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Project Breakthrough: A workable alternative to special education
Social Work in Education
Authors: Marion Huxtable
Start Page: 257
Copyright National Association of Social Workers, Incorporated Oct 1997
Project Breakthrough is an experimental attempt to provide an appropriate
public education for all children without the disadvantages and restrictions
of special education. The program provides services in the mainstream using
the regular education initiative without categorizing children. Special
and regular education teachers and support staff; including school social
workers, collaborate to help students based on need rather than on whether
they qualify under special education guidelines. This model is congruous
with social work values of providing service to all and uses social work
methods, including the systems approach.
Key words: children; disabilities; education; mainstream; regular education
Since 1975 students with disabilities have been entitled to public education
appropriate to their needs. The Education for All Handicapped Children
Act of 1975 (P.L. 94-142) has ensured that children are placed in the least
restrictive environment, that they receive necessary related services,
and that they are protected by due process. The Individuals with Disabilities
Education Act (IDEA) of 1990 (P.L. 101-476) continued these mandates and
added requirements for services needed in the transition to adult education
and adult living. For those who qualify as disabled, there is intensive
individualized help and protection of educational rights.
Yet from the early days of the special education mandate, a number of leaders
and researchers pointed out the disadvantages of the categorical model
(in which only individuals in certain categories can be served) that is
the basis for special education (Dickie, 1982; Gardner, 1982; Lieberman,
1980; Reynolds, Zetlin, & Wang, 1993; Stone, 1987). Segregation, excessive
bureaucracy, disruption of the disabled child's participation in regular
education, and stigmatization are some of the problems of children receiving
special education. In addition, there are children who need help, who are
tested repeatedly but receive no help because they do not fit one of the
mandated categories. Children with borderline IQ scores, varying degrees
of attention deficit disorder, and behavioral problems do not qualify for
help under IDEA.
The amendments to IDEA of 1997 provide some relief to the disadvantages
inherent in segregating disabled students. Section 613(a)(2)(A) allows
funds provided to the local education agency to be used for "the costs
of special education and related services and supplementary aids and services
provided in a regular class or other education-related setting to a child
with a disability in accordance with the individualized education program
of the child, even if one or more nondisabled children benefit from such
services." By allowing special education funding to be used for disabled
and nondisabled children together, the amendments reduce stigmatization
of the disabled and provide help for previously excluded children (Hehir,
Protective features are built into special education to alleviate the potential
negative effects of students being labeled and segregated, mandating that
the student be educated in the least-restrictive environment in the mainstream
to the extent permitted by the disability. However, because the federal
regulations do not specify the extent to which general education must adapt
its educational program to meet the needs of the student with a disability,
the extent of mainstreaming varies. The extent and quality of mainstreaming
hinge on the interaction of factors such as size of classes, willingness
and preparedness of receiving teachers, and caliber of support services.
Despite the protections special education affords, dissatisfaction with
the disadvantages of the categorical model has produced a movement to eliminate
the separation of regular and special education. The regular education
initiative (REI) and inclusion are the two motors driving this movement.
Regular Education Initiative and Inclusion
REI is a model for addressing the needs of special education students in
high-incidence categories, such as learning disabilities. REI involves
collaboration among special and regular education teachers using team teaching,
special educators serving as consultants, and support staff, all serving
the student in regular classes. The model originated with a paper by Assistant
Secretary of Education Madelaine Will (1986) focusing on the needs of children
with mild and moderate disabilities. Debate for and against the proposal
has been intense (Blair,1993; Davis & Maheady,1991; Gersten & Woodward,1990;
Maheady & Algozzine, 1991; Silver, 1991; Slavin,1990). On one side, it
has been argued that REI is a flawed "trickledown" theory emanating from
the Reagan-Bush administrations that will cheat students with disabilities
of their rights while reducing federal expenditures (Kauffman, 1989). Silver
(1991), concerned that REI, in spite of being well conceived, would become
another example of the failure of deinstitutionalization unless adequately
funded, called on professional and parent organizations to declare "the
emperor has no clothes." Yet others have seen the potential in REI for
improving education for all students by pooling resources to meet the needs
of every student (Slavin, 1990; Villa & Thousand, 1988).
