Inclusion Research at Work at Boston Arts Academy

Anne Clark, teacher and administrator at Boston Arts Academy (BAA) offers insight into BAA’s fully inclusive pedagogy, an expression of its commitment to CES’s Ten Common Principles. Describing parallels between BAA’s experience with inclusion and current research findings, Clark suggests important touchstones and discussion points for all CES schools. This synthesis of research and Essential school practice demonstrates how inclusion works with innovative pedagogy and school design to creat intellectually challenging, personalized and equitable education for all students.

I serve as the curriculum and special education coordinator at Boston Arts Academy, Boston’s public, full-inclusion high school for the visual and performing arts. Since the school opened seven years ago, I have been both an administrator and a teacher. I am part of an administrative team that shapes the school’s approach to teaching and learning, and I am also a teacher working with students in the classroom every day. Inclusion, I have come to learn, defines the tension between these two perspectives.

My frame of reference as an educational leader is the school as a whole, and I include a variety of factors in the calculus I use to make decisions: student learning needs to be balanced against staffing, resources, and time. Special education, in contrast, means taking on the responsibility of the special needs of individual students as specifically as possible. My frame of reference as a special educator is necessarily one student at a time.

Our goal at Boston Arts Academy is to make the tension between these two perspectives generative. The purpose of inclusion, we believe, is to increase all students’ access to quality education, in our case to increase access to an interdisciplinary, arts and academic education. Students enter our school by arts audition only; students thus join us because of their artistic promise. From an academic perspective, however, we have students who are very skilled, students who have been in substantially separate programs before they joined our school, and every other kind of student in between. The challenge of inclusion is to use the resources we have to provide the supports each student needs within the regular education classroom. Full inclusion is an ambitious but, we believe, worthy aim, one that we further with cycles of inquiry and consideration of research from the field.

This is what we have learned:

1: Inclusion depends upon a shared definition of education for all students.

What the Research Says: In “Staff Development That Supports Differentiation,” Carol Ann Tomlinson and Susan Demirsky Allan talk about building a vision of inclusion based on a common vocabulary around general education and special education. Staff must share an understanding of the goals, benefits, and challenges of inclusion. Staff must also share a picture of what inclusion could and should look like.

Research at Work at BAA: At BAA, we have found that the success of our inclusion efforts depends on the number of ways we have that conversation, and thus our approach has been layered. We began our school by developing together a school-wide reading and writing skills course that every teacher teaches, regardless of his or her primary content area. For the past three years, the focus of our school-wide professional development has been differentiated instruction and reading instruction across the curriculum. Through an in-house certification program we developed, fifteen of our full-time staff members are in the process of getting dual certification in moderate disabilities. Our special educators are included in weekly, content-area planning meetings and work together with content-area teachers to construct and plan curricula, and we have moved to a “push in” rather than “pull out” model, where special educators are co-teaching with regular educators in the classrooms as much as possible. We have worked very hard to be a school where teachers talk not about “my kids” and “your kids” but about “our kids” and what they need to succeed.

2: Inclusion begins with the adults.

What the Research Says: This move from “my kids” and “your kids” to “our kids” speaks to the necessity of rethinking traditional systems of communication, assessment, and teaching among adults. In “Thinking About Inclusion and Learning Disabilities: A Teacher’s Guide,” Katherine Garnett argues that students with learning disabilities need “persistent, properly-focused effort on the part of many people, sustained over the long haul.” Systems must be developed to ensure that that effort is “properly focused.” Researchers Alba Orbitz, Jane Quenneville, and Francine C. Ross all point to the benefits of effective teaming – and to the detriments of ineffective teaming – for the achievement of students with learning disabilities. And Carolyn Ford and L. Jeffrey Fitterman, in “Collaborative Consultation: Literature Review and Case Study of a Proposed Alternative Delivery System,” advocate specifically for a rethinking of the role of specialists, creating structures where they work with other teachers to address the needs of students. The research urges movement towards a shared responsibility for student learning needs.

Research in Practice at BAA: Our experience at BAA has led us to emphasize two things: (1) how shared responsibility is almost an act of faith (in some cases, it seems to be about trust, special educators trusting regular educators with vulnerable students); and (2) how teaming, when done right, requires more professional development and more planning time, presenting a challenge to school administrators. The “how” conversation, we have found, is the real inclusion conversation. At BAA, we have worked together to reshape job descriptions to reflect the “our kids” philosophy. We have asked our regular educators to be “generalists” in their approach to special education and literacy. We have asked our special educators to be “generalists” in their approach to regular education. Although we continue to struggle with creating sufficient common planning time, we have found that we are most successful when we rethink traditional regular education and special education tasks. We are working on ways to make the Individual Education Plan (IEP) process more inclusive, including regular educators not just in the writing of the IEP but in the documenting of student progress towards goals.

