Tackling the challenge of achievement gaps is daunting. And then throw in the variables of differing sets of terms, requirements and regulations that drive both the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). This challenge plays out at the district level where students with Individual Education Programs (IEPs) are for the most part, taught and supported by both general and special educators. Both sets of educators bring various attributes to the table: training, expertise, instructional tools and data sets, mindsets and experience, among others. In the midst of this sits the individual student, with attributes that must be understood and built upon to assure his/her learning.


Knowing the individual student as a learner and how best to support achievement begins with understanding how the district supports the functions of teaching and learning (and how this impacts the achievement gap challenge).

Systemic challenges that impact achievement gaps include coherence, alignment, and culture and collaboration. Consider these questions:

Coherence1: Does the system support the necessary and sufficient practices to drive achievement, including organizational structures and schedules, deployment of resources (both material and human), and leadership?
Alignment2: Are the standards that drive assessment also the standards that drive curriculum – and in turn drive instruction (including special education)?
Culture & Collaboration3: Do general and special education faculty and staff actually work together or do they function within separate systems?
With these 3 questions in mind, read the following excerpts from an interview with an elementary resource teacher. The students this teacher worked with received special education services; each student spent most of the day in a general education classroom and received support in particular content areas in the resource room. This interview was conducted as part of a multifaceted effort to address the underperformance of students with IEPs in a school district. The excerpts do not constitute the entire interview.

Interviewer: Tell me about your work with students in the area of math.
Teacher: Well, I try to find out what skills the students need to develop and then establish a plan to focus on those skills. I use a couple of assessment tools and then figure out how I will work with the students on those skills.
Interviewer: How is this work tied to the students' IEP?
Teacher: The Annual Goal is a starting point for me. I try to be sure that the skills we are working on are linked to the annual goal.
Interviewer: How is this tied to the state curriculum standards?
Teacher: Well, we are required to identify a state standard for the IEP annual goal.
Interviewer: How do you identify the standard?
Teacher: Well, I look through the standards and try to find one that looks doable.

Interviewer: How do you collaborate with the general education teachers?
Teacher: Well, I try to find a time to talk to the teachers, but it's hard.
Interviewer: Can you tell me a bit more about that?
Teacher: Sometimes I can catch the teacher at lunch or after school. I have even tried to catch some teachers in the parking lot after school. There is no regular time in our schedule to actually plan to talk.
Interviewer: Are you part of the grade level or content teacher teams? Do you ever participate in the team meetings?
Teacher: No. I know that they meet but I'm not sure when.

Interviewer: How do you measure your students' progress?
Teacher: I keep track of how they are doing when they come to my room. I use tests that are part of the workbooks that we use in special education.
Interviewer: Are the workbooks used to support any part of a defined math curriculum in the district?
Teacher: Well, I don't know if there is a single curriculum in our district; I think the general education teachers use a particular book series, but it's different from what I use.
Interviewer: How do you know if your work with the students helps them in their general education classrooms?
Teacher: I really have no way of knowing; they could be failing and I wouldn't know until the next IEP meeting.

Interviewer: Do you have the opportunity to learn with the general education teachers? Do you ever participate in PD with them?
Teacher: Not really. We usually have to attend sessions on writing IEPs and new special education Rules. One time a couple of years ago I got to go to a session with the regular classroom teachers on reading; that was really a good session and I wish we could do more of that.

Interviewer: What recommendations would you make to improve student outcomes in your district?
Teacher: Well, I would like to see more PD that is about instructional strategies; I would like to see instruction in action in a general ed classroom so I would understand what my students need. AND I really would like time to work with the general education teachers. When I talk to other resource teachers in the district, we all agree that we feel pretty isolated. We are always meeting with special ed, but not with general ed – and I think that is part of the problem. We know what we are doing but we don't even know if our work makes a difference for our students in the general ed classroom!

Questions and Discussions

Considering the reality of this resource teacher's experience, what is your thinking about coherence, alignment, culture and collaboration in this district?

  1. A coherent system would provide an organizational structure and scheduling to support teacher collaboration, planning for instructional strategies, review of student progress data, and timely adjustments for instruction. What leadership actions should be apparent in a coherent system? What resource deployment (material and human) would be visible in a coherent system? How does the lack of coherence impact these (both general and special education) teachers? Their students? How does this attribute to achievement gaps?
  2. An aligned system would support shared understanding of a standards-based curriculum. A resource teacher would not be in the dark about curricular standards and a student's IEP would reflect considered and deliberate input into the annual goal(s) – generated by both his/her general and special education teachers. What else would/could be generated if the curriculum, instruction and assessment were aligned, across both general and special education? How would this impact teaching for both the general and special education teachers?
  3. A culture of collaboration, supported within a coherent system, would reflect the notion that all students are general education students first and foremost, and that special education is a resource for specialized services and support, not a separate system. What else would you expect to see in district with coherent organizational supports and structures, aligned curriculum and instruction, and a culture of collaboration? What outcomes for students with IEPS would you anticipate? Why? How would this culture support teachers to be successful? Why?
  4. What happens when special and general education function as two separate systems? How can outcomes be evaluated when annual goals are generated in isolation? How can teachers be evaluated when their work on behalf of diverse learners is fragmented? How do students make progress when they experience two distinctly different environments, expectations and instructional strategies?


Knowing Each Student as a Learner

Last month this series introduced the framework for knowing each child as a learner, in part, through effective use of data . In this current article, the need for a coherent, aligned and collaborative system is presented as a foundational component to support effective use of data and effective instruction. Addressing achievement gaps that may exist for students with IEPs is not a challenge to be assigned solely to the general or special education teacher, nor is knowing the student as a learner the sole responsibility of only one teacher. Closing the gap is a shared undertaking by those who teach and support the student's achievement path across the teaching-learning continuum .

It may be useful to refer back to the "Who is this child as a learner" graphic and related questions in the August edition of MI Toolkit. In upcoming articles some of the data resources that help to know the child as a learner will be explored. Remember:

"Organizations are perfectly designed to get the results they are getting."
Attributed to W. Edwards Deming. Out of the Crisis (2000). MIT Press, Cambridge MA.



  1. See Strategic Education Partnership Research (SERP) Institute, 2012 This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.;">This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.;
    See Newmann, Smith, Allensworth and Bryk. Instructional program coherence: What it is and why it should guide school improvement policy. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis (Winter 2001) Vol.23, No.4, pp 297-321.
  2. See Danielson. Enhancing Student Achievement, 2nd edition, 2007, ASCD.
    See Kurz, Elliott, Wehby and Smithson. Alignment of the intended, planned and enacted curriculum in general and special education and its relation to student achievement. The Journal of Special Education. 2010 (44:131).
  3. See Hehir. New directions in special education. 2005. Harvard Education Press.
    See Maximizing the impact of teacher collaboration. The Center for Comprehensive School Reform and Improvement. July 2010. Washington D.C.
    See When special education and general education unite, everyone benefits. R&D Alert. WestEd.2004, Vol.6, No.1
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