Whereas REI focused on educating children with mild disabilities in regular
classes, inclusion brought all children back to regular classes (Pearman,
Huang, Barnhart, & Mellblom,1992; Rogers, 1994; Schattman & Benay, 1992;
Stainback & Stainback, 1992). This has raised the emotional level of the
debate, with passionate supporters on both sides. Advocacy groups, such
as the Learning Disabilities Association ofAmerica (1993), cautioned that
the needs of students with disabilities should continue to receive the
full protections mandated by IDEA. Other advocacy groups are more radical.
Fuchs and Fuchs (1994) decried this radicalization of special education
reform by extremist advocacy groups, such as the Association of Persons
with Severe Handicaps and by professionals who would do away with the continuum
of services and protections of the IDEA. Although admitting that special
education has severe problems, Fuchs and Fuchs (1994) stated, "Now is the
time to hear from inventive pragmatists, not extremists on the right or
left" (p. 305). This article describes one pragmatic attempt to educate
children with mild disabilities in the mainstream without special education.
Social Work Ideology and Reform of Special Education
Social work welcomed the laws that brought educational opportunity to
with disabilities. Many aspects of P.L. 94-142 and IDEA, such as education
for all children, education that meets the individual's needs in the
environment, and fairness provided by due process, are consistent with
social work ideology. REI also is highly compatible and probably even more
congruous with social work values in that it requires the educational system
to make greater efforts to integrate students with disabilities with their
peers. REI paves the way for greater acceptance of children with disabilities
by making it possible for them to be successful in regular classes. Social
workers will recognize that REI concepts not only are supported by social
work values but also use traditional social work methods, such as assessing
the person in the environment, incorporating the systems approach, adapting
to the environment rather than the person, and using the person's strengths
rather than focusing on weaknesses. Project Breakthrough incorporates many
of these social work ideals, making it and similar REI programs an important
arena for social work involvement.
Project Breakthrough Background
Project Breakthrough is a REI experiment conducted in several elementary
schools in the Tucson Unified School District (TUSD). TUSD has 61,000 students
at 107 sites. Most of the students are children of color, and 5,400 (9
percent) are in special education classes. The district tests 5,000 students
(8 percent) for special education a year.
Project Breakthrough is an attempt by TUSD to provide an appropriate education
for all children without the disadvantages and restrictions of special
education. The goal is to deliver educational services to children effectively
and with a minimum of red tape.
The project provides services in the mainstream without categorizing children.
Regular and special education staff and all support staff collaborate to
provide the help needed for children to learn. The program depends on joint
planning and cooperation by professionals from all the disciplines without
the usual turf distinctions. For example, special education teachers may
work with the entire class while the classroom teacher works with children
with special needs. The school social worker may spend time in class and
on the playground rather than in a conference room.
Children previously placed in special education with individual education
plans (IEPs) continue to receive special education services, although the
service is more likely to be delivered in the regular classroom rather
than through a "pull-out" program. Children newly identified as needing
help are not routinely tested for placement in special education but are
assessed for present performance level and provided with assistance, or
the general education program is adapted to their needs. Assessing present
performance level can be done rapidly without the delays and paperwork
involved in the typical special education evaluation, which can take up
to 60 days, and which requires formal testing by the school psychologist,
the diagnostician, and others such as the speech pathologist and the physical
therapist; multidisciplinary meetings; and much paperwork.
It takes about 20 hours of professional time to do a formal evaluation,
which costs about $500 per student. By comparison, a Project Breakthrough
evaluation can be done in a few days using rapid academic and behavioral
probes based on the school's curriculum rather than standardized tests.
The project involves continued communication and planning between classroom
teacher and support staff to develop a program to meet the child's needs
and generates minimal paperwork documenting the probe (assessment of present
performance level) and the services provided.
School social workers, freed from the time constraints of numerous developmental
histories, staffings, and paperwork, are available for consultation, program
development, parent liaison, group work, and counseling. School psychologists
provide numerous services other than testing. Social workers and psychologists
can work collaboratively without the rigid turf boundaries. Specialists
from different disciplines consult and plan together when needed.