3: Inclusion must address the specific needs of the specific student as specifically as possible.

What the Research Says: Garnett is most helpful here when she writes that special education is “the marshaling of appropriately focused responses to individual students’ educational needs” and then goes on to dissect the concept of “appropriate,” writing, “Appropriate for what? For supporting social integration? For securing an adequate foundation of skills and knowledge? For engaging in work that is challenging but not out of reach? For revealing needs and working on weaknesses? For learning increasingly adaptive strategies of attending, organizing, and remembering? For developing social relations and social skills? For increasing self reliance?” We must, she argues, answer these questions one student at a time and one classroom at a time.

Research in Practice at BAA: We have learned that we need to have differentiated approaches to inclusion at BAA that respond to the specific goals for specific students in specific content areas. We have learned to talk through our students’ individual schedules in detail, connecting their learning goals to the curricular goals of each course. Our arts-focused mission has been invaluable here, for it simultaneously requires that we look at each student complexly in terms of strengths (often artistic) and weaknesses (often academic) and that we understand deeply the skills and content goals across a diverse curriculum. For example, we have a senior, a visual artist, who has both a sophisticated visual sense and a substantial language-based learning disorder. Imagine a conversation where the visual arts teacher and the special educator talk with the math teacher about how to approach this student. That conversation was our goal.

4: Inclusion means being highly sensitive to learning environments and the challenges they present to students.

What the Research Says: Inclusion works in classrooms in which all teachers and learners have properly prepared themselves and their environment. Garnett intricately describes the experience of students with learning disabilities in regular education classrooms that aren’t ready for inclusion. She sees these classrooms as designed to be detrimental to rather than supportive of these students’ learning in terms of “who initiates, what sorts of responding occurs, when knowledge is displayed, whether mistakes are valued, [and] how face-saving tactics play out.” Shireen Pavri, in “The Social Face of Inclusive Education: Are Students with Learning Disabilities Really Included in the Classroom,” discusses how the school social environment specifically affects the learning of students with learning disorders. She provides a series of examples: students who lack skills in initiating and sustaining positive social relationships, students who have difficulty interpreting social cues, students who are more aggressive and negative in their verbal and nonverbal behaviors, students who are either disruptive or withdrawn. All these developmental delays result, she argues, in peer rejection which in turn may have a negative affect on achievement. Particularly in high school, where socialization is difficult for all students, we have to be sensitive to the particular social challenges for students with learning disabilities.

Research in Practice at BAA: At BAA, to prepare for inclusion, we have learned that we need to have these conversations both with adults and with students. In an urban school with students (and staff) from a wide variety of ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds, we have always had explicit discussions about what diversity means. We have learned that we need to include learning differences in that conversation. We have learned that we need to talk as adults explicitly and often about our backgrounds and how those backgrounds affect what we see and don’t see in our students. We have learned to talk explicitly and often with students about the diverse learning experiences and needs of their peers. What does it mean when a student with cerebral palsy joins a theater ensemble? This is a question we grapple with as adults, and we must invite students into this generative and important struggle.

5: Inclusion does not mean watered down instruction.

What the Research Says: Both Edwin Ellis, in “Watering Up the Curriculum for Adolescents with Learning Disabilities, Part I: Goals of the Knowledge Dimension,” and Rosalie P. Fink, in “Successful Dyslexics: A Constructivist Study of Passionate Interest Reading” make this important point which represents a common fear among regular educators who worry that they are being asked to “lower standards.” Ellis takes great pains to explain why classrooms that facilitate the “development of deep knowledge structures” are good for all students, including students with learning difficulties. He presents six basic principles for “making knowledge construction more meaningful and robust,” arguing that instruction should focus on “teaching big ideas, promoting elaboration, relating to real-world contexts, and integrating thinking skills and strategies into the curriculum.” He concludes by stating that “students’ success as adults will depend largely on the degree to which they employ, on a day-to-day basis, higher order thinking and information processing skills.” Key to his discussion is curriculum work integral to many Coalition schools, specifically the organization of teaching and learning around habits of the mind. Ellis is careful to speak about cognitive limitations for some students, but his concern is well placed. Too often, “educators’ efforts to make content less complex and easier to understand can often have the reverse effect” and “modifications [are] counter-productive because ideas tend to be presented in short, choppy, list-like bits of information [and] the elements that indicate important relationships between ideas tend to be eliminated.”

