A Phenomenological Study of Teachers' Experiences of Students with Learning Disabilities in Mainstream Middle School Classrooms
Table of Contents Abstract iii Acknowledgements iv Dedication v List of Tables viii Chapter 1: Introduction 1 Background 2 Purpose 6 Theoretical Framework 6 Research Questions 8 Nature of the Study 8 Significance of the Study 9 Definitions 10 Summary 11 Chapter 2: Literature Review. 13 Learning Disabilities 14 Overview of Individuals with Disabilities Education Act 17 Mainstreaming and Inclusion 20 Collaboration Strategies 21 The Courts and Classroom Inclusion 24 Accommodations and Modifications to Create Classroom Inclusion 27 Differentiation 30 Teachers' Attitudes and Expectations of Inclusion 33 Teachers' Professional Development 36 Needed Paradigm Shift in Teaching Practice 39 Teacher Training Programs 42 Teachers as Constructivist Learners 45 Teacher Concerns 48 Inclusive School Communities 50 Research Studies Related to Classroom Inclusion 53 Summary 55 vi
Chapter 3: Research Method 57 Research Method and Design 58 Appropriateness of Using Phenomenology as Research Approach 60 Reducing Bias—Bracketing 62 Setting and Participants 63 Appropriateness of Sample Size 65 Instrument of the Study 66 Data Collection, Processing, and Analysis 66 Methodological Assumptions, Limitations, and Delimitations 72 Ethical Assurances 73 Summary 74 Chapter 4: Findings 76 Revealing Invariant Constituents and Thematic Categories 76 Results 78 Individual Textural-Structural Descriptions 95 Composite Structural Descriptions 96 Evaluation of Findings 99 Summary 101 Chapter 5: Implications, Recommendations, and Conclusions 103 Limitations 104 Implications 105 Recommendations 113 Conclusions 119 References 121 Appendices 132 Appendix A: Electronic Mail Request for Participation 133 Appendix B: Participant's Demographics 134 Appendix C: Informed Consent Form 135 Appendix D: Interview Guide 136 Appendix E: Alignment of Research Questions to Interview Questions 138 Appendix G: IRB Approval 141 Appendix H: Individual Textural-Structural Descriptions of Participants 142 vii
List of Tables Table 1 Thematic Categories and Invariant Constituent Distribution for Interviews 77 Table 2 Initial Unexpected Difficulties 79 Table 3 Practices/accommodations Incorporated in the Classroom 81 Table 4 Collaboration 83 Table 5 Perceived Changes Needed 85 Table 6 Perceived Treatment of Students with Learning Disabilities 87 Table 7 Personal Teaching Goals 90 Table 8 Professional Education Coursework Related to Teaching Students with Learning Disabilities 91 Table 9 Professional Development Opportunities Related to Teaching Students with Learning Disabilities 93 viii
1 Chapter 1: Introduction Learning disabilities are the most commonly diagnosed disability among students in public education (National Center for Learning Disabilities [NCLD], 2009). According to the NCLD, approximately 2.7 million (6%) of the school-aged population in the United States has a learning disability. Further, nearly 40% of the children enrolled in special education classes in the United States suffer from a learning disability. Students with learning disabilities are more likely than their non-disabled peers to be held back in school and to become involved in disciplinary actions (NCLD, 2009). In 2007, 25% of students with learning disabilities dropped out of high school and only one in three students with a learning disability reported enrolling in any kind of postsecondary educational program since 2000 (NCLD, 2009). General education teachers are specialists trained to teach a standard curriculum to typically developing students (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2008). At the same time, general education teachers face the challenge of effectively accommodating the needs of students with learning disabilities in their classrooms (Jung, 2007). The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) strongly affirmed that all students can achieve to high standards, including students with disabilities. NCLB works in conjunction with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1997, or IDEA, which is the nation's special education law. Under the law, students with disabilities must have access to the same high-quality curriculum and instruction as all other students. However, teacher training and induction programs do not fully prepare the general education teacher to meet the unique needs of students with learning disabilities in their classrooms (Rao, 2009). Even though professional development training is available to teachers for meeting the needs of students with learning disabilities, opportunities are limited for teachers to observe classrooms in which students with learning disabilities have been successfully
