When it comes to closing the achievement gap for any group of students, we know that a focused and targeted professional learning agenda is a critical feature of the effort. How we tackle this agenda is based, in part, on a thorough understanding of current student performance as well as a deep understanding of our own personal and systemic strengths, skills, and challenges. Reflections on these variables can yield insight into professional learning priorities and strategies.

The following challenges, resources, and aspects of professional learning design are instrumental in addressing the achievement gap for students with IEPs.

Challenges. The following challenges include both common and specific areas that need enhancement to improve the teaching and learning dynamic, especially for students with IEPs.

  1. Aligning curriculum and instruction so that students with IEPs are receiving instruction that will move them forward, toward the very targets against which their performance is measured. This includes:
    1. Incorporating universal design for learning (UDL) to support students' strengths through differentiated instruction and performance evidence.
    2. Incorporating formative assessments for all students with IEPs.
    3. Assuring that students with IEPs are also supported within a multi-tiered system of supports (MTSS).
  2. Addressing the impact of attitude and beliefs about students with IEPs – getting underneath real levels of expectations for students. This includes:
    1. Building mindsets that support learning.
    2. Examining values that impact learning.
    3. Examining labels that impede learning.
  3. Addressing the appropriate use of accommodations and assistive technology for student with IEPs – tying the checklists and supports on IEPs to everyday practice in the classroom. This includes:
    1. Selecting accommodations for both classroom use and assessment supports.
    2. Selecting assistive technology that expedites learning.

If any of these challenges are found in your school, consider addressing them as part of your ongoing professional learning process. Both content and implementation can be infused into an annual PD plan, wherein both content and implementation can be prescribed, measured, and evaluated. Consider the following resources when strategizing the annual professional learning agenda.

Resources to Support Meeting These Challenges and Developing a Professional Learning Agenda

Universal design for learning (UDL) is an emerging field that supports achievement for diverse learners through use of multiple forms of engagement & access, representation, and expression/demonstration of learning. Professional learning around UDL benefits all teachers and all students. Resources for UDL are listed in this month's resource guide.

Formative assessment is critical for sustaining a learning trajectory for students with IEPs. Waiting for report card intervals or annual IEP reviews will not inform instructional strategies in a timely manner; ongoing formative assessment and progress monitoring will, however. Resources for formative assessment are listed in this month's resource guide.

A multi-tiered system of supports (MTSS) is intended to support all students; timeliness of the supports is part of the essence in moving students forward. Students with IEPs are not automatically assigned tiered support because of the IEP (the function of the IEP is to address specific and individual needs due to disability). Said another way, special education services do not constitute a tier. Any student with an IEP remains a general education student first, and may or may not need additional supports available in a MTSS system. A student with an IEP may or may not need intermittent interventions for reading or math similar to a student without an IEP. Another student with an IEP might achieve academically without targeted (tier two) or intensive (tier three) interventions. Students with IEPs should have access to universal/core instruction, and that should be high-quality instruction. An IEP does not predetermine the level of instructional support a student might need at a particular time or for a particular skill in a robust MTSS. An array of resources to support professional learning around MTSS can also be found in this month's resource guide.

"...any school that wants to improve achievement through non-cognitive skills, such as courage, must develop a growth mindset in all students and staff. Everyone must believe that they can improve with effort and practice, and that demonstrating academic courage will lead to success."

-Berger, R. (2013). Classes in Courage. Phi Delta Kappan. 95(2):14-18.

Mindsets are critical variables in closing the achievement gap. Addressing our own mindsets and developing student mindsets are key considerations in building toward success for each and every student. Carol Dweck's seminal work on mindsets informs our understanding of how we think about intelligence and how this impacts motivation. A fixed mindset sees intelligence/ability as limited or static while a growth mindset sees intelligence/ability as malleable, as subject to ongoing development. Building a growth mindset requires feedback about effort and strategies—and about understanding that initial failures are simply steps toward learning. Working with students who struggle in the academic environment requires meeting them where they are and encouraging their efforts, and supporting a variety of strategies to achieve mastery. Teachers who do not believe that students can learn (a fixed mindset) will only influence a fixed mindset in their students—and stimulate a lack of engagement and a diminishing belief in self. See the resource guide for helpful resources on mindsets.

"Labels are for jelly jars! Teach children, don't label them!"