Research in Practice at BAA: Much of Ellis’ discussion will be familiar to anyone in a Coalition school working to help students use their minds well. At BAA, we have organized our courses around exhibitions and performances that demonstrate key content and key skills. We have organized our school around our interdisciplinary “Habits of the Graduate”: Refine, Invent, Connect, and Own. Annually, our students present cumulative portfolios representative of the year’s work to panels of teachers and parents, and students defend their personal progress towards these habits. But at that same time, we have learned that teaching engaging content in an inclusive classroom necessitates giving teachers the time and support to map their curricula around such thinking skills and to construct appropriate and thoughtful modifications and accommodations. As an administrative team we know that it is too easily the case – because the teaming structures are not there, the time is not there for co-planning, and the staffing is not adequate for all teachers to have access to special educators – that regular educators get an overly simplified message about how to support students with learning disabilities: drop content.

6: Inclusion means helping teachers be thoughtful about assessment, specifically about what should be “standard” and what should be “differentiated.”

What the Research Says: Garnett approaches this issue through what she perceives as teachers’ misplaced value of equality. She questions a prevailing teacher assumption that the goal for students with learning disabilities should be “fitting in”: “[t]his translates into not wanting to treat them differently…[but to] even begin approaching these students’ learning needs requires treating them considerably differently”; this difference, she continues, necessarily must show up in assessment. In “Preventing Inappropriate Referrals of Language Minority Students to Special Education,” Shernaz B. Garcia and Alba A. Ortiz argue that too often educators are not able to distinguish among students who are language minority students who cannot access the language of the classroom, students with social/emotional issues that affect their achievement, and students with learning disabilities. The appropriate approach to each of these issues is different, Garcia and Ortiz continue, yet too often educators fail to differentiate. Making a related point, a BAA colleague has said, “We must distinguish among the can’t do, the won’t do, and the complex combination can’t dos and won’t dos” and assess appropriately.

Research in Practice at BAA: At BAA, we have worked very hard to talk in teams about accommodations and modifications, when and how they make sense and when and how they don’t. We have found that the more we encourage our teachers to treat students individually, the better off all of our students are. This emphasis on individualization does not mean that we don’t have standardized graduation standards and benchmarks – we do. But we have helped teachers think through the multiple paths students take to reach those standards. It is my experience and belief that well-intentioned regular educators are most uncomfortable with inclusion when asked to move beyond assessment (understanding where the student is achieving and where the student is struggling) to grading (quantifying that assessment with a number or a letter). Compounding the problem, special educators are not always valuable resources in this regard because they do not often grade in a traditional sense. Succinctly put: grading is fundamental to perceptions and philosophies of teaching for a regular educator, but special educators, in my experience, can talk about modification and accommodation but struggle when they talk about grading. At BAA, we have worked to meet in the middle. Our goal is to have regular educators and special educators work together to map a student’s path through each course, including in that conversation both instruction and assessment.

7: Inclusion is stronger when technology is integrated into the vision.

What the Research Says: Jane Quenneville, in “Tech Tools for Students with Learning Disabilities: Infusion into Inclusive Classrooms,” and Joy Smiley Zabala, in “Get SETT for Successful Inclusion and Transition,” make the point that technology, when done right, can make all the difference for students with learning disabilities. But technology, as Zabala points out, is another factor dependent on effective teaming. The appropriate tools are necessary, but so is the professional development and coordination time for staff.

Research in Practice at BAA: Like all inclusive schools, we have found that technology (even the simplest technologies such as recorded books and AlphaSmarts) have been invaluable. As an arts high school, we have had extraordinary opportunities—in our music recording studio, in our technical theater program, in our visual arts computer design lab—to understand how technology is a powerful part of education. That understanding has taught us to include assistive technologies as part of an overall vision of the relationship between technology and teaching and learning, and it has shown students the ways in which technology can transform their learning.

8: Inclusion is not just a conversation among educators; it’s a conversation that must include students and parents.

What the Research Says: Garnett makes this point in passing; I would emphasize it for a high school population, especially in the area of post-high school transitions. Students need to be included in the conversations about their learning disabilities. They need to understand how their disability affects their learning, and they need to learn to self-advocate. As well, Tomlinson rightly emphasizes the need for clear messages about inclusion to parents – parents of regular education students and special education students – about the goals and practices of inclusion.

