LAWRENCE — The University of Kansas has launched a unique online program — one of the first of its kind in the nation — to teach educators and school leaders how to create an inclusive learning environment that serves all students and addresses biases common in American educational settings.
KU has begun the Leadership in Special and Inclusive Education graduate certificate program. The online program is offered by KU’s No. 1 nationally rated Department of Special Education and is designed for every type of school leader, including superintendents, principals, teachers, building administrators, security personnel, school board members, family members, community advocates, case managers, attorneys and others. The four-course, 12-credit-hour, eight-month program features classes designed by Professor Elizabeth Kozleski, chair of KU’s special education department; Tom Skrtic, distinguished professor of special education, and a capstone course based on cutting-edge gaming research. All classes are based in special education law.
“The courses are designed to support school leaders in understanding the legal frames for building inclusive schools, the political and organizational structures that are needed to put inclusive principles into place, and how to facilitate and develop the capacities and talents present within the school community,” Kozleski said.
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, commonly known as IDEA, and the Americans with Disabilities Act require that all American children are granted access to a free, quality public education in the least restrictive environment possible. Yet research has shown that students with disabilities are often segregated from general education classrooms and that African-American students and students of color are largely overrepresented in special education classes and are much more likely to be labeled with a disability or an emotional or behavioral disorder. As a result, mislabeled students can be less likely to graduate, more likely to drop out, become part of the “school to prison pipeline” or have many other negative outcomes. The courses address disability, race and myriad other cultural identities from an intersectional standpoint, meaning participants are supported in considering a multifacted view of identity.
“I think school leaders are in an important spot to address and eradicate those poor outcomes for kids from marginalized backgrounds,” said Cynthia Mruczek, coordinator of the Leadership in Special and Inclusive Education program. “This set of courses is designed in such a way that participants are required to consider how their identities influence their leadership and decisions they make and how those affect students.”
The program includes four courses: special education leadership, history, context and critique of special education, appropriate and least restrictive environment and non-discriminatory evaluation and parent participation and procedural due process. All courses are based in special education law, teaching participants what is required by law and how to provide a non-restrictive environment for all students, including those with disabilities, that is in keeping with both the letter and spirit of the law. The history portion of the program shows students ways schools and states have discriminated against students throughout history and cases of “symbolic compliance,” a term Skrtic used to describe situations where schools technically meet the requirements of laws but are not providing an equitable education to all.
Throughout the program, participants are given access to case studies, legal readings and resources not commonly available to a lay audience. Participants are both required to complete readings and share reading materials they encountered in their research with their classmates and program directors. Social justice and inclusion are themes throughout the program. Confronting exclusionary practices, from relatively minor examples to more blatant instances, are discussed throughout, and participants are required to work in real time with their fellow school leaders to formulate ways to address them.
“We’re trying to build leadership from those who aren’t even aware of exclusionary practices to leaders who are fully inclusive in all of their practices,” said Sorcha Hyland, course author and course instructor for the program. “It really forces participants to enhance their leadership skills. It simulates the real world without their having to leave the room. They have to work in situational challenges, such as teachers are quitting or your district is facing a lawsuit, that schools are dealing with in the real world.”
Those leadership skills are put to the test in perhaps the most innovative portion of the program, the capstone course. The final course is built on gaming knowledge and puts participants in “close encounters” in an online, fictional school district known as Valyria. Participants are assigned an avatar that gains strength and capacity as they complete tasks and challenges. “Players” are assigned quests in the form of addressing challenges that school leaders have faced in actual, documented cases. As they work to complete the quests, Mruczek, the “game master” for the course, plays cards that change the scenario, based on how the participants have played up to that point.
The close encounters are built on gaming education research, and Mruczek describes it as “World of Warcraft meets the educational world.” But while it is built on a gaming dynamic, all of the examples are based on real cases, lawsuits and challenges faced by a real American school district in regard to special education and inclusion. And the avatars that participants are required to role-play are assigned by the game master to help each of them expand their world views and habits of thinking. The gender, ethnicity, race and backgrounds used to construct the avatars may be different than what course participants have experienced in their lives. This game role-playing process works to enhance cultural responsivity and to further enable and encourage students to consider differing perspectives and approaches to leadership and to be conscious of their own biases.
“What it does is it simulates real things that happen in leadership positions. We do not know of another leadership preparation course that pulls from gaming theory in real time like this,” Mruczek said. “We do not give them word counts, guidance on what to write about or what to do to address these challenges. They have to work together in real time to decide how they’re going to solve these challenges, because that’s what they’ll have to do as school leaders.”
Image: “Valyria,” an imaginary school district in the future, is part of the program’s capstone course. The course is based on gaming in education research and requires participants to solve problems that have faced real school districts. All of the cases in the course are based on real law cases and are intended to train participants to solve problems in ways that are collaborative and based in civil-rights law. Credit: The School of Education