“All learners deserve effective, inclusive education; leadership is key to making it happen in every school” (Munk & Dempsey, 2010, p. 1). Thus begins Dennis D. Munk and Thomas L. Dempsey's 2010 book Leadership Strategies for Successful Schoolwide Inclusion: The STAR Approach. While scholars, administrators, and teachers have often disagreed about the legal and practical definitions of inclusion, most would agree that school leaders play a critical role in creating, evaluating, and sustaining approaches designed to promote inclusive practices that meet the needs of all students. Most would also agree that school leaders are confronted with a myriad of challenges that make it difficult for schoolwide inclusion to move beyond rhetoric to reality.
Munk and Dempsey address these challenges in their resource-rich book that provides background information, an explicit framework for change, and assessment and planning tools that school leaders can use to guide their efforts in promoting successful schoolwide inclusion. Munk and Dempsey posit that while learners with the most intensive needs will require a continuum of services, schools should focus on “maximizing” their inclusiveness so as to ensure that the majority of students can have their needs met in the general education setting (p. xii). The authors note that theirs is not a “methods book of classroom strategies” (p. 11), but rather a book to be used by leaders and others to create an environment in which inclusive practices can be established and sustained. This distinction is important, and it seems to me that the book's greatest strengths are its balanced perspective on inclusive education, its focus on leadership as a participatory and ongoing process, and its development and presentation of the STAR leadership strategy. The book is not comprehensive enough to provide all of the information that school leaders will need to maximize inclusive practices; however, the authors are clear that their intent is to provide a framework for change as opposed to a detailed recipe for implementation.
Munk and Dempsey draw on previous research on inclusive education (i.e., Cushing, Carter, Clark, Wallis, & Kennedy, 2009; Gersten & Dimino, 2001; Murawski & Dieker, 2004; Thousand & Villa, 2005) to identify four broad practices that comprise the STAR leadership strategy and are intended to promote successful inclusion in schools. Their definition of the STAR mnemonic is as follows:
Setting the tone: Establishing a schoolwide culture based on equality, democracy, and valuing of differences
Translating research into practice: Seeking out and using effective practices in blended classrooms
Arranging for collaboration: Encouraging and enabling collaboration between professionals
Reflecting on processes and outcomes: Evaluating success and seeking to remedy limitations (p. 15)
The initial presentation of the STAR leadership strategy introduces a template known as the “STAR Organizer” that lists sample activities and their importance within each of the four practice areas. The STAR Organizer is used throughout the book to illustrate the ways that the STAR strategy can be used to enhance the participation of principals, general and special education teachers, parents, and peers of learners with special needs in assessing and implementing inclusive practices. The template is also proposed as a framework for addressing more specific issues within an inclusive approach to education, including enhancing individualized education program (IEP) planning processes and content and maximizing access to the general education curriculum for learners with special needs through schoolwide approaches, such as Universal Design for Learning (UDL), Response to Intervention (RtI), and Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS).
There is much for school leaders and others to like about the way in which Munk and Dempsey have crafted and presented the STAR leadership strategy. The STAR acronym is easy to remember and suggests a framework for change that is both robust and explicit. The authors speak about the need for principals to “pitch a large tent” (p. 43) as they think about who needs to be involved in the change process and what specific strategies will be pursued within that process, and the STAR strategy is broad enough to help that tent take shape. The STAR leadership strategy has also been designed to accommodate the needs and interests of both experienced and less experienced school leaders. Its connection to existing frameworks and theories of change (e.g., the action research cycle) suggests that it may be readily adopted by administrators with experience in implementing other schoolwide initiatives while its specific focus provides guidance for those who have not previously engaged in implementing inclusive practices within their schools. The STAR leadership strategy is one that feels both familiar and new; as such, it is a strategy with the potential to appeal to a wide audience.
School leaders are also likely to appreciate the many resources that are included in this book. The chapters include detailed STAR Organizers, guiding questions and tips for leaders, case studies, recommended practices, summaries of previous research, and a list of recommended references arranged by topic. The book includes a particularly strong section on aligning IEPs with state standards. The final chapter presents a series of tools that can be used in the planning, implementation, and evaluation of practices designed to maximize inclusion. By design, the tools are flexible enough to be used by leaders for schoolwide planning and evaluation as well as by smaller school teams engaged in planning and monitoring their effectiveness.
Throughout, the book's examples and assessment tools emphasize the need for school leaders to approach change from a holistic and collaborative perspective. These are not just tools for school administrators; rather, they are tools designed to engage all members of a particular school community in promoting inclusive practices. The authors' treatment of the topic of parent involvement is more comprehensive than most, emphasizing the need to involve parents of children with disabilities in IEP planning and evaluation as well as the need to involve parents of all children in the process of creating and sustaining a more inclusive school culture. The STAR leadership strategy underscores the important role that school principals play in bringing about change, but it also defines leadership broadly, acknowledging the value of empowering all stakeholders with the vision and tools required for schoolwide change.
The “T” of the STAR strategy—translating research into practice—is the most ambitious topic addressed by the book, and it is likely that school leaders will need additional guidance in selecting research-based practices that will fit their particular context and individual student needs. The book notes the importance of instructional leadership, and it is clear that principals and other school leaders will need additional resources in order to develop their expertise in curriculum, assessment, and instruction. Similarly, leaders and/or school-based teams who are searching for research-based strategies to use with individual students will find general guidelines but will need to consult other resources to understand how to identify and monitor the effectiveness of those strategies, particularly for students with more intensive needs.
I was most intrigued by the chapter that the authors devote to the ways in which Universal Design for Learning and Response to Intervention may be thought of as practices that hold promise for maximizing inclusion in schools. This chapter raises some important questions about the how to balance the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act's emphasis on the achievement of individually focused goals with No Child Left Behind's emphasis on the achievement of goals as defined by a common set of standards. The authors argue that schools wishing to maximize inclusion will need to define curriculum broadly so that “access to the curriculum” (p. 79) is measured by success with respect to the achievement of academic standards and by success in the context of the full range of social and personal experiences that children may have in school. Finally, the authors reflect on the fact that within models such as RtI students may receive more intensive interventions outside of the general education classroom. They remind school leaders to think carefully about the ways in which the intent to maximize inclusion may be both similar to and different from evolving practices, such as UDL, RtI, and PBIS. This is an important conversation for our field, and while the authors do not take a strong stand on the intersection of these practices and the resulting benefits and challenges for learners with various needs, they raise questions that deserve attention.
Leadership Strategies for Successful Schoolwide Inclusion: The STAR Approach is a book that provides a framework for change, a multitude of resources, and questions for school leaders and others to think about as we move forward in understanding what inclusion is and how it can best be practiced. Munk and Dempsey note that “the question of whether to promote inclusive education has been resolved. The question of how has taken precedence” (p. 18). It is hard to imagine how a single book could fully address the “how” question, but the STAR leadership strategy provides a clear and useful framework that will help its readers to become more intentional and skilled as they initiate and continue that important journey.