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Decision-Making in Inclusive Education:
The Role of Special Education Directors

By Chris Sonenblum

Directors of special education at the school and district levels have a key role in facilitating the inclusion of all learners in typical learning environments. There are several facets of the director’s role that are important in protecting the rights of individuals while promoting healthy educational systems. The recent emphasis on quality and accountability in public education further highlights the significance of the director’s work with both individualized and school and district-wide decision-making.

Adapting the Environment

In the early stages of implementation of inclusion, special education directors committed the resources to adapt learning environments. That meant joining in facilities-planning by school districts and communities to form new assumptions about what classrooms might look like and how much space might be needed to accommodate unique equipment and additional staff to address the needs of students with severe and multiple disabilities in typical schools. Prior to the subsequent advances in building codes and the provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act and revisions to Section 504 related to accessibility, directors and others were necessarily preoccupied with the physical adaptations to buildings. Ramps, changing tables, and other adaptations of toileting facilities were added. Some of the discussions that took place among the maintenance engineers and custodians and electricians who made these adaptations were as critical to increasing community awareness of the rights of individuals with disabilities as the professional development activities and student awareness programs designed to facilitate inclusion.

Creating the Culture

With the changes to physical environments came the shift in expectations for student participation. The responsibility for children with special needs expanded to the whole school community. Custodians who installed swings suggested ways to make more room for wheelchairs in cafeterias. Receptionists involved in activities as rewards for student behavior such as “helping” in the office became committed to seeking additional opportunities for students to participate in the school as a whole. Co-curricular activities were considered and resources applied to supplement the standard coaching and supervision requirements. Gradually, school climate and culture were enhanced by the involvement (not just the mere presence) of students with particular learning needs. Special education administrators had significant impact through observing and acknowledging the commitments of all staff (not just those working in special education) in advancing inclusion. Building relationships in which the value of all children was clearly demonstrated as vital to promoting the success of teachers and others in adapting to unique needs. Directors nurtured a culture of respect for differences.

Modeling the Leadership

Today, as school administrators, directors have the responsibility of modeling the philosophical and practical underpinnings of inclusive education among peers and colleagues. This means acknowledging the challenges faced by other administrators such as building principals and directors of curriculum and instruction, and acting as a catalyst for productive change. It is critical that the administrators of special education be perceived as school administrators who shoulder their share of the work of running the organization in addition to responding to the specific needs of students, staff, and parents concerning those with learning challenges. Often the presence of a director in a meeting may serve as a visual reminder that the implications of any action taken must be analyzed in terms of their impact on education of all students, including those with disabilities. Participation in ongoing management of the school district is critical to maintaining influence and promoting productive growth and systemic change. This approach to inclusive administration sets a tone within the organization that promotes inclusion and values diversity.

Facilitating Balance

The director also serves as a model for facilitating balance. While reminding others of the obligations to facilitate inclusion and adapt to unique needs, a director’s ongoing approach to decision-making in groups will reassure others that the organization is not susceptible to unreasonable demands and costly requests. Children and young people with developmental disabilities are entitled to individualized decision-making about their educational needs. This process dictates that the particular circumstances of each point in the child’s schooling be considered in making annual decisions about the program and services most likely to stimulate progress toward goals. The construct of “least restrictive environment” extends our thinking beyond physical inclusion in a typical classroom by requiring that services be “reasonably calculated to confer educational benefit.” Individualized Education Program (IEP) planning teams must consider the environment that is most appropriate for addressing specific goals at each stage of the child or young adult’s education. These decisions are not easy. The special education director must facilitate this work.

Ensuring Accountability and Results

One of the goals of Congress in 1975 was to alter the assumptions generally made about disability and education. Education couldn’t be denied to those with unique needs just because we didn’t know in advance how much learning might take place or what impact it might have. There are many indications that the action of Congress did, in fact, alter important assumptions made in our society.

The recent work of the President’s Commission on Excellence in Special Education demonstrates that a shift has been made. Access is an expectation, but the Commission’s report also removes the emphasis from services to results. The focus on accountability in public education has been brought into the foreground. Individual ability testing is not recommended, and the potential for shifting public resources to private providers has been raised as a remedy to less-than-satisfactory performance by public schools. Again, the role of the school administrator in special education is going to be a key to figuring out what “quality” services are and how to measure “adequate” progress among students with disabilities. Balancing the need for “appropriate” services on an individual basis with the application of standards that are applied to a group is the essence of special education administration.

Managing Scarce Resources

Specialized environments still have a place in delivering services under IDEA. In times of scarce resources, the question of how many different environments can be maintained at the same time rises to the surface. Educational planning teams, including parents – and the student as appropriate – face a tough challenge in choosing the right location for learning at each juncture in the child’s educational career. Practical guidelines can help in this decision making process, but directors will still have to rely on “economies of scale” in designing and maintaining specialized environments or providing the additional staff support to general education.

A more recent challenge may be to assure that the required supplementary aids and services aren’t provided at the expense of typical instruction. Until the needs of every individual are given the same comprehensive evaluation available through IDEA, “equal” opportunity may not be achieved. The boundary that separates those entitled to specialized instruction from “everyone else” will not disappear until the resources are distributed in another way. The compelling need to accommodate disability by providing enhanced resources has not diminished. The boundary exists, but hopefully it blurs from time to time, and the outcome of ultimate success in the business of living applies to all.

Informed and compassionate leadership can’t alter every attitude, but it can create new expectations and ongoing problem solving. Hopefully scarce resources or shifting political agendas will never jeopardize the enriched learning environments that we now take for granted. The expectation of meaningful participation must be further examined in light of the shift toward results in education. Deeper analysis of appropriate standards and outcome measures for all students, including those with disabilities, is needed. Highly skilled and thoughtful leaders will take on these challenges in the next 25 years in the role of director of special education.

Chris Sonenblum is Past President of Minnesota Administrators for Special Education (MASE), and Director of Special Education Services with the Chaska Public Schools, Chaska, Minnesota. She may be reached at 952/556-6171 or


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Citation: Gaylord, V., Vandercook, T., and York-Barr, J. (Eds.). (2003). Impact: Feature Issue on Revisiting Inclusive K-12 Education, 16(1) [online]. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, Institute on Community Integration. Available from


The print design version (PDF, 580 K, 32 pp.) of this issue of Impact is also available for free, complete with the color layout and photographs. This version looks the most like the newsletter as it was printed.

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