Michael Fullan, a world renown scholar in the area of educational reform, captured the imprecision and pace of the educational change process in his often cited comment that “change is a journey, not a blueprint” (Fullan & Miles, 1982, pg. 749). Educators who are involved in teaching students with low incidence disabilities are not immune from these “big picture” shifts in educational practice. As the old Bob Dylan song goes -’the times they are a-changin’.
This couldn’t be more true when thinking about curriculum for many students who fall under the “low incidence” umbrella. In the remainder of this post, I am going to be talking about curricular approaches for students who are often described as having severe cognitive disabilities, or, in NCLB-speak, the population of students addressed by the 1% rule.
Where We’ve Been Perspectives on curriculum have evolved substantially since 1975, when students with severe disabilities first gained access to public school services and a “free and appropriate public education” . At that time, many schools began providing services to a group of students who previously had not attended public school. Curricula for these students had not been developed, leaving professionals to adapt existing developmental curricula designed for young children. This approach, known as the developmental model, was based on the thinking that a student’s developmental age should drive instruction. Using this model, curriculum is determed by starting where the student is, developmentally, and targeting the next skills in the developmental sequence for instruction. The drawbacks of this approach were quickly identified, although frightening remnants of these practices are still evident today. (Have you seen adults with developmental disabilities still “playing” with Fisher Price toys? Have you seen high school students with significant disabilities treated like young children?)
Professionals began advocating for a new approach, and the concept that guided the next curricular phase is the criterion of ultimate functioning. Based on this perspective, curriculum is defined through the identification of skills needed to participate in “current” and “subsequent” environments across the major functional life domains (i.e., domestic, vocational, recreation and leisure, and community living skills). As this philosophy was embraced, the prevailing approach to instruction for students with severe disabilities was the functional curriculum, with its emphasis on age appropriate tasks and materials.
As the emphasis on services to students reflected a greater emphasis on inclusion, curricular practices emphasized the importance of the social skills needed to be successful in inclusive school, work, and community settings. Similarly, concepts such as self-determination have resulted in some additions to the functional curriculum, but as a whole, this remains the prevailing practice for students with severe cognitive disabilities.
New Paradigms The engine that is pulling the train toward new curricular paradigms for students with disabilities is school accountability. Since the 1997 amendments to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act introduced the concept of “access to the general education curriculum” and required that all students participate in statewide assessments, the tension between these concepts and the focus of daily instruction for many students with low incidence disabilities has increased. This is further reinforced by NCLB, with the philosophy of “high expectations for all” evidenced by requirements that the alternate version of the statewide assessment be aligned with the general education standards framework. Given this requirement, it logically follows that the concept emerging in current discussions of curriculum for students with severe disabilities is that of aligning curriculum with the statewide assessment. In other words, curriculum for students with severe cognitive disabilities should be aligned with the general education standards. This is truly a paradigm shift for many. The ideas associated with this shift will be “unpacked” in other sections of this blog site.