways that caused all comers to access the materials and lessons. My son has aided me in what may be thought of as a universal teacher. What I learned from my son as I helped him negotiate the special education system and clean his room was that being with him while he was completing a task was both time consuming and effective. The time spent in analysis of how he was functioning allowed me to relate as a role model and adjust the environment for success. This process in educational terms is to create a Functional Behavior Analysis in typical settings (Skinner 2009) and requires significant focus on parent / child or teacher / learner relationship in order to develop the learning environment or climate (Mitchell, 2010). The purpose of this article is to increase retention for teacher candidates with disabilities. Current teachers with learning disabilities come to the profession with a distinct advantage in causing proficiency for students with learning disabilities. The teacher candidate with a learning disability is more likely to draw from personal experience while internalizing the cultural and professional discussions impacting learning methodology (Ferri 2005).

After three decades of working with and for people with disabilities I knew I had acquired the habits of advocacy, accommodation and accessibility, which make up the fundamentals of universal Design for Learning (Edyburn, 2010). I made efficient and effective use of the fundamentals by engaging in close professional relationship with each student in order to shape interactions and attitudes. This combination caused an increase in academic performance and classroom climate (Mitchell 2010). As a teacher who applied personal skills to shape interactions and model professional methods of climate building I experienced high rates of academic achievement in course participants. Even with the rigor of community service, complex reading and research papers as product few students failed during a 10-year period. Making use of learner’s tendency to learn from and model after the teacher who is a personal teacher (timmerman 2009) I was able to meet with success even with the most unique learner.

One critical resource in the approaches I developed is time (Skinner 2009) and may be impacted depending on the number of students in the course. A secondary factor may be the number of competencies intended to develop in each student in each course. My focus in this article is not to discuss the tendencies of higher education to increase class size but to take a look at the student with learning disabilities in relation to my experiences in serving them as they engage and learn from course material.

As class size increases I am less able to apply the skills of a personal teacher (Timmerman 2009) or create student-centered analysis within the learning community (Skinner 2009). An associated question is the student’s capacity to engage me, the teacher, as their school experience involves increased numbers of peers and expected competencies. In essence it becomes easier for each student to get lost. This is especially true for students with specific learning support needs. An anecdotal survey of three courses reveals the number of students with identified learning disabilities is significantly higher in the certification related education courses (15%) as opposed to the general education elective (5%). Calculating a simple average for two required special education courses over 5 semesters the following data is revealed. When comparing class size of less than thirty (16 – 29) participants vs. greater than or equal to thirty (30 – 38) participants there is approximately a 100% increase in failure rate. When comparing class size of less than 35 (16 – 34) participants vs. greater than or equal to 35 (35 – 38) participants there is approximately a 250% increase in failure rate. The number of courses and participants is small enough that one would expect the statistics to be not statistically relevant. However the data is useful in calling for more research. The question is to compare class size to retention as it applies to teacher preparation programs for students with identified learning disabilities.

New teacher certifications in our state have lead the Department of Special Education to create a new certification curriculum. In many ways this has given us the opportunity to improve and update what is delivered to teacher candidates. In the foundational courses that are the subject of this inquiry it has resulted in a 300% increase in number of identified competencies embedded in one course. In the past teacher candidates experienced three courses that generally fall into the category of introductory and foundational. The new curriculum does not afford the extra credits and has teacher candidates arriving at an educational foundation course as their first experience with special education. The 300% increase in competencies may account for some of the failure rate. Comparing the two courses the class size average is about equal (29.17% vs 30.66%). The failure rate reveals an increase of approximately 133% with the course in the new curriculum showing the higher failure rate. I bring this into the discussion in for transparency. I suspect the two factors; class size and number of competencies impact the teacher candidates more complexly than a simple sum. However, factoring out the increase in competencies the effects of class size continues to reveal an increase of approximately 120% in failure rate. A secondary inquiry suggested to considering the complexities and organization of individual course competencies as it applies to retention of teacher candidates with learning disabilities.

Solutions Driven by Student Need / A modest proposal for restructuring the higher education experience.

