Introduction and Research Statement
Currently, increased attention is paid to education issues and gaps in this area. General and special education teachers at a local New Jersey elementary school have expressed concerns about how to help students with disabilities (SWDs) achieve academic success in an inclusive classroom (N. Daniels, personal communication, July 26, 2016). According to Cameron and Cook (2013), such children and teenagers not only require more time, attention, and patience, they also need specialized instructional strategies and a supportive environment that encourages and enhances their learning potential.
Unfortunately, as noticed by the National Council on Disability (2018), “in New Jersey, only 46 percent of its students with disabilities included 80 percent or more of the time, and 15 percent spent more than 60 percent of their day in special education settings” (p. 31). Only a small number of SWDs achieve average state performance, while their peers have much better results, and New Jersey elementary teachers are concerned about their inability to adequately meet SWDs’ instructional needs.
Purpose and Research Questions
The issues and gaps mentioned above justify the purpose of this qualitative exploratory case study, which aims to examine New Jersey elementary school teachers’ preparedness for and perceived barriers to meeting the academic needs of SWDs in the inclusion setting. There are three major research questions addressed in the research, including the following:
- RQ 1 – What are the general and special education teachers’ perceived barriers to meeting the academic, emotional, and social needs of students with disabilities in the inclusive setting?
- RQ 2 – Which of the barriers can be identified through observations?
- RQ 3 – What are the ways to eliminate these barriers and enhance SWDs’ academic performance?
The paper includes a description of the theoretical framework used for the research and a review of literature that was analyzed during the information gathering and found contributing to the topic. Additionally, there is a section that outlines the methodological approach and involves population, data collection, and analysis plan subsections.
Students with disabilities educated together with their non-disabled peers are believed to socialize better, while their classmates grow up being more accepting in offering help to their struggling peers (Mastropieri et al., 2013). However, since general and special education teachers’ perceived barriers contribute to educators’ lack of success in meeting the various needs of SWDs in an inclusive classroom (Fuchs et al., 2014), it is essential to examine and address these obstacles. It is expected that the results of this proposed study will be valuable and beneficial.
Significance and Expected Results
They will be used for defining research-based recommendations that will help teachers make informed decisions and provide them with steps and strategies to overcome their perceived barriers. On the local level, the insight gained from this proposed study may increase dialogue and collaboration between New Jersey general and special education teachers. If they talk about their perceptions of change and discuss their concerns about SWDs inability to reach grade-level expectations, there is a greater chance of structuralizing these obstacles and finding ways to eliminate or mitigate them. Furthermore, another result of this study will be the creation of a unique project that will improve teachers’ professional practice. It is also expected to assist teachers in their professional development and abilities to apply knowledge and skills necessary to meet the academic and social needs of SWDs in an inclusive classroom setting.
This section of the paper is devoted to defining and justifying the chosen theoretical framework. The conceptual framework of this qualitative case study focuses on Fullan’s (2006) system change theory. It suggests that there are several major stages of change processes, such as initiation, implementation, continuation, and outcome (Fullan, 2006). However, in order to achieve and maintain quality results, people taking part in the process have to be aware of the details and the necessity of success.
Fullan and Langworthy (2014) believe that educational professionals must look at resistance as a positive force in the change process. At the same time, Fullan (2006) suggests that the primary purpose for change in schools’ environment is to improve the instructional programs for all students, but teachers’ perceived barriers can negatively affect students’ academic outcomes (Hargreaves & Fullan, 2012). Thus, it is essential to take certain steps in order to make resistance actually a positive force.
Fullan and Langworthy (2014) note that school administrators and stakeholders are key players when implementing environmental change and must have a voice in the change process and knowledge about the factors influencing the question or issue. The authors also believe that for people to acknowledge and accept change, it is vital to perceive a need to change the environment they are currently in (Fullan & Langworthy, 2014).
The chosen framework considers that successful change requires the availability of resources, and change agents should ensure that these resources are sufficient and available (Fullan, 2012). The theory of action behind this process is to examine the obstacles encountered by teachers when implementing instructional changes required for effectively meeting the needs of SWDs in inclusive classrooms. The schools’ achievement gap refers to observed and persistent disparities of educational measures between the performances of non-disabled students and their disabled peers in the inclusion classroom.
Hargreaves and Fullan (2012) suggest that there are wide disparities in the quality and effectiveness of schools at both primary and secondary levels. This system change theory is appropriate when considering that local New Jersey teachers have identified barriers in implementing instructional strategies to SWDs during professional learning community (PLC) meetings. Consequently, evidencing and implementing change is essential and should be performed as soon as possible.
Selected articles that reveal general education and special education teachers’ perceptions of barriers related to the change needed when implementing instruction for students with disabilities in general education classrooms are described in this section of the prospectus. The articles are divided into several groups based on their topics and questions under study. All papers are peer-reviewed, have references, and provide credible information and data, which is their main strength. As for weaknesses, some authors do not mention the limitations or ethical considerations of their research.
To begin with, many articles are focused on exploring, systematizing, and finding ways to improve the attitudes of teachers and school leaders towards students with special needs and their inclusion in the general education classroom. For example, Ball and Green (2014) notice that participants reveal varied points of view relative to general education teachers instructing students with disabilities, and almost all principles have a high positive attitude towards their inclusion.
