Eight Steps to Rewrite the Special Education Script
Students with disabilities deserve more from education
The U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District means that one Colorado family whose child is on the autism spectrum will finally receive the private school tuition support that their son needs to succeed academically. Bravo for them. Enlightened human beings and experienced educators know that standing in the path of an impassioned mother or father whose child struggles with a learning challenge is suicidal. I am in awe of the courage that these family members displayed, and the love that so clearly drives their passion for their son’s success and well-being.
This unanimous ruling also has profound implications for all public education. It endorsed a higher standard for the benefits students must receive under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The ruling soundly rejected the notion that de minimis progress for students with diagnosed learning differences, including specific learning disabilities, attention deficit disorders, or autism spectrum disorders, is acceptable under the law. Rather, the Supreme Court justices stated that the educational plans developed by educators to serve students with disabilities must be "reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances." In other words, our job as educators is to ensure that every child achieves his or her greatest potential, whatever that may be. This has been the light that has guided my career as an educator for more than 30 years.
Despite claims from some public education leaders that this ruling changes nothing, I know about a gazillion impassioned parents of students with learning differences—who have been fighting for years for their children’s educational rights—who will aggressively disagree.
During my career, I have learned a few simple lessons about serving students with learning differences, which might be useful and relevant to the public educators who are now scrambling to figure out how their schools might ramp up to deliver better than de minimis outcomes for their enrolled students with diagnoses. Just how do you help a student achieve her greatest potential when she learns differently?
• Document potential. Start by determining what that potential is. A comprehensive psycho-educational battery is the best tool educators currently have to delineate what an individual student’s learning profile looks like. This will measure cognitive capabilities, documenting a child’s verbal comprehension, visual-spatial understanding, fluid reasoning, working memory, and processing speed. The results provide insight into an individual child’s unique cognitive strengths and challenges, documenting how they learn. These evaluations can be expensive, so alternative learning-style inventories are also an option. The fundamental concept? Determine how a student learns and teach the way she learns as much as you can, which leads directly to the following principle.
• Be student-centered. Create an individualized plan that integrates your understanding of a student’s learning style and that includes milestones and appropriate expectations. Public schools call this the individualized education plan, but I prefer "individualized strategic learning plan" because such a plan must include different strategies based on a diagnostic approach to each child. Is she a visual learner? Auditory? Tactile or kinesthetic? The strategies in the learning plan should be aligned with the student’s documented strengths as a learner, leveraging the multisensory techniques that educators have developed in order to teach in the way he learns best.
• Start from the point of potential. If you have measured where a child is as a learner, you know where to begin teaching. When I tutored college students, the first thing I asked them to do was recite the alphabet. Every single one of them had a high school diploma. About 5 percent of them did not know the entire alphabet. The point of potential for those kids was ground zero: Learn the alphabet. Identify the point of potential and teach from that point.
• Teach language the way humans learn it. Acknowledge that language acquisition is hierarchical, sequential, and logical. The Orton-Gillingham system and others like it (such as the Wilson Reading System) are pedagogical approaches that integrate insights into how human beings acquire language, in a rational, flexible, but logical system that honors each child’s unique learning path and provides the structure that keeps him on the path.
• Teach the hidden curriculum and build self confidence. Students need to learn how to learn. We need to teach them study skills, time-management techniques, self-management strategies, and advocacy skills. We should help them understand how they learn—or metacognition—and we should ensure that they believe in their own ability to learn and know what their strengths are as learners. They should also learn how to ask for individual help when they need it, based on that self-understanding, or self advocacy.
• Stay relevant. There are amazing advances in assistive and general technology, flipped classroom approaches, executive-function coaching, smart boards, lecture casting, and myriad other strategies now available to educators. If educators do not continually learn, we cannot effectively teach.
• Honor learning modalities. If every student learns in a different way, then how can we serve a diverse classroom? Integrate multisensory, multimodal lesson plans that serve up the same teaching in different modalities. Use images, videos, recordings, physical models, and other tools to ensure every student "gets it." The various modes of teaching will only reinforce learning.
• Teach joyfully. In the extraordinary school that I am privileged to lead, laughter rings throughout the classrooms and is proof that phenomenal education produces jubilation, not tears. Every kid in the building has a diagnosis, but our teachers know that these kids are the next generation of leaders—smart, creative, entrepreneurial young people with energy, passion, and ability, who can change the world. But not if our expectations for them are restrained. Not if we expect only de minimis progress from them. Not if we clip their wings.