The Inclusive School: Sustaining Equity and Standards
reviewed by Elizabeth B. Kozleski - 2006
Title: The Inclusive School: Sustaining Equity and Standards
Author(s): Judy W. Kulgelmass
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807744913, Pages: 147, Year: 2004
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The inclusive schools movement has persisted over at least the last 20 years in pockets across the United States. It has gained strength internationally and is now one of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organizations (UNESCOs) Education for All flagships. In Kugelmasss book, as with much of the current literature on inclusive schools, the definition of inclusiveness has been expanded from its roots in the disability movement. Inclusive schools have come to signify an approach to education where students are taught together in classrooms where personalization of the curriculum, instruction and assessment is accomplished by skilled practitioners working in teams. In inclusive schools, practitioners and families work together to understand and invest in education that unveils racism, ablism, classism and other forms of marginalization that are deeply ingrained in systems that select, classify, and separate children and teachers. As the author explains, this work is complex and difficult to sustain, particularly where the schools that invest in the work are part of a public school system.
In The Inclusive School, the author narrates the story of Betsy Miller Elementary School, located in the northeast. Over a fifteen year period of time, teachers, principals, families, and other school practitioners worked to develop a school community in which inclusive practices were a sustainable approach to teaching and learning. The author was invited initially to study one teachers classroom. Understanding what was going on there created a set of questions that needed answering within the larger context of the school. Over a five year period of time, the author interviewed and observed teachers, principals, and family members in an attempt to chronicle and analyze the Betsy Miller story. What she found is both inspiring and deflating.
The author provides description of classrooms and the work that went inside them, noting how teachers worked together to ensure that the academic and social needs of their students were addressed and often, met. She also notes how this work was transformed over years first by merging two schools into one and dealing with the differences in school cultures and their disparate approaches to socialization of students. Merging schools forced teachers and administrators to examine their own assumptions about race, English language acquisition, and disability. Key to this work was understanding the role that specialized programs like Title 1 and special education play in reinforcing assumptions about who is ready and able to learn. Kugelmass suggests that reconceptualizing the role of specialists as collaborators in classrooms so that teaching and learning become the core work, rather than sorting and classifying children, was essential to creating an inclusive school.
A forceful school principal shaped the cultural practices of the building, creating opportunities for teachers to work together in small problem-solving groups. As teachers developed new relationships and respect for each others teaching, the school community, including students and parents, focused on the hidden curriculum and assumptions that were privately held about race, ethnicity, and ability. The work led to new forms of narrative assessment that helped teachers and families better understand student progress and instructional needs.
Kugelmass raises important questions about the genesis and leadership for change. It was the leadership of one principal that helped two schools become one, that navigated the shoals of racism and ablism, and that led the teachers to use forms of assessment that inspired their teaching and student learning. When that principal left, there were four years of revolving principals before a new principal arrived and stayed. By that time, many of the teachers who had participated in the original transformations had left. Many of the reforms had shrunk back into classrooms where individual teachers attempted to carry on the innovations that had galvanized the faculty only four years earlier. The author notes the relationship between the building leader and teacher leaders. Both, she suggests, are critical but teacher leadership can only emerge in contexts where expectations and structures for doing so are created and sustained.
So, is it possible for schools to sustain deep transformations in their cultures when leaders evolve? The book does not answer this question. Rather it points to the need for reforms to elevate the importance of local ownership, local development, and local leadership so that measurement and accountability do not drown the truth that practice is local and community bound. The book also suggests that it is critical that principals understand and lead based on principles of social justice. This also suggests the critical need for districts to invest in leadership development so that principals have the skills they need to provide transformational leadership.
Kugelmass organizes her book around Halls three dimensional model of culture: (1) visible-technical; (2) the private, insider version; and (3) the primary that links and defines assumptions, beliefs and behaviors. These three dimensions operate within classrooms, among practitioners, administrators, and families, within the structures and patterns of the school and within the school system. The answer to the sustainability question rests within the capacity of systems and the people who work in them to examine, observe, and transform their institutional patterns of exclusion so that inclusive schools can flourish.