2 included, making it difficult for the general education teacher to effectively implement suggested strategies (Idol, 2006). Background Two federal laws govern the education of students with disabilities. In 1975, the U.S. Congress enacted Public Law 94-142, commonly known as the Education for All Handicapped Children Act. It was later amended to become IDEA in 1997. The second law is the NCLB Act of 2001. Neither law requires inclusion, but both require that a significant effort be made to find an inclusive placement for students with learning disabilities as referred to in his or her Individual Education Program (IEP). An IEP is an educational program, or plan, that has been designed to meet a child's unique needs. Each public school child who receives special education services must have an IEP (U.S. Department of Education, 2009). Because inclusive education has been generally defined as educating students with disabilities in general education programs alongside their non-disabled peers, general and special education teachers must be trained to be responsive to all students' needs (Blecker & Boakes, 2010). Inclusion refers to the premise that all students belong in the community of learners; therefore, this learning community should invite all students to participate in meaningful learning that offers opportunities for personal success (Combs, Elliott, & Whipple, 2010). McFall and Fitzpatrick (2010) explained that, although some students with learning disabilities continue to receive academic support from special educators, the majority of students with learning disabilities receive all academic support services, curricular adaptations, and testing modifications from their general education teachers. With more students with disabilities being placed in general education classrooms for most of the school day and substantially fewer student placements in highly restrictive setting, it is important that general education teachers
3 implement teaching strategies and practices that meet the distinct educational needs of students identified as learning disabled (Darling-Hammond, 2010; Jung, 2007; McLeskey, Landers, Williamson, & Hoppey, 2010; Rao, 2009). Attempts to inform general education teachers on issues pertaining to special education and inclusion have generally involved a single, required, introductory-level special education course (Idol, 2006). These courses typically provide information concerning legal requirements and eligibility classification regarding disabilities (Winn & Blanton, 2005). Separate general and special education teacher-preparation programs and services contribute to the barriers experienced with inclusion. Brownell, Ross, Colon, and McCallum (2005) and Van Laarhoven, Munk, Lynch, Bosma, and Rouse (2007) noted that only a few general and special education teacher-preparation programs are attempting to unify the training of general and special educators through overlapping courses and field experiences. Brownell et al. found that teacher preparation programs that integrated special and general education coursework content into field experiences promoted better skill development for beginning teachers. Teacher candidates reported that they learned best when provided multiple experiences for working with other experienced teachers (Griffin, Jones, & Kilgore, 2007; Hammeken, 2007; Hamre & Oyler, 2004). Combining special and general education teacher programs has shown promising results with positive influence on the willingness, knowledge, and skills of general and special education teacher candidates (Allen, 2009; Van Laarhoven et al., 2007). Teachers' beliefs or attitudes can have a direct influence on the successful inclusion of students with learning disabilities (Combs et al., 2010). Teachers who feel ill prepared to teach students with learning disabilities can acquire feelings of incompetence, and subsequently
4 negative attitudes toward the students (Combs et al., 2010). Inclusive education practices were developed over 15 years ago, but some educators were found to be unwilling or unprepared to employ this model of teaching (Blecker & Boakes, 2010). In one study, teachers with more than seven years of experience voiced their desire for continued need for administrative support, planning time, and professional development opportunities (Blecker & Boakes, 2010). Combs et al. indicated that teachers who had no or very limited experience working with students with learning disabilities prior to teaching had difficulty adapting the curriculum to meet the specific learning needs of students. Combs et al. also pointed out that teachers with good attitudes, who also had experience with students with learning disabilities prior to actively teaching, were able to successfully accommodate various student-learning styles and enjoyed more positive student- to-teacher interactions. The National Comprehensive Center for Teacher Quality (2008) reported that the inclusion of students with learning disabilities into the general education classroom is challenging and that physical presence alone does not lead automatically to effective participation and improved achievement. Jenkins (2010) reported that the success of inclusion relies heavily on the level of expertise of the teachers, the resulting effectiveness of their interactions with students, and their relationships with one another. Teaching effectiveness is operationally defined as multiple dimensions of teaching practices observed in inclusive classrooms (Jordan, Glenn, & McGhie-Richmond, 2010). According to Jenkins, teachers must be provided with the opportunity to become better informed about effective instructional practices and prepared to individualize instruction for students with learning disabilities.
