Working Together:
A Collaborative Model for the Delivery of Special Services
in General Classrooms

Stanley L. Swartz
California State University

It only makes sense that if our goal is the integration and inclusion of all students, that teachers will need to model these behaviors. An instructional design that excludes students is unlikely to result in eventual inclusion. The example of teachers working together and aligning teaching strategies will be a powerful demonstration of the benefits of a collaborative model of service delivery. Even if the achievement gains are no greater using a collaborative model, the social benefits of inclusive classrooms are a compelling argument for this practice.


There has been considerable discussion about the effectiveness of special services for students with disabilities and low performing students in pullout programs; programs that remove these students from the general classroom to special classes or separate rooms to receive services. Though we know that students with special needs benefit from individual and small group instruction, there is no clear evidence that these services are improved or more effective when provided in special education or remedial settings. In fact, there is a strong case for the instructional and social benefits of providing for the needs of all students in inclusive classrooms. A model for this so-called, push-in delivery of services, where special and general education teachers collaborate to provide services has much to recommend it. Students are not identified as special to the extent that they must be removed from the classroom setting to receive educational services. Classroom teachers who work with students with special needs are more informed about student progress by the
opportunity to observe and participate in the service delivery. Special teachers become more involved with the instruction that is delivered in general classrooms and are perceived as a more integral part of the instructional team. Students benefit from the reduced stigma of identification as special needs and better alignment of teaching strategies and cooperation between the various teachers they work with.

Many of the mandates in the No Child Left Behind Act suggest that students with special needs should receive more benefit from their educational experience. In addition to including these students as part of the accountability requirements, it is necessary that they have access to core instruction and curriculum. A parallel system of special and general education will be hard pressed to meet this standard. The Act is clear in its intent to bring special needs and low performing students into the mainstream of public education.

Three major criticisms of the current special education model deserve consideration. None of these are new and have been demonstrated consistently over the past two decades.

1. It has been repeatedly demonstrated that evaluation systems produce results hardly better than the flip of a coin (Ysseldyke et al., 1983). We continue to identify students as disabled using tests and procedures in which professional examiners have no confidence and these various tests are unable to predict educational need, the only legitimate purpose that this kind of testing could have. Students with seemingly identical characteristics qualify for different programs, depending on where they reside and how individuals on school staffs evaluate them (Gartner & Lipsky, 1987). You can literally change your disability by moving from one school district to another.

2. Growth in certain categories of disability have clearly become more a function of political pressure and professional fad than the characteristics and needs of students (Algozzine & Korinek, 1985). By some counts the learning disability category grew more than 119% over a period of one decade (Edgar & Hayden, 1984-1985). This is added to research that suggests that over 80% of all of normal students could be classified as learning disabled using the variety of definitions currently in use (Ysseldyke, 1987). Many of the students emerging as special needs or low performing and who are literally crying for our attention, the so-called at risk populations, don’t fit any of our categories. In some cases we try to force these students into existing categories labeling them disabled unnecessarily. Many unfortunately, go unserved entirely.

3. There is considerably evidence that suggests that much of what we do in special education is no more helpful than if we were to leave students with disabilities in the regular class and provide no services at all (Carlberg & Kavale, 1980). The mandate in No Child Left Behind recognizes this lack of accountability and the likely low level of student outcomes for special education programs and seeks to remedy it with testing, among other things.
It is these kinds of data that should drive the search for alternative systems of service delivery. The value of inclusion and teacher collaboration are both well known. A model that can use the strengths of both special and general education and one that is carefully planned with teacher roles clearly defined, is needed to ensure the full benefit of each student’s educational program.

Collaborative Model
If a collaborative model is to be successful there are a number of important considerations. A model is needed that will define a mutually beneficial cooperative teaching relationship and one that will maximize the positive impact on students of having more than one teacher in the same classroom.

Defining Roles
One major objection frequently voiced regarding cooperative teaching is role confusion. Special teachers express frustration with being assigned a role that is similar to that of a teacher’s aide or assistant teacher. Though physically in the classroom, they still provide instruction that is isolated and not part of the regular flow of instruction. In other circumstances, special teachers are given full responsibility for instruction while the classroom teacher observes or performs other duties. This often looks like a “tag team wrestling” style of teaching, where one teacher is up teaching and the other is down and then the roles are reversed. This procedure loses the power of two teachers available for instruction. Classroom teachers on the other hand, are unclear about what the role of special teachers should be in a general classroom setting. Special education is so heavily regulated, that who the special teacher can work with, and under what circumstances, is an apparent confusion.