All parents give permission at the beginning of the year for children to
receive services when needed. Parents are informed in writing when services
are initiated or terminated and are sent summaries of their child's progress.
There are no restrictions on receiving services. Classroom teachers,
paraprofessionals, support staff, and volunteers work together to develop
programs that can be adapted for changing needs. Various categorical programs
such as African American studies and special education pool resources.
All staff collaborate in planning and implementing programs, and there
is blending and overlapping of roles.
Probes are administered to all students during the year, and children needing
help are referred to the team for further assessment and planning. Students
may receive help in the classroom or through a pull-out program. The goal
is to provide more service in the classroom rather than in a pullout program
to increase the student's ability to generalize what he or she has learned.
Although teaching specific skills may require a pull-out approach, the
students also are helped to use and practice the skills in class. Children
are assessed while receiving help and can leave the program either when
they have learned the required material or when the classroom teacher is
able to accommodate the child without assistance.
The program has grown from three to 12 schools in four years. About three
times as many students are served by Project Breakthrough as by special
education. More children are served without an increase in staff through
careful planning and pooling of resources. Existing staff are organized
to provide service efficiently and creatively without the bureaucratic
restrictions of categorical programs. The services are more varied than
those usually provided in the traditional special education model and include
much consultation and joint planning to find efficient ways of solving
classroom problems. Some children, including those with special education
placements, receive help for extended periods, whereas others receive help
for only as long as it takes to solve a specific educational problem. Children,
who in the special education model would not have received any help, now
are given special instruction or support and have shown improvement. Few
new evaluations for special education have been conducted, and these are
usually for students needing a self-contained classroom.
Jay is a third-grade student who did not qualify for special education
help but received services through Project Breakthrough. Of borderline
intelligence, Jay had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD),
with poor organizational skills and aggressive behaviors. He was tested
in kindergarten and again in second grade while attending a private school
but did not qualify for special education as a student with learning and
emotional disabilities. In public and private school he failed to achieve
and presented behavioral problems daily to teachers. In Project Breakthrough,
Jay received academic support in the classroom, plus pull-out help that
involved teaching specific skills, counseling, and behavioral intervention
in class. His parents attended a group for parents of children with ADHD
provided by the school social worker. These services enabled Jay to remain
in regular classes. When he later moved to a nonproject school because
of a change in address, he was evaluated and placed in special education
as an emotionally challenged student and received similar services to those
he received in the Breakthrough program.
School Social Work Role
In the special education model, all staff have distinct roles according
to discipline: psychologists test, school social workers perform developmental
histories, speech therapists provide therapeutic speech treatment, and
special education teachers provide services through pull-out programs.
The Breakthrough model relies on collaboration among all disciplines to
meet the child's needs. Just as children are not categorized, staff are
not locked into rigid roles; they work flexibly as a team using each other's
strengths. Collaboration requires shared goals and decisions made jointly
about what kind of support is needed.
In many districts where school social workers are assigned to four or more
schools, special education evaluations can consume most of a practitioner's
time. In Project Breakthrough, a school social worker can use social work
skills for intervention rather than for special education evaluations.
His or her role is to give support and help solve problems to achieve a
positive educational outcome. School social workers can use social work
skills in consultation, resources acquisition, parent liaison, program
development, behavior management, case management, counseling, training,
grant writing, and evaluation. To this end the practitioner will typically
spend time working directly with students and parents and developing
plans in collaboration with teachers. However, none of these skills is
seen as exclusive to school social work. Other team members can offer some
of these skills and, in this model, will contribute some of what is often
considered "social work skills." For example, at some of the Breakthrough
schools, the psychologist and social worker have divided the school between
them, each providing the behavioral health role (including counseling and
behavioral interventions) to half of the classes. Parent conferences are
often conducted jointly by teachers, school social workers, and other support
staff. Programs are developed in collaboration with other disciplines.
Advantages and Disadvantages
The debate about REI and inclusion pits the disadvantages against the
REI models and experiments such as the Breakthrough Project will succeed
to the extent that the advantages are made to work effectively and the
disadvantages are reduced.
