"Opportunity to learn" as a concept, policy framework and strategic discussion starter has been part of our public education landscape for over two decades (or more). A little over a year ago, the U.S. Department of Education released the report of the Commission on Equity and Excellence in Education. In the forward to the report, Congressman Mike Honda (CA) stated: "This game-changing report embraces the urgent truth in education reform: that parity is not equity. The report commits to a transformative vision on how local, state and federal governments can, and should, wield power to ensure excellence in education all of America's children." As a policy-influencing document, the report is all about assuring equity in opportunity to learn..

The Commission's report focuses on five core components intended to influence policymaking. Predominately, these represent opportunities for learning that must be distributed equitably – meaning that disparities are recognized and resources are adjusted to create equity of opportunity. There are also recommendations that address the need for a national commitment to fundamental principles and policies necessary to insure equity and excellence.

The five areas include:

  • Equitable school finance: "...so that a child's critical opportunities are not a function of his or her zip code."
  • Teachers, principals and curricula: "...effective enough to provide children with the opportunity to thrive in a changing world."
  • Early childhood education: "...with an academic focus, to narrow the disparities in readiness when kids reach kindergarten."
  • Mitigating poverty's effect: "...also with a range of support services necessary to promote student success and family engagement in school..."
  • Accountability and governance: "...reforms to make clearer who is responsible for what, attach consequences to performance, and ensure that national commitments to equity and excellence are reflected in results on the ground..."

What does this mean for students with IEPs?
For students with IEPs, opportunity to learn is founded on the same principles, and the same concerns, as for all students and identified sub-groups. Whether we are reviewing research, adhering to implementation standards for effective practices, or analyzing our own school or district data, the key elements undergirding opportunity to learn are well established. And yes, there are variables that are not immediately controlled or immediately impacted by those involved in the day-to-day function of teaching and learning - for example, federal policies and state funding. Yet for schools challenged by achievement gaps, there are variables that can be managed, mitigated, or mastered that will make a difference for all students, including students with IEPs. These include, in part, the following:

  • Standards-aligned curriculum
  • Recruitment of and support for well-trained teachers and administrators
  • On-going professional learning that supports:
    • Skills in differentiating instruction,
    • Use of assistive technology, and
    • Collaborative data-based problem-solving around student learning and instructional strategies
  • School culture and climate that puts teacher and student relationships at the heart

In our concentrated effort to develop and implement standards-aligned curriculum, recruit and support well-trained and effective teachers and administrators, build data-driven professional learning into school improvement plans and activities, and get really good at data-driven problem solving, we may overlook the fundamental need for building positive and affirmative relationships across staff, among students, and between teachers and students. Yet relationships are foundational in all human growth and development. Relationships impact achievement gaps!

Opening Opportunities to Learn (and Closing the Gap)
Teacher and student relationships are at the core of climate and culture in a school. Students with IEPs benefit from the same variables and components of a positive climate and culture as does every other student. Assuring positive and supportive relationships within and across the school is foundational to closing student achievement gaps. For students with IEPs, it is critical to assure that every student with an IEP:

  • Is respected by staff and students
  • Has a positive and supportive relationship with a mentor/teacher
  • Has a meaningful IEP that is well implemented
  • Is provided with relevant and timely feedback that supports ongoing academic and social progress in school

Why Are Such Assurances Important?
Teacher and staff beliefs about, and behavior toward, students with IEPs influence the teaching and learning dynamic. Even subtle doubts about a student's ability to learn and achieve will influence both teacher and student behavior, effort, and attitude/engagement.

Respect for students with IEPs means that bullying is never tolerated. Respect is developed as all students are taught to know and support each other. Respect is supported when students with IEPs are included in the regular activities of a school, when peer-to-peer supports are integrated into the curriculum, and when teachers model support for each and every child's efforts and progress, both academically and socially.

Positive and supportive relationships with mentor/teachers are a closing the gap cornerstone! "Of all the asset-focused factors, teacher-student relationship quality has gathered the most evidence to support its gap-closing importance.1" As in all human interactions, the nature of relationship creates or impairs the development of trust, belief in self, and willingness to engage.

Meaningful IEPs
While compliant IEPs are a measure of success for adults, meaningful IEPs that are effectively implemented are most important to success for students. Meaningful IEPs are those that are based on relevant data regarding student learning strengths, student learning needs, student performance status and student priorities to support measureable progress. Meaningful IEPS involve ongoing collaboration and measures of impact on a regular basis, not just at the annual IEP review. Amendments to IEPs can be important considerations when adjustments to the individual program are indicated. This option may often be overlooked.

