Common Core's Promise Collides With IEP Realities

Special education teachers struggle to make sure individualized education programs align with standards

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One of the most promising elements of common academic standards for students with disabilities, say experts in special education, is that they offer explicit connections from one set of skills to another.

That is particularly important for students served under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. For years, the law has pushed schools and districts to provide students access to the same academic curriculum available to the general school population. One way to do that, the law says, is through "standards-based" individualized education programs, or IEPs, instead of educational plans that focus mostly on skills that do not connect to a cohesive academic goal.

But the promise of the Common Core State Standards now being implemented by all but four states is colliding with the reality that teachers are struggling to encapsulate actionable goals in an IEP.

"I think the bigger issue is we struggle with access to the general ed curriculum, period," said Carol Kosnitsky, a former special education director in New Hampshire who now travels to school districts around the country to provide professional development in the common core and IEPs. "People aren't coming in confident that they know how to do this, so now it's just another layer on top of not-well-defined practice."

One problem is that teachers of students with disabilities, particularly those with severe cognitive disabilities, have often believed the students had to master life skills before moving on to academics, said Diane M. Browder, a professor of special education at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and the author of books on IEPs and common-core alignment.

That's a double standard, Ms. Browder said. Teachers of typically developing students don't wait for students to learn life skills before teaching reading, she said.

"Why would we take a whole class of citizens and say you don't get to learn the standards that we say are most important for everyone?" she said.

Evolving Process

The standards-based IEP began in the 1997 reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Access to the general curriculum was a mandated goal for students with disabilities, though the law did not say that access had to be at the student's enrolled grade level.

The No Child Left Behind Act, signed into law in 2002, and the 2004 reauthorization of the idea provided reinforcement that children with disabilities should be exposed to the general education curriculum on their grade level to the greatest extent possible.

Fusing Skills and Goals

Educators can face a challenge in crafting individualized education programs that include grade-level, standards-based goals. The California Department of Education has developed steps to help teachers. Here are excerpts from a hypothetical IEP written for a 4th grader who has trouble with reading-comprehension and written-language skills, showing how the steps can be applied.

Use Present Level of Performance
Tests show that concentrating on reading-comprehension and writing strategies, with an emphasis on organization and focus, would do the most to accelerate this hypothetical student to grade level.

Choose the Standard
The teacher identified this grade-level standard: “Identify structural patterns found in informational text (e.g., compare and contrast, cause and effect, sequential or chronological order, proposition and support) to strengthen comprehension.”

'Unpack' the Standard
The teacher breaks the standard into its components. Parts include: identifying compare-and-contrast patterns, identifying cause-and-effect patterns, and identifying the author’s proposition.

Analyze the Subskills and Develop the Goal
One subskill the teacher has chosen to focus on is to “list the statements that support the author’s proposition.” The goal is that by the end of the school year, when given grade-level passages, the student will support the author’s proposition with a minimum of six correct statements on regularly scheduled comprehension tests.

Write the Short-Term Objectives and Benchmarks
By the middle of the school year, the student will identify the author’s proposition from the text correctly in four out of five attempts, as measured by classroom discussion, daily reading-journal entries, and work samples.

Monitor the Goal
At regular reporting periods, monitor and report progress on goals and short-term objectives and benchmarks.

Margaret J. McLaughlin, a professor in the department of special education at the University of Maryland College Park, said the reality of standard-based IEPs has not measured up to their promise.

"We end up cherry-picking these discrete little standards and plopping them into a standard, and I think that's even worse than what we were doing before," said Ms. McLaughlin, who is also the associate director of the Institute for the Study of Exceptional Children and Youth, based at the university. Teachers have not been given the time and the training to meet and craft meaningful blueprints for students, she said.

Nevertheless, the common core offers an opportunity for positive change, she said.

"At least the common core looks at a set of knowledge and skills within a grade and age band for kids," Ms. McLaughlin said. That conversation, she said, has been "totally missing from standards-based IEPs." The challenge, she said, is to drill down into a set of standards and determine which are the critical elements, and then figure out how to get a child to a point where he or she can understand those elements.

"Capturing the essence" of the standards is how Barbara Van Haren, the director of special education at a cooperative educational service agency serving more than 30 districts in southeastern Wisconsin, describes the necessary work when she provides professional development to teachers.

But that work is difficult when talking about an 8th grader, for example, with the academic skills of a much younger student.

"That's where I have a lot of conversations around universal design, response to intervention, and building those core principles, so that we can ensure our students with disabilities have access to the higher-level skills that are embedded in the common core," Ms. Van Haren said.

Refocusing Attention

Kim Mearman, an assistant director at the State Education Resource Center in Connecticut, said there is "a lot more attention than I've heard in the past about general curriculum for students with disabilities. I'm not so convinced that people were thinking about that as much before." The center is a nonprofit agency primarily funded by the state's department of education to provide professional development to schools and districts.

Connecticut teachers seem to be most concerned about students who have significant cognitive disabilities, said Ms. Mearman, who has produced an electronic presentation on the common core and special education for use by schools and districts.

Related Blog

Ms. Mearman has tried to get teachers thinking about the standards in different ways. For example, she said, one English/language arts standard talks about being able to cite evidence from text.

"That's also a life skill," Ms. Mearman said. "I need to know if I need to wear a coat this morning and I need evidence to make that decision."

She said that "unwrapping" the standards in that way makes it easier for teachers to see the common-core-aligned elements in their current instruction.

"Then," she said, "people are better equipped to think about that concept."

Vol. 33, Issue 10, Pages s24, s25

Published in Print: October 30, 2013, as Common Core's Promise Collides With IEP Realities
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