The Breakthrough model has the advantage of avoiding potential stigmatization
involved when students are segregated from regular classes. Providing support
in the regular classroom increases the likelihood that the child will be
able to function academically and socially in the mainstream. The program
emphasizes prevention so that children can receive help fast when learning
problems arise and avoid special education placement. The program is available
to all children on the basis of need; children can enter and exit the program
on the basis of their current needs and the classroom teacher's ability
to accommodate them. All available resources can be pooled to increase
the efficiency of services and avoid the fragmentation of a categorical
approach. The model is consistent with social work ideals of maximizing
resources in the child's environment while using all parts of the system
and focusing on building strengths rather than on weaknesses.
Various disadvantages and obstacles to this model must be addressed. Students
with disabilities may receive less individualized help and individual advocacy
in this model; assistance and advocacy are addressed to the system to make
it responsive to all students. This is a novel task for some teachers who
may feel ill equipped to work with students not in their category of training.
In addition, support staff are often more adept at advocating for individuals
rather than at changing the system. Furthermore, federal special education
funding is available only for children in certain categories, resulting
in a loss of funding unless and until a waiver is obtained by the state
for the alternate method of delivering service. Whereas any loss of funds
is a drawback, federal funds allotted for students with learning disabilities
are insufficient to provide the special services typically provided in
traditional special education, leaving much of the cost to the state. Another
potential drawback is that the success of the model relies on administrators'
willingness to pool resources regardless of the funding source. This requires
categorical programs to loosen the boundaries of their programs to work
collaboratively and serve all children.
A significant problem often not considered is the need for classroom space
that is suitable for children needing differing concurrent activities.
Lack of space and noise levels can make it difficult to provide services
in the classroom. The ideal classroom is larger and has quiet areas to
accommodate several activities at once, allowing for "pull-aside" rather
than pull-out teaching.
Some of the advantages of REI, inclusion, and experiments such as Project
Breakthrough have an immediate and quixotic appeal similar to that of other
social movements, such as deinstitutionalization. However, the model will
not survive on its romantic appeal alone. There are attitudinal and political
obstacles facing implementation of REI. Regular classroom teachers may
suspect that more will be demanded of them without sufficient help. Special
interest groups such as special education teachers and administrators and
parents of children with disabilities may fear that the gains made by IDEA
and the protections it gives to students and programs will be lost. These
obstacles must be countered by assurance that sufficient resources will
be provided, that students will be protected, and that special education
teachers will have jobs. Evaluation of REI programs is needed to demonstrate
that students can be served effectively without special education. Just
as continuous assessment of the student is vital to successful learning,
continuous assessment of the Breakthrough model is vital to its success.
Improved outcomes will be achieved only by setting measurable goals, evaluating
the program, and adapting it as needed to achieve the expected results.
To date the TUSD has evaluated how teachers are reacting to the program
and is currently assessing outcomes using standardized achievement tests
and analysis of data on services provided.
Although REI (as exemplified by the Breakthrough model) and special education
are sometimes seen as mutually exclusive, the ideal approach might be to
use both but to reserve special education testing and placement as an infrequent
alternative for children with complex learning problems who need more extensive
study and intervention.
Implications for School Social Work
REI, inclusion, and experiments such as the Breakthrough Project raise
issues for the future of school social work. Because many school social
workers are paid primarily from federal special education funding and are
concerned mainly with the traditional functions of evaluation, placement,
and related services, this trend demands a change in role and funding.
If children currently placed in special education classes are returned
to regular classes, will there be a demand for school social work services,
and will there be funding for them? School social workers may feel that
special education is their passport into the educational system; yet, there
is more social work to do to help children succeed in general education
rather than in special education. Most regular education students need
assistance with social or emotional problems to succeed and flourish at
school. School social workers can be in the forefront of change by heading
workable alternatives to special education and by demonstrating their success.
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About the Author
Marion Huxtable, MSW, ACSW, is school social worker, Tucson Unified School
District, Rosemont Service Center, 750 North Rosemont, Tucson, AZ 85711.
Reproduced with permission of the copyright owner.
Further reproduction or distribution is prohibited without permission.
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