November 29, 2012
The nation’s push towards a core set of standards in mathematics and language arts—known as the Common Core State Standards—has largely been hailed as a boon for teaching and learning. And as full implementation of the standards draws nearer, teachers are assessing whether their lesson plans meet the new, more rigorous criteria.
But what does the Common Core mean for students with disabilities? Will higher standards for all students mean that this often-marginalized group gets left further behind? Or might the Common Core actually raise performance—and the expectations about what all students can do? David Riley and Claudia Rinaldi from EDC’s Urban Special Education Leadership Collaborative weigh in on the promise and perils of the new standards.
Q: Should educators worry about the impact of the Common Core on students with disabilities?
Riley: Educators shouldn’t assume that higher standards will negatively impact students with disabilities. This group of students has historically been victimized by low expectations. They get watered-down curricula and, too often, limited educational opportunities. But we are increasingly seeing that students with disabilities can learn on par with their peers, given the right support and, often, contemporary technologies.
Q: Can you give an example about how the gap is closing?
Riley: At our recent national conference, a member shared a story about a student with severe disabilities. His disabilities were so challenging that he was unable to participate fully in class, and interventions intended to help him communicate were unsuccessful. So, for the most part, his education had consisted of him just being present and possibly attending to lessons, though nobody knew for certain how much he was learning.
Then he was given a touch screen device. And it turned out that while he could not communicate verbally, he could learn to use the device to demonstrate his knowledge about a variety of subjects. The tool made all the difference. So for 18 years, he had been listening to his teachers and absorbing content, and he finally had the tool he needed to show what he knew. He just needed people to be persistent, not give up on him, and more than a little support.
We need to break the traditionally low expectations for this group of students. Technology often helps, but it is ultimately the determination of parents and professionals that makes the real difference. The Common Core is a definite step in the right direction since it emphasizes high standards for all students.
Q: Are teachers being prepared to help students with disabilities meet the new standards?
Rinaldi: Many districts are now offering professional development on the Common Core. But conversations about how Common Core will be implemented are not as inclusive as they should be.
Special Education teachers have typically not been invited to conversations about teaching and learning, even though they have many important perspectives to add. Their voices need to be heard. And not including them risks widening the gap between students with disabilities and their peers. Plus, research is showing that comprehensive improvement takes place when people with differing roles get around the same table and talk about assessment, material development, data-driven instruction, and student growth over time.
Q: Are there specific practices that can guide teachers as they implement the Common Core for students with disabilities?
Rinaldi: The first is to honor the Common Core’s call for rigor. Teachers cannot be afraid of establishing high expectations for all students, especially students with disabilities. As we continue to raise the learning and performance bar higher for students, they continue to go over it.
At the school level, using data is also important. We have found that districts that have created “cultures of data” are better able to meet the needs of all students. And, as the Common Core assessments come online, data will be an ever more important piece of the conversation about rigor and performance. So we are urging all of our member districts to think intentionally about how data can help them create a culture of learning for all students. This means providing professional development to teachers and administrators on how to use data in ways that help guide instructional planning.
Q: Bottom line: Is the Common Core good for students with disabilities?
Riley: Absolutely. Many people talk about the achievement gap that exists between students with disabilities and their non-disabled peers. But we also have to address an “opportunity gap” between these populations. The Common Core can change conversations about opportunity and ensure that students with disabilities have more meaningful outcomes in school through access to rigorous curriculum and quality teaching.
So, yes, the Common Core is good for all students. We also see it as good news for young parents. No matter the needs of your child, there will be a lot more people invested in your child’s learning—and learning at high levels—than there were in the past.