Clarity of roles for both the special and classroom is an important prerequisite to an effective collaborative model (Arguelles et al., 2000). A model of instruction where each teacher has a separate but collaborative function is useful. Instruction where students are convened in small groups, generally homogenous groups, provides the opportunity for each teacher to take the lead role for the group they are working with. Common goals and objectives are set and the teachers agree to use similar teaching methods. The group convened by the special teacher can include students identified for special education or remedial services but might also include students who just need extra support. Instruction provided by the special teacher should be supplemental to that provided by the classroom teacher rather than replacing an opportunity for these students to participate in instruction provided by the classroom teacher. With careful coordination of instructional goals, the need for additional planning should be minimized.

Teacher Roles are:
clearly defined
separate but collaborative

Teachers share:
goals and objectives
common teaching methods
minimal planning

Scheduling Considerations
Another obstacle to a collaborative model is one that involves scheduling. Students with special instructional needs are typically distributed somewhat evenly throughout the general classrooms in any particular school. The pull-out model has been adopted in many schools as one that is convenient to the teacher. Students with similar needs are convened at a central location, the special education classroom or remedial reading room, from various classrooms. This appears to be a logistically sound model but one that is less than optimal for instruction. Scheduling problems might also include a specified amount of service to be provided, often in minutes per day or week, specified by an instructional plan and in the case of identified special education students, the Individualized Education Program (IEP). These plans are often cited as making collaboration difficult, if not, impossible.

Maximum flexibility is needed to implement a collaborative model. The classroom teacher must be able to alter the daily classroom routine on short notice. The special teacher needs to schedule services that are perhaps shorter in duration but at the same time can be more strategic and effective. The model assumes that the students with special needs will remain in the general classroom and that the teacher will rotate among classrooms to provide services to small groups of students or even an individual student. Since curriculum and teaching methods will be aligned, the special teacher should be able to use instructional materials that are available in the classroom.

The recommended procedure is that the special teacher establish a general schedule of time to be spent in each classroom. This should not be a rigid schedule rather one that allows both special and classroom teachers some latitude to finish activities. When the special teacher enters the classroom the teacher concludes the activity in progress and sends the students to group activities. The classroom teacher convenes her small group in one area of the room and the special teacher convenes her group in a different area. The remainder of the students are sent to literacy centers, reciprocal teaching groups, or some other suitable small group activity (Miller, et al., 1998). Teachers might also choose to move around the room and support the work of students in small group activities. Students work best independently in groups when they are familiar with the procedures and understand the expectations for their work in small groups. A good test for student readiness for literacy centers or independent small group work is to send all students to small groups and the teacher observes and coaches them so that they can work without assistance. When the teacher is able to sit in the middle of the room and not be approached with questions about the job to be done or group procedures, then the teacher can convene her own group with confidence.

Scheduling is:
flexible and mutually determined
allows for two teacher directed groups to run at one time
provides suitable activities for all students


Questions About Fairness
Implementation of a collaborative model inevitably raises the issue of fairness. These questions focus on both what is fair for the student with special needs and for the typical or average student. Can special students have their educational needs met in the general classroom? Are there not services that are so specialized that they need to be delivered in a separate or isolated setting? What is the impact on the typical student of students with special needs being served in the general classroom? Will this attention to the special student take away from the services available to the regular student? Is this fair to either group of students?

Much is made about the commitment to diversity in the public school system. The obligation to consider the various backgrounds and experiences of our students is widely embraced. The needs of students of different races, ethnicities and languages are factored into the kinds of educational experiences that we provide. There is little debate about the appropriateness of this practice. However, there are other issues of diversity that need consideration in this formula.

The range of diversity in the public schools includes not only students with cultural and linguistic differences but also differences in learning and behavior. There is not a cogent argument made in the research literature that suggests that accommodating those students who present cultural or linguistic differences is appropriate and the same accommodation for learning and behavioral differences is less so. An instructional model that is truly inclusive is one that considers each area of diversity equally important.

Areas of Diversity:

To program for each of these areas necessitates differentiated instruction to ensure that each student receives an appropriate array of services. This differentiation can raise questions of fundamental fairness. Fairness is a more complicated issue than just providing the same program for all students. What is truly fair is to provide all of our students access to and benefit from the full range of educational opportunities in our schools. This is what No Child Left Behind should mean at the classroom implementation level.

As fairness is considered it is useful to look at various perspectives. At the lowest level is the concept of equality. Equality is simply providing the same for everyone. The downside of this perspective is that we know that each student is not the same and providing only equal instruction will fall far short in ensuring success. At another level is the perspective of equity. Equity is an achievement based concept. Those who work harder or achieve more receive more. In a perfect world equity might be considered fair. But the factors that impact students and their performance abilities make equity-based practice perhaps appropriate in the world of business but a poor fit in education. The kind of fairness that makes most sense in schools and classrooms is one of need. Each student is provided for according to his or her need. Given the range of diversity and the various needs that these will create, providing instruction that is appropriate for each individual student will be that which uses an individual consideration of instructional needs.