-Namka, L. (1997)

Values drive our behavior; examining our values is an aspect of reflecting on our practices in the teaching and learning dynamic. How we value diversity (or not) influences our approach to students with IEPs. Labels can do much the same; many times the labels we use serve to distinguish the "other" in our worlds. In the case of students with IEPs, labels may influence how educators perceive students, including influencing expectations for achievement. It's important to recognize how special education eligibility (labels: LD, EI, ASD, etc.) may yield preconceived notions about a child that negatively impact our holding high expectations for learning. Such labels do not describe a child, nor do they set boundaries around the teaching and learning dynamic. Special education labels are merely a construct of eligibility, and not a descriptor of the learner!

Labels, and how they might be used or the impact they have, should be part of a reflective assessment of school culture, and subsequently addressed through professional learning and ongoing dialogue.

Resources for discussion starters and for in-depth stimulating PLC options can be found in the resource guide:

Accommodations present another challenge; understanding appropriate use based on a student's needs is sometimes overlooked. The IEP contains a section where assessment accommodations are indicated, based on the nature of the child's individual needs. There are several challenges in the appropriate use of accommodations. The first challenge for school personnel is to understand the application and use of all allowable accommodations when it comes to standardized assessments. The next challenge is understanding when particular accommodations are appropriate for an individual student (an analysis of IEPs in your school may indicate that, for some students, accommodations are somewhat randomly selected and rarely implemented). Yet another challenge is to assure that when accommodations are noted in an IEP, the same accommodations should be used for all assessments as well as for classroom practices. Any accommodation that is only used for state assessments and at no other time may constitute an unusual construct for a student at the time of assessment; a student should be familiar and accustomed to the use of the accommodation.

One of the most overlooked supports for any struggling learner is assistive technology (AT). The National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD) explains assistive technology as "certain tools and techniques...that provide a 'work around' for difficulties in reading, math, organization or memory." This can be "any item, any piece of equipment or any system that helps the individual bypass, work around or compensate for a specific learning problem...and ranges from simple technology to computerized speech." The NCLD further provides information on applications for writing and dysgraphia, organization and study, dyslexia and reading difficulties, and dyscalculia and math.

Michigan is fortunate to have the Michigan Integrated Technology Supports (MITS) as a resource to schools and families. Funded under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act through a grant from the Michigan Department of Education, this resource provides a number of readily accessible professional learning opportunities, online modules and a lending library of AT tools. The summer institutes sponsored by MITS can be a starting point for developing a school-wide professional learning agenda to incorporate AT for all struggling students.

Useful resources for assistive technology (AT) are listed in the resource guide.

Core Aspects of Professional Learning Design

"Through collaboration, professionals achieve more than they could alone."

-DuFour & Eaker (1998)

Once the challenges are identified and the professional learning content is targeted, there remain core aspects of the learning plan that make a difference in the end – especially for students with IEPs. Collaboration and unified approaches to the teaching and learning dynamic are essential to closing the achievement gap for students with IEPs.

Collaboration, in this case, refers to general and special education teachers working together on behalf of the students for whom they share instructional and learning responsibilities. No longer are silo-ed plans, strategies, or learning targets appropriate; learning priorities are always shared responsibilities. Collaborative professional development – general and special education teachers all together – is the practice of school reform. Back-to-school PD days should not put special education teachers in sessions on procedural compliance while they miss sessions on shared data reviews, peer instructional reviews, and planning for collaborative approaches to supporting student success. Quality school improvement requires that team members (general and special education together) regularly collaborate toward continued improvement.1

Effective professional learning is ongoing and job-embedded (and always collaborative). For example, if the use of assistive technology is implemented school-wide, teaching experiences with these tools would be shared on a regular basis. Grade-level meetings, professional learning communities, and staff meetings provide opportunities to share and learn from one another, as well as reflect on the experiences of teaching with such tools. Job-embedded professional learning issituated in day-to-day experiences and then "best understood through critical reflection with others who share same experiences."2

"Teacher conversations must quickly move beyond 'what are we expected to teach?' to 'How will we know when each student has learned?' "

-DuFour, R. (2004)

Additional resources on PLCs can be found in the resource guide tool (to the right).eip tool prof learning-01

Click Here for References

1 Feger, S. & Arruda, E. (2008). Professional learning communities: Key themes from the literature. The education Alliance at Brow University: Providence, R.I

2 Haar, J. (2003). Providing professional development for rural educators. The Rural Educator, 25(1), 30-35.

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