“The key person in the learning equation is the student.” - 

Murphy, J. & Torre, D. (2014)1  

As the summer (or at least part of July) offers a brief respite from the anticipated and unanticipated events of a school year, we hopefully can take time to reflect on the past year in anticipation of the upcoming school year.  With a lens on students with IEPs, there are many variables that are impacted by our leadership and make significant differences in outcomes for these students. Academic learning, social learning, increasing self-confidence, gaining a sense of one’s own agency, are critical components (among others) of a growing portfolio of personal capital for students.

A colleague of mine talks about our task as supporting and stretching the student to the very edge of his/her competence – meaning our work is not just about achieving certain academic standards, but supporting the learner in a way that creates continuous growth and discovery about one's own strengths, abilities and capacities.

Building on this notion, look to Dr. Joseph Murphy and his colleague, Daniela Torre, in their recently published book2. They challenge us to think equally about academic press and pastoral care; i.e. to consider academic and instructional rigor as integrated with a norm of care for the student. They underscore the importance of attending to the "DNA of Norm of Care" that includes deep attention to interrelated aspects of care, support, safety and membership.

Their framework lends itself well to the work of the MSU Office of K-12 Outreach. There is a constant thread that links to the notion of cultures and communities created in schools and subsequent impact on student outcomes. With this in mind, in moments of reflection, give some thought to the following challenges that may need more attention in the upcoming school year – AND celebrate those areas that represent improvement and success in your school!


  • Reflecting on the quality of IEPs we create for students, consider whether or not students' strengths are adequately identified and used as a lever for teaching and learning – or do we merely fill in the blanks in the IEP template with a focus on a compliant IEP?
  • Reflecting on student voice, consider whether or not we create intentional opportunities for students with IEPs to learn how to engage with other students, to learn how to articulate their own strengths, and to both understand and articulate "what works best for me."
  • Reflecting on building engagement with families, consider whether the lens of diversity has been applied – have we considered variations of experience, cultural norms, expectations, and confidence or trust in schools when we design and initiate engagement strategies?
  • Reflecting on creating supportive communities for students with IEPs, consider whether or not we have created laboratories of continuous improvement in supporting relationships – have we supported students' belief as to their worth, their strengths, and their ability to succeed in every task - and understanding that failure is a natural part of the learning process? Have we nurtured resilience? Have we nurtured a growth mind-set?
  • Reflecting on data-driven practices, consider whether or not your teams are using the right data, in the most targeted manner. Merely having data on students with IEPs does not assure utility. Having the right data and meaningful use is the task. Have general and special education teachers been supported to work together, throughout the year, or is the special education teacher left to ponder end-of-year data for the annual IEP review in isolation?

A FINAL REFLECTION: Is what we are doing consistent with what we believe?
In a review of Building Community in Schools3 (Thomas Sergiovanni, 1994), Joel Westheimer summarizes Sergiovanni's thesis this way: that schooling is first and foremost about relationships between and among students and teachers, and that community building must be the basis for school reform efforts that seek to improve teaching and learning – all else will come more naturally when authentic communities flourish.
For me, this generates questions at the heart of special education: are we driven by compliance or by a commitment to excellence in teaching and learning? Are we driven by bureaucratic obligation or by a genuine belief in human potential? If we are driven by a commitment to excellence in teaching and learning, by a belief in human potential, then we must establish a foundation of community within the school – community that fosters healthy relationships, community that fosters human potential, and collective energy to keep improving!

"Students with disabilities currently make up 13% of public school enrollment, with percentages in states varying from 10% to 19% of the state public school enrollment. They are disproportionately poor, minority, and English Language Learners. The vast majority– about 80-85% based on the latest distribution of disability categories – are students without intellectual impairments. Rather, they are students who with specially designed instruction, appropriate access, supports, and accommodations, as required by IDEA, can meet the same achievement standards as other students. We must ensure that these students progress through school successfully to be ready for college or career."

Dr. Martha Thurlow4

Click Here for References


1 Murphy, J. & Torre, D. (2014). Creating Productive Cultures in Schools. Thousand Oaks CA: Corwin.
2 Ibid.
3 Harvard Educational Review, Winter 1996. Westheimer, J. Book Review: Building Community in Schools by Thomas Sergiovanni (1994).
Dr. Martha Thurlow, Director of the national Center on Education Outcomes, in testimony to the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, U.S. Senate, April 28, 2010.

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