In past decades, students with disabilities were quietly excluded from rigorous coursework and standardized testing. But with the passage of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Acts of 1997 and 2004 and the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001, academic expectations have changed dramatically, and educators have become accountable for the achievement of these students.
Schools now devote significant effort to making sure that students with disabilities participate in the general curriculum and show progress in core subjects such as English and math. But while there are established interventions and supports to help schools boost achievement in English-language arts, there are few such resources available to help improve student performance in math. EDC researcher Amy Brodesky and a team of researchers at the Regional Educational Laboratory Northeast and Islands (REL-NEI), which is housed at EDC, recently released three reports that examine the challenge of improving math outcomes for students with disabilities.
Two of the reports looked at the mathematics performance of fourth graders with disabilities in New York and Massachusetts.
The study found that the gap between them and general education students continues to be significant across both states, running as high as 30 percentage points some years. The reports examine math proficiency rates among students with disabilities within each state as a whole and in schools with different levels of economic need and geographic locales.
“Our detailed analyses may prove useful to policymakers and researchers who seek to better understand how students with disabilities are performing relative to general education students, and how proficiency rates have changed over time,” says Brodesky.
A third report offers case studies of six elementary schools in Massachusetts and New York that are perceived by education leaders as exemplary in their efforts to improve mathematics education for children with disabilities and other struggling learners. Designed for school and district administrators, math coordinators, and special education directors, the case studies describe current math education approaches that these educators may consider as they work to improve math learning for all struggling learners within their own schools.
The REL-NEI researchers found that in the eyes of educators at the six schools, both classroom-level and schoolwide practices were viewed as beneficial for improving the math learning of students with disabilities. For example, all six schools shared a culture of professional collaboration and support.
“These children have such diverse needs that there isn’t one silver bullet that will singlehandedly improve academic performance,” says EDC researcher Josephine Louie. “Teachers were pooling each other’s ideas and collaborating both inside and outside the classroom. They felt supported by their principals to take risks and try new approaches to help their students.”
All of the schools also relied on a colleague who took the lead in promoting math learning for students and teachers within the school. “The larger schools had a designated math specialist or coach, but we discovered that even the small rural schools had an informal math leader,” says Louie. “This math leader was typically an experienced teacher who served as a source of ongoing, in-house math professional development for other teachers. Some math leaders taught model lessons in other teachers’ classrooms and others provided support services to struggling learners.”
In developing the case studies, the research team solicited nominations of schools making targeted efforts in math education for students with disabilities from regional educators at state and local levels. The process yielded 38 schools for consideration, from which researchers ultimately selected six geographically diverse schools with a range of practices for further study.
Originally published on December 15, 2008