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The Problem with "Alternative Curriculum" and "Functional Skills"

Updated: Aug 4, 2023

Years ago, when I was a special education director transitioning a school district to a more inclusive service delivery model, I put out an all call to our staff:

“Send your alternative curriculum materials to district office.”

In this instance, alternative curriculum referred to any materials being used in special education classrooms that replaced the general education grade level curriculum. Research-based, targeted interventions that supplemented the core were excluded from the edict.

As the alternative curriculum round-up began, materials trickled in to central office. Each day I eagerly opened the large, brown inter-office mail envelopes filled with old texts, workbooks, and worksheets, most of which had publication years predating Y2K. I stacked these materials on a table in the hall that my colleagues and I lovingly referred to as “the table o’ junk” or “the craft store curriculum.”

Some teachers were happy to be rid of the old materials, having embraced inclusion as well as their newfound closet space. Others were wary, questioning, “What are we supposed to use for curriculum?” The response was easy - the same curriculum you use for everyone else.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires that all students, regardless of the severity of disability, be provided with access to general education curricula. For students with more significant needs, the use of modifications and accommodations supports that access. When students with disabilities receive an entirely different curriculum that supplants the core, they are denied their educational rights.

This lack of access became readily apparent in the weeks following the directive to return alternative curricula. It also became clear we would need more than a table.

A number of teachers stopped by on their way home from work, dropping off boxes filled with “Life Skills math” books and “sight word reading” programs. Several principals, suspicious that unaligned materials continued to be used, ransacked a few closets and found more alternative materials.

But before you go thinking, “those evil administrators - depriving their teachers of resources!”, reserve your judgment until you hear more about the materials returned…

  • Chapter three of a Life Skills math book was devoted entirely to bowling. The text instructed students on how to score frames by hand - a useful skill for recreational bowling in the ‘90s.

  • A sight word reading curriculum required students to memorize signs like “stop” and “exit” instead of actually teaching them how to read - problematic considering it’s not possible to memorize all 171,000 words in the English language.

  • “Functional skills” like telling time and counting change were prevalent - useful when you don’t have an ever-present cell phone to tell time or on those days you feel like paying for groceries with pennies.

As the table o’ junk grew, our custodian lent me a bin she used to collect the recycling.

An image of Jenna Rufo, a white woman with long dark hair, smiling and sitting atop a large bin filled with old textbooks. She is wearing a long sleeve black shirt, a black and gray skirt, and black tights and holding up some of the books.

Sure, I look happy in the picture (happy that we were teaching kids grade-level content), but the prevalence of alternative curricula for students with disabilities is really quite concerning.

First, let me be clear that I do not blame teachers for using whatever materials they could get their hands on. In many schools and districts, students with disabilities are afterthoughts in the curriculum process.

I’ve frequently heard of students with IEPs who did not have textbooks because a curriculum department excluded them from the purchase count. Similarly, special education teachers often lament over not having teacher guides because it was assumed that the special education department was “taking care of them.” Harried special educators teaching multiple subject areas in classrooms filled with students from various grade levels cannot be faulted for looking to impose some semblance of structure into their instruction.

Yet, the alternative curriculum phenomenon extends beyond a need for structure or the division between general education and special education. At its core, assigning a completely alternative curriculum to students in special education is built on the deeply held belief that students with disabilities just can’t

They can’t possibly be taught how to read.

They can’t learn math before they are taught "functional" life skills.

They can’t get anything out of this class.

When we make value judgments about what students can or cannot do, we are relegating them to a lifetime of low expectations and poor outcomes. The detriments of self-contained special education programming are well-documented. (Check out the most recent piece of evidence here which confirms 40 years of research).

What do we do then, instead?

  • We include students with disabilities in general education classes through universally-designed instruction with the support of accommodations and modifications when needed.

  • We redefine the role of special education teachers to provide more inclusive supports and allocate time in their schedules to develop meaningful modifications.

  • We restructure intervention and enrichment programs to maintain integrity of the general education curriculum and provide access to the core.

  • We utilize targeted, research-based interventions to address student skill deficits rather than alternative materials unaligned to the standards.

  • We abandon a belief system that requires students with significant disabilities to “prove” that they can benefit from general education and instead, presume their competence.

The world in which students with disabilities live is the same world as that of their peers. Preparing them for life in that world begins with access. Alternative curricula prepares them for no such world - the use of these materials provides false assurances of preparation for a fictional, “functional” world.

The bottom line is this…

We can teach our students with disabilities to read and do math, or we can teach them to count change at the bowling alley and look for the exit signs.

The choice is clear.

If you are eager to learn more about restructuring special education to better meet the needs of all learners, check out my co-authored book, Reimagining Special Education.

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