5 Problem Statement The problem examined in this study was that many teachers believe they do not have the necessary knowledge, skills, or support to teach students with learning disabilities adequately (Hammeken, 2007; Hammond & Ingalls, 2004). Teachers have also reported that their workload increases with the inclusion of students with learning disabilities because of the varying needs and accommodations required for supporting the learning of all students (Hammond & Ingalls, 2004; Jones, Thorn, Chow, Thompson, & Wilde, 2007). Recommended accommodation strategies defined in the legally binding IEP designed specifically for a student with learning disabilities are sometimes ignored because the suggested strategies are often too time-consuming or cumbersome to implement (Bowe, 2005). Thus, students with learning disabilities are frequently given the same work as other students, with only minimal modifications and little additional support from the general education teacher (Johnson & Howell, 2009). When teachers have not received adequate preservice or inservice training, students with learning disabilities included in general education classrooms do not have their individual learning needs met (Allen, 2009; Jung, 2007). Many teachers believe they do not have the necessary knowledge base, skills, or administrative support to adequately teach students with learning disabilities (Thousand et al., 2007). Moreover, school administrators often place new teachers in difficult classroom situations because veteran teachers are able to choose preferential placements within the school system (Hogan, 2005). An additional problem emerges in that teacher frustration sometimes leads to teacher bias against students with learning disabilities (Beattie, Algozzine, & Jordan, 2006). Further, teachers have reported that their workload increases with the inclusion of students with learning disabilities because of the varying needs and accommodations required in teaching special
6 students (Beattie et al., 2006). Frustration in students leads to behavior problems, especially in middle school when behaviors begin to change (Beattie et al., 2006). As a result, both students and teachers can become frustrated. Purpose The purpose of this phenomenological study was to explore the lived experiences of middle school teachers regarding the accommodation of students with learning disabilities included in general education classrooms. The researcher also explored the amount of preservice or inservice training teachers have received that may better prepare them for teaching students with varied learning abilities. Interviews with 20 fully credentialed, middle school general education teachers were the source of the research data. Participants were selected from five fictitiously named middle schools located in one fictitiously named school district in northern California. A phenomenological design allowed an exploration of the lived experiences of teachers, which is difficult to observe or measure through statistical means (Wiersma & Jurs, 2005). The information gained from the study has value to a variety of audiences concerned with teacher preparation, teacher training, and teacher support for the inclusion of students with learning disabilities in classrooms. Theoretical Framework The conceptual structure of the study was informed by the theory posed by Walther- Thomas, Korinek, McLaughlin, and Williams (2000) who asserted that even though teachers agree with the idea of inclusive education, these same teachers are concerned that they do not have the necessary training, knowledge, or skills to adequately teach students with learning disabilities. Genuine access and improved student achievement depend upon qualified teachers with broad competencies who can offer diverse instructional strategies that are essential to
7 improved results in inclusive educational settings (Walther-Thomas et al., 2000). Improved teacher accreditation programs and professional development activities are necessary for realizing the goals of inclusive education (Walther-Thomas et al., 2000). Thus, a guiding theory of this study began with the contention that teachers are not fully prepared to teach included students with learning disabilities in general education classrooms. Studies completed by Allen (2009), Elhoweris and Alsheikh (2006), and Idol (2006) reported several facts that corroborate this contention: (a) teaching colleges continue to place primary emphasis on pedagogy and philosophy of education rather than using field experiences as a foundation for teacher training, (b) teachers are not prepared for the wide range of diverse learning abilities found in today's classrooms, and (c) teachers do not have enough time to collaborate with administrators, special education staff, and colleagues to develop accommodation strategies for students with learning disabilities. The theoretical framework guiding this study was based on the work of socio-cultural approaches to learning and development (John-Steiner & Mahn, 1996; Vygotsky, 1986). Socio- cultural theory is based on the concept that human activities take place in cultural contexts (Vygotsky, 1986). In other words, the development of learning and the formation of ideas do not happen in isolation. Rather, this development and formation occurs amongst the vast pool of transmitted experiences and the resulting social interactions with others. For example, when beginning a new activity, learners depend on other learners or coaches with more experience to assist them with skill acquisition. Over time, the learner will take on more responsibility for their own learning and participation in joint activities (John-Steiner & Mahn, 1996). Rogoff (1990) characterized this process as guided participation. When using this guided learning approach to teaching,
8 preservice teachers learn how to teach students with learning disabilities, and they participate in a wide variety of activities that provide the opportunity for synthesizing several influences into their modes of understanding concerning how to individualize and differentiate instruction. By internalizing the effects of working together with cohorts, veteran teachers, and academicians, the novice teacher acquires useful strategies and crucial knowledge (John-Steiner & Mahn, 1996). Research Questions Data for this study was collected by means of face-to-face, semi-structured interviews. The overarching research question for this phenomenological study was: RQ1. What are teachers' lived experiences with students with learning disabilities included in their regular education classrooms? In addition, two sub-questions were addressed: SQL What are teachers' lived experiences with professional education courses? SQ2. What are teachers' lived experiences with staff development that has been useful in assisting them with accommodating students with learning disabilities in their classrooms? Nature of the Study This study utilized a qualitative methodology and phenomenological design, relying on in-depth interviewing to delve into the lived experiences of middle school teachers who have included students with learning disabilities in their general education classroom. Specifically, the researcher sought to understand the participants' lived experiences through a phenomenological approach. According to Maxwell (2005), phenomenological methods are particularly effective at making the lived experiences of individuals from their own history noticeable, and with this, the method challenges structural or normative assumptions and adds an