The question; what methods will build excellence into the learning experience while taking advantage of the large class size and considering a diverse mix of learning styles considering today’s social, cultural and economic variables? It is possible that Grace Lee Boggs (2011) is correct when she notes that schools have treated learning and students like products of a factory aimed at satisfying the needs of the industrial age. The more than one hundred years of factory schools may have developed blind spots in the actions and thinking of well intentioned educators. As educators we may be unaware of the place from which our attention and intention originate (Scharmer 2007). With more expected in a shorter amount of time with heavy reliance on past practice while ignoring the contributions of the learners as teachers, it is quite likely that the problem is not simply more learners in the room. An increase in class size may be the straw that broke the camels back. Many learners all learning together may be a beacon shining on a larger need. Students are crying out for an education that delivers opportunities to exercise creative energies because “it values them as whole human beings” (Boggs, 2011 pg. 49).

I asked my son what would be the strategies of a high performance leaning environment that capitalized on the thinking and behavioral patterns of a learner with ADD. If subjects where combined into practical workshops with reading, writing, reflection, research and so forth being done during the workshop that would be both exciting and focused. His answer caused me to envision a learning day that was built around a nine-hour workshop. Perhaps two 3-credit courses are combined for mutual support and application that is both deep and wide. The dominant methods are founded on peer tutoring and Universal Design for Learning.

The term universal design for learning means a scientifically valid framework for guiding educational practice that - (A) provides flexibility in the ways information is presented, in the ways students respond or demonstrate knowledge and skills, and in the ways students are engaged; and (B) reduces barriers in instruction, provides appropriate accommodations, supports, and challenges, and maintains high achievement expectations for all students, including students with disabilities and students who are limited English proficient (Edyburn 2010 Pg 34).

Peer tutoring in Higher Education is shown to be an effective and efficient tool, which results in student learning and empowerment (Colvin, 2007). The key in the context of this paper is the elimination of traditional hierarchical structures (Colvin 2007). The concept and process of students educating one another turns an over populated classroom into a classroom with many teachers with high motivation to learn. The workshop-scheduling concept, as thought of in this paper, has five main guidelines.

1) Focused significant time frames of practical and productive learning,
2) Workshop type scheduling that incorporates information giving, information sharing, student cohort work, and multiple products of choice which evidence mastery,
3) Learning that relies on the emergent future (Scharmer 2007).
4) All products are produced during workshop-scheduled time and/or as part of filed experience responsibilities.
5) Self-assessment (Taras, 2010) is a strong component as a means of learning, instruction and collaborative (learner and instructor) grading.
The literature review, assumptions and suggestions detailed in this paper are reflective of the need to let go of the old body of institutionalized behavior. Educators as students and students as educators will drive us to operate from the possible future and keep us out of the muck of the past (Scharmer 2007).


Boggs, Grace Lee (2011). The next American Revolution; Sustainable Activism for the twenty-First century. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.

Colvin, Janet ( 2007) Peer Tutoring and Social dynamics in higher education. Mentoring & Tutoring Vol 15, No2, May 2007, pp 165-181, Routledge.

Edyburn, D. L. (2010). Would You Recognize Universal Design For Learning If You Saw It? Ten Propositions For New Directions For The Second Decade Of UDL. Learning Disability Quarterly, 33(1), 33-41. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

Ferri, B., Connor, D., Solis, S., Valle, J., & Volpitta, D. (2005). Teachers with LD: ongoing negotiations with discourses of disability. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 38(1), 62-78. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

Mitchell, M., Bradshaw, C., & Leaf, P. (2010). Student and teacher perceptions of school climate: a multilevel exploration of patterns of discrepancy. Journal of School Health, 80(6), 271-279. doi:10.1111/j.1746-1561.2010.00501.x

Scharmer, C. Otto (2007) Theroy U; leading from the Future as it Emerges. SOL, Cambridge, MA.

Skinner, J. N., Veerkamp, M. B., Kamps, D. M., & Andra, P. R. (2009). Teacher and Peer Participation in Functional Analysis and Intervention for a First Grade Student with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Education & Treatment of Children, 32(2), 243-266. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

Taras, Maddalena (2010) Student Self-assessment: processes and consequnces. Teaching in Higher education, Vol 15, No2, April 2010, 199-209.

Timmerman, G. (2009). Teacher educators modelling their teachers?. European Journal of Teacher Education, 32(3), 225-238. doi:10.1080/02619760902756020

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