Further, MacFarlane and Woolfson (2013) also examine teachers’ behavior towards the inclusion of children with social, emotional, and behavioral difficulties in the mainstream and recommend several steps. Urton et al. (2014) explore unique factors that contribute to the development of the positive and negative attitudes of teachers. Finally, DeRoche (2013) addresses new teachers’ attitudes toward general and instructional accommodations and fairness. The author also discusses general education teacher preparation and planning programs, and this issue is also explored in several other articles.
For example, King-Sears et al. (2012) study the quality of preparation for general and special education teachers who instruct students with disabilities and notice that it is not on the proper level, and there is a critical shortage of special educators. Next, Fuchs et al. (2014) focus on developing this question from the perspective of teachers’ ability to adapt writing lesson plans for students with disabilities and align them with the Common Core Standards. Jimenez and Kamei (2015) evaluate the ways educators can improve instructions and preparation to enhance the teaching and learning process in schools. Hamman et al. (2013) also explores this issue and emphasizes the limited exposure of general-education candidates to inclusion strategies at the preservice level.
Further, Zion and Sobel (2014) address the importance of general and special education teacher planning and the importance of creating classroom activities for primary students with disabilities who tend to exhibit challenging behaviors. A unit-based approach in an inclusive classroom, the different steps teachers can take when implementing instruction, and the ways to effectively teach such children in the general education classroom are discussed by Kurth (2013). Additionally, Petersen (2016) assessed the ways for general education teachers to develop their instructions to include strategies for students with disabilities and examine how change could be accomplished in schools to improve teaching practices and increase learning.
Some authors also examine educational settings and the necessity of collaboration between educators. Thus, Kurth et al. (2015) determine the least restrictive (LRE) classroom environment for students with disabilities and provide evidence showing that opportunities for such children to learn and develop are enhanced in more inclusive educational settings.
Then, Cameron and Cook (2013) and Zagona et al. (2017) talk about co-instruction and collaboration between general and special educators and emphasize its necessity for identifying factors that may contribute to their better preparation. Lastly, Musgrove (2017) and Morningstar et al. (2017) focus on the national trends in educational placements for students with significant disabilities in the LRE and list policy changes needed to move the nation toward a positive life.
The essence and value of the mentioned articles are rather high, and all the papers appear to contribute to my research. The authors provide crucial insights and allow to look at the issue under study from different perspectives.
For investigating the research problem of this paper, the qualitative methodological approach appears to be the most useful. Since the research design of this study is the field research design that uses interviews and observations of participants in order to gather information and compare it with other researchers’ findings, the choice of qualitative methodological approach is justified. In the following subsections, the selected population, methods for data collection, and information analysis plan are provided.
General and special education teachers are the populations selected for this research. Since it is impossible to question and conduct interviews with a vast number of them, it is necessary to choose several participants who will be ready to answer the questions and be observed for data gathering. Overall, it is decided to select 8-12 general and 8-12 special education teachers employed in a local school district in New Jersey. It is also vital that the participants teach first, second, or third grade in an inclusive setting. Purposeful sampling will be based on the mentioned characteristics, as well as candidates’ experiences, knowledge, and willingness to take part in the research.
What is more, it is vital to consider effective methods for the ethical protection of participants. First of all, the selected teachers will be assured that their participation remains anonymous. Of course, their answers will be used for conducting the research and drawing specific conclusions, but neither the names nor other distinctive characteristics of the participants will be made public.
Moreover, no matter what the teachers’ responses turn out to be or how successfully they manage the inclusion of students with disabilities, they will not be judged or portrayed in a negative light neither during the personal interviews nor when publishing the results. In addition, the selected teachers will not be threatened, humiliated, harmed, or disgraced during the observations and interviews. If any of the asked questions appear to be uncomfortable to the participant, he or she will not be forced to answer them, and the answers will not be further thought up by researchers to fill the gaps in the gathered data.
In order to make sure that the research results will be relevant, credible, and contributing to the solution of the problem under study, it is essential to choose appropriate and effective data collection methods. For example, for this particular qualitative exploratory case study, it was decided to examine perceived barriers from several general and special education teachers who provide instructional teaching strategies for SWDs through interviews, observations, and lesson plans analysis.
Personal in-depth descriptive semi-structured interviews will provide an opportunity for both general and special education teachers to express their beliefs and concerns regarding barriers to successful inclusive education. Further, a series of two observations in each class will make it possible to gather information regarding teachers’ practices in addressing the barriers they identify in the interview process. Detailed notes of each observation will provide data on fundamental approaches used in eliminating the identified obstacles.
Though the mentioned data collection methods are rather useful and practical for qualitative research, they have some limitations. For example, when conducting a personal interview with a participant, it is possible that they either tell a lie or refuse to answer a question at all in order not to expose or embarrass themselves. This is the reason why the final results can appear to be not as actual and accurate as desired. Further, some participants may feel anxious and stressed when being observed during a lesson, and their state can affect their behavior.
To draw specific conclusions and structuralize the gathered data, it is decided to use a thematic analysis with open and axial coding. Considering the data collection methods’ limitations mentioned above, it is impossible to guarantee the one hundred percent reliability of the results and quality of data. However, it is still expected that the findings will be mostly valid and incredibly valuable for addressing the problem under study. As for needed software and technology, it is required to have access to NVivo – a computer software package that will assist in organizing, analyzing, and finding insights in unstructured qualitative data. Finally, professional recording gear is necessary to record the interviews properly, and modern computers are needed for the software to run smoothly.
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