Why Co-Teach?

You can’t teach a child to swim by taking them out of the pool.

 – J.M. Cataffo

The Unsightly Truth of Pullout Services

The most used service delivery model in Special Education has always been to remove students from the general education environment and into a special education classroom: the old reliable pullout model. It offered a way for teachers to meet the needs of their students without the distractions of the classroom. As much as we’d like to believe this to be the primary reason for pullout services, the real reason for the adoption of the pullout model is far less altruistic. Pullout services were necessitated by a lack of personnel in smaller schools and districts. It was a way to provide services despite insufficient funding. Pulling the kids from multiple classrooms into a special education class allowed special education teachers to see multiple kids on multiple campuses and serve their needs as defined by the students’ IEPs.

It is true that pullout provides some significant benefits over the general education classroom environment, the most notable being small group instruction in a less distracting setting (although, I can tell you from my own experiences, this wasn’t always the case). Often times, students were placed in these programs with little discretion and they became a free-for-all environment. Teachers would scramble to try to meet the multiple needs they were given. Students would come to them on varying degrees of academic need and even more varying degree of physical challenges. Behavior issues, physical limitations, even students who were deaf and blind. A resource room was a catch-all, teachers exhausting all resources to provide what they could. Even in the best of circumstances where small groups and well managed groups were provided, NCLB exposed a glaring oversight. If children were not in their classroom, how were they learning what they were supposed to? This became the primary question for districts when NCLB went into effect. All of a sudden students who were multiple years below grade level were expected to pass statewide assessments. Special education teachers were now frantically trying to learn how they were supposed to meet their students’ needs and provide grade-level content as well.

A new understanding of service delivery emerged. Research began to show the effectiveness of inclusive settings where students were pulled less often for services and in some cases not at all. Student performance rose and special education teachers were baffled by what they saw. So long had they relied on the tried and true method of pulling students out of the classroom that never had they considered the effect of leaving them in.

So polarizing was this idea of inclusion that people began to take notice of its effects. Teacher were now taking a new hard look at the concept of LRE (Least Restrictive Environment). The simple question asked at every IEP Meeting began to take on new meaning. Does the benefits obtained by removing the student from the classroom outweigh any negative effects? A new factor was brought into that equation: grade level expectations were now a factor in those negative effects. It had previously been assumed that because these students had a disability that they were only partially able or unable to meet the expectations in the classroom.

So began the revolution for the best place for students to receive services. The debate rages on about where the most “appropriate” environment for students might be. Surely not all pullout services are bad, right? But then again think back to the mandate of IDEA which states that students services should happen within their LRE. So how does one answer the question above? What defines negative effects? How exactly do you balance the benefits? Before we dig deeper into these questions, let’s look at the benefits of Co-Teaching. A deeper understanding of how providing services in the classroom will address these questions and give you a sense for why this is such an important push.

Here’s some interesting data to consider:

A student can spend anywhere from 5-12 minutes a day transitioning to a pull-out class. That’s a total of 2,160 minutes of instruction.

  • 36 hours
  • 5 days
  • 1 week

And that’s just time lost to transitions.

A student who is pulled for instruction a minimum of 30 minutes per day misses 5,400 minutes of instruction in the classroom.

  • That’s 90 hours
  • 12 days
  • 2.5 weeks

Add to that the time for transitions and your pull-out kids have already missed 3 weeks of instruction. Can you imagine the effect of a student if they’d been gone from your room for 3 weeks? And that’s with only 30 minutes of pullout a day! Many of our students with special needs get so much more!

Consider Sarah. The pullout services Sarah received were small, at first. She was pulled for 30 minutes a day in Language Arts and thirty minutes in Math. This was justified by the fact that she struggled in the classroom and needed support. It was standard practice then to recommend Resource services as a general rule, and while students were expected to have some exposure to grade-level content, the expectation wasn’t such that they be included with due diligence. It was therefore acceptable for Sarah to be pulled for her services. It seems so innocuous, doesn’t it? It makes logical sense: a child needs specialized help, pull them into a room where a specialist can help them. The problem in this particular instance was this: I could teach Sarah all the things she needed to become a better reader and do better in Math, OR I could teacher her grade level content in a less distracting setting. In 30 minutes, how could I possibly do both of those things. Easy solution, right? Like most resource rooms, I took care of her remedial needs and relied on the fact that she would go back to the classroom for grade level content. 

Problem solved!

Except then you have to consider what actually took place when she returned to the classroom. Generally speaking, we did our best to ensure that students were pulled during a time that was most convenient for the teacher, so that Sarah didn’t miss too much of the lesson. This meant a time was chosen and Sarah was pulled at that time each and every day. As most teachers will attest, however, things don’t always work out the way you had hoped. Sarah was not as included as one would expect. She would return to class, but would have missed the guided reading portion of the lesson. The teacher would give her a worksheet, but Sarah wasn’t able to complete it without having read the story. Given that he reading level was slower than average, by the time she did finish reading the story the rest of the class was ready to move on. She had also missed the short lesson on the key skill for the day, so the teacher would have to pull her to the back table and re-teach the skill to Sarah. The same limitation was a problem as if she had been pulled to resource and had gotten a lesson there. While the teacher can cover the concept, what was missing was a truly authentic experience. None of the rich questions that the students had asked during the presentation were repeated for Sarah. The discussions that had taken place, she had missed, the rich experience of collaboration had been lost. There is no way for the teacher to reproduce these essential snippets of learning. Sarah may gain a basic knowledge of the concept, but she will lack in the in-depth understanding that she will need to be successful.

In time, the minutes she had missed added up as illustrated in the examples above. She had begun to miss so much classroom instruction that her understanding fell further and further behind. She had become a victim of the process put into place to ensure that she didn’t become the victim. 

Special Education services have become a double edge sword. While skills may be mastered in such settings, more are lost in the wake. The answer truly lies in keeping true to a student’s Least Restrictive Environment. If you want Billy to swim, you can’t take him out of the pool.

If you have specific questions that you would like to have answered that are related to this topic, feel free to ask them in the comments section below. For more information about the author, please visit: J.M.Cataffo’s Author Website

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