Concepts of Fairness:
same for everyone
achievement based
to each according to their need

To accomplish education that is need based, a model of differentiated instruction is recommended. Differentiated instruction is a term used to describe teaching that accommodates the unique needs of individual students. It is a way to teach that is mindful of the diversity represented in our student population. The elements that need to considered are three, expectations, instruction, and evaluation. If we understand the range of diversity in a typical group of students the acceptance of differentiated instruction is reasonable. For example, students who have a first language other than English can be expected to need instruction different from those whose first language is English. Students with a learning disability or lower cognitive abilities might need types of instruction different from the majority of students in the classroom. The third element, that of differentiated evaluation, is somewhat more problematic relative to questions of fairness. Can the same system of evaluation for all, given the differences in learning and ability, be fair? Such a system of evaluation only continues to punish students for individual differences that are beyond their control. Only a system that considers the diverse nature of students and instruction that encompasses different expectations, instruction that considers these differences, and evaluation that sets appropriate standards for individual students, meets the standard of fairness that is fundamental to our goal of providing the best instruction for each individual student.

Differentiated Instruction:

Teaching Methods that Support Collaboration

A number of research based teaching methodologies are recommended as effective in a collaborative model. Each is appropriate for both special needs students and students in general classrooms. They are all designed to allow teachers to focus on small groups of students while allowing the rest of the class to participate in appropriate independent learning activities. Both classroom and special teachers use the same teacher methods to avoid student confusion. It should be remembered that some students with special needs are confused by classroom routine and the collaborative model can avoid the two separate routines found when instruction is provided in separate locations.

In Primary and Intermediate Classes
Teaching methods recommended are familiar to teachers and are considered best practices. Though many of the methods are used in both elementary and secondary classrooms, the focus of instruction can be adjusted to meet the skill levels of the students.

Guided Reading
Guided reading, by any name, is where teachers pull together small groups of students for specific instruction in reading. Classroom organization using guided reading and literacy centers is an effective way to use a collaborative model of service delivery for special education and remedial reading (Swartz, Shook, & Klein, 2003). The classroom teacher convenes a guided reading group and sends the rest of the students to literacy or content focused centers. During this time period, the special education or remedial reading teacher can work in the classroom and convene an additional group for guided reading or work in existing literacy centers with groups selected by need and/or disability. The special teacher might also choose to work with a group of students, using another teaching method such as interactive writing. The opportunity to work one-to-one is also possible using this model. The work done by the special teacher should be additional rather than replacement. The students could participate in guided reading twice, once with the classroom teacher, and once with the special teacher.

Interactive Writing
Interactive writing in the classroom is generally a whole class activity (Swartz, Klein, & Shook, 2001). Interactive writing is a procedure where the teacher and students: 1) share a common knowledge base or experience that can be the focus of the writing; this might be a story read or a current event, 2) negotiate the message that they will write, 3) share the writing between the teacher and students, and 4) use this writing for various extensions, such as shared reading or independent writing.

Interactive writing also lends itself to homogenous, small group instruction. The special teacher can convene a group of students, identified as needing similar levels of support, to work on both reading and writing skills and, in some cases, to help students learn the procedure necessary for them to participate effectively in whole class interactive writing. Interactive writing can focus on both phonics and comprehension and is a systematic way to help students understand print as they both learn to read and write.

In Middle and High School Classes
Though there are different considerations for collaboration in middle and secondary schools, collaboration is still found to be an effect support option (Rice & Zigmond, 1999). Many middle and high school teachers continue to use guided reading with small groups of students to support continued growth in phonics and comprehension skills. Text selections can include typical fiction used in English or nonfiction more common in subject areas. Secondary teachers have identified various other teaching methods that lend themselves to a collaborative model.

Guided Reading
Secondary teachers continue to use guided reading groups as a way to support struggling readers. Instruction is direct in areas of difficulty and blends the focus on skills with that of increasing comprehension. The advantage of guided reading in secondary classrooms is that skill development can continue for those students who need this work while maintaining the necessary emphasis on content and the core curriculum.

Literature Discussion Groups
As students become more proficient readers, teachers have found literature discussion groups to be an effective way for to students to work independently with various texts. These independent groups allow the teacher to convene other groups who need more teacher support and direction. In literature discussion groups, students read a selected text and then use various strategies to analyze and discuss the reading. Students read texts at their instructional level (90-95% word-identification accuracy and 75% comprehension accuracy) and then use a process that includes discussion and content analysis that support comprehension of what is read.