Research in Practice at BAA: BAA’s mission is to prepare a diverse community of aspiring artist-scholars to be successful in their college or professional careers and to be engaged members of a democratic society. Inclusion is part of that educational mission, and we emphasize our commitment to inclusion in every family meeting. When students present their annual cumulative portfolios, we talk with students and families explicitly about their strengths and challenges, and we encourage students to map their progress towards our common goal while recognizing the divergent paths they may take to get there. We believe that high school is not a race. Each year we have a portion of students, students with documented learning issues and students without, who elect to do a fifth year with us. These are students who, together with their teachers and their families, have made the important decision that because of their challenges, they need more time. We see these fifth-year students, not as individual failures, but of evidence of our collective success.

9: Inclusion becomes a different conversation when high-stakes testing is introduced.

What the Research Says: I leave this point for last because we, as a school community, find it potentially most defeating. As Beth R. Handler outlines in “Special Education Practices: An Evaluation of Educational Environmental Placement Trends since the Regular Education Initiative,” changes in inclusion practices reflect, in large part, changes in national education policy. Hander connects changes in state’s placement rates for inclusive classrooms with changes in funding education law, and she states that her study “demonstrates temporal associations between changes in placement trends and the implementation of several important federal level educational reforms.” In short, federal legislation has always (and will always, Handler concludes) affect the vision and implementation of inclusion.

Research in Practice at BAA: No Child Left Behind’s standards and testing approach to education, in my opinion, limit what could be a very generative conversation about seeing students as individual learners with individual strengths and needs to a conversation of getting students to pass a single assessment. At BAA, at least, we fight to keep the former conversation going while the dominance of the latter conversation increases. Should we, we ask ourselves, put special education time, staffing, and resources into helping regular education teachers modify instruction or should we put it into documenting the need for accommodations for standardized testing? At BAA, we continually choose the former, but we worry that as the accountability drums grow louder, we will be forced more and more to do the latter.

Anne Clark was part of the founding faculty of Boston Arts Academy. She now teaches Humanities and serves as the Curriculum and Special Education Coordinator. She can be reached at

Founded in 1998, Boston Arts Academy’s 236 students share a building with Fenway High School. As part of the CES Small Schools Project, BAA was named a CES Mentor school in 2003 in recognition of its leadership in the CES network. For more about BAA and the Small Schools Project, please visit CES ChangeLab at and Boston Arts Academy at

Research Cited:

Ellis, Edwin S. “Watering Up the Curriculum for Adolescents with Learning Disabilities, Part I: Goals of the Knowledge Dimension,” available at &id=493&loc=51

Fink, Rosalie P. “Successful Dyslexics: A Constructivist Study of Passionate Interest Reading.” Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy. Dec. 1995/Jan. 1996, pp. 268-278

Ford, Carolyn and L. Jeffrey Fitterman. “Collaborative Consultation: Literature Review and Case Study of a Proposed Alternative Delivery System.” Education Resources Information Center, May 1994, available at, ERIC# ED374633

Garcia, Shernaz B. and Alba A. Ortiz. “Preventing Inappropriate Referrals of Language Minority Students to Special Education.” The National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education. June 1998, pp. 149-160

Garnett, Katherine. “Thinking About Inclusion and Learning Disabilities: A Teacher’s Guide.” Division for Learning Disabilities of the Council for Exceptional Children, 1994, available at

Handler, Beth R. “Special Education Practices: An Evaluation of Educational Environmental Placement Trends since the Regular Education Initiative.” Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association. 2003

Orbitz, Alba. “English Language Learners with Special Needs: Effective Instructional Strategies,” ERIC Clearinghouse on Languages and Linguistics, December 2001. ERIC# ED469207, available at

Pavri, Shireen. “The Social Face of Inclusive Education: Are Students With Learning Disabilities Really Included in the Classroom,” Preventing School Failure, Fall 2000, available at

Quenneville, Jane. “Tech Tools for Students with Learning Disabilities: Infusion into Inclusive Classrooms.” Preventing School Failure, Summer 2001, Vol. 45, No. 4, pp. 167-170, available at

Ross, Francine C. and Ilene Wax. “Inclusionary Programs for Children with Language and/or Learning Disabilities: Issues in Teacher Readiness.” Education Resources Information Center, December 1993, available at, ERIC# ED369251

Tomlinson, Carol Ann and Susan Demirsky Allan. “Communicating With Parents and the Public about Differentiation” and “Staff Development That Supports Differentiation” Leadership for Differentiating Schools and Classrooms. Alexandria, Virginia: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2000

Zabala, Joy Smiley. “Get SETT for Successful Inclusion and Transition.” 1998, available at