This is my coworker's first year teaching in DCPS. Before working in DCPS, she worked in an inclusion setting at a suburban school. She asked me this week, "What happens in a pull-out classroom?"
I could only tell her my past observations. In the pull-out setting, kids are not given intense, goal-directed instruction. They are given worksheets on whatever level they are functioning on without a plan for seeing definite progress as soon as possible. They also use manipulatives and games in those classrooms. Unfortunately, manipulatives and games without a systematic, goal-directed plan are not research-based and validated interventions. In other words, the activities become busy work.
Special education in DCPS may keep kids from getting further behind (to a degree), but doesn' t push them to the next level or attempt to narrow the gap between them and their peers, which is particularly sad in the case of learning disabled kids who have average intelligence and so much more potential than what many of their teachers are willing to grow out of them.
The other thing I see happening in special ed classrooms is that kids get way too much down time. These kids need rigor just like all of the other kids in the school! I've seen too many SPED kids engaged in large amounts of undirected time, especially on the computer. Last summer, I assisted in a class of students with mental retardation for four weeks. The lead teacher allowed them to spend 2 of the 3 hours they had for summer school each day at recess or doing "free choice." One student told me at least three times that she really wanted to learn how to read, and she had moderate mental retardation so she probably could have learned how to read. However, reading instruction was not planned unless I initiated it.
I gave one student direct, intensive instruction on how to write the letter A (a letter in her name). In five years of schooling she had not learned this, but last summer she learned this skill in one week with direct, intensive instruction. I also taught another student how to track lines of print from left to right. I'm not a miracle-worker, but I was amazed at what direct, intensive instruction can do - even for students with mental retardation.
Our DCPS pull-out programs, however, don't have this rigor - in my experience.