Reciprocal Teaching
Reciprocal Teaching is a small group discussion where students themselves facilitate the discussion of a text selection (Palincsar, Ransom & Derber, 1988-89). The teacher rotates among small groups of four to six students to monitor and support the process. Students are asked to 1) predict, make a judgement about what the paragraph will say, 2) read, read the section aloud, 3) clarify, determine if there are any words or ideas that are unclear, 4) question, ask questions about important information in the selection, and 5) summarize, paraphrase in one or two sentences what the selection was about.

Interactive Editing
Interactive editing is an effective teaching method to increase reading and writing skills and to support student development of comprehension skills (Swartz, Klein, & Shook, 2001). Students are lead through a process of identifying key content in selected passages and then using this content for various writing purposes. It is an effective whole group teaching method and can also be used in small groups for teaching points that reflect student confusions.

Benefits of Collaboration

A special teacher once told me that her students preferred the special education classroom to the general education classroom. And she said that she could protect them from the rough and tumble nature of the classroom; in other words reality. This is most certainly the bad news and recommends against placement in special classes, not for such a placement. When students think of themselves as so different that they need to be separated from their peers, we have accomplished our worst fear. And that is, students who think, I don’t fit with the others, I am too different. This is an attitude difficult to overcome and one that will not accomplish our goal of inclusion.

Collaboration is based on the assumption that services provided using an in-class model can be more effective than those that pull a student out of the classroom. It also assumes that aligning teaching methods used with students in special education and remedial reading benefits the student. Classroom teachers and special teachers should use the same teaching methods. The very students who are most confused by classroom routines, the special needs students, are asked to learn two different routines and frequently very different teaching methods. In the classroom, reading is taught one way and in the special classroom, reading is taught an entirely different way. The value of student familiarity with teaching methods and expectations shared by special teachers and the classroom teacher cannot be overestimated.

Teachers have not been trained in cooperative teaching or in a collaborative model. Teacher training focuses almost exclusively on a classroom where one teacher orchestrates all activities. An effective implementation of a collaborative model needs professional development that supports new ways of teaching and working together.

The practice of excluding special needs students from general education classrooms should only continue if there is a compelling reason to do so. There appears to be no such reason. No educational or social benefits have been identified that justify the isolation and exclusion of students with special needs. Quite the contrary, students identified as special and taught outside the mainstream, are just that, outside the mainstream.

Collaboration between special and general classroom teachers has much to recommend it. If sound teaching is the key to student achievement, as most in the profession believe, this can be delivered using a collaborative model. There is no compromise in the collaborative model, rather the
assurance that all students can learn together.

Arguelles, M., Hughes, M, & Schumm. (2000). Co-Teaching: A different approach to inclusion. Principal, 79(4), 48, 50-51.

Carlberg, C. & Kavale, K. (1980). The efficacy of special versus regular class placement for exceptional students: A meta-analysis. Journal of Special Education, 14, 295-309.

Edgar, E. & Hayden, A.H. (1984-85). Who are the students special education should serve and how many students are there? The Journal of Special Education. 18(4), 523-539.

Algozzine, B. & Korinek L. (1985). Where is special education for students with high prevalence handicaps going? Exceptional Student., 51, 388-394.

Gartner, A. & Lipsky, D.K. (1992). Breaking the yoke of special education. National Learning Differences Network Newsletter and reprinted in The Special Edge. 7(1), September/October 1992. Sacramento, CA; California Department of Education.

Miller, A., Valasky, W., & Melloy, P. (1998). Learning together: The evolution of an inclusive class. Active Learner, 3(2), 14-16.

Palincsar, A., Ransom, K., & Derber, S. (1988-89). Collaborative research and development of reciprocal teaching. Education Leadership, 37-40.

Rice, D., & Aigmond, N. (1999). Co-teaching in Secondary Schools. ED 432 558.

Swartz, S.L. (1993). Restructuring special education: Three generations of school reform. Carlsbad, CA: University Associates Press.

Swartz, S.L., Klein, A.F., & Shook, R.E. (2001). Interactive writing and interactive editing. Carlsbad, CA: Dominie Press.

Swartz, S.L., Shook, R.E., & Klein, A.F. (2003). Guided reading and literacy centers. Carlsbad, CA: Dominie Press.

Ysseldyke, J.D., Thurlow, M., Graden, J. Wesson, C., Algozzine, B. & Deno, S. (1983). Generalizations from five years of research on assessment and decision-making. Exceptional Educational Quarterly. 4, 75-93.

Stanley L. Swartz, is Professor of Education at California State University, San Bernardino. He is also the Director of the Foundation for Comprehensive Early Literacy Learning ( and the Autism Research Group.
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