9 interpretive dimension to phenomenological research. Moustakas (1994) noted that findings acquired from a phenomenological study may be used as the basis to inform, support, or challenge policy and action because the strength of possible inferences increases rapidly once factors start to recur with more than one participant. Eleven interview questions were explored through a series of semi-structured questions with 20 participants. The data from the interviews were analyzed to identify major and minor themes. Responses from a qualitative study utilizing face-to-face interviews added robust, rich information to the existing data. The applied research was motivated by the need to address a specific problem in an organization; data gathered from the interviews added a deeper understanding of regular education teachers' lived experiences involving students with learning disabilities. Interview responses were recorded and then carefully transcribed for the detailed coding and analysis that qualitative research requires. Significance of the Study As the number of students with various forms of learning disabilities rises in public education, the need for teachers to be better prepared for working with them also increases. Most middle school teachers agree with the theory of inclusion for students with learning disabilities, but these same teachers sometimes hesitate to implement strategies that support disabled students' learning. Some teachers do not know that the accommodations defined in the student's IEP are legally binding and they continue teaching in single, large groups, seldom differentiating instruction, or making necessary adaptations based on student needs (Hammeken, 2007). Busy middle school class schedules make collaboration difficult between general and special education teachers. Results from this study were used to highlight, review, and discuss important views and details from the interviews.
10 Definitions For the purpose of this study, the following terms were used to define and describe the unique vocabulary commonly used in educational settings. Differentiation. Differentiation is the practice of modifying and adapting instruction, materials, content, student products, and assessment to meet the learning needs of individual students. In a differentiated classroom, teachers are assumed to recognize that all students are different and require varied teaching methods, along with a wide range of strategies, to ensure student success (Tomlinson, 2008). Included students. Included students are those students with learning disabilities attending general education classes under an inclusion policy (Hammeken, 2007). Inclusion. Inclusion refers to the practice of having students with learning disabilities attend general education classes, with the supports and services needed to achieve the goals of the IEP for each student. Under inclusion, students with learning disabilities actively participate in the classroom with nondisabled students (Idol, 2006). Individual Education Program or Plan (IEP). An IEP is a legally binding educational program, or plan. Some schools use the word program, others use plan; both refer to a plan that has been designed to meet a child's unique needs. Each public school child who receives special education services must have an IEP (Fischer, Schimmel, & Stellman, 2007). Learning Disability. A learning disability is a disorder in at least one of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding and using written or spoken language, manifested in an impaired ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or calculate (U.S. Department of Education, 2004)
11 Least Restrictive Environment (LRE). The least restrictive environment refers to educating students with disabilities in general education classrooms while allowing separate class services in certain instances when such a placement was deemed more effective or better met the student's needs (McLeskey et al., 2010). Mainstreaming. Mainstrearning is the combination of special education with general education classes such that students with special needs are educated with their typically developing peers during specified time periods in the school day (Bowe, 2005). Middle SchooL For the purpose of this study, middle school is defined as a school that enrolls students in sixth, seventh, and eighth grades. Special Education. Special education is the provision of needed supports, services, adaptations, and accommodations for students with learning or physical disabilities (Salor & Roger, 2005). Summary Teacher training and induction programs do not fully prepare general education teachers to meet the unique needs of children with learning disabilities in their classrooms (Rao, 2009). When teachers have not received adequate preservice or inservice training, students with learning disabilities included in general education classrooms might not have their learning needs met (Allen, 2009; Jung, 2007). Lack of teachers' understanding of what a learning disability entails and how to work effectively with students with learning disabilities can lead to frustration and resentment toward students. Thus, there is a need to create more comprehensive professional training for teachers so that teachers may learn how to teach and manage the learning of students with disabilities in the general education setting effectively (Rao, 2009). Teacher training can occur in teaching-credential programs, school district-sponsored
12 professional development training, and summer institutes. Skilled educators are better able to help foster wellbeing in students with learning disabilities when they have confidence in their own abilities to address the needs of a diverse classroom (Sapon-Shevin, 2007). Chapter one provided a brief overview of the related literature, the research problem and purpose of the research, the research questions, significance of the study, and definitions of key terms. Chapter Two provides an extensive review of the literature including historical perspectives of inclusion, understanding the meaning of inclusion, collaboration strategies, the courts and inclusion, accommodations and modifications, differentiation, teachers' attitudes and expectations, professional development, constructivist learning, and inclusive school communities. Chapter Three details the methodology, research design, appropriateness of using a phenomenological research approach, the setting and participants, data collection and analysis, assumptions, limitations, delimitations, and ethical assurances of the study. Chapter Four reports the findings in detail and describes the systematic application from the transcribed interviews while using the research questions to guide the interpretation. Chapter Five concludes the study with interpretation of the findings, recommendations for further study, and conclusions.