The impact of fixed and growth mindsets, on learning and engagement, inform the nature of feedback provided to students with IEPs. As underscored by Boykin and Noguera2 , feedback can alter belief orientation and affect achievement. Various studies support the importance of the nature of feedback and its impact on student belief in self-efficacy – and that includes building resilience. "Effort" feedback, defining the strategies that the student used to realize progress and/or success, is important in shaping a growth mindset, and in supporting the student to remain engaged in his/her learning. Such feedback also supports development of metacognitive learning. These characteristics are critical to student learning and closing achievement gaps – and teacher feedback can shape these characteristics. For example, Dweck shares the following feedback examples:

  • "You really studied for your English test, and your improvement shows it. You read the material over several times, outlined it, and tested yourself on it. That really worked!"
  • I like the way you tried all kinds of strategies on the math problem until you finally got it."
  • It was a long, hard assignment, but you stuck to it and got it done. You stayed at your desk, kept up your concentration, and kept working. That's great.3"

Discussion Starters for Professional Learning (Download the Tool to the Right!)eip tool opportunity to learn thumbnail
The following questions can be used for discussion starters for professional learning – such questions, tied to this brief reading, can promote crucial conversations around school climate and culture – specifically attitudes, beliefs and behaviors toward and about students.

    1. Do we assure a safe and supportive environment for all students, including students with IEPs?
    2. Are student with IEPs the focus of bullying by other students or staff?
    3. How do we assure that students with IEPs are included in all school activities?
    4. How do we support intentional peer-to-peer relationships and supports?
    1. How do we assure that every student with an IEP has a trusting and supportive relationship with at least one adult in our school? How do we know this?
    2. How do we assure that every student with an IEP in included in peer relationships? How do we know this?
    1. Are our IEPs procedurally compliant? How do we know this?
    2. Are our IEPs meaningful?
      1. Are they tied directly to student learning needs and learning strengths?
      2. How do we measure this?
      3. How frequently do we measure the impact of the current IEP? If the individual program (as defined in the IEP) is not working, do we make amendments to improve outcomes for the student?
      4. How do we measure the effectiveness of the IEPs we design for our students?
    3. Are we on top of our game when it comes to supporting students with IEPs to perform at the very top of their competence? How do we know?
    1. How do we measure the effectiveness of our feedback to students with IEPs?
    2. Are we intentional about the nature and effect of the feedback we provide to students with IEPs?
    3. Does our feedback support the development of growth mindsets in our students or do we reinforce fixed mindsets about ability?
    4. Does our feedback reflect low expectations or high expectations?
    5. Does our feedback reflect our absolute belief in our students?
    6. What could we do to improve our focus on feedback to students with IEPs as a component of our efforts to close the achievement gap?

Click Here for References


1 Boykin and Noguera. (2011). Creating the opportunity to learn. Alexandria VA: ASCD. Pg 70.
2 Ibid, pg 65.
3 Dweck, C.S. (2007). The perils and promises of praise. Educational Leadership, 65(2), 34-39.


Policy Discussions, Positions And Influencers On Opportunity To Learn

Alliance for Quality Education of New York: New York Opportunity to Learn Campaign.

Darling-Hammond, L. (2006). Securing the right to learn: Policy and practice for powerful teaching and learning. Educational Researcher 2006 35:13. American Educational Research Association and Sage Publications.

For each and every child: a strategy for education equity and excellence. (2013). The Commission on Equity and Excellence in Education, a federal advisory committee chartered by Congress (operating under the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA); 5 U.S.C., App.2. CITATION: U.S. Department of Education.

Forum on Educational Accountability (2011). All children deserve the opportunity to learn. (www.edaccountability.org):NCEO Policy Directions, National Center on Educational Outcomes, No. 4 January 1995

Research & Practice

Boykin, A.W. and Noguera, P. (2011). Creating the Opportunity to learn: Moving from research to practice to close the achievement gap. Alexandria VA: ASCD.

Dweck, C.S. (2007). The perils and promises of praise. Education Leadership, 65(2), 34-39.

Mueller C.M. and Dweck, C.S. (1998). Praise for intelligence can undermine children's motivation and performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75(1), 33-52.

Statistical Resources

Department of Education. 29th Annual Report to Congress on the Implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (2007). 72.

National Center for Education Statistics, Mathematics 2011, Reading 2011, National Assessment of Educational Progress at Grades 4 and 8. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics, November 2011.

Trends in High School Dropout and Completion Rates in the United States: 1972-2009. Washington D.C.: National Center for Education Statistics, October 2011, 9.

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