“…and Justice for All.” – Inclusive Education is Backward by Design

Picture of Brian Berry, PhD – Professor in the School of EducationBy Brian Berry, PhD
School of Education

As an educator preparing current and future teachers of students with disAbilities, I am interested in the richness of the American educational system, which is nothing if it isn’t a promise to a better future for all and not just the most privileged. American education has always been intertwined in the social and political realities of the day, with schools reflecting the impulses in society. Whether it was a family in Kansas in the 1950s disgusted with the inferiority of separate schooling (Brown vs. Board of Education) or family members in Pennsylvania in the 1970s challenging nonexistent education and low expectations entrenched in state-sponsored segregated special schools (PARC decree), education has always been a mirror on what is happening in America and a bell weather on how America strives to live up to its promises.

Regardless of background, most of us share this one, potentially unifying experience – that of being a part of this American education experience. We should believe that American education is ultimately a story of liberation and access, guided by the 14th amendment of the US Constitution, for all to have an equal opportunity to success.

I am inclined to think about how the promise of education can be fulfilled, especially for those without obvious privilege, like many students with disAbilities. There is a curricular design approach, “Backward Design,” popularized by educational researchers, McTighe and Wiggins (2006), that offers a parallel when thinking about achieving this aim of educational opportunity. 

As its title states, the idea of Backward Design is to start at the end of the course of study to look for the “Big Ideas” that the students will learn and work backwards when developing coursework. The intent is to reach for learning that is not simply a collection of content and activities but a striving for a learning outcome centered on that “Big Idea.” Teaching division and multiplication without a focus on its ultimate purpose for application in problem solving and reasoning misses out on a key aim in learning mathematics.

For American “Big Ideas,” we need to look no further than the promise in the Pledge of Allegiance, recited every morning in our nation’s classrooms. It is easily the most unified bit of rote learning, repeated 180 days per year, shared by all of us who have experienced American education. The pledge, as we all know, begins with an affirmation of commitment to our nation. It ends with an ideal for a united people “…and justice for all.” To fulfill this “Big Idea,” we can look to the end and work backwards. Current and future educators need to know that “justice for all” means focusing on the educational benefits, not for the popular and privileged who have access to the riches this country has to offer, but those most vulnerable, children with disAbilities among them. If current and future educators commit and succeed with these students, focusing on their rights for an appropriate and fulfilling education, they will be making good on the implied promise that education needs to be fairly applied to all students if there is to be justice.

Wiggins and McTighe (2006). Understanding by Design. Pearson: Merrill Prentice Hall.