13 Chapter 2: Literature Review Meeting all children's needs within one classroom is challenging for both veteran and new teachers (Maanum, 2009). Diverse class composition is the norm in multicultural, multilingual, and multiple intelligence inclusive schools (Villa & Thousand, 2005). Research addressing teacher adaptations for diverse student needs in these settings found that teachers vary significantly in their ability and willingness to make adaptations (Hammeken, 2007). Though NCLB states that all teachers in core academic areas must be highly qualified in the core academic subjects they teach (NCLB, 2004), general education teachers are not being adequately trained to teach students with learning disabilities included in the general education classroom (Bowe, 2005; Hammeken; Thomas & Loxley, 2008). Access to the general curriculum is not exclusively a special education concern; it depends on factors associated with general education and the general curriculum. All students benefit when the general education curriculum becomes more accessible by instruction from well-qualified teachers (Villa & Thousand, 2005). This study explored middle school teachers' lived experiences with regard to accommodating students with learning disabilities in general education classrooms and determining what makes some teachers more confident than others in their ability to differentiate instruction to accommodate all classroom learners. The literature review contains information from general education experts, special education experts, and peer reviewed scholarly journals. The review begins with an overview of what constitutes a learning disability and a brief discussion of the IDEA Act and its intended benefits for students in special education. The review continues with an explanation of the differences between modifications, accommodations, and differentiation for students with learning disabilities, followed by a discussion of the influence of key legal cases. The need for more structured teacher training and
14 professional development is discussed in depth as well as an examination of inclusion from teacher perspectives. The review of literature concludes with a review of select phenomenological studies on topics related to the study. Learning Disabilities The frequency in which students with learning disabilities receive education alongside nondisabled peers in general education classrooms increased significantly in recent years (Cook, Cameron, & Tankersley, 2007). Several learning disability characteristics make middle school coursework frustrating for included students (Steele, 2008). Students with specific learning disabilities may have average to above average intelligence but have difficulties acquiring and demonstrating knowledge and understanding (U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, 2009). This results in lack of achievement for age and ability level and severe discrepancy between achievement and abilities (Worrell, 2008). Students with learning disabilities tend to exhibit one (or more) particularly weak academic subject, which in most cases includes reading. This can result in these students being significantly below grade level in reading by their middle school years (Smith, 2004). There is no clear demarcation between students with normal reading abilities and those with mild reading disabilities. The majority of children with reading disabilities exhibit relatively mild reading disabilities, with a smaller number having extreme reading disabilities (Lyon et al., 2001). The longer students with a learning disability in basic reading skills go without identification and intervention, the more difficult the task of remediation and the lower the rate of success (Lyon et al., 2001). Lyon et al. noted that students with extreme deficits in basic reading skills are much more difficult to remediate than children with mild or moderate deficits. It is unclear whether students in the most severe range can achieve age- and grade-
15 approximate reading skills, even with normal intelligence and with intense, informed intervention provided over a protracted period of time (Lyon et al., 2001). Learning disabilities can be characterized by more than 30 distinct traits (Florian & McLaughlin, 2008). According to Florian and McLaughlin, this broad spectrum of characteristics contributes to a lack of precision in defining the term learning disabled. According to federal guidelines, a learning disability is "a disorder in at least one of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding and using written or spoken language, manifested in impaired ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or calculate" (U.S. Department of Education, 34 CFR 300.8[c], 2004). Excluded by this definition are mental retardation, visual and hearing impairments, and environmental, economic, and cultural disadvantages. Administrators of most school districts use a working definition identifying a student as learning disabled if there is a discrepancy between ability and achievement (Mercer & Mercer, 2004). According to the NCLD (2009), learning disabilities are a heterogeneous group of disorders manifested by significant difficulties in the acquisition and use of listening, speaking, writing, reasoning, or mathematical abilities. There is not a clear understanding of the specific causes of learning disabilities; however, the professional literature emphasizes biological causes because learning disabilities tend to run in families. Estimates reveal that about 50% of instances of learning disabilities are hereditary (Bowe, 2005). The effects of a learning disability manifest differently for individuals and range from mild to severe. Learning disabilities may be present with other disabilities including mobility or sensory impairments (Bowe, 2005; Mercer & Mercer, 2004).