Special Education and the Achievement Gap
Students with disabilities, special education students, students with IEPs; there is a broad array of monikers for children who struggle with learning in one way or another. But rather than lump these children into a single category, students with IEPs must be viewed as individuals with varying needs. On this page you will find an ever-growing archive of articles, tools, and resources focused on effectively teaching these students.

There are many measures of success for students with IEPs – and many of those measures are tied to measures of OUR success in the teaching and learning domain. While we can find many variables to consider, the following are consistently identified in the literature as critical:

  1. Having, and acting upon, high expectations for student learning.
  2. Maintaining a laser focus on what is taught and how it is taught (classroom instruction aligned to standards and effective practices implemented well).
  3. Assuring relevance and opportunities to connect learning with real post-secondary outcomes.
  4. Assuring meaningful relationships that truly support student effort and interests.

"...studies show that families of all income and education levels, and from all ethnic and cultural groups, are engaged in supporting their children's learning at home." National Coalition for Parent Involvement in Education (NCPIE). (2006). A new wave of evidence: The impact of school, family and community connections on student achievement. www.ncpie.org/WhatsHappening/researchJanuary2006.cfm

It seems that the notion of "parent involvement" is often judged to be solely the responsibility of the parent ; the parent who isn't "involved" may be dismissed with a shrug of the shoulders. This may be due in part to an expectation that it is solely the responsibility of the parent to be "involved" or to be involved in a particular manner.
We need to challenge ourselves to consider the many and varied ways in which parents can be and are engaged in supporting their children's learning. We also need to reflect on our own (and perhaps un-acknowledged) mindsets about "involvement," who gets involved, and how.

Lens Of Diversity
Consider a perspective where we see parents as we see our students; that is, to see parents as individuals, representing diversity in experience, diversity in cultural norms, diversity in expectations, and diversity in ability to initiate engagement with the school (and with its cultural norms, expectations and engagement strategies). With this in mind, consider an individualized view that includes differentiated types of engagement for parents, based on their own realities, opportunities, and level of trust with the school and its members.

The bottom line is ALL of us are committed to the success of ALL students, and ALL of us are willing to do things differently to achieve this.” (Comment from a Superintendent at the 2013 Focus Schools Summer Institutes.)

When a district leader makes this statement, it represents a marker in school improvement. It also reflects multiple levels of leadership from superintendent to principal to teacher levels and more. It implies a collaborative commitment across all general and special education staff, signaling a readiness to function systemically and holistically. It implies a willingness to take risks and step away from the old way of working. And it signals that all central office roles and functions are ready to support the improvement efforts. In short, it has the potential to create foundations for a culture of high expectations, shared leadership and real improvement in learning for each and every student.

This is the time of year when the Bureau of Assessment & Accountability (Michigan Department of Education) sends the Student Analysis Extract Files (S.A.F.E.) data to every district. These data reports provide opportunity to do some deep digging into subgroup performance on the state assessments.

2014 is quickly approaching and so is the implementation of the Common Core. Educators have seen standards and benchmarks come and go over the past two decades; however, the Common Core and the two assessment consortiums—The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and Smarter Balance Assessments (SBCA)—signify a shift towards universality in both curriculum and assessments. With these universal initiatives, new assessments will be tightly aligned to content expectations, but basic skills will remain a decisive element of student performance. As we prepare for these new challenges, educators must tool their students with strong foundational skills that can be developed through multi-tiered systems of support (MTSS) such as Response to Intervention (RtI).

Although RtI comes from the special education field, schools across the nation are implementing RtI programming at a rapid pace to improve basic skills for all students. In 2011, a national survey conducted by Spectrum K12 School Solutions of 1,306 district administrators found that 94% had implemented some level of RtI programming. By focusing instruction on basic skills such as reading fluency and comprehension, RtI can provide meaningful remedial experiences to all students. By providing support at three tiered levels, students who are behind grade level can be targeted for specific interventions, while students who are near or at grade level participate in lessons and activities that help improve skills up to and beyond grade level. Because RtI focuses on skills for all students, it is one of the best program examples of differentiated instruction today.

When considering the Common Core, a great impediment to learning content is the lack of basic skills needed to access the content, decipher the text, or comprehend the meaning. Improved basic skills such as reading is proven to promote higher levels of student achievement. By aligning Common Core instruction with RtI programming, students are more likely to receive instructional content that is aligned with their current skill levels. Figure 1 offers an example.

Let’s look at the eighth-grade literacy standard (CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.8.10):

“By the end of the year, read and comprehend literary nonfiction at the high end of the grades 6–8 text complexity band independently and proficiently.”

The key skills in this standard are reading and comprehension, which roughly translate to “reading fluency and comprehension” in RtI terms. To satisfy this standard, students will need the vocabulary and the skill to break down and interoperate text. By utilizing an RtI framework to tackle these issues, a classroom teacher can set up frequent lessons and activities to promote these skills as a part of daily instruction. This would be done as a Tier-1 intervention that all students in the classroom receive. However, using progress-monitoring tools, the teacher can both identify struggling students and prescribe additional interventions for these students, which in RtI framework are Tier-2 interventions. Finally, students who need even more intervention may need to be recommended for very intensive Tier-3 interventions.

Detractors of RtI say that using the framework requires more work on the part of teachers, while others say the operations just described are simply examples of good teaching. Increased academic standards can make teachers feel pressured to cover content both broadly and quickly, but the intent of having standards is to ensure that students receive the instruction they need to both understand and apply the key skills and concepts behind the standards.  

Both the PARCC and the SBCA are working to create assessments that are as tightly aligned to the standards as possible. While this is a vital component of measuring curricular standards, basic skills will still play a significant role in how students perform on these tests. For example, when we just consider reading, a University of Michigan study by Sandra Hofferth found that every hour of weekly reading translated to half-point improvement on test scores. Recognizing that there are reading/testing connections, purposeful RtI programs can provide the support students need to improve their reading comprehension.

While I have focused on reading as a vital skill for addressing the Common Core, incorporating other skills such as math computation into an RtI framework will also help inform and facilitate more productive and impactful instruction for all students. Schools who embrace RtI programing will not only support students in meeting the Common Core Standards, but they also improve their student’